A reader just suggested to me that “Can I eat it?” “Can I break it?” “Can I fuck it?” have long been humanity’s primary questions when we meet a new thing.
She added, “Order varies.”
I suggested that in any case those questions are the basis for much science fiction and fantasy.
Then there are the mirror questions, “Will it eat me? Will it break me? Will it fuck me?” which are pretty much the basis of the horror genre.
Then there’s “I have no idea which of us it is or both, but someone’s being eaten, has already been eaten, and will continue in a persistent yet indeterminate state of being eaten, broken, or fucked,” which gives you the Weird.
P.S. A slightly deeper look (because some of you asked): Okay, so underneath this humorous jibe, here’s a way of thinking about speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the Weird) is the fiction that deals specifically with humanity’s encounter with the marvelous, the strange, or the improbable, whether that should take the shape of an alien life form, a vengeful ghost, or a dragon. But as we are monkey creatures with a deeply programmed flight-or-fight mechanism, our responses to marvels and strange encounters tend to split along a couple of instinctual lines:
- Our primary response might be wonder, which prompts us to desire proximity — to draw nearer to the marvel, responding with curiosity, inquiry, or interest. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, suggests that “all knowledge begins with wonder,” because when something strikes us as marvelous and we respond with wonder, we desire to know more about it or spend more time with it.
- Or our primary response might be fear, which prompts us to either flee or attack — in either case, to remove the marvel from our proximity. Think Alien.
Remember in Hamlet, when Hamlet and his companions, “in wonder or woe,” aren’t sure whether to draw near to the Ghost and ask it questions, or flee?
Arguably one of the psychological functions of speculative fiction is to train our minds and imaginations to deal with marvels, allowing us to exercise different responses to the unexpected other, within the simulation of a vicarious encounter (in a novel or a movie).
Horror stories allow us to exercise and explore (and maybe exorcise?) the fear response; fantasy novels often present ample opportunities to exercise and explore the wonder response. Both are present, of course — just as they are for Hamlet staring at the Ghost — and there are no hard lines between these genres anyway. There are both Elves and Ringwraiths in Middle-Earth, marvels that excite our wonder and marvels that excite our fear. Still, it could be useful to think about the speculative fiction genres as often prioritizing one response over the other.
What about the Weird?
Ok, so: A lot of mainstream horror, scifi, and fantasy operate by bringing you into vicarious contact with the marvelous (exciting a fear or wonder response, or a combination of the two) and then by domesticating the strangeness of the other, either by assigning it a scientific explanation or physical context, or simply by rendering characters and readers more familiar with it. By the end of the story, we know what the strange noises on the derelict spacecraft actually were. We know whether the murderer was indeed a supernatural threat or a serial killer. We know the dragon better than we did when it first showed up lighting houses on fire. Science fiction, horror, or fantasy stories present unsettling, startling elements (marvels) and then take steps to make the reader comfortable with the marvel. The uncanny is no longer as uncanny as it was at first.
The Weird functions differently. Like a glorious parasite, it inhabits the shells of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories and sends startling marvels lurching out at us, but unlike mainstream specfic, the Weird makes few attempts to make the reader comfortable with the marvel or to domesticate the strange. Things are left unexplained; the marvel can’t be completely categorized or defined, dissected and understood. In fact, in the attempt to do so, our scientists, explorers, characters and readers are likely to be either infected by the strangeness of the marvel themselves or awakened to the extent to which they are already strange to themselves. The Weird exists to jar the reader. Where fantasy and horror is about integrating strange elements into an experience of a world that we are already at home in and understand, the Weird makes the reader question whether they know their own world and their own selves as well as they think they do. And the reader is not given a complete answer to that question. They are left having to deal with the otherness of everything. Rather than tame the uncanny, the Weird reaches its tentacles out and peels away the veil of easy categories and labels to show us that maybe everything is uncanny and indefinite, and we just pretend it isn’t.
If fantasy trains us to draw near to the marvelous other and find ways in which the other is actually familiar and unthreatening after all, the Weird trains us to deal with persistent ambiguity, with the threat of marvelous uncertainty, where an initial flight or fight response, initial wonder or fear, does not resolve the weird element. Whether we draw near to tame the marvel or flee/fight to remove the marvel, the marvel is still there, still strange, still Unknown, and we have to find other, ongoing ways to respond beyond attempting to eat, break, or fuck it, or beyond simply avoiding being eaten, broken, or fucked by it. A monkey-brain response is not enough to cope with a weird universe filled with weird existences, so Weird stories refuse to allow us to settle for a monkey-brain response.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!