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February 6, 2015

Everything is now fandom and fandom is now everything
Posted by Patrick at 05:35 AM *

Just the other day I noted in the sidebar my bemusement that heated lettercolumn exchanges in the New York Review of Books now resemble nothing so much as those found in fanzines like Richard E. Geis’s The Alien Critic, back in the day.

In further bemusement, I see that the New York Times Magazine is running a profile—in next Sunday’s issue—of the late Andrew J. Offutt. By his son Chris, focussing on Offutt’s prodigious lifetime output of pornographic novels.

Like most people who were involved in the subculture of science fiction fanzines and conventions in the mid-to-late 1970s, I remember Andy Offutt as an SF writer with a large presence in fandom and a reputation for approachability and generosity. And I remember his wife Jodie as an ever greater presence in printed fanzines.

But I have to admit that my first reaction was to be startled that the article doesn’t so much as mention Offutt’s two years as president of SFWA (1976-78). Immediately followed by the realization that I was mentally recapitulating the logic of Field and Stream’s legendary 1959 review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“One is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping”), the difference being that Field and Stream was joking and my brain was not.

Comments on Everything is now fandom and fandom is now everything:
#1 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 08:00 AM:

I have a hazy recollection of some books about a female fantasy-world pirate/adventurer named Tiana Highrider. whose books were a co-creation of Andy Offutt and Richard Lyon. I don't recall them as pornographic, even by the standards of the time, though the covers were typical Boris Vallejo. I think you could call them sexually aware.

So a career as a prolific writer of porn novels doesn't seem such a surprise to me.

I think I read one of them as a consequence of an issue of Dragon magazine, something like a review of books with inspirational female characters.

I hope times have changed.

#2 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 08:24 AM:

Andy Offutt—wow. There's a name I haven't heard in a while....

#3 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 09:12 AM:

Because I'm an idiot, I had no idea until just now that Andrew and Jodie Offutt's son Chris, author of that piece in the NYTimes Magazine, is a highly-regarded literary writer--Iowa Writers' Workshop faculty, widely anthologized, praised by Granta, etc. The things you miss.

Evidently the piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming book-length work. Presumably the longer work will in fact discuss his father's involvement in the regular (non-porn) SF world; it'll be interesting to see what he says.

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 09:15 AM:

By the way, the fact that Andy Offutt wrote porn novels (as well as some straight SF) wasn't remotely a surprise to me; it was common knowledge in the SF world for years. The surprise was seeing it discussed at length in the august pages of the NYTM.

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 09:24 AM:

And just to wrap this back into another of Making Light's interests: it turns out that Andrew Offutt's other son, Jeff Offutt, is a consequential figure in the history of software testing.

#6 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 10:19 AM:

And I also did not know these things about offutt's sons. Do we think that Chris Offutt was aware of his parents' presence in the SF world? It is possible that he was not. In any case, quite the startling piece.

#7 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 10:22 AM:

Oh and also, quite a lot of well-known sf writers have made a living in porn. I would not like to try to guess how many such novels Mike Resnick has published, for instance.

#8 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 10:41 AM:

Seanan McGuire is reputed to have paid the bills by writing formulaic Harlequins with plenty of explicit sex in them for quite some time, though she won't divulge her pen name.

#9 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 10:55 AM:

Not to mention Norman Spinrad.

#10 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 10:56 AM:

Heck, some people in our little world have even had jobs editing that kind of book, he observed.

#11 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 10:57 AM:

I'm not talking about the books published under his own name, either. The sex in them may be on the edge, but they're not porn.

#12 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 11:42 AM:

PNH writes:

...heated lettercolumn exchanges in the New York Review of Books now resemble nothing so much as those found in fanzines like Richard E. Geis’s The Alien Critic, back in the day.

Or even earlier days. I am slowly reading PITFCS,* a circa-1960 newsletter where a bunch of science fiction pros share their concerns. Noisily. In 350,000 words.

Horace Gold, Punching Bag. Is SF dying? Already dead? Should SF writers from a union? Yes! NO! This new novel, Starship Troopers, is awful. No, it's pretty good. No, it's a menace to the Republic.

* The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, edited by Theodore R. Cogswell. By the way, this book was completely unavailable through Interlibrary Loan. How can this be fixed? It took years, but the Abebooks robot eventually found me a copy at a price I was willing to pay.

#13 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 11:47 AM:

Paying the bills for a genre/niche project with porn works because porn sells and, well, you're already tarred, so it can't hurt that much. The first-wave US anime distributors all did it, usually under an H-only label alongside merely softcore titles released under the company's main label (at least one distributor had the practice of, because the entire staff and cast would be the same as their regular releases, using a pseudonym for everyone, usually punny). Luminaries as luminous as Vonnegut have commented on, especially, the relationship between SF and porn publishing.

