My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Everything you ever wanted to know about SF/fantasy/horror/literary fiction, but were afraid to ask. This is one of the most exciting and challenging books on genre criticism that I have ever read.
It joins such classics as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine by Samuel R. Delany, Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction by Darko Suvin and Reading by Starlight by Damien Broderick.
Indeed, Hal Duncan dedicates this book to Delany and Thomas Disch; one of his particular achievements here is to make heavyweight theorists like Suvin and Delany understandable and relevant, which is no mean feat.
What I loved about this book is that it is both a rigorous analysis of the development of SF criticism, as well as a fascinating debate about the relevance of genre fiction, and the distinction between SF and the Sci-FI of Hollywood.
Here Duncan wears multiple hats as writer, fan and reader. He is not afraid to skewer various sacred cows along the way towards his goal of explicating a broader fiction of the fantastic, strange fiction, that eschews any labels or genre definitions.
Rhapsody is also extremely well written. Duncan uses the central conceit of the SF Café, located in the less salubrious areas of the city of New Sodom, downtown from the more upmarket and favoured Bistro de Critique. Here old timers and young bucks kvetch and argue fine points.
I stepped through the doors of the SF Café with a borrowed copy of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in my hand, expecting to find more of the same, only to find Philip K. Dick sitting at a table, obsessing over Gnostic demiurges and ersatz realities, Robert A. Heinlein across from him, spouting libertarian aphorisms but paying for Dick’s coffee. The talk at that table was as much philosophy as science, as much monsters and messiahs as spaceships and simulacra. Palmer Eldritch and Valentine Michael Smith fought, like Zoroastrian deities, over my soul.
The framework that Duncan assembles in this book to both discuss and classify SF is largely based on Delany’s essay ‘About 5,750 Words’. Duncan argues that strange fictions can only be understood in terms of their particular aesthetic modalities:
Coulda, woulda, shoulda—the words in use here are markers of modality, judgements written into the text. As the earlier references to epistemic modality might suggest, such judgements come in more hues than just the judgement of possibility. There is: epistemic modality, judgement of fact; alethic modality, judgement of possibility; deontic modality, judgement of duty; and boulomaic modality, judgement of desire/dread.
If this sounds overly complicated, fear not: Duncan explains at length, and with great finesse. He uses easy-to-understand text fragments throughout, which he then proceeds to break down and analyse according to their specific modality. Duncan is also a voracious reader of SF, and his prodigious knowledge of the genre is amply on display here.
Duncan himself is a proponent of the so-called New Weird, with such books as Vellum and Ink, and his recent collection Scruffians! Stories of Better Sodomites. Yes, Duncan is unabashedly, and transgressively, queer, and brings a lot of the same anarchic energy and offbeat humour of his books to his critical writing.
As a final note: Towards the end, Duncan discusses Bruce Sterling’s concept of ‘slipstream’ fiction as well as ‘infernokrusher’, the spoof SF literary movement curated by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. He adds, in passing: “On a hot summer day, about a thousand years ago, it seems, when I was sixteen years old, my brother stepped out into the path of a Ford Capri. Death is full of surprises.”
The final quote, fittingly, brings us back to Delany:
the crescent sun is high, the moon low;
life is not for the faint-hearted;
so why the fuck should art be?
I was completely blown over by this book. It is definitely one of the most important non-fiction SF books of recent times, and deserves to be read by anybody with any sort of abiding interest in genre fiction.