“One cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten...
and no one, not even the No-God, could besiege a secret.”
Boundaries are absolutely necessary for creativity. Boundaries are the sole nemesis of creativity. No, really. Boundaries are necessary guidelines for artists to work outside of.
We realize novelty by comparing the present and the past; innovation, that novelty of creative action, doesn't represent a change in the world, but in us. Innovation requires expansion of understanding. Whether we make something new (carbon nanotubes wound into cabling for a space elevator) or think something new (extra spatial dimensions compressed into submicroscopic obscurity) we realize the innovation because it demands a change in how we understand our world.
A leaf falling in autumn isn't a novelty, though that unique leaf has never fallen before. Yet a leaf might fall because the tree's evolved little millipede legs around that leaf's edge. A fallen leaf might scuttle fifty or a hundred feet, burning chlorophyll for motion, the little glands on its face swollen with pollen, seeking a fuck, or love.
Without truckling over definitions, we can agree that example was science fiction. It was also an innovative concept: it worked with our understanding of several pre-existent ideas (the structure of trees, their reproductive methods, insectoid locomotion, seasonal change – divide the ideas wherever you want) and created a new thing out of them. The best imaginative literature does this on a deep level and a massive scale. Its comprehension changes us, introducing us to novel concepts and reinterpretations of existing ones.
Trees and millipedes aren't quite the same; accordingly we erect conceptual boundaries. It would be a grave mistake to assume these features of the understanding are ever absolute, and the example demonstrates they are not. (And the boundaries in question are indeed conceptual, matters of human classification. We never used to see ourselves as skinny, nude apes.) Imagination disturbs complacent worldviews -- for that alone, it's one of the worthiest things there is.
A boundary is a place where imagination ends, replaced by a notion of static fact. Creativity is made possible by the recognition of boundaries; creative acts extend, reshape and subvert them. Boundaries are there to overthrow.
We should talk about genre already -- word is, it's poisoning imaginative literature. Genres are pigeonholes, guides for expectation. As readers, when we see a starship on a book-jacket, the book's content is advertised to us: we're offered a lack of psychological depth, a predictable, linear storyline, a naïve trust that 'reason' will 'conquer mysticism', and an emphasis on dazzling futuristic gewgaws. Sturgeon's Revelation obtains, and the stasis of genre cliches makes it easy not to notice this. Minimal expectations are rarely let down. Hence the success of near-identical, formulaic works massed under the rubric of genre.
For writers, genre expectations are doubly insidious: these stuporous hallucinations want to order the way we write. Genre circumscribes creative action. It's fragmented imaginative literature into the arbitrary camps of fantasy, science fiction and horror; a genre-bound writer's choices regarding structure, diction, style, characterization and all other aspects of storytelling are limited to what's already present in the genre. Yet every great master in the modern imaginative tradition has borrowed heavily from places her contemporaries would have never gone.
Take H. P. Lovecraft. His Tenebrousness made his extraplanar horrors seem bizarrely plausible with cogent reference to cutting-edge mathematics -- he made non-Euclidean geometry scary. Sharpening the insights of Robert W. Chambers and his King in Yellow sequence, Lovecraft worked to pioneer the influential and psychologically astute technique of minimalist description in dark fantasy, describing the literally unspeakable through a mixture of careful omission, paradox and unearthly specificity, allowing the reader's fermentacious brain to fill the gaps with personal and unique terrors.
Founding fantasists like Lord Dunsany and Kenneth Morris, writing without the demeaning demands of a color-by-numbers framework, were able to work the classic fairytale form into subtle adult entertainment, unearthing revelations of diction, structure and topic from diverse sources like the Welsh Mabinogion and the Bible of King James. But the vastness of post-Tolkien fantasists allow themselves no inspiration but nth-generation degraded mockups of past genius. (Many universe-builders still work against apathy. Frank Herbert's Dune, Jack Vance's Dying Earth, the world-citadel Gormenghast of Mervyn Peake, China Mieville's magnificent Bas-Lag -- here the primary point of similarity is their uniqueness.) Middle-Earth exists for all those wishing to read it; we don't need a thousand puny derivations from the likes of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind. What's the appropriate role of Tolkien's world for a modern imaginative writer? The precise role that Norse and Welsh mythology, Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison and comparative linguistics played for Tolkien. He used them to create something whole and new. Inspiration is flattery; mere imitation is eroding the century's greatest imaginations via caricature. Remember closed systems die.
We're now in a position to define genre more accurately: genre is created when writers systematically mistake the fruits of innovative process for that process itself. Relying on prior imaginative acts to structure, color and populate their worlds, their slavish imitation of past tradition bars them from authentically participating in it.
More, genre baselessly delimits the imaginative tradition as a whole, generating a false dichotomy between it and the comparatively recent tradition that seeks to duplicate the phenomenology of mundane life. This is of course called realist literature, or -- in the spirit of infernal and infinitely blinkered pretention -- simply "literature." This worthless schism, thankfully far from universal, would prohibit psychological complexity, thematic depth and poetry in imaginative works; many talented writers working firmly within the artificial constraints of genre ignore these centrally important considerations. I'd suppose they've been underexposed to cutting-edge literature that artfully handles such aspects. But as the majority of "genre" work is trivial, narrow and disposable, so's the majority of "realism" joyless, bland and dry of wonder.
So many of modern science fiction's groundbreakers -- Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, James Blish and E.E. 'Doc' Smith, among others -- acquired fame and popularity from only rapid, serialistic plot-structures and a brilliant extrapolation of future technology. But this century's science-fictional expression reached maturity in the nineteen-fifties (Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination is a brilliant early landmark). With maturity comes the capacity for self-reflection, and it's never excusable to neglect that. We can justify the Golden Agers' two-dimensionality in terms of the form's youthful exuberance. We have no place aping their mistakes -- mistakes that, with hindsight, few of the aforesaid authors would have made.
No good story sacrifices excitement and fascination for depth -- that's only the province of solipsistic small-press academics whose readership will never extend beyond a handful of campuses -- but great stories work on multiple simultaneous levels. Take Samuel Delany's Nova, an uncompromising Epic Interstellar Quest that still deals in bizarre, diverse and multifaceted allegories from Tarot symbology, Grail mythology and Moby-Dick. If that's not enough, it offers thoughtprovoking theses on the philosophy of history and the use of symbolism in human communication. And the villain's got a cyborg arm that he uses to fling stones at supersonic velocities. (So read it.)
More recently, the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard Morgan operate on the bloody leading edge of our seen future. The people of his thirtieth-century universe surgically implant cortical stacks into their brainstems, allowing consciousness to be digitally preserved at the moment of biological death and later inserted into further bodies -- a USB thumbdrive for the soul. His work is grim, gritty and forcefully amoral -- but Morgan doesn't merely use his technological speculation to get away with gorily killing the same major characters more times in a row than current medical advances allow. Instead, he's an artful permuter of the human soul, boldly going where our concepts of life's value become fundamentally different, exploring the attitudes and philosophies of that society with an anthropologist's eye. At the same time, he executes intricate, innovative plots peopled with characters both recognizable and fundamentally Other; he never breaks with the excitement and fascination that mark the pulp sf, war and noir traditions he builds upon.
I've argued the essential nature of genre is a poverty of imagination. Despite its frequent austere virtuosity, the realist tradition is the barrenest genre of all. Realism has tried to distance itself from the crud of perceived genre, but mistaken imaginative literature for its frequently shitty trappings. Realism consequently severs its link with the one true literary tradition, the one that's as old as language. A strict and naive imitation of the everyday denies itself any possibility of non-trivial invention, any exploration of genuine change to the mundane. Witness the magic-realist trend in the literature of the literati, representing a wing-clipped imagination breaking free with no idea where to go. Magic realism's invariably pretty but frequently vacuous, lacking a sound interrelation of weird and mundane; without rigor, without notion of the imaginative tradition's myriad prior innovations, it's often unrewarding.
Our greatest stories have all transcended the mundane; works like the Iliad or Moby-Dick succeed on the strength of a wrenching, radical implausibility. Stories need not impersonate the commonplace, because their power of witness extends beyond what is empirically knowable. We must celebrate not limit, but its perpetual obliteration, and move from star to star as they go out.