A useful distinction?

Via Graham, an interesting distinction from a Readercon panel, specifically the “real year” panel yesterday.

Advocacy-based sf — “you need to go off and build the future I’m describing”
Recognition-based sf — “this is the world we’re in or arriving at, and we can’t do anything about”

Examples given of advocacy-based sf: classic example Heinlein, current example Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t know what examples of recognition-based sf they came up with, but I’d imagine something like Ian McDonald’s River of Gods would count, or John Brunner.

Points for discussion:

1. The panel apparently took it as axiomatic that science fiction is either advocacy- or recognition-based. True or false?

(Geneva’s suggested a third category that would cover, e.g. R.A. Lafferty, Cordwainer Smith, some of Lem, or a book like Nova Swing: alienation-based sf. This could be considered a branch of recognition-based sf focused on how it is/would be impossible for us to recognise truly futuristic futures or alien aliens.)

2. John Clute asserted that “characteristic modern sf” is about recognition. True or false? Where do you put a book like Geoff Ryman’s Air, or Charles Stross’s Accelerando?

3. Does the advocacy-recognition split exclude straightforwardly escapist literature (e.g. Star Wars)? Does this matter?

Posted in SF. 21 Comments »

21 Responses to “A useful distinction?”

  1. Martin Says:

    So mundane SF is a reaction to the “characteristic modern sf” and a desire to return to advocacy? This would certainly enforce the feeling that advocacy SF is a bad idea (as if Heinlein being the exemplar wasn’t enough.)

  2. Niall Says:

    Dammit, I spent the whole post carefully not mentioning mundane sf. :-p

    I think the mundanes might argue that they’re about recognition — seeing what’s out there in the world, disallowing magic technology. But I actually think mundanity is orthogonal to advocacy/recognition, because you can clearly put KSR’s Science in the Capitol books down as both advocacy and mundanity.

  3. Paul Kincaid Says:

    I think the major problem here, as with all such categorizations, is that it is probably impossible to name a single exemplar work that fits neatly into one category, and one category only.

    And if there were such an exemplar – I bet it would be boring.

  4. Martin Says:

    But you’ve just said that KSR is the modern exemplar of advocacy and he is pretty much the poster boy for mundane SF, in so far as he is the only person of any stature producing it (albeit accidently.)

  5. Niall Says:

    Martin: well, I didn’t say it, the panel said it. But I pointed to Ian McDonald as an example of modern recognition sf, and I’d say a lot of his stuff is fairly mundane — if, again, by accident.

    Paul: well, yes. The question, I suppose is — is the basic concept useful despite that? I think it might be, maybe not in the sense of categorising, but in the sense of looking at what a given story is doing.

  6. Nick Gibbins Says:

    I’m not sure that I’d classify KSR’s Science in the Capitol books solely as advocacy, given that they’ve also got a strong recognition streak (the Mars books are more clearly advocacy alone). My corollary to point 1 is therefore that, even if all sf is either advocacy- or recognition-based, this doesn’t preclude a work from being both.

    Also, is advocacy sf necessarily non-dystopian? While it’s common for recognition sf to have dystopian themes (most of Brunner, for example), it’s by no means obligatory (River of Gods, as you mention), so the contrapositive seems suspect.

  7. Dr A Says:

    I think with a number of texts such as More’s Utopia it’s not clear which it is, or it switches between the two.

    Why is there an assumption you have to do something or you can’t do anything?

    But if/as there is:

    There’s the if-this-goes on – which is “don’t go off and build the future I’m describing” (a close cousin or twin of “this is the world we’re in or arriving at, and we need to do something about it”?)

  8. martin mcgrath Says:

    So where do the sensawunda brigade fit into all this then? Baxter (I hesitate to use his name on Niall’s site), Clarke et al aren’t exactly advocating the sometimes icy future they write about, and they aren’t exactly saying “ooh watch out, here comes the bad stuff!” – it’s more “here comes the future and you can’t run from it, I’ve got a spaceship, do want to be on it?” (to paraphrase Billy Bragg) – there’s an inescapable element to their futures.

    There’s no point advocating this future as it’s too huge for our efforts to create and it’s often too inhuman a place for there to be recognition – so it must be something else, right?

  9. Kathryn Cramer Says:

    I was out in the hall with my kids, since David’s 1st 4 program items occurred before childcare opened.

