Sunday, September 29, 2013

Isn’t Horror Better Than Science Fiction?

Originally I wanted to make a much stronger statement: “Horror is better than science fiction”—but realized that writing something like this would betray my ignorance of the other genre.  Whether a timid question or a bold statement, it is still a subjective judgment—my judgment.  Yet all opinions, conclusions, categorizations, and theories are ultimately subjective.  In so far as the truth is what is useful for us to believe and in so far as we create our various worlds by the things we pay attention to, subjectivity—belief—will always rule our minds.  Reason and so called objectivity will always serve faith.  Belief trumps reason every time—in my not so humble opinion.

It seems that horror entertainment is entirely comfortable with the subjective view—it is after all our natural experience of the world.  It requires “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” as Coleridge once said.  The experience of horror fiction is the enjoyment of a story, which one may or may not believe actually happened—but this is after its telling.  A similar process goes on in the appreciation of a drama, whether live, on TV or in a movie. 

But the experience of science fiction often entails an explanation, an artificial distancing from the source of wonder through its objectification.  The appearance of science—in a story, a sales pitch, a political speech—is a kind of certification.  “You can believe this because it is, well, scientific.”  When someone says ‘studies show that…’ or ‘the research indicates that’—in other words, that some person or organization is being objective in their pronouncements, run away.  (At least be suspicious.)

Although the best science fiction incorporates elements of fantasy and horror, it is encumbered by a reliance on the trappings of science, often manifested in an overlay of technological imagery.  Science fiction stories become indistinguishable from other genre writing—Westerns, Romance, Detective Stories, Adventure Stories, War Stories—if all the futuristic gadgetry is removed.  It may be that the emphases on science and technology—needed to shore up credibility when a ‘suspension of disbelief’ is called for—is an unfortunate side effect of the Age of Enlightenment, (from which our society has yet to recover).

An effective horror story requires a ‘suspension of disbelief’.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it requires a replacement of more familiar beliefs about the world and how it works with new beliefs more congenial to the story.  H.P. Lovecraft, in his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), writes that in a true weird tale

“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

In my view, Lovecraft was much more effective as a horror writer than a science fiction writer.  In fact, there is very little actual science in his later work in that genre.  With few exceptions, (The Colour Out of Space, At the Mountains of Madness), his attempts at science fiction amount to inclusion of pseudo-scientific gadgetry, typical of the pulp fiction of his time.  George Allan England was a strong proponent of this approach, (see the earlier post this month, “If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…”).
One can see Lovecraft struggle with this negative influence in The Shunned House, (1928) which starts out as an interesting horror story but bogs down as soon as all the scientific equipment arrives.  It may be that Lovecraft was anticipating the changing market for speculative fiction.  He began to have success about a decade before the beginnings of the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction.’  But what he wrote most successfully about were his dreams—nightmares, really.  The raw psychic material that he fashioned into his stories is about as subjective as an author can get.

Perhaps Lovecraft was also succumbing to the logical consequences of a faith in objectivity, materialism, realism, cosmicism, relativism, atheism—all these isms!  But can someone write convincingly about the supernatural without an implicit belief in its possibility?  Can anyone be truly objective about what is horrifying?  One can however reduce the terror, gain some distance, and buy some time by using that holy of holies the scientific method.  One can be objective—but the horror is still coming.  Better run.     

Whatever its reality, objectivity is an attempt to escape human beliefs, feelings and values and their determination of our understanding of the world.  There is no real separation between subjective or objective perception—at most a difference of degree.  The striving for objectivity is hopelessly and inextricably entangled with very human motivations—selfishness, pride, greed, fear, anger.  Ignorance of this, whether willful or unconscious, leads to all kinds of evil.  It is replacing what Martin Buber has referred to as an “I and Thou” relationship—subjective and compassionate—with one involving “I and It”.  Or trying to, at least.
Lacking this sensibility, scientists in the pharmaceutical industry can rush dangerous, untested medications to market.  Scientific discoveries can be enthusiastically applied to the development of ever more ghastly weapons of mass destruction.  Social scientists can ape their colleagues in the ‘harder’ sciences by gilding their preposterous conclusions about human nature with a veneer of mathematically objective statistical methods.  Scientists who study environmental and climate changes can come to conclusions that vary with their source of research funding. 

To be fair, ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ are surely not the only professions affected by the hazards of objectivity.  Those on fire with a faith in objectivity and reason above all other ways to understand the world—whether teachers, doctors, journalists, psychologists, or science fiction writers—can be every bit as evangelical as the most fervent fundamentalist.
Unlike science fiction, horror avoids the false objectification of that which terrifies.  Indeed, it is by making an experience a subjective one that the reader is brought ever closer to the source of the horror.  We must face our fears, because “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”, as FDR famously said.  Insofar as these fears are lodged in our very subjective minds, we must approach them, see them clearly, and name them.  Horror helps us to do that in a way that science fiction does not.

H. P. Lovecraft famously wrote “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  But it is necessary for our salvation that we continue to try and do so.

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