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Assumptions Contrary to Everyday Experience: More Thoughts on the Novum in Fantastika

“In my usage, ‘imaginative fiction’ includes the definite group of stories…that are nonrealistic, imaginative, based upon assumptions contrary to everyday experience, often highly fanciful and often laid in settings remote in time and space from those of everyday life.” – L. Sprague de Camp

This week I want to ponder the idea of the novum a bit more, and explore, at least tentatively, how it might illuminate the coherence of fantastic texts other than those of rareified SF. I started with the above quotation from de Camp because I think that his definition of “imaginative fiction,” while problematic in some ways, points toward an underlying unity in fantastika that can be teased out to help us look at the novum more creatively. In the above quotation I skipped over de Camp’s invocation of “the fiction of the modern Western world” because the qualification is not needed; “imaginative fiction” is a worldwide literary practice. One can also argue against the idea of a “definite group of stories,” but if we think of that word as “limited to” rather than “exact” his formulation makes more sense.

What I find useful in this quotation is the idea of “assumptions contrary to everyday experience.” This idea seems like a useful characterization of the fantastic; whether hard SF or slipstream, all fantastic works do not just present something new or improbable, but one or more elements that are incongruous with our commonly-held ideas not just of the possible, but of the everyday. In fact, these elements are insubordinate, actively defying the mundane world as we perceive it. Fantasy implies “a detachment, a levitation, the acceptance of a different logic based on objects and connections other than those of everyday life or the dominant literary conventions.” (Italo Calvino,”Definitions of Territory: The Fantastic”); what is “normal” is inverted, exceeded, ruptured by the logic of the fantastic.

Pure novelty is not what makes the novum enchanting or discrete; it is the process of juxtaposing plausibility with something that is abstract and/or hypothetical. The construction of that plausibility is a variable, but the distinction between possible/impossible or empirical/conjectural is really a surface distinction, an excuse for the imaginative exercise. Many definitions of fantasy (particularly in contrast to the sf novum) focus on the possible/impossible construction, but that distinction, as a number of authors have pointed out, creates a prioritization that ends up walling off SF from the rest of fantastic literature. As Gary K. Wolfe put it:

“If the delineation of the cognitive element in science fiction has been one of the strengths of criticism in the field, it is a fallacy to assume with apparent logic that fantasy merely employs the same cognitive principle in reverse — that is, if science fiction deals with what we recognize as empirically possible, then fantasy must be what we recognize as empirically impossible. Such an approach ignores the strong affective element that accompanies and sometimes overpowers the cognitive in fantasy…” – Gary K. Wolfe, “The Encounter with Fantasy”

Speculating on a current trend in science or envisioning a new technology is one particular strategy used to create a novum that grounds an individual narrative; that does not mean that all other forms of fantastic literature are the opposite. The SF novum is a novelty or innovation that, hypothetically, has a scientifically-provable basis, but most works of SF literature are not just fictionalized experiments. They contain far more than a cognitive logic; otherwise, they would be little more than a theoretical paper using a different narrative form. What makes the sf novum clearly a relative of all other fantastic literature is not just a sense of cognitive estrangement or an empirically-grounded concept, but that fact that it, like the wildest fantasia or most subtle slipstream work, is not an attempt to recreate already-known experiences. Rather than trying to reproduce situations or events that have occurred, the fantastikal novum envisions things which have not occurred, which are variations, permutations, and speculations on what we know can happen based on our everyday assumptions.

“The sf novum is the material condensation of a conceptual breakthrough…The art of the sf novum lies in constructing imaginary objects of plausible material concreteness appropriate for abstract world models. The novum represents not only the new thing, but also the absences inherent in the old.” – Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, p. 59.

It is that last phrase in the above quotation that is really significant; the novelty is not just newness, but also an attempt to envision the bridging of gaps, the taking of paths untrodden, and the exploration of what has been omitted or unused. This is the quality that the sf novum, for all of its imputed (particular) logic and rigidity in Suvin’s formulation, shares with all of its fantastical relatives. The projection of technological trends, of theoretical knowledge, into the future, or an alternate present, or even into a re-invented past, is not the semantic or imaginative force that gives the sf novum its power. It is that step forward into what has-not-been, a story not trying to reproduce something we know to be; it is the second agreement that we make with a work of fiction when we engage it. The first is the very plunging into fiction itself, to engage what is not “real,” our agreement to enter a dialectic with a narrative that is not specifically based in something that has actually happened, but something that is made up.