#14 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 11:56 AM:

I admit I haven't done much research lately, but is there still a literary porn market? Somehow I suspect they aren't listed in Writer's Market.

#15 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 12:25 PM:

beth, #6: Do we think that Chris Offutt was aware of his parents' presence in the SF world?

Given that the Offuttspring were frequent convention attendees along with their parents, I would say yes.

#16 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 12:28 PM:

beth meacham @6

I think it would be a stretch to say Chris Offutt didn't know about his father's connections with SF. Something such as SFWA President is a bit difficult to hide away.

But would it have been talked about much?

#17 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 01:36 PM:

One of the main places for SF writers to sell pseudonymous porn in the 1960s was Greenleaf Publications under editor and longtime SF fan Earl Kemp. Beginning in 2001, Earl began publishing memoirs of those times in his fascinating online fanzine eI, link below. One non-porn related tale I was particularly amused by involved him using vaction time to visit the Vietnam war. A friend of his was serving in the field and Earl wrote to say he'd come visit him. "What do you mean, visit me? I'm on active service in country in a freakin' war!" the friend said (words to that effect). "See you in a few weeks," Earl responded, and he did. Great guy!


#18 ::: Dave* Twiddy ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 02:25 PM:

The article isn't a profile, really. Offutt's main purpose seems to be to grapple with what he sees as a misogynistic streak in his father's work. "His weapons were cruel words, the infliction of guilt and intimidation through rage. The idea that porn prevented him from killing women was a self-serving delusion that justified his impulse to write and draw portrayals of torture. He needed to believe in a greater purpose to continue his lifelong project. Admitting that he liked it was too much for him to bear." So his father's SF&F work and fandom leadership are outside the scope.

#19 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 03:00 PM:

Bill Higgins @ #12: I'm pretty sure that PITFCS was the house organ of SFWA back in the day. I got to read them in the Houghton Library (Harvard's rare books collection) for a paper I was writing in David Riesman's course in 1962. I don't believe they were ever sold, only distributed to members. Ted Cogswell was indeed the editor.

#20 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 03:27 PM:

Dave*, #18: Having read the article, I agree. This isn't about "Andrew Offutt, writer" -- it's about "my father the pornographer".

I was well aware that Andy wrote porn; while I was not a personal friend of his, he hung out with Khen Moore and the SMOF contingent of Nashville fandom (he was always at Kubla Khan), and there was never any attempt to be secretive about it. But I will admit that I had no idea of the sheer scope of his porn career, as outlined in the article.

#21 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 04:17 PM:

Theophylact @19. I don't think PITFCS could have been the house organ of SFWA in 1962, seeing how it wasn't founded til 1965, but SF authors could have found a way via time travel.

#22 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 04:33 PM:

In #19 Theophylact writes:

I'm pretty sure that PITFCS was the house organ of SFWA back in the day.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't, but your remark is true in spirit.

PITFCS gets started about 1959 and runs for a few years. I haven't finished reading it yet. In its pages we can see some of the writers who would go on to found SFWA debate whether a writers' organization is needed and what it might do.

Some of them want to start a union, hoping the threat of a strike would influence magazine publishers to raise rates for SF. Others offer reasons why this won't work.

The seeds are visible. The Milford-attending crowd is well represented in the pages of PITFCS, and as I understand it, SFWA sprang from that group.

The experience is quite a bit like reading the blogs of authors today. Kind of remarkable that Cogswell was able to pull a forum like this together and keep it going for a considerable number of years.

#23 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 05:01 PM:

I am not sure I want to read the article, and my memories of Offutt's SF are vague enough to be useless. But I've seen enough examples of the general misogyny of porn, the way that the woman doesn't actually have fun in so much porn, even today, that I wonder what does drive the authors.

#24 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 06:49 PM:

Pretty sure that what drove a lot of them was the desire to feed their families.

#25 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 06:58 PM:

That said, Dave Twiddy's #18 is mostly good points. My only cavil is that the phrase "fandom leadership" makes the Star Trek computer explode for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that nobody would have ever applied such a term to Andy Offutt, least of all him.

When it comes to talking about fandom, I really do increasingly feel, even on Making Light where I have an amiable relationship with most of the commentariat, like a prehistoric animal that has outlived its time. The trouble is that all the words have shifted in meaning so much that it's entirely possible to have a complete conversation in which both parties go away with a completely different sense of what was said and what was meant.

#26 ::: Dave* Twiddy ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 07:05 PM:

Patrick, I come to you as a student. I freely admit my ignorance, and I wish to learn, it is my sincere joy to learn, so I hope you will teach me.

I used the term "fandom leadership" simply because I would think a man who was SFWA president would be accounted of some influence. That doesn't mean he was a thought leader or a guru in any sense, only that you couldn't get a position like that without being in some way representative of the SF community, and respected as such.

