Tag Archives: subculture

Subcultural conformity

William Gibson, having been asked whether he ever wanted to wear a uniform:

When was I last out of one? The extent to which we are are all of us usually in uniform brings to mind Eno’s definition of culture: everything we do that we don’t really need to. Pajama bottoms beneath a raincoat? Out of uniform. Jeans with one leg cut off? Out of uniform. Contracultural apparel disturbs us. Countercultures are intensely cultural. Bohemias have dress codes as rigid as those of merchant banks. We all read uniforms, constantly, whether we’re aware of it or not.”

Yes.

Science fiction, sub-genres and the consensus of definitions

Ah, the sweet taste of vindication … or at least, the satisfaction of seeing someone else agree with your own hypothesis by result of their own reasoning. Mondolithic Studios asks rhetorically whether science fiction is still a distinct genre:

I think what confuses some people is the fact that Science Fiction isn’t really a distinct genre unto itself anymore. It’s mutated into dozens of sub-genres and movements, liberally exchanged genetic material with Fantasy and social satirism and burrowed into the internet in the form of hundreds of thousands of scifi and fantasy-oriented blogs, galleries, fanzines, vlogs, podcasts and short story webzines.

Indeed.

A new life in the off-world colonies!

I’d add metaverse platforms like Second Life to that list; it’s early days yet, but Jason Stoddard and Eric Rice are leading the pack on this one, and I’m confident we’re going to see new ways of telling stories (genre or otherwise) emerging from virtual worlds in the next few years.

And let’s not forget the mash-up projects; the first one that leaps to mind is Jeremy Tolbert‘s Dr. Julius Roundbottom site, where he’s combining ‘shopped photography and clockpunk vignettes and feeding them out over RSS just like a blog. [Disclosure – Jeremy is a good friend and co-blogger at Futurismic]

Then there’s Pete Tzinski, who’s delivering his ongoing God in the Machine story as a serial, just like Wells and Conan-Doyle did, but on the web instead of in magazines. Or Don Sakers, doing the same thing with a novel. I can’t vouch for the quality of the material, because I’ve not read either of them yet – but what I can say for certain is that these people are out there using the web as a delivery system for fiction in new (or new-old) ways. People are often dismissive of pioneers until the first successes appear on the new frontier – and appear they will.

Sub-genres as suburbs

But back to Mondolithic again:

You could think of traditional Science Fiction as the built-up, established, older city core, and Sprawl [Fiction] as the rapidly expanding literary suburbs young writers are fleeing to in search of more elbow room to test out new ideas. So people who assert that “Science Fiction is dead” are looking at where scifi used to be and missing the bigger picture completely. Science Fiction has changed out of all recognition and if you want to think of that as a crisis, it’s a crisis of diversity rather than a morbidly existential one. [my bold]

This reminds me of my genre ghetto analogy; the Mondolithic writer has reached a very similar image, although he’s come to it from a different angle. And that angle reminds me of my floating point variable analogy – if I might be so vain as to quote myself:

For me at least, it’s that simple. A book is not, in and of itself, science fiction. But it may well partake of science-fictionality (science-fiction-ness?) to a lesser or greater extent – and that extent is, at least partly, determined by my perception of the book in question, as well as my perception of the canon of works that inform the term ‘science fiction’.

I could also delve back into my analogy to the sub-genres of rock music, but I think everyone’s heard enough of that by now. And why belabor the point? After all, I’m not saying anything that far smarter and more qualifier commentators aren’t saying too. Lou Anders on the steampunk resurgence:

…a visit to Wikipedia shows how large the canon of steampunk really is, including a lot of alternate history, much of Tim Powers, and labeling a lot of classic fiction as “proto-steampunk” in the same way PKD and Bester are sometimes said to be proto-cyberpunk.

So, is steampunk a niche of a niche of a niche? Or is the real age of steampunk just beginning?

I’d argue it’s having a high moment right now, but it will never die completely – and nor will any sub-genre, ever again. This is the internet, baby – everything here will last forever, or at least until civilisation as we know it collapses.

Sub-genre definition by consensus

But to close, I’ll just reiterate that sub-genre is in the eye of the beholder. Damon Knight’s adage is an enduring one, and filters down into the subdivisions with the same power it had at the top of the pyramid – in other words, steampunk means what you point to when you say it.

And it’s the debate over these definitions that, in my opinion, keeps genre fiction alive – if we care enough to debate the labels, that’s a sign of vigour. And debate we do, as Kathryn Cramer observes while riding flank on some Wiki wars:

Since there are not commonly shared theories of literary genre underpinning the evolution of these [Wikipedia] articles, they tend to devolve into something reminiscent of the end game of a game of life when the little groups of pixel enter a repeating pattern; cycles of argument about whether a work or writer is or is not hard sf, as if this was as easy to decide as something like nationality …

I’d suggest the fluidity of definition is actually a good thing, at least as far as literature is concerned; floating point variables, as mentioned above. (But then I’d also argue that nationality is a much more fluid concept nowadays, too.) Consensus is morbidity.