That second signal is what draws us into a particular mode of understanding with a text; we agree to at least consider the contrary assumptions that are about to be laid out before us in words. The fantastikal novum is that second signal. Let me illustrate this brief with a few examples. First, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” We are immediately given that second signal in the very first lines of the story:

“With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved. Some were decorous: old people in long stiff robes of mauve and gray, grave master workmen, quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting as they walked.”

Le Guin uses a foreign locale to pull us into her secondary world. We come to a place that is unfamiliar, even though it is populated by “people” and there are recognizable things such as boats, moss, and parks. Le Guin uses very commonplace nouns to create an environment that could be somewhere in our world, but that is set off from the start by its name, the celebration being observed, and the garb of some of the people being described. It could be our world, but it is not. We are being asked to believe in, and through the prosaic description engage with, a place that does not exist. The novum is simultaneously ordinary and exotic, like an ethnography of an alternate universe that is quite close to ours, but is different in ways that become more profound as the story develops.

Contrast Le Guin’s subtle novum with a very different secondary world via James Enge’s The Wolf Age. This novel opens with a cluster of god/concepts communicating with each other, creating a very strong, discordant novum immediately. We experience sudden culture shock, and then are tossed into another world, the one that is to some extent the gods’ playground. We meet Morlock Ambrosius determining his future through the use of his Sight and a deck of cards. The shock is less profound here, but it is clear that this a different world. We get another shock shortly thereafter when Morlock is taken to a city of werewolves, a place with its own culture and actuality, and again, we must learn new rules and try to comprehend a very different world than our accepted everyday one. The novum here has layers, strange and familiar things mixed together, philosophies and concepts given sentience, different sorts of worlds mingling and abrading each other.

At another level of abstraction is Amal al-Mohtar’s “The Green Book.” This story starts out by signaling a shift to another world, but we are quickly pulled into a situation both absurd and poetic quite rapidly, where we are led to believe that a book can write itself and communicate with those who write in it. This story becomes a sort of metatextual exercise and a reflective romantic inversion simultaneously. The secondary world is a context that covers the novum like the skin of a fruit; once the reader peels away at it much more is revealed; something more perplexing, but potentially nourishing, is encased by the typical secondary-world setting that is enigmatic but affecting. The second signal is an invitation not to a different world, but to a different mode of engagement with the text; the novum is not just the idea of a self-aware book, but of issues of appearance, trust, and empathy.

In each of these examples, the significant novelty has less to do with establishing some inverse of a logical structure. What is important is that the reader is encouraged to not just step into a fiction, but enter into a series of assumptions contrary to their everyday experience. This does not have the empirical rigor or cognitive austerity of Suvin’s SF novum, but that is just one method of establishing the novum. What all fantastikal novums do is create a different cultural logic, whether wedded to the possible or completely impossible. The fantastikal novum creates a “fuzzy set” (as Farah Mendlesohn put it, building off of Atbery) of assumptions that do not reflect or reify normative expectations. The newness is an innovation that can stem from any sort of human knowledge, that builds on aspirations, dreams, anxieties, foibles, or potentials of human endeavor and imagination. The sf novum is but one iteration of this newness, one sort of fantastikal conception that builds not just on logic, but on the challenging of the quotidian and the known, extending the idea of fiction beyond the accepted and the commonplace.

2 Comments on Assumptions Contrary to Everyday Experience: More Thoughts on the Novum in Fantastika

  1. Very well written, John.


    So, if I understand this, would you say that the SF novum is, in effect, a subset of the larger fantastic novum?  Riffing off of John’s post on what SF is, would you say that the right way to look at those definitions is to define the fantastikal first, and then SF as a subset of that, rather than trying to define SF outright?

  2. Paul:

    That is indeed what I would say. I think clarifying the shift away from attempting to mirror reality, the move from mimetic to fantastic, needs to be the first step.  Hal Duncan’s idea of a quirk is that sort of shift, I think. The problem with Suvin’s idea of the sf novum is that he works to wall it off from the fantastical and establish a uniqueness for SF: the non-mimetic that anchors itself in a logic of mimesis from which is speculates. It seems more productive to figure out ways to characterize and understand the split from mimetic/realist fiction first and then start looking at how particular sorts of fantastic stories are put together.

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