If fiction could be classified like a biological taxonomy then labels like science fiction could have a fairly exact use in categorizing literature. We could point to an infographic of a circle on a page, and say everything inside the circle is science fiction, and everything outside of it is not.
The VanderMeers want to call “Elements of Pataphysics” by Alfred Jarry science fiction. I don’t. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, the editors of The Big Book of Science Fiction, the anthology our short story club is reading, are disciples of Judith Merril. Merril wrote science fiction, but is mostly remembered for her annual anthologies from 1956-1968 that collected what she considered the best science fiction of the year. Merril was notorious for including stories that she called science fiction but which her readers disagreed. Nor would I think the world-at-large would call “Elements of Pataphysics” science fiction. See this Wikipedia entry, which considers it a spoof or satire on science. I’d call it experimental fiction that plays with language, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and communication.
As a collector and reader of best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies I have a hard time reading Merril’s annual anthologies because I felt some stories just aren’t science fiction – and I wanted them all to be science fiction. I keep reading similar complaints about The Big Book of Science Fiction. I’m trying very hard to be open minded and stretch my sense of science fiction to meet the VanderMeers half-way, but I’m afraid “Elements of Pataphysics” is outside of that circle I call science fiction.
As much as I admired Merril, I also believe by trying to expand the genre she neglected some solid middle-of-the-road SF stories that deserved to be remembered. Instead of claiming the experimental and avant-garde for the genre, she could have used the anthology space to boost a few mid-level SF writer’s careers, but that’s parsecs in the past.
Not that “Elements of Pataphysics” isn’t a wonderful story. Not that it isn’t brilliant. Not that it doesn’t deal with science and fiction. And this was also true for the stories Merril wanted to call science fiction but her readers didn’t. Merril wanted to expand the domain of science fiction and often claimed the hard-to-define experimental work as sci-fi. But in many cases, and with Jarry’s story here, I believe its literary poaching. Just because you Shanghai a story and call it science fiction doesn’t mean its is.
And just because science fiction is hard to classify doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We just can’t cull anything we like with our SF branding iron. I know I’m trying to bail the ocean with a sieve when I argue to define science fiction, but when I eat a dessert I expect it to be sweet, and when I read science fiction I expect it to be science fictional.
The trouble is the reading public and publishers have often classified anything weirdly like science fiction as science fiction. It’s a classification kitchen sink. To begin with, I don’t believe all books need a classification label other than fiction. If a story doesn’t fit a clear classification, just call it a story or novel. We need to only use the label science fiction when a story has the exact traits of science fiction.
If we copy the structure used to classify life forms then fiction could be a very high level domain, and genre could be one level down. Science fiction could be in a domain below that. Any domain or order within it should be clearly definable. We should be able to list characteristics that readers universally respect as belonging to science fiction. And if you think about them, there really isn’t that many that science fiction has a right to claim. Science fiction has homesteaded certain lands for decades and I believe has a legitimate right to claim them now. Some of the obvious ones include:
- Stories set in the future
- Stories set in space
- Stories about time travel
- Stories about aliens from space
- Stories about robots and any human created intelligence
- Stories about new inventions and new technology that hasn’t been invented or discovered
- Stories about humans that aren’t Homo sapiens sapiens.
- Stories about artificial life possible within our physical reality
- Stories about artificial realities, but possible within this physical reality
- Stories about other dimensions, but part of this physical reality
- Stories about metafiction related to science fiction
- Utopias and dystopias if set in the future or in space
- Alternate history (this could be contested and established as its own domain)
“Elements of Pataphysics” defined pataphysics as territory outside the circle of metaphysics, and metaphysics as the territory that surrounds the physical. I believe that puts pataphysics into the realm of the abstract theoretical. It intentionally defined its territory as not existing. I could use the definitions of pataphysics to classify Flatland and Alice in Wonderland, and maybe works of fantasy in general. Especially if we reserve the metaphysical as territory that could exist even if it’s outside our physical reality. (The hopes and ambitions of religion and spiritualism’s dwell there.)
Science fiction belongs in that circle defining physical reality because science is confined to that territory. Science fiction does not extended into metaphysical territory, so it can’t extend into the pataphysical. Fantasy belongs to the pataphysical, and maybe the metaphysical, but not the physical. Jarry’s fiction creates pataphysics by alluding to the science, mathematics, linguistics, logic, and rhetoric of the physical. In other words, he describes the impossible and ineffable by analogy to the tools we use to understand the physical. For me, its essential that science fiction stay out of the metaphysical, and thus the pataphysical. The metaphysical belongs to the woo-woo and things that go bump in the night. Reality’s only portal to the metaphysical is through leaving our bodies and imagination is our only portal to the pataphysical. Science fiction holds out hope that we can get there from here.
“Elements of Pataphysics” is a 5-star story that belongs in The Big Book of Experimental Fiction. It’s a marvelous piece of writing, and the translation feels very well done. What Jarry describes as pataphysics could apply to metafiction, and other experimental forms of fiction. I’ve always thought that Merril and the Harrison/Aldiss anthologies tried to latch onto works of experimental fiction and relabel them science fiction to give prestige to our genre. We need to accept who we are without such pretensions.
I suppose some will claim I’m limiting science fiction. If the word “science” is part of the label, then that label must limit itself to the territory of theoretically scientific. But more importantly, I believe we should recognize what science fiction is and embrace those aspects. The literary world has always criticized science fiction as appealing to adolescents. I agree with them. We shouldn’t take offense. There is a certain excitement during that stage of life from ages 12 to 22 that science fiction targets. Certain kinds of music, movies, and television shows resonate with that stage too. Most of us look back on what we fell in love with in adolescence for the rest of our lives. It’s a peak time of life. Sure, we might have been stupid, but we were passionate.
I believe religion originates in the pre-adolescent mind, and embracing science fiction is a rejection of religion. Instead of heaven, we claims the heavens, instead of gods, we look for aliens, instead of everlasting life, we seek immortality. In our teen years we are told about reality, and we ask, “Isn’t there more?” The difference between science fiction and fantasy, is the difference between accepting pipe dreams and holding out hope.
“Elements of Pataphysics” targets the next stage in life, our twenties, one that inspires people to be artists. Although there are exceptions, science fiction has never been particularly arty, or even seriously intellectual. At its best its visionary, can even be a bit literary, but it stands between the fairytales that appealed to us in the previous stage of life, and the hard reality of adulthood. It has the sense of wonder of discovering reality, but the childlike desire to reshape reality into exciting possibilities of what if. Science fiction considers all the possibilities of growing up, all the portals of what might be possible. Those possibilities are a comfort to the stress of metamorphizing from child to adult. The odds are long, but in adolescence we have tremendous hope.
Many of us keep consuming science fiction for the rest of our lives because of that Zoloft-like quality it confers. It helps us to remember what we wanted to be. I think it’s existentially vital we recognize science fiction for exactly what it is. In classifying science fiction, there is an essential trait to be observe. It’s a unique strain of hubris that says, “We can create anything that’s possible in this reality.” Anything not possible need not apply.
James Wallace Harris, 8/28/21