#27 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 07:17 PM:

Uh, sure, but being president of SFWA gives you "fandom leadership" approximately as much as being governor of (say) Missouri makes you an influential figure in Civil War recreationist circles. Lots of overlap, but not the same thing at all.

#28 ::: Dave* Twiddy ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 07:24 PM:

Yes, I understand that. Hence my explanation.

Could you tell us more of your memories of Andy Offutt?

#29 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 07:43 PM:

I read the NYT Mag article and wondered how long it would take before it was discussed on ML.

#30 ::: John C. Bunnell ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 08:06 PM:

#8: I hadn't heard that rumor about Seanan McGuire. On one hand, I'm sure she could write and sell Harlequins, although "formulaic" seems unlikely from that quarter. OTOH, I don't recall even a hint in her visible online presence in the years prior to her DAW sales that suggested she was actually doing so.

#31 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2015, 09:20 PM:

Our host Patrick writes in #25:

When it comes to talking about fandom, I really do increasingly feel, even on Making Light where I have an amiable relationship with most of the commentariat, like a prehistoric animal that has outlived its time. The trouble is that all the words have shifted in meaning so much that it's entirely possible to have a complete conversation in which both parties go away with a completely different sense of what was said and what was meant.

You're still using "fandom" in the singular. As do I.

Having spent the last forty-- yeah, forty-- years talking about fandom and all its concerns, what are we dinosaurs to do now?

"Continue talking for decades about how great it used to be" is, of course, one of our options. Maybe not one to be preferred.

#32 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2015, 12:56 AM:

Offutt's career in porn may have been more visible than that of most SF sideliners; The Great 24-Hour Thing is mentioned in Again, Dangerous Visions, and IIRC had Offutt's name on the cover rather than a pseudonym.

Offutt may have been the most Californian Kentuckian we'll ever see; his rambling, touchy-feely TM speech at Discon 2 (1974 Worldcon) was remembered for a long time afterward -- a pity, because I remember him being just as warm but much more to the point before smaller audiences.

Bill Higgins @ 31: using "fandom" in the singular may just be defensive habit; even 40 years ago, the walls between fandoms were apparent. I remember being momentarily shocked when Ted White said (paraphrase) "How dare so-and-so be a FGoH? Since when are mere toilers-in-the-vineyards deserving of such honor when editors of obscure zines are ignored?" Some of that is Ted being Ted (cf Glyer's "The Men Who Corflued Mohammed), but I remember plenty of fanzine fans immuring themselves at Worldcons.

#33 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2015, 01:23 AM:

CHip, #32: I use fandom both in the singular, as an umbrella description for all types of sub-fandoms, and as a descriptor modified for a given subgroup -- media fandom, filk fandom, fanfic fandom -- and also in the fanfic sense of "which particular fannish thing you are talking/writing about at the moment". It's a slippery word, and trying to pin down its definition is like trying to nail jello to the wall. The attempt to do so is one of the things that will make me take a closer look at a given individual's other attitudes, because it frequently goes with other things that generally fall under the rubric of Do Not Want.

Being of the fannish generation that falls in between fanzines and Star Trek, I remember very clearly the people who insisted that those of us who did not do fanzines but only read books and attended conventions were not Trufen at all. And then I watched my own contemporaries do exactly the same thing to the Star Wars generation, the people whose primary interest was media more than books. While I haven't yet observed that generation of media-fans decrying the people whose primary fannish connection is Tumblr, it would surprise me not at all to learn that this has happened. History repeats, with monotonous regularity.

Oh, and I found myself a few years ago having to explain to one serious dinosaur exactly what a "fan guest" was, when my local con so honored a person who had a truly stellar 20-year record of con-running and behind-the-scenes work but had published nothing. "But what are they being honored for being a fan OF? Have they no True Quill at all?" was the sniff of disdain.

#34 ::: Bacchus ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2015, 01:39 AM:

In my teen years my best access to SF was via free exchange paperback racks at my very-small-town local library. And I came to cherish the name of Andrew J. Offut because his SF and fantasy could be reliably relied upon to have especially dirty bits. Not just sex but kinky stuff too. In small scenes, like the Gor books or Sharon Green, but with much better writing and an actual plot, with the dirty/kinky bits as small subplots.

It was not until much later that I learned Offut also wrote a ton of straight-up porn.

#35 ::: Chris Offutt ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2015, 12:08 PM:

Hi All,

I read with interest the comments about the NYT Sunday Magazine piece about my father, Andy Offutt. Thank you all for your interest.

First, I'd like to stress that it was an excerpt from a book forthcoming with Simon & Schuster. The editors at the NYT read the manuscript and assembled various sections into the excerpt. Their focus was on Dad's career in porn.

The book itself includes much more, including two chapters about regional SF cons, mostly in the '70s. It also covers Dad's speech at Discon II in D.C., which was mentioned in the comments. The book refers to his service as Treasurer and later President of SFWA. His interest in politics began in college in the '50s and culminated in being President of SFWA. (I am still seeking information about his Presidency.)

