Wednesday, 17 April 2013

SF vs Horror 2/2

It's Wednesday again...

In this entry, I'll talk more about why I don't think it's very useful to classify horror along with SF.

People often combine fantasy, science fiction and horror into one big huge super-genre.

  • A fringe subculture in Denmark has, for nearly a decade, tried to promote the term "Fantastik" as the new Danish language catch-all term for this combination.
  • My former classmate Nikitta suggested we use the acronym SFH, during a group project we did in 2010.
  • Most places online, the acronym SF is understood to mean speculative fiction, including that horror which contains elements (however faint) of fantasy or science fiction or both.

I agree wholeheartedly that fantasy and science fiction has a lot in common. That's what SF means, when I use that acronym. There are a lot more commonalities between fantasy and science fiction than there are differences, and many of those commonalities are extremely important - albeit often overlooked by those without the capacity or inclination for deeper thoughts.

But horror is the odd man out. Superficially, you've got a story with weird shit in it. Maybe it's weird magical shit. Or weird technological shit. Or weird horrible shit. But you don't have to analyze very deeply to discover that this superficial assumption, that it's all the same, is unhelpful and harmful, rather than useful and illuminating.

Drastic differences in mindset
One difference lies in the philosophical value set behind the writing, the mindset of the reader.

Another is that fantasy and science fiction takes place in a world, whereas traditional horror takes place in our world.

Our world, the world we live in, and which is as we know it to be. But then something strange and different and wrong intrudes into it, maybe a single vampire count with a few lackeys of his own creation, and the story is about destroying or removing this strangeness so that the world can go back to normal, because that is safe and comfortable.

That's what readers of traditional horror desire. They desire to see the strangeness cured away. Presumably it's also what the writers desire, although we can't quite know that. Maybe they're just writing that which sells.

It sells well because traditional horror is a couple of orders of magnitude more accessible than SF, because when the story begins the world is as the reader's world is (or at best as the reader's world was a century or two ago).

It's all very familiar - comfortably familiar. Those sophisticated techniques, developped by SF writers in the last few decades, to elegantly and economically convey information about the world to the reader, moving the knowledge from inside the viewpoint-character's head (where it is already - because he isn't a hobbit) and to inside the reader's head, aren't needed. A writer of traditional horror doesn't need those techniques..

Fans of horror desire the story's world to return to normal. They want the strange to go away. It's strange, and strangeness is icky! That contrasts sharply with fans of SF, who have a distinctly different mindset and attitude, because we dig this weird shit. We love it. We want more of it. We want stories that take place in world that have high values for delta-w. Some even want very high values for delta-w, as long as the story stays realistic (rather than degenerating into some kind of surrealism that isn't meant to be appreciated with one's higher brain functions in active mode).

We react with sadness when we discover that the story we're reading is a kind of the-magic-goes-away story, such as the last entry in Tarr's The Hound and The Falcon-trilogy. We desire for the magic, or the strange tech, or both, to stick around and to keep tickling our sense-of-wonder.

We don't want to read about a hero whose project is to whittle the value for delta-w of the world down to zero, by killing or banishing all the weird shit.

We want to be plunged in medias res into a world that is weird and which stays weird.

A brief interlude
Note that I'm not complaining about characters who try to fight back zombie plagues. Not at all. That's a heroic thing to do, admirably heroic. When something dangerous from outsides intrudes, it's every citizen's right - duty even! - to fight it, try to push it back, to attempt to preserve their safeties and freedoms. I have nothing against Robert Neville. Nor against dragon-slayers who heroically try to rid their weird worlds of dragons without de-weirding their worlds.

My issue is with the readers, and also with those writers who pander to such readers (since most such writers can't write SF, due to not having mastery of the genre protocol, and also not having a fucking clue about how to worldbuild, or even how to cope with the wiredness that is the Elfland of past societies, e.g. so as to write proper historical fantasy).

Trad. horror vs. non-trad. horror
I go to some length to specify that I'm talking about traditional horror, in this post. It's possible to write horror-like fiction, containing the furniture of the horror genre, but which does not take place in our world, but in a world that's natively different from our world. Perhaps several different warring vampire clans have been manipulating the destiny of humanity for many thousands of years?

If so, that redeems most of those problems that traditional horror has. Then the world can't be cured, in the sense that normality can be restored. The strangeness cannot be annihilated so that the world becomes normalized and comes to resemble the safe, comfortable familiar world that the reader lives in, because the world was never normal, it was never safe, the strangeness was merely hidden. Nor does the reader desire to see the world of the story "cured". I'm quite confident that readers of this kind of non-traditional horror do not desire a return to cosy normality.

I'm sure that, at least on some level, they revel in the strangeness, in the middling-to-high delta-W, exactly the same as I do (so they are of my tribe). And yes, delta-W is high too. Not always very high, probably often significantly lower compared to fantasy or science fiction, but still substantially higher than for traditional horror. Closer to SF than to traditional horror. And that's what matters. Not quibbling over decimals. Not the-Delta-w-of-my-favorite-story-is-slightly-higher-than-that-of-your-favourite-story posturing.

World complexity increases drastically, when the strangeness is world-pervasive (and thus in-curable), instead of being a point-/entity-type of strangeness (and thus something that you can drive a stake through). This raises the demand for the writer to do worldbuilding, and thus increases intellectual legitimacy. Raised barrier for entry. If you don't have much of a brain, don't even bother trying. Know your place: Stick to the easy genre.

It's still possible to have the point-of-view character be a hobbit. Sadly. But there's less need for it, because at this point most of the muggle audience will have dropped out. What remains are the hardcore readers. Those who can cope with high('ish) delta-W. Those who like it that way.

Reaching out to "a wider audience"
High delta-W comes at a cost of accessibility. The weirder the author makes his world, the smaller the potential audience becomes. Fewer people are able to - in the physical sense - read the story. For whatever reason, the protocol for moving information from inside a POV-character's head and to inside the reader's head, doesn't work for most people. The stranger the world is, the higher the value for delta-W is, the greater the need for the reader to know about the world, to understand the rules of the world.

I've come across a lot of people who read horror, but who don't read SF - ever, or who only read high-accessibility SF, i.e. either SF with a very low value for delta-W, or else SF that's written by non-SF writers and therefore overexplains everything in a fashion that, in the eyes of procotol-savvy readers, is both cumbersome and awkward, and makes us feel talked down to. Makes us feel insulted, on the intellectual level. We're the bright kid in the class room, we always get it the first or the second time the teacher explains it, but yet he keeps explaining it, again and again, eight times, twelve times, for the benefit of the many retards who sit around us.

It's incorrect to say that these people don't read SF. Because by phrasing it that way, the implication is that they've made a choice. They could have, but they chose not to.

These people can't read SF.

SF has greater intellectual legitimacy than traditional horror, and the only way that horror can redeem itself is by becoming less traditional, by becoming more SF-like. And that costs readers (because higher delta-W scares the crap out of most people, and it's one of those flavours of scary that doesn't thrill or titillate), so any such attempt at redemption by any individual horror writer, or any publishing house that mainly does horror, would be going against the flow of the forces of capitalism.

(I'll probably write an entire entry on accessibility at a later time. Not sure, but probably.)

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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