Hal Duncan, in Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions, turns a critical eye to the genre of SF—considering not just the turf wars and definitional spats, but also the deeper functions and facilities of the “strange fiction” mode in literature. Employing sardonic and often cutting analysis delivered within convincing theoretical frames, Duncan deposes various received-wisdom ideas about the genre and offers in their place a well-reasoned, thorough conceptualization of what it is we’re talking about when we talk about SF.
Rhapsody, though it is Duncan’s first long-form critical work, is a strong and elegant—and sometimes wickedly crass—project, complexly argued and incisive while also managing to remain eminently readable and engaging.
This book enters into a rich field of conversation between the writers and critics (and writer-critics) of SF, as is clear from the opening page and its dedication: “To Delany and Disch; to all the cartographers of the strange, too many to mention, whose work has spurred this exploration.” Duncan’s facility with this conversation, his clear sense of the patterns of argument and their investments, is on display throughout Rhapsody—and his penetrating, thoughtful analysis of those selfsame arguments allows him to push the conversation further, expanding it into more complex domains.
The dual functions of the book, proposing a theoretical framework with which to talk about and understand SF while also taking down non-functional, problematic, or just plain ignorant points of debate about the genre (both from inside and outside), work well together and allow Duncan to cover a great deal of intellectual ground. I appreciate his attention to detail, his willingness to tackle arguments and issues within the genre that often go unchallenged—particularly those based in false dichotomies and “us versus them” doctrinaire arguments.
I won’t try, in this discussion, to run down the various fascinating and provocative arguments Duncan makes throughout the book—it would mostly be me gushing about things like modernism, “nomology is nomology” (213), the complicated internalizations of the genre-ghetto mentality, and his in-depth historicizing of the romanticist/rationalist divide. But I will say that there are quite a lot of excellent points made throughout the book, points with which you might find yourself in disagreement but which nonetheless are remarkably intriguing and worth the debate.
However, I will at least say that I find the primary framework he proposes for classifying and understanding SF—expanding on Delany’s conceptualization of subjunctivity level from “About 5,750 Words”—to be perhaps the most functional and expansive I’ve yet seen: the idea of strange fictions that are classifiable as such based on their modality, in particular their alethic modality. As Duncan explains in his run-down of different modalities and how they manifest:
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. (94)
So, more or less: “what makes some fiction strange is that it also involves a shift of alethic modality from ‘could have happened’ to ‘could not have happened,’ as the narrative performs a sentence that is harder to read as simply mimetic” (75). And this is shared across the field of SF, broadly inclusive of a wide range of texts. He does, of course, go into much further detail through the rest of the book, expanding the basic idea of alethic modality and illustrating it with examples and counter-examples.
And if the idea sounds a little hard to follow in those brief excerpts, it isn’t—because Duncan puts a great deal of effort, via those examples and illustrations, into making the more theoretically dense concepts in the text clear, understandable, and applicable. This brings me around to one of the unique bits of Rhapsody: the fact that it isn’t a straightforward, academic inquiry. In a mode that reminds me of Joanna Russ at her most sharp, Duncan—as voice, as author, as individual—frequently interjects comments, stories, and conversational dialect that balance out the denser prose of the text. The word “fuck” appears a lot.
The book also has its own internal world, based around the central conceit/image of “The SF Café” and the city of New Sodom, populated by various characters and figures that Duncan uses to make concrete the theoretical debates he’s engaging in. This figuration is particularly useful for keeping Rhapsody accessible and approachable; it’s also, frequently, playing a certain game with crass and outré imagery that keeps the reader on their toes. For example: with a book that employs an occasional ethic of Burroughs and the like, the reader shouldn’t find themselves particularly surprised to spend a couple of chapters near the end encountering a really extended and absurdly vulgar metaphor about rough trade illustrating the complex shame/abjection surrounding the pulp history of SF. (Rhapsody is not a comfortable read, not at all times.)
These characters and scenes primarily appear in the second half of the book, which deals with the various and sundry complications and expansions that come from first half’s framework—that first half having delineated the various SF(s) that have come into being, their base assumptions, and their problems while building the idea of the alethic modality as the basis of strange fictions. The second half is more about applying the framework to answer difficult questions, such as the incessant grumbling about kudos and accolades (or lack thereof) for “SF” books—and also where “fantasy” or “slipstream” fit into these classifications and debates.
Duncan also, in the end, comes around to a discussion of his own personal engagement with the field and what it can offer, what it can mean, for writers and readers. This is an interesting choice for a closing note—one that remains connected to the theoretical framings that precede it, the primary arguments of the text, but that also offers an individual take on the reason we’re talking about this stuff at all. The opening section offers us a young Duncan entering the SF Café as a start to the conversation; the closing shows us that same young man “sitting down at the counter with my hand-made map of the ghetto of Genre in front of me, the ghost of a dead brother haunting me with visions of countless counterfactual worlds where history recorded no blood on the tarmac and innumerable hypothetical futures as yet unrealized.”
This is not a discussion removed from the affective, the socially-conscious, or the making of meaning and art, but one that is deeply invested in these issues on a personal and public level. And that, I think, is the strength of this book—not just the heft and power of its arguments, but its concern with the individual as a member of the world, a world that is occasionally difficult to talk about or make sense of. Strange fictions might be absurd, might be tragic, might be any number of things—but they often offer, through their alethic quirks, ways to speak difficult truth, as art so often aims to do.
Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions is at turns playful and aggressive, offensive and welcoming, intimate and academic. It’s layered and variable in its relationship to the reader, and this makes for a consistently engaging text, one that I found not just intellectually stimulating but also genuinely enjoyable. As a whole, both structurally as a text and in terms of its arguments and frameworks, this is a solid book and an excellent contribution to the ongoing critical conversation on the field. Ultimately I find myself with a list of things I haven’t even touched on, here, that I loved about the book—there are too many to fit.
So: it’s very much worth a read (or two). Check it out.
Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions is available April 5th from Lethe Press.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.