The book also examines the influence of SF on porn. SF had greater license to explore sexual themes than other genres for two reasons: A) it was the future, therefore a presumably more enlightened era with regards to sex; and B) SF was sufficiently off the radar that the writers simply had more freedom.

As I understand it, during the late 50s/early 60s, many markets for SF vanished. Porn soon flourished in the market place and quite a few SF writers moved into the new field. Most did so temporarily, then returned to SF as the field underwent a fresh renaissance, often called the "New Wave." Dad was part of both--the new wave of SF and the rapidly burgeoning market for porn.

Lastly, I'd like to also stress that the excerpt in the NYT, and the book itself, is a strictly personal point-of-view. It's not historical or scholarly. My perspective was dual: a son and a father. Also that of a writer examining another writer's extensive archive.

The book is "molten" so to speak, in that it is not set in stone. I'm still engaged in the project. Any recollections, corrections, or anecdotes regarding Dad would be greatly appreciated. I'm at

Again, thank you for your interest in the excerpt and in my father's work.

-Chris Offutt

#36 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2015, 12:22 PM:

Patrick, Bill Higgins -- Oh dear lord, I just realized...40 years?!

Discon II was my first science fiction convention. It was also where the filkers took over an entire ballroom one evening...

Buck Coulson used to have a photo of the ballroom filk, shot from behind my best friend and me. The first time I visited Buck and Juanita, I see that shot up on the wall and wonder why it looks familiar. It took a couple of minutes for me to realize, "Hey -- that's me!" (But then most of us rarely see ourselves from that angle.)

#37 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2015, 12:24 PM:

Thanks for coming here and weighing in, Chris. I look forward to reading your book! When is it scheduled for publication?

#38 ::: Dave* Twiddy ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 01:12 PM:

Chris, #35: Good luck with the book. I also look forward to reading it.

#39 ::: Chris Offutt ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 07:21 PM:

I am interested in the strict definitions of SF as opposed to fantasy. It's recently come to my attention that if a book does NOT include Sorcery, it is SF. And that if a book contains sorcery, it is automatically fantasy.

This was explained to me that a sub-genre called "sword and planet" is SF, not fantasy.

I'm wondering if anyone has thoughts on this. Is this distinction correct? Is there a generally held belief about these issues?

#40 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 07:55 PM:

Chris Offutt #39: There was always more overlap between fantasy and science fiction than various elf-appointed "gatekeepers" like to admit -- remember that they both emerged from "adventure stories", which is how (for example) Wells, Verne, Howard and Burroughs were labeled.

In more modern times, the "real" distinction between them, and between "genre" and "mainstream", has mostly been a question of where they got shelved in the bookstores. (Which was Serious Business when that was the only place to find books.) These days, at least partly because of the presence of online markets, the genre barriers are collapsing all over the place, as more authors add fantastic elements to futuristic and scientific works (see also Clarke's Third Law), or causal rigor to tales of magic (the converse: "Any sufficiently reliable magic becomes indistingushable from a technology". Or "unmarked" (mainstream) authors write books based on fantastic or futuristic themes, while insisting "they don't write genre". (Margaret Atwood has ruffled a few feathers that way.)

Nowadays, there's a shift toward re-interpreting "SF" as "speculative fiction", sweeping in all of the above. The older textual option is to write "SF/F" or "SF&F".

#41 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 07:57 PM:

Gah, "self-appointed". AFAIK, Faery does not actually have power over the publishing industry.

#42 ::: Chris Offutt ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 08:04 PM:

Thanks. Come on, though: "elf-appointed" is hilarious! I like that idea. Genre distinctions are so idiotic, and mostly pertain to marketing. So it has to be an elf behind it!!

#43 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 08:08 PM:

David Harmon (41): AFAIK, Faery does not actually have power over the publishing industry.

And a new conspiracy theory is born.

#44 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 08:38 PM:

If you hadn't apologized, I would've assumed that "elf-appointed" was a deliberate (and wonderful) play on words. I like it.

In practice you'll find that some people think the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is unimportant and it's all effectively one genre, others who think that you can't draw a sharp border (people here will be happy to give you lots of standard borderline examples) but that there is nevertheless a meaningful distinction to be made, and still others who think there is some specific criterion that lets you tell whether a book is one or the other. People who think there is a clear distinction disagree with each other about what that distinction is.

In other words: this is a question that can be the basis of endless fun (or not so fun) discussion. There is no consensus about the answer.

#45 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 08:53 PM:

SF: this is how Reality works, or how it may be working because we don't know everything.

Fantasy: this isn't how Reality works, but let's pretend it is.

#46 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 08:57 PM:

Mary Aileen #43: And a new conspiracy theory is born.

