Thursday, September 07, 2006

The world as knowable

In these reviews on Strange Horizons that I mentioned yesterday, it's come up a few days and most explicitly in today's review that a basic tenet of SF is that the world is knowable :
the aesthetic of science fiction, which maintains that the world can (and should) be figured out.
I had never seen this as central to SF. An aspect of some SF writings, certainly, but basic to the entire idea? This has me thinking, and I probably won't finish pondering it for some time. So what I say here is by no means final. Certainly this idea can't be applied to Gene Wolfe's writing...and maybe that's why he's achieved such critical success without as much popular success. And maybe it's why he's more likely to be associated with Borges than Asimov.

So I'm wondering about my own writing. Signs and Wonders of the Genies and the Deaf is SF (though as I wrote it, it never felt like typical SF). I'm going through final edits of the manuscript now, so it's pretty fresh in my mind. Does it posit a knowable universe? There are many unexplained mysteries that aren't even answered by the end of the book (some of that was laziness on my part in the initial writing--I put in clues for where I thought the book would go and then changed directions without removing that clue). But some of it is certainly intentional. And the book essentially ends with 'I don't know.' He's made contact, but he doesn't know what that will mean. Despite the contact, the aliens remain, ultimately, unknowable.

My first reaction was that maybe that explains why I tend to prefer works on the more fantastic side of speculative fiction. But then the review goes on to identify a basic part of fantasy as the need of the characters to understand, not the world but the story, their role within the world. I'll have to think about this. But I think that does apply to the fantasy novel I've finished as well as the one I'm working on now. Does it apply to Genies though? And if this is also opposed to the unknowability of slipstream, what does that say about what I write?

Hmmm. Interesting things to ponder.


Elliot said...

I think Wolfe does think the universe can be figured out - he was, after all, an engineer. But he thinks it's subtle and tricky. So I think you can figure out most of what's going on in his books, but you just need to read 'em over and over again.
I'd say it fits with his Catholicism, since Christianity generally holds with the 'book of Law, book of Nature' view that the universe is rational and open to human understanding. Though that rationality may not be entirely graspable by humans and may involve some mystery and mysticism.

Daniel Ausema said...

That's quite possible. Subtle and tricky for sure with all his playing around with narrators and all. Though the extent of unreliability of his narrators would lead me to say at the least that it's naive to ever be certain you've figured everything out. But I haven't read nearly enough of Wolfe's books and stories to claim any expert status. I think I'm getting about to the point where I'm sufficiently recovered from New Sun to tackle Short Sun, but I might take a little trip through Wizard Knight first.

Thanks for stopping by!

Daniel Ausema said...

Oops, I guess Long Sun is what I ought to read next...though I've heard it's not as good as Short Sun.

Elliot said...

Yeah, that's why I said 'most' - I don't think I'll ever get everything. But I feel he does give clues to most things.

Personally, I love The Long Sun and think it's one of his best. It's certainly more straight-forward than Short Sun. But tastes differ, or so I've heard!

Daniel Ausema said...

I really discovered Gene Wolfe through, and if I remember right, they were disappointed with Long Sun and preferred Short Sun.