Entry updated 9 February 2022. Tagged: Theme.
1. In this encyclopedia Equipoise designates the active and conscious mixing or two or more genres within a single narrative, usually within a single narrative event rather than sequentially, in order to provide a multifaceted narrative take on action, character, motif, setting. The primary effect is sometimes aesthetic pleasure. But perhaps more interestingly, an Equipoisal narrative may reveal a world richer and ultimately more graspable than a world envisioned through a single lens. An Equipoisal narrative recognizes the world (as it were) through insect eyes.
The term as used here also includes an assumption that the sense of balance given off by a successful joining of contrasted modes at one narrative point is inherently insecure: that a moment of recognizable Equipoise is a handshake event in an ongoing passage of story rather than a destination. Equipoise is a movement. This held movement of Equipoise is analogous to the dynamic balance achieved by a trapeze artist, or a dancer, or a parkour adept bouncing off the incompossible walls of any Deep City, or a shark which must swim or sink. It is not frozen music.
The term Equipoise tends to be used in this encyclopedia to describe works written in the twenty-first century.
2. Storytellers have always told stories that can be told apart from one another. Before the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, tellers and auditors and readers and critics of prose fictions paid in general much less intense attention to the categorization of story types than would soon be the case (drama and poetry, which have had little shaping effect on the literatures dealt with in this encyclopedia, are a different matter). Prose iterations of Proto SF – and of Taproot Texts [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] in general – did not tend therefore to trigger turf-wars over genre boundaries and essences. (The concept of the "rise of the novel" in eighteenth-century England was a digressive cookie-cutting conceit designed to ringfence from other forms of prose fiction those tales whose protagonists are embedded in a "realistic" description of society. The resulting canon was academically convenient, but leaked exceptions from the first, was of little value in the study of Fantastika, and by the twenty-first century had been abandoned.)
By around 1800 or so, however (see Definitions of SF; Proto SF; Ruins and Futurity), prose fictions began to be perceived in terms of their occupancy of various genres, some new-hatched. A tempestuous growth of storytelling genres – the fugal banyan of evolving and interbreeding story types often referred to as Fantastika in this encyclopedia – soon put paid to any companionable presumption that individual stories could be properly understood and appreciated without some sense of where they fit into the mix. Discriminations proliferated: Gothic (see Gothic SF), the Märchen, the historical novel, the romance, the silver-spoon, the Lost Race, the western, the bodice-ripper, Scientific Romance, the dreadful warning (see Battle of Dorking), Fantasy [for Fantasy and Märchen see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], horror (see Horror in SF) and (though not until the twentieth century) science fiction so called (see SF Megatext).
From the first, it was an array of categories that never sat still. Over the past two centuries, many attempts have been made to create taxonomies of individual genres of "popular" prose fiction, and to determine their interrelations within these frames, very frequently to some avail. But in the end none of these projects have succeeded in stilling the incessant indeterminacy of story, which to the taxonomical mind must seem to constitute a tumult of mistakes. None of them have succeeded in persuading any writer or reader (some critics sadly excepted) that there is such a thing as a definitive example of any genre. Every single story ever told is loyal to its kind, and violates its predecessors, and miscegenates: simultaneously. As far as adherence to family blood lines is concerned, no story is pure, every story genre-switches (see Exogamy). As far as the simultaneous mixing of genres is concerned, much of the literature of the fantastic over the past two centuries might therefore plausibly be called Equipoisal.
But to use the term Equipoise as more or less a synonym of Story seems wasteful; and slurs over a central characteristic of Equipoise as the term is generally used in this encyclopedia, where it is defined not only as constant but conscious (see top of entry). After so many years, many of the genres which seemed new-born in the 1800s have become traditional, of value not only as explorations but as exemplars. The megatext is a library steeped deep in the past. Once upon a time, authors' miscegenating raids on that megatext might have been, in a technical sense, naive. But the time has passed for that: we all know too much. Today to write within a genre, or to mix genres, requires some sort of conscious decision to do so; asks for some conscious acknowledgement of the past. Equipoise is Parody with love.