Of course, if Patrick and Teresa haven't seen any Elven Overlords, that's because they're all glamoured as humans. And they change the memories of (or put a geas on) anyone who learned the truth. The total absence of evidence proves everything! :-)

#47 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 09:09 PM:

Serge Broom #45: Those borders are subject to drastic change of topics over time. Consider for example something like C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, in its own time. Then compare to any number of "SF" tales (Childhood's End to Spin off the top of my head), which effectively begin "one day, the world as we know it disappeared, and was replaced with something stranger".

#48 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 09:28 PM:

Before I thought about it, I was perfectly confident that I could point to any book I had read and remembered and tell you which side of the line it fell on.

The more I think about it, the less confident I am.

I don't have a general rule yet, but I'm starting with the line "Every time you try to apply actual physics to Star Wars, God kills a kitten"* and working outwards.

* My friend Rob said this as we were starting a Star Wars RPG. It's a good rule, when playing in that universe. VRRAAAUU PEW PEW noises are important. The exact meaning of a parsec is not.

#49 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 10:11 PM:

Well, there's there's an explanation for why they've not seen any others, David Harmon #46 : Patrick and Teresa are Elven Overlords of Genre.

#50 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 10:40 PM:

Chris, #39: Datapointing: I fall squarely into the second category listed by Matt @44. I think the boundary between science fiction and fantasy is fuzzy -- some things are clearly one or the other, but there's a significant amount of grey area, and the decision of what that grey area covers is highly subjective. The canonical edge case (IMO) is Pern: dragons and telepathy = fantasy, lost colony and genetic engineering = science fiction, so where do you assign it?

Or a case familiar to many of us at Making Light, the Mageworlds series. Clearly space opera, with spaceships and blasters... but then there are the Mages and the Adepts, who can bend reality to their own will. Where does that fall? Largely, wherever the person reading it thinks it falls.

What about steampunk? Alternate history? Alternate history with working magic, like the Changed World series? Where do those go?

The Goblin Emperor is populated by elves and goblins, and there are a small number of "mazas" who appear to have magical abilities, but aside from that it's a very straightforward tale of a feudal society trying to deal with the Industrial Revolution. How do you file that?

This is why I like the umbrella term "speculative fiction" -- it covers all these things and more, without getting bogged down in the details of sub-categories.

#51 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 10:43 PM:

Chris Offutt @39: Having been an SF bookseller for many years, I really came to believe that SF is what I point at when I say SF. And that your definition may be very different, and I'm unlikely to convince you about the difference.

Is Christopher Stasheff's The Warlock in Spite of Himself SF? It has sorcery in it; and the sorcery is eventually explained as psionic powers. So most people think of it as SF, but some purists who don't believe in psionic powers don't. Larry Niven believes that all time travel (except what we're all doing as we live our lives) is fantasy. Others don't. Spending time trying to define SF is amusing, but not useful in almost all circumstances: nothing really depends on whether a given story is classified in a certain way, other than how we think about things. And all classification systems (dealing with an infinite or indeterminate number of objects) that contain an equivalent of arithmetic are either incomplete or inconsistent: it is possible to make a classification that deals with everything that exists at time X, but it's not always true that new objects will fit in it in any consistent manner.

#52 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 11:07 PM:

David Harmon@ 47... True, the nature of Reality can change - or at least revised. And its borders can change too. Wells's "First Men in the Moon" is now fantasy, but I still consider it to be SF because that's what it was when it was written.

#53 ::: Michael J. Walsh ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2015, 11:53 PM:

For an interesting overview of the sleaze/porn paperback biz of the late 50s/early 60s I would suggest picking up a copy of
Sin-A-Rama which includes a long piece by Silverberg about his adventures in that trade craft.

#54 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 07:40 AM:

Take Cryptonomicon. In all respects except one, it's a near-future/historical action novel, nothing particularly SF or F about it. And it's possible to read that one thing as metaphorical for various drugs and antibiotics. But once you read the Baroque Cycle, it's made exactly clear What's In The Box, and the whole book becomes even better and far more fantastic.

#55 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 07:59 AM:

Serge Broom #52: IIRC, Welles, Verne, Burroughs, Howard, etc. predated the modern concept of science fiction, and were marketed as "adventure tales".

#56 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 08:52 AM:

According to some ideas of defining SF, the original Sherlock Holmes stories are SF.

That might be pushing things a little, but how about The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers?

#57 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 09:31 AM:

David Harmon @ 55... But they were extrapolating on how they thought Reality worked and so were SF.

#58 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 09:34 AM:

BSD @ 54... TV series "Halt and Catch Fire" was not SF, strictly speaking, because it was about people in 1983 working to build the first laptop, but to me it was SF because of its attitude, its yearning for the Future. That's why I'll nominate it for a Hugo.

