Raphael Ordonez on Genre and Subgenre

Here is a gentleman, kind enough occasionally to leave comments here, with an interesting meditation on the definitions of genre and subgenre. http://raphordo.blogspot.tw/2013/11/genre-and-subgenre.html

Here is a sample:

Everyone’s heard the canard about how advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to primitive peoples. What this ignores is that magic is technology. There’s no difference. Let me repeat. There is no difference between magic and technology, except in the eyes of conceited modern observers. Just because I’ve rejected some hypothesis in my systematic attempts to control my environment doesn’t somehow render the  hypothesis a member of a different category from the ones I accept. A savage practicing homeopathic magic or whatever it is they do nowadays is merely exhibiting a certain belief regarding cause-and-effect. A medical professional does the same. The latter presumably has better results. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind. A belief in a supernatural world subject to testable and consistent rules and limitations is no less “scientific” than phlogiston theory or M-theory, whatever we may think of the truth of the thesis.

So, when people go on about how a fantasy needs to have a well-defined magic system that’s adhered to consistently, they’re not talking about fantasy at all. They’re talking about science fiction, or, at any rate, technology fiction. Galadriel the queen of Lothlórien gently mocks Samwise for wanting to see “elf magic,” confessing that she isn’t entirely certain what is meant by the word. Thus does she smile at dragon dice, Magic cards, and other systems. Did Merlinus Ambrosius adhere to a magic system? No. He simply went places, and things happened. Do you get the feeling that the plot is contrived or arbitrary because of that? No. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, et al., knew what it was to write a romance. It’s these systems that allow for contrived, unreal plots. In the end it’s no different from Scotty saving the day by rerouting the secondary reactor drive through the main power converters. You know. Just difficult enough to add the right amount of tension.

[…] Speaking broadly, we might say that fantasy has an ecological, holistic outlook. It integrates. Science fiction is about doing; fantasy is about being.

Need I add that I agree? He goes on to say:

…Think of the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. They couple high technology (mechanical fliers, radium pistols, air plants) with Bronze Age culture. There’s a certain focus on action, but an ecological awareness runs right through them as well. A Princess of Mars, with its towering green warriors, haughty oviparous princesses, thoats and zitidars, gladiator pits, fleets of airships, long-range rifles, and age-empty ruined cities, is the epitome of the sword-and-planet subgenre. Planetary romance, on the other hand, is exemplified more by novels like Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness. My own novel and assorted stories are definitely closer to Barsoom than Arrakis. They take place in a counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes inhabited by paleozoic biota and antediluvian races.

Sword-and-planet novels are a threatened breed these days. Edgar Rice Burroughs was the great forerunner, but his descendants have been sadly lacking. The sixties and seventies saw a glut of nostalgiac homages and pastiches, like those awful Green Star books of Lin Carter that you’re always seeing in used bookstores, and the Gor books of John Norman, which I haven’t read for obvious reasons. I’m always looking for Leigh Brackett’s Mars books but they must be good since no one wants to sell their used copies.

If you are reading Mr Ordonez, also please read his account of his visit to the house of Robert E Howard. Makes me sad I am a Virginian and not a Texan: