Fabulation

Tagged: Theme

We do not intend to make here – or to quote – any sustained theoretical argument about the nature of fabulation as the term was conceived by Robert Scholes in The Fabulators (1967) and amplified in his Structural Fabulation (1975). Our inevitable starting point is Genre SF, a central concern throughout this encyclopedia being to focus on its nature and upon its evolution and exfoliations over the last hundred years. In the entry on Mainstream Writers of SF we contrast the authors of genre sf, the circumstances under which they write, and the SF Megatext to which they variously adhere, with mainstream writers and their circumstances and their typically remote awareness of megatext, clocking en passant with little regret that the term "mainstream" has increasingly become nostalgic. Here, we attempt to locate the inherent nature of genre sf through a term which defines its own examples as being in transgressive contrast to the mimetic tradition (or genre) of the novel (see Postmodernism and SF for a more sharply focused view of Postmodernism as a movement and a condition of mind). In using the single term "fabulation" instead of several – over and beyond Postmodernism, a critical roster might include Absurdist SF, Fictionality, Magic Realism, Slipstream SF and Surfiction – we know we are offering a grossly oversimplified snapshot of the modern literary environment (or nests of environments). But the alternative would be to make a thousand individual choices, often inevitably controversial, as we attempted to label each non-"realistic" non-genre sf novel according to its precise place in an ever-shifting mosaic of prescriptive definitions (as opposed to the non-prescriptive umbrella term Fantastika). One term stands in here for them all.

Over the course of the twentieth century, sf readers have grown used to thinking of genre sf as substantially different (in manner, in substance and in intention) from the great stream of realistic novels which had increasingly dominated the English-speaking literary since the middle of the eighteenth century, a dominance challenged only in the first decades of our own era. Helped along by critics from within the genre, like Alexei and Cory Panshin in their contentious The World Beyond the Hill (1989), sf readers have further grown accustomed to thinking that it was genre sf itself that dethroned the mimetic novel from its position of dominance in 1926, and that the continued popularity of "realistic" fiction has been a kind of confidence game. In terms of this encyclopedia, something like the reverse is argued: that genre sf – which we repeat is a central concern throughout – is essentially a continuation of the mimetic novel, which it may have streamlined and made more explicitly storyable, but certainly did not supplant; and that the onslaught of Modernism (and its successors) on the mimetic novel was also an onslaught upon the two essential assumptions governing genre sf.

The first assumption is that both the "world" and the human beings who inhabit it can be seen as wholly as required, and described accurately, in words. The writers who created the great novels of the nineteenth century wrote broadly in that assumption, and their novels were cast as though they opened windows into something like ascertainable reality. What the novel said, and what was true, aspired to be the same thing. Writers of genre sf have never abandoned this assumption, and in fact may have espoused it with more confidence than their nineteenth century precursors. The explorations of Henry James (1843-1916) in the inherent unreliability of words – and the consequent unreliability of narrators – awoke no appreciative response in the mind of Hugo Gernsback, and it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that sf or fantasy was published (by writers like Jonathan Carroll, Samuel R Delany and Gene Wolfe) which embraced, 70 years late, the Jamesian intuition. In the world outside, however, certainly those who recognized World War One as a near terminal blow to our understanding of the reality of things, serious literary critics and readers almost universally granted the conviction of Modernist writers – nearly all of them the spiritual children of Henry James – that the "real" world could never be grasped whole, and that it was the high and difficult task of writers to forge fallen words into a semblance of the world, and to take an artificer's joy in the task of construction.

The second assumption is that the "world" – whether or not it can be seen whole through the distorting glass of words – does in the end have a story which can be told. That story might be the knotty and problematical revelation of the truth of the Christian faith as unfolded in the later work of T S Eliot (1888-1965); or the March of Progress that Alexei and Cory Panshin claim to have traced, beginning with the planet-bound storytellers of the nineteenth century whose descendants bounded ever upwards toward the Golden Age of SF, exploring the Galaxy en passant. What underlying story is being told is less important than the fact that, for writers of genre sf, some form of "meta-narrative" lies beneath the tale (see SF Megatext), ensuring the connectivity of things. The huge proliferation of future Histories and novel sequences in genre sf does not simply reflect market strategies; it also represents a belief that the world is tellable, and that the heart of the Sense of Wonder may consist in the sudden revelation that something previously ungraspable can be told. It is that belief, whether held by Modernists like T S Eliot (and Gene Wolfe) or pure genre writers like E E "Doc" Smith, that has been called into question by the various Postmodernist movements, and which lies at the heart of most fabulations.

We can now say what we mean in this encyclopedia by a "fabulation": a fabulation is any story which challenges the two main assumptions of genre sf: that the world can be seen; and that it can be told. We have chosen to use the term "fabulation" because it seems to us the best blanket description of the techniques employed by those writers who use sf devices to underline that double challenge, and whose work is thus at heart profoundly antipathetic to genre sf. A typical fabulation, then, is a tale whose telling is foregrounded in a way which emphasizes the inherent arbitrariness of the words we use, the stories we tell (Magic Realism, for instance, can be seen as a subversion of the "official" stories which are told by "rational" means and authorities), the characters whose true nature we can never plumb, the worlds we can never step into. (An unfriendly critic might say that fabulations are all means and no substance; but that is perhaps to miss the Postmodernist point that all previous stories were likewise, albeit secretly, all means and no "substance".) By foregrounding the means of telling a tale, fabulations articulate what might be called the fableness of things: the fableness of the origin stories of the world itself in some Magic Realism; the fableness of the political and social world in some Absurdist sf; the fableness of the aesthetic object in Postmodernism as a whole; and – finally – the fableness of fables in Fabulation itself.

Authors whose works (or some of whose works) are, in our terms, fabulations include Paul Ableman, Paul Auster, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Michael Blumlein, Jorge Luis Borges, Bruce Boston, Scott Bradfield, Richard Brautigan, Christine Brooke-Rose, Ed Bryant, David R Bunch, Anthony Burgess, William S Burroughs, Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Jerome Charyn, Barbara Comyns, Robert Coover, Arthur Byron Cover, Tom De Haven, Don DeLillo, Rick DeMarinis, Thomas M Disch, E L Doctorow, Katherine Dunn, Umberto Eco, George Alec Effinger, Carol Emshwiller, Steve Erickson, Karen Joy Fowler, Carlos Fuentes, Felix C Gotschalk, Alasdair Gray, MacDonald Harris, M John Harrison, Carol Hill, William Hjortsberg, Russell Hoban, Trevor Hoyle, Harvey Jacobs, Langdon Jones, Franz Kafka, Robert Kelly, Jerzy Kosinski, William Kotzwinkle, Joseph McElroy, Sheila MacLeod, Michael Moorcock, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O'Brien, John Cowper Powys, Christopher Priest, Thomas Pynchon, Peter Redgrove, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, James Sallis, Josephine Saxton, Arno Schmidt, Lucius Shepard, John T Sladek, Norman Spinrad, Stefan Themerson, David Thomson, Boris Vian, Gore Vidal, William T Vollmann, Alice Walker, Rex Warner, William Wharton, Gene Wolfe, Stephen Wright, Rudolf Wurlitzer and Pamela Zoline. [JC]

see also: New Weird; Oulipo.

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