#59 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 09:39 AM:

Dave Bell@56: Certainly some Sherlock Holmes stories are SF - 'The Creeping Man', and at least one other which I have forgotten right now - but what would the basis be for saying that they all are? (Last year's Hugo hosts, while playing Mornington Crescent, took it for granted that Sherlock Holmes was SF, which puzzled me.)

Tom Whitmore@51: Well, I read the first part of your comment, and thought 'Why would psionic powers not be SF just because they aren't possible? On that basis time travel isn't SF either'. And then I read the rest of your comment, and found that there is someone who actually believes that. At least he is consistent. (Faster-than-light travel and communication, which is a really important staple of SF, is another thing that would be problematic here.)

I know that a lot of people think it important that SF should be about the possible, but I have never been convinced by this; it would leave so much important material out. It seems to me better to see it as dealing with worlds whose distinctive features are (within the story) scientifically explicable, capable of being grasped by a scientific method. This still leaves lots of edge cases, but I don't think it misplaces central cases.

#60 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 09:55 AM:

Tom @ 51 -- you left off the second part of Damon's definition: "And I'm one of the few people paid to point." To which I say, Amen.

Defining SF is the best party game we have. My personal definition: Science fiction is that branch of fantasy where the willing suspension of disbelief is induced with an aura of scientific believability.

It's all fantasy.

#61 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 10:30 AM:

Yeah, lots of SF has sorcery in it--sometimes straight up (Star Wars, Mageworlds), sometimes with a scientific backdrop (DS9's Prophets and Paa-Wraiths, Babylon 5's psychics and technomages and elder species, the powers of the aliens in "The Witling"). Sometimes fantasy stories have magic powers that have the feel of technology somehow (the One Power in the Wheel of Time books).

Part of what makes people qualify things as fantasy or SF is the imagery or the feel of the world--Star Wars is SF because it has space ships and aliens, even though there's this magical power which is important enough that the most powerful master of black magic in the galaxy is running the place.

An awful lot of what the Arisans (and even Kim) do in the Lensman stories look for all the world like magic powers to me--certainly, humans don't understand them. But it's got the feel of SF.

#62 ::: Dave* Twiddy ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 06:44 PM:

beth, #60: Perfect. Yes.

SF is that speculative fiction in which the implicit ultimate epistemological/metaphysical appeal is to science, even if (as is usually the case) that ultimate appeal never occurs in the actual text.

I'm curious if Mr Offutt had any idea what can of worms he opened when he asked that question in this venue.

PS: The definition given above torpedoes my stance that the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel are the spiritual forerunners of SF.

#63 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 07:07 PM:

beth (60) -- and as a bookseller and reviewer, I was paid to point as well. For some reason, I hadn't heard the second half of that -- and I'm really glad to! (Hey, you're paid even better to do so, as an editor -- so your say-so has more power than mine, right?)

Dave* Twiddy (62) -- I suspect that he did. Chris appears to be a regular reader of SF, and the comment was made above that andy took his sons to various conventions when they were younger. The disease of defining SF has been epidemic at conventions since well before I started going to them in 1968; and it has shown no signs of stopping at any point.

And I, for one, am excited to read the rest of the book!

#64 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 09:44 PM:

Serge Broom #57: So the category is based on the writer's attitude when they wrote the book, which sorts them among categories that didn't exist when they wrote the book? I dunno about that.

#65 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 10:22 PM:

David H., #64: That sounds as though you're getting close to arguing that Category X can't exist until there's a name for it. Without getting into hairy levels of detail, I disagree with this; obviously, it's easier to deliberately write Category X once it's been named and some attempt made at a definition, but that doesn't mean that people weren't using the elements of Category X, in recognizable-after-the-fact ways, before anyone actually came up with a name that stuck.

If that wasn't where you were going, then nevermind. :-)

#66 ::: John C. Bunnell ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 11:15 PM:

#59: If I were making the argument for the original Holmes canon being wholly SF, my premise would be that Holmes is essentially inventing/predicting the modern science of forensics. This is true from the very beginning of the series; recall that when Holmes and Watson first meet, Holmes is demonstrating the efficacy of a brand new test for the presence of blood. Also recall Holmes' familiarity with all those types of tobacco ash, the unique dirt present in every district of London, etc. etc.

This is admittedly a somewhat non-traditional approach to defining SF, but I used similar justifications on occasion to get away with reviewing particular books -- I argued in an Amazing Stories column once that an Elizabeth Peters mystery counted as SF because its central characters were inventing modern archaeology, much as Holmes invents modern forensics. (That particular Peters novel, The Last Camel Died at Noon, also has the SFnal virtue of being a deliberate homage to the tales of H. Rider Haggard, being in fact a classic iteration of the Lost City tale.)

#67 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 11:25 PM:

Years ago someone asked JWC, as editor of Amazing and ex editor of Unknown, what was the difference between SF and F. His reply was that SF had to have three elements or it would fail, F had to have two of the three elements or it would fail. Unfortunately I've never hit the quote again to find out what the elements were...