    But as it happens I was just reading your post as David (Hartwell) was telling me about that moment in the panel. David, who was the moderator, tells me that Karen Joy Fowler in a comment from the audience expressed serious doubt that science fiction was now about recognition and not about advocacy. (I gather that Clute’s position was that in the past sf was about advocacy but is now about recognition.) David feels Fowler’s comment this opened a large pit under the ground of the discussion which suggests a further panel.

    Does, for instance, the denial of advocacy deny the possibility of contemporary feminist science fiction, or socialist science fiction, or utopian science fiction?

  10. Peter Hollo Says:

    Well, I think any categorisations are always going to be too narrow, and there’s certainly plenty that’s left out of this partitioning. I’d imagine Baxter lives more in the recognition camp than the advocacy one, but I’d also imagine he’d be the first to accept sf as just a kind of thought-provoking entertainment.

    I guess that pure entertainment sf, like E.E. “Doc” Smith or the stuff that Baen publishes will get counted as advocacy-based sf?
    I dunno, I like the idea but I suspect it only works with sf that’s already of a particular type.

  11. MattD Says:

    I think #1 may be overstating what the panel said: it was more that some books do this, some other books do that. At issue was the trend towards recognition-themed works. This part of the discussion arose from comments Liz Hand made about how she sees more SF than ever whose “real year” is now, rather than in the past or the future, and thus correspondingly fewer books that create a “sense of wonder.” That led into the comments by John Clute and Graham Sleight.

    As for #3, one of the other things Clute said was that a vital task for a critic is to learn when to apply a certain tool in the critical toolbox. He was talking about the idea of the “real year,” but I suspect it would apply to this division as well — that Niall is right in seeing it as a potentially useful distinction to make when looking at the goals of a particular work of SF rather than as a tool to categorize all works, except perhaps on the level of trends. Certainly you can look at Star Wars from the standpoint of advocacy vs. recognition, but it would be a more useful tool in comparing, say, the original trilogy to the prequels, than in analyzing any of the films in isolation. There are better tools available for that.

  12. Niall Says:

    Matt, Kathryn — thanks for the extra background. Kathryn — excellent last point. I could suggest Ken MacLeod’s books as socialist-recognition sf, and possibly Gwyneth Jones’ Life as a feminist-recognition sf novel. But I think you’re right that a lot of feminist/socialist sf is advocacy-based (has to be, by definition), and that putting recognition-based sf first may devalue the importance of such books. And now I’m wishing I was at Readercon to continue the discussion … :)

  13. Martin Says:

    I could probably happily describe Richard Morgan’s Market Forces as socialist-advocacy SF and his Black Man as feminist-advocacy SF.

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  15. Pete Says:

    I don’t know about this distinction – certainly both types exist, but it misses out (or seems to me to do so) a whole swathe of the genre in that it assumes the whole of Sci Fi is intended to portray possible futures.

    A book like Sheckley’s Mindswap, which never takes the future it portrays seriously, might be put in the Recognition camp by an overzealous perpetrator of the distinction, in view of its satirical content, but that is to miss the fact that the satire lies in the metaphorical application of ideas in the book to the actual world, rather than their literal application to an sfnally possible world.

    Or, since Lem’s been mentioned already, what about something like the Cyberiad? The world of Trurl and Klaupacius, delightful or horrific though it may be as a possible future, is surely not intended to be taken as such.

    Some of the best SF – even some of the best “hard” SF, such as, if I may be so bold, Greg Egan’s short fiction – has value not in view of its prophetic claims, but because it uses the genre to map out fascinating areas of the landscape of ideas. To reduce, say “Learning to be me”, to advocacy of extropianism (though it may contain that) is to lose sight of what makes it a valuable read even to avowed non-extropians, it would seem.

  16. Dr A Says:

    Sudden thought: if you do accept the terms (and obviously I don’t have the context of the actual discussion at the con and I’m not sure I do) and if you accept that recognition is eclipsing advocacy (broadly speaking) is this another version of Clute’s death of Agenda/first sf?

    The optimistic Gernsback-Campellian Continuum is displaced by the New Wave (what I’ve called the Can-Do Spirit)?

  17. Dr A Says:

    Argh – “Can’t-Do Spirit”, I meant.

  18. Nick Hubble Says:

    To paraphrase a joke by William Empson, can’t we have a third option: ‘bringing in the golden future less prematurely’

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