Writers today, in other words, are in the position of being able to do anything: but then having to pay for it. The past is not an open book. The Lost Race tale is too tainted with racism and the displacements of the Imperialist mind to do more than serve as a Icon-kit for Steampunk. Alternate Histories, where Vampires or Werewolves are inserted into previously vampire- or werewolf-free narratives, may give a semblance of insight, but are essentially gamelike exercises (see Games and Sports) in worlds so arbitrarily inhabited that they are not easily distinguished from tales set in full-blown Virtual Realities. And mash-ups of abducted Memes typical of Television, Cinema and Games and Sports are best described as churn. The term Equipoise is not here used in its full sense to describe these enterprises.
George Santayana's famous apophthegm is relevant here: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", from Reason in Common Sense (1905). As Mircea Eliade has argued, every story of any complexity obeys a dialectic where what may seem confusion or camouflage unpacks the past in terms of a dialectic of exposure. A conscious and respectful effort to understand the temporal depth and persistence of the generic modalities that weave together to make up the increasingly aged megatext of fantastika seems almost certainly necessary for Equipoise to succeed. An Equipoisal text may be defined as one that recognizes the newness of the world through a dialectical recognition of the past: but that this dialectic tends not to be sequential. The traditional linear flow of the sf narrative – thesis answered by antithesis, culminating in a revelatory synthesis (see Conceptual Breakthrough) – has been increasingly replaced by multiplex rhetorics of recognition in the world is only legible when it is all seen at once. That worlds made visible and amenable to story are, in a sense, false is inherent in this presentation: "Art", Morse Peckham argued in his conclusion to Man's Rage for Chaos (1965), "Is the exposure to the tensions and problems of a false world so that man may endure exposing himself to the tensions and problems of the real world". In this sense, Equipoise is not only an aesthetic strategy but a tool.
3. Various works by more than 200 authors with entries in this encyclopedia are described as Equipoisal (see the Incoming/Citation button above). The earliest of these is E T A Hoffmann's The Sandman (1816). Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) is a text later authors used as a model for their own Equipoisal explorations. Some works of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are also mentioned, including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899; 1925) and L Frank Baum's Fantastic Voyages, whose simultaneous use of fantasy and sf tropes of travel reflect Ingersoll Lockwood's earlier Baron Trump stories. In all these cases, the term points to a proleptic instability that seems inherently transgressive: transgression, in a sense, before the fact. Slightly later twentieth-century citations – of works like Jocelyn Brooke's The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950), or Bernard Malamud's archaic God's Grace (1982), or Walter Owen's The Cross of Carl (coll 1931) – tend to instance works whose authors may lack a first-hand sense of the already deep-rooted internecine intimacies of the genres within the Fantastika megatext.
By the end of the century, three broad categories begin to come clear: works by Mainstream Writers of SF like Margaret Atwood or Hortense Calisher, whose use of Equipoisal constructions may seem inadvertent; writers not usually associated with works of Fantastika but whose use of Equipoisal disjuncts seems deliberate and fittingly aggressive; and authors with the broad fields of the fantastic, whose familiarity with the depth and heft of the modes they use may be essential to their recognition of the world.
During the early twenty-first century, a rapidly increasing number of authors not primarily known for works of the fantastic have published works in which the world is addressed Equipoisally: often with considerable success. They include Martin Amis, Michael Chabon, Jerome Charyn, Jim Crace, Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco, Brian Evenson, Timothy Findley, Jonathan Franzen, William Golding, Rachel Ingalls, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Walter Mosley, Chuck Palahniuk, Will Self, D M Thomas, William T Vollmann, Colson Whitehead, and many others.
Authors primarily associated with fantastika have very frequently published work in line with the description of Equipoise suggested here. A small sample would include Nina Allan, Elizabeth Bear, Lauren Beukes, James P Blaylock, John Crowley, Paul Di Filippo, Carol Emshwiller, Alasdair Gray, Nick Harkaway, Nalo Hopkinson, Jay Lake, Reif Larsen, James Lovegrove, China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, Nnedi Okorafor, Patrick O'Leary, Susan Palwick, Victor Pelevin, Rachel Pollack, Tim Powers, Christopher Priest, Thomas Pynchon, Geoff Ryman, Lucius Shepard, Michael Swanwick, Gene Wolfe, John Wray, Zoran Živković, and many others. [JC]
- Morse Peckham. Man's Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1965) [nonfiction: hb/uncredited]
previous versions of this entry