#68 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 06:46 AM:

Lee #65: Well, you're focusing on only half my compaint there.

Sure, it's entirely possible to categorize or recategorize books post facto, without the author's consent. And unlike living authors such as Atwood, a long-dead one like Verne or Haggard can't complain, (or demand to be shelved with the "real literature").

But that begs the question again, about how to define the differences among the modern genres (including the unmarked one). And if you're reclassifying works posthumously in terms of the text, that means novels will drift between categories over time. (And if you're looking for "authorial intention" someplace besides the text, that opens another whole can of worms.)

On the other hand, if you do want historical context to be part of the definition, then these novels already have their original genre, and also their historical role as "proto-SF/F", the works from which modern SF developed.

I think it more reasonable to say something like: The novels we're referring to were published as "adventure tales" along with many less notable works, but these authors and titles in particular were popular enough that their themes developed into whole new genres, some of which are still current: Science Fiction, Sword & Sorcery (later "Fantasy"), Horror, Detective and Mystery, Spy Action, and so on. Meanwhile, other fantastic themes were accepted into mainstream literature (see "magical realism" et al.).

#69 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 12:53 PM:

David Harmon @46: So the Elven Overlords are really Men In Black? (Or is it the other way around...?)

#70 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 01:50 PM:

Previously seen here, several years ago, the thread involving definition of SF and F.

#71 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 01:52 PM:

John C. Bunnell@66: Hm. I'd be inclined to say that the stories are still not SF, because not speculative: the world they are set in is fundamentally our own. I would see speculativeness as the fundamental thing, which unites SF with fantasy (and also alternate history and a number of things less easy to classify), and science fiction is then speculative fiction in which the distinctive features are in some way scientific. So being about the development of science may bring a work within the penumbra of SF, but doesn't actually make it so.

(But then again, one of last year's Nebula finalists was only SF in that it dealt with the consequences of a scientific experiment.)

#72 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 02:59 PM:

I have a theory about why people have such strongly felt but divergent definitions for science fiction.

I think people run into an example of something that has a strong emotional effect (whether positive or negative) and build a stable definition around that.

My exemplar for New Wave is Barry Malzberg's fiction, and possibly some Aldiss and Ballard. There is no way I can believe that Zelazny and Delany are New Wave (I'm willing to admit that many people count Z & D as part of the New Wave), because they wrote relatively normal stories (I'm talking about Delany's earlier fiction), and I liked what they wrote.

Other people think of different features as central to New Wave-- literary experimentation, writing about sex, association with New Worlds, so they draw the boundaries at other places.

Ideally, we would have definitions that cut reality at the joints, but there are areas where reality doesn't have joints.

#73 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 03:29 PM: which case you just need a big heavy cleaver.... Oh, wait. You were talking about reality....

#74 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 10:17 PM:

Jacque #73: For disjointing reality, disassociation is a "traditional" tool.

#75 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 10:57 PM:

Anyone else watching Parks and Recreation?

We’ve seen the first season, and recently caught an episode of the current season, which is the seventh. The show’s got a documentary format, like The Office, and apparently at the end of the sixth season finale, the show jumps ahead three years, to 2017, to show what’s become of the characters. Then the seventh season keeps going from that point, making the show arguably very-near-future science fiction.

#76 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 11:30 PM:

P J Evans #70: And I note that in that thread, the discussion ran aground over trying to define "magic realism". Which I won't even attempt to do, because I've barely read any of it... but I will pull out one of the definitions from the thread, because as a definition it's comparable with my own definitions of "science fiction" versus "fantasy": Modern movements within written literature, rather than essential qualities of the text.

Lucy Kemnitzer #50: I wouldn't call anything magic realism that was written before Garcia Marquez, which allows a pretty early date, but also, written outside Latin America much before the Pinochet coup. From what I know now, anyway: I might be wrong in placing those parameters.
The reason I wouldn't is that magic realism isn't so much a category as a literary movement or maybe a school -- like "nueva cancion" is a musical movement. Writing from outside Latin America that is influenced by the Latin American writers might belong (like Barbara Kingsolver's books) -- I think they do, and I think it's probably interesting to contemplate the differences and similarities among authors who come from different place.
#77 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2015, 11:33 PM:

Avram #75: And if they'd tried that a few years ago, they'd have run into the same problem as Charlie Stross recently has, where current events make hash of their assumption that "life proceeded as usual"....