But the take-home point is this – as the chap at Mondolithic observed, science fiction is far from dead. It just appears to have gone through a metastasis.

Science fiction is a floating point variable

Ah, the wranglings of the genre; the coincident arrival of a report from a con panel and a new column from esteemed critic Paul Kincaid seems to have revived the perennial ‘what is science fiction’ debate.

In which case, I can’t see any reason that I shouldn’t add my little dose of noise to the signal, and reiterate my belief that science fiction is a floating point variable, not a binary.

A programming metaphor

OK, so that may not make a lot of sense to someone who has never been foolish enough to teach themselves computer programming, so I’ll unpack it a bit.

When you write a computer program, you create variables – little discreet data points which can be assigned a value by the programmer or by various external stimuli. But all variables are not created equal.

A binary variable can have one of two different values: a ‘1’, or a ‘0’, an ‘on’ or an ‘off’. No other options are available. A binary variable is either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. That’s it.

A floating point variable, however, can be assigned any numerical value that can be made to fit inside the amount of memory allocated to it. Positive, negative, large or small – any number whatsoever, even decimal subdivisions thereof.

Can you see where this is going?

The rock music metaphor (again)

OK, so maybe you can’t. Despite the assumptions of outsiders, not all science fiction readers are computer geeks. So, I’ll deploy a metaphor that long-term readers will find familiar (maybe even distressingly so)*.

Long ago, it may have been possible to say that a particular song was a piece of ‘rock music’. It either partook of what were considered to be the tropes of rock music (the then fairly new and strange phenomena of distorted guitars, for example, or the wearing of tight trousers) or it did not.

Nowadays, that simply isn’t the case. The canon has fragmented, and the definition depends on the perspective of the listener and their conception of what the term actually means – a term whose definition has been mangled and stretched by fans, critics, marketing departments and the mass media alike.

Throw in some cliched stereotyping, and the inherently tribal nature of subcultures, and you’ve got a whole raft of cultural schisms on your hands. ‘Rock’ is in the ear of the beholder, you might say – it’s what I point to when I say it, to paraphrase Damon Knight.

Can you see where this is going now? ‘Rock’ was once a binary variable. Something either was rock, or was not rock. Now, it’s a floating point variable – each piece of music partakes of the idea of rock to a certain dgree, be it tiny or huge.

Science fiction is a quality, not an object

For me at least, it’s that simple. A book is not, in and of itself, science fiction. But it may well partake of science-fictionality (science-fiction-ness?) to a lesser or greater extent – and that extent is, at least partly, determined by my perception of the book inquestion, as well as my perception of the canon of works that inform the term ‘science fiction’.

You see? Floating point variable.

And I think the same applies to subdivisions of the genre concept – as, it appears, do several other persons considerably more learned and qualified to pontificate on such matters than me, if the discussion at Torque Control is anything to go by.

The plurality of subcultures

It’s almost like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox – no matter how much you keep dividing the set into two, you’ll never reach the final destination of a concrete definition that puts the item under discussion clearly within the set or beyond it. You can’t make a floating point number into a binary. The genie will not go back into the bottle.

This is just the way culture works. We humans develop an idea, or a concept or label, and we apply it to things. Then, humans being humans, we decide that some of the others don’t have quite the same idea of what the label really means.

And so, back in the sixties, ‘rock’ music split into ‘hard rock’ and ‘heavy metal,’ and so on; bi- and tri-furcating in endless iterations, up to the current point where there are almost as many different genres as there are bands – none of whom are ever happy with the labels that get slapped on them.

If you can’t see the resonance between science fiction literature and that preceding paragraph, then either I’ve failed to explain myself properly, or I’m utterly unhinged in command of a keyboard …

… but, that said, one of the things that appeals to me about science fiction fandom is that I can actually take part in a conversation as abstract and ultimately irrelevant to the fate of the universe as this one, and in all probability have someone take me seriously enough to argue back. And that, as far as I’m concerned, rocks. 😉


[* In the process of fetching that link, I realised that I started that particular rant almost a year ago. Probably time for a rewrite … or at least a reassessment.]

Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 3

Yesterday I discussed the tribal behaviour of subcultures, especially regarding their relations with the mainstream culture. Due to the paucity of comments, I must assume I’ve either blown away everyone with my staggering insights, or baffled and bored everyone into submission…either which way, I’m going to wrap this one up today by discussing recent cultural shifts, and what they mean for subcultures like SF and rock music. Continue reading Science fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison; part 3