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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works • View topic - Mannered SF

Mannered SF

discussions not about particular authors or books

Mannered SF

Postby DavidTate on Monday, 30 May 2011, 1:25 am

I have said before on this site that I'm a sucker for mannered SF. What I mean by "mannered SF" is speculative fiction set in a society or culture(*) where, um, manners matter. Where giving unintended offense can lead to real loss, and giving deliberate offense is an act of aggression. Where how you say things, and how you behave, need to be carefully considered.

There have been mannered societies in human history, and historical fiction has capitalized on them. Much of the (enormous) appeal of the Regency Romance is the London society of the early 19th century, in which a ribbon worn incorrectly or a misplaced calling card could bring social ruin, and social ruin could in turn bring financial ruin. James Clavell's classic Shogun takes great advantage of dropping a European into the more (and differently) mannered society of feudal Japan.

So what counts as "mannered SF"? Here's a few that I think qualify:

  • The Liaden stories and novels of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
  • The "Drake Maijstral" novels of Walter Jon Williams
  • The "Anthony Villiers" novelets of Alexei Panshin
  • Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
  • Hellspark, by Janet Kagan
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert
  • The "Five Gods" novels of Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The "Khaavren Romances" of Steven Brust
  • "Diplomat-at-Arms", by Keith Laumer
  • Bridge of Birds et sequelae, by Barry Hughart
  • The Element of Fire, by Martha Wells
  • The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's three Hainish novels (especially Planet of Exile and City of Illusions)
  • Several Jack Vance novels, including Night Lamp, the Cadwal Chronicles, and the Alastor novels.
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Caroline Stevermer's A College/Scholar of Magicks
  • Patricia Wrede's Mairelon the Magician and sequel

Anyone care to propose any others? I'm sure I'm forgetting some, and I'm even more sure there are others I haven't yet found...

(*) It may not be worthwhile to distinguish society from culture, but I think of it in terms of scope. Feudal Japan is a society; people currently serving in the US Navy are a culture. Both are mannered, in their own way.
Last edited by DavidTate on Wednesday, 01 June 2011, 8:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Mannered SF

Postby owlcroft on Wednesday, 01 June 2011, 5:48 pm

Very interesting. Some fantastic tales can actually be called "comedies of manners", but there are indeed others that, while not quite fiting that well-known literary classification, do indeed involve politesse.

Some titles that might more or less fit, in whole or in part:

Arnason, Eleanor: To the Resurrection Station (reads almost like two different books spliced together--the first part is the more mannered one).
Baum, L. Frank: the "Oz" books--more than just juvenalia, and where manners are quite important.
Blaylock, James: I think a case can be made for his "Langdon St. Ives" books, and possibly his "Twombley Town" books.
Bramah, Ernest: almost the paradigm of this sort.
Cabell, James Branch: another paradigmatic author.
Calvino, Italo: the "Our Ancestors" threesome (Baron in the Trees, Cloven Viscount, Nonexistent Knight).
Carroll, Lewis: the "Alice" books.
Chesterton, G. K.: The Man Who Was Thursday (and his other quasi-fantastic tales, too); veddy British.
Clarke, Susanna: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (also of a mannered period).
Davidson, Avram: The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy (doe sit get more mannered than a virtual Austro-Hungarian Empire?) One might also consider his "Vergil Magus" tales.
Dunsany, Lord: the "Spanish" tales (The Chronicles of Rodrigues & The Charwoman's Shadow).
Eddison, E. R.: The Worm Ouroboros (and possibly the "Zimiamvia" trilogy).
Hoffmann, E. T. A.: The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (a now too-little-known comic gem).
Hughart, Barry: the "Master Li" books.
Panshin, Alexei: the "Anthony Villiers" books (more paradigmatic examples).
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda: the "Tomoe Gozen" saga (set in a fantastic version of old Japan).
Travers, P. L.: the "Mary Poppins" books (very Victorian).
Vance, Jack: the "Dying Earth" works; Showboat World; Galactic Effectuator; The Complete Magnus Ridolph.
Williams, Walter Jon: the "Drake Maijstral" trio (a deliberate exaggeration of the mannered adventure).

Looking that over, I find that the books seem to fall into two classes: tales light in tone or outright comedic, and more serious tales set in societies that are inherently very structured (like ancient Japan or Victorian England).

As always with one of my list dumps, Because i tend to be inclusive, some things might be marginal or not truly fit. On the other side, I decided to omit Mervyn Peake's two Gormenghast-centered novels, even though they revolve around structured ritual, because it seems just that--more ritual than manners.

I'm with David" books of the "mannered" sort are especially entertaining.
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Re: Mannered SF

Postby DavidTate on Wednesday, 01 June 2011, 8:13 pm

Thanks for mentioning Davidson and Bramagh; I have no idea how I forgot those. It hadn't occurred to me to think of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in this context, but I think it's a good fit.

I'm reading Blaylock's Homunculus right now, and (at least thus far) I don't think it would qualify.

I agree with you that the comedy version is a distinct sub-genre -- Kai Lung, Drake Maijstral, etc.

I would also segregate the stories set in a fantastic version of a mannered period of our history -- Wrede and Stevermer, Clarke, Bramah, etc.

I really like the stories that posit a novel (or even alien) mannered society. C.J. Cherryh's Atevi novels (and, to a lesser extent, her Chanur novels) are a great example that I forgot to list on my first go-round. The Liaden Universe (Lee and Miller) and Hellspark (Kagan) are others, as are many of Vance's Gaean Reach novels.

A thought that came to me after I first posted was that, frequently, Elfland serves as a 'mannered' setting, even in stories that are not otherwise mannered. Diane Duane's Stealing the Elf King's Roses and the Dresden novels of Jim Butcher are examples of that. Lud-in-the-Mist as well, perhaps. And of course works like Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer, which is a pretty straight re-telling of the folk-tale.
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Re: Mannered SF

Postby Terry Tornado on Friday, 08 February 2013, 11:08 am

I see that several Jack Vance titles have been mentioned, as one would expect, but the best example I can think of of this sort of fiction is Vance's story "The Moon Moth".
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Re: Mannered SF

Postby owlcroft on Thursday, 05 December 2013, 6:11 pm

I may be mising something, but re-reading David's original post, I do not see any explicit or implicit references to Sword&Sorcery, Larger Fates, or focus on the protagonist. Are we somehow at cross purposes?
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