#78 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2015, 12:24 PM:

Nancy@72, the problem with your New Wave thing is that your stated authors *also* wrote relatively normal fiction some of the time. e.g. Ballard wrote _The Drowned World_, which while astonishingly racist by modern standards is still not the experimentation-with-form stuff he wrote at the height of the New Wave: it's almost a cosy catastrophe if you ignore the minor physical problem that the world in the story is about to turn into Venus (the ocean at the equator is boiling? Why is nobody panicking about this?!). But then, quibbling about such things is silly: even then, realistic characterization wasn't the point. However, there was none of the experimentation with form that Ballard became known for later. This was not, yet, a New Wave writer -- or, rather, he wasn't writing New Wave stuff.

I think the real problem here is trying to put authors into neatly-labelled pigeonholes. Not all will fit. Ballard certainly didn't, and by the sounds of things neither did Offutt.

#80 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 08:04 AM:

Jacque, @79: And one of GG's victims pointed out that "Nothing has changed. Not a single fucking thing, other than watching a similacrum of me be gang raped on national TV and quit her job."

#81 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 08:22 AM:

SVU likes to pretend it's all about supporting victims and seeking justice, but the way the cinematography lingers on the abuse is incredibly fetishizing.

I think if they started shooting it in ways that are actually not Torturer's-Eye-View porn, they'd lose half their audience.

(Overthinking It calls this the "donkey-effing conunundrum," because let's face it, a lot of people back in the day went to Midsummer Night's Dream to watch Titania eff the donkey, and however elevated you want to make your Artistic Choices in the rest of the play you have to give them that or they take their money and leave)

#82 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 11:09 AM:

I just spent an hour reading/researching Gawain, from the "Introduction to New Magics" thread linked above [now closed.] That should be enough to ask new-kid questions which, hopefully, the owners of All Knowledge can answer.

I remember the story best, of course, from Myths Retold (textually NSFW.) It seems like there's a lot of knowledge and expertise behind that authorial voice. Did they clean up the story in traditional translations, or did he dirty it up in his version?

#83 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 12:22 PM:

It's worth noting that Tolkien has done an excellent translation of "Gawain and the Green Knight", with commentary on the text.

#84 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 01:11 PM:

Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) has an absolutely heartbreaking version of The Loathly Bride in her anthology Toad Words.

#85 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 09:40 PM:

Elliott: Oh good. It's not just my imagination.

#86 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2015, 10:07 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 81: I was once half-watching TV while doing cross stitch, and SVU came on. I found it appalling.

#87 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2015, 12:01 AM:

I watched SVU for a few years, because I really enjoyed the parent show Law & Order.

SVU just got so freaking tawdry. Pointless creepiness.

#88 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2015, 01:19 AM:

I don't think anyone's linked it here yet, but this tumblr post by Aja has a pretty fantastic list of well-received, award-winning fanfiction, including the Classics that were mentioned upthread. It's a good list.

#89 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2015, 02:32 PM:

Em @88 -- add in all of Thorne Smith's bestsellers from the twenties and thirties, most of which involved mythological characters showing up in the present day (and there's a lot of Robert Bloch short stories that are fanfic of Thorne Smith, while the Smith stories were clearly covered by copyright.

#90 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2015, 04:50 PM:

And another example of fanfic with the enthusiastic approval and encouragement of the author: the Lovecraft circle and all the Cthulhu Mythos stories that grew out of it, and continue to be published. That's one of the strongest examples I can think of: while alive, Lovecraft helped writers of Cthulhu fiction with critiques, rewrites and encouragement toward professional sales. And he encouraged the creation of new canonical materials: the books that other authors created. There's even a sequence of stories where he and Robert Bloch kill off only-slightly-fictionalized versions of each other. People don't think of it as fanfic very often, but it was - and it was conducted in fmz as much as in the prozines.

Which points to the Roger Zelazny-Samuel R. Delany pair of stories where each tried to write like the other and had the other as a passing character (Zelazny's "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" and Delany's "We in Some Strange Power's Employ..." aka "Lines of Power"). Very professional fanfic there.

#91 ::: Jen Birren ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2015, 10:40 AM:

#82 and 83:
The poet Simon Armitage did a translation of Gawain about 5 years ago which was very well received. Presumably he will have had less pressure to clean up the seduction scene than Tolkien may have felt in 1930?

#92 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2015, 01:07 PM:


A thought which attached to the back of my mind when I've seen the show*.

Years ago (30+) I read some essay of media critique. I can't recall much of any of it other than one passage. The writer spoke of the cover of a pulp magazine which he described as “a white woman tied to a post, a group of Indian braves dancing around her, while her rescuer looks on.” He criticized this as a way in which the reader is invited to both condemn and vicariously participate in rape.

I think of that in connection with many of these shows.

*I used to follow all of the shows in the Law and Order franchise, but some years past I fell out of the habit.

#93 ::: Bruce ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2015, 03:08 PM:

Miller's 'Practical Gamekeeping'- not on Amazon! It's like Field & Stream just MADE IT UP!

#94 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 22, 2015, 07:19 PM:

I thought about noting that about Practical Gamekeeping but for whatever reason decided not to.

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