This blog’s title comes from a comment made by an English teacher – Hugo Dyson by name – during one of Tolkien’s readings of the Lord of the Rings saga. ‘Not another f*cking elf,’ this fellow apparently said as he woke out of a doze. Speculative fiction particularly (and indeed most genre fiction to a degree) is often perceived as having a certain inferiority. And another criticism, to which that less-than-polite quote has relevance, is spec-fic’s frequent reliance on the familiar tropes of sci-fi or of fantasy.
The focus of this blog is intelligence/innovation in the speculative fiction genre. Some definition of the two terms in this context could be helpful here. We tend to see work as intelligent when it shows a deeper purpose than entertainment or escapism alone, perhaps exploring themes for example. This is not to imply that the two are mutually exclusive, of course. Innovation is necessarily, if semi-paradoxically, understood in terms of what came before; it alters or rejects or reacts against the rules established previously. These might be conventions of its genre, e.g. reinventing the robots and elves and heroes of much sci-fi and fantasy, or they might be rules of its medium more generally, one instance of which would be picking a non-standard plot-structure when writing a story. In culture as a whole, much recent innovation has a Modernist or postmodernist influence; these words have been the subject of lofty debate, which I’ll attempt to summarise without expressions like ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. After the decreasingly religious and increasingly globalised 20th century, with its emphasis on subjectivity in perceptions like morality, work is more inclined to experiment both in content and in structure, especially favouring ambiguity, multiplicity, irony.
To return to spec-fic, and getting into details, some examples of areas which have relevance here. Within sci-fi, movements like cyberpunk leave out alien invasions/space adventures – consider William Gibson’s stories or the Ghost in the Shell universe, concerned with the impact of technology and even with the nature of reality. Some trends in fantasy, such as slipstream and weird fiction, move away from the Gothic and epic fantasy often perceived as practically constituting the genre. And in superhero fiction, to take another speculative fiction area, we have books like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and his V for Vendetta, both of which stand in contrast to some mainstream comics’ tendency towards over-simplicity.
Of course there’s no hard line between the intelligent and the not intelligent, the innovative and the non-innovative. Most if not all works entertain on some level, even ones which seem to have some further purpose; and works primarily meant to entertain tend to make points too, however obvious these are. Meanwhile innovation can be a matter of perspective, with few pieces wholly innovative but many partly innovative, and with the liability of new concepts to themselves turn into clichés (in spite of Dyson’s condemnation of his elf content, Tolkien was so fresh in his time as to pretty much invent epic fantasy, but this same fact has since resulted in his ideas becoming stale from over-use). My terms also have an unfortunate tendency to be used as judgements of value, an implication at odds with the awareness of value’s relativity which has so influenced artistic development over the last century. But while both of these words can be problematic, as most words have the potential to be, they do provide a sense of this blog’s objective. In view of the broadness of speculative fiction, I’m narrowing my focus to works notable for the thoughtfulness and/or newness they display, whether these be popular pieces or obscure ones.