What follows are excerpts from two reviews of science fiction that I read last December. The first is from a review of Paul Di Filippo’s new collection Wikiworld by Paul Graham Raven in The Los Angeles Review of Books (12/1/2013). The review is titled “A Genre in Crisis.”
The sign “science fiction” is now referent to two related yet distinct signifieds, and the crisis only inheres in one of them. Sf as a literary mode, as a rhetoric, has always staunchly resisted any attempt at precise functional definition, but is easy enough to locate (albeit approximately, as one might locate a fogbank, or a region of civil unrest) in the contemporary cultural landscape. As a way of exploring the relationships between people and their technologies (and the worlds constructed by those relationships), Sf is in rude health, and busily metastasizing its way into cinema, television, music, art, theory, policy strategy, and more; as Gary K. Wolfe puts it, the genre has evaporated, diffusing into other media, other generic forms. It is an increasingly active fraction of the global cultural atmosphere; modal science fiction has conquered by transcending its original materiality.
“Science fiction”, then—the science fiction that is in crisis—is the residue left behind by that evaporative process. That residue comprises the generic-ness from which the label genre stems: in this case, the outdated stylistic tics and aesthetics of a marginal pulp-modernist medium, the clichés, the well-worn assumptions and comfortable call-backs, and the outdated institutional values in which they were nurtured and framed. The withering of the short fiction markets—which were generic sf's proving ground and home turf—has accelerated the distillation process. To quote Wolfe, many writers started “developing strategies to write science fiction without writing in the genre of science fiction”; they emigrated outward from the genre ghetto, and found their skills in demand once they dropped its vernacular stylings and clichés. Those who chose to remain behind have, in a dialectical kind of way, responded to their sense of marginalization by doubling down still further into that generic identity, to the point that even the suggestion of reform or progress is anathema, and a certain willful flirtation with reactionary identity politics becomes an expression of resistance.
If you found yourself glazing over as you read the above, you are not the only one.
The second is from a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Shaman by Tim Kreider in The New Yorker (12/12/2013). It is titled “Our Greatest Living Political Novelist?”
Sometime in the past couple of generations, capitalism’s victory over our hearts and minds seems to have become complete, in that hardly anyone even notices it anymore. It’s a monoculture, taken for granted, like monogamy, or monotheism, or having one sun. It’s hard to think of any “serious” literary writers in the United States under the age of fifty who engage the big political issues of our time as directly as Boomer authors like Paul Auster (“Leviathan”), Thomas Pynchon (“Vineland”), or Robert Stone (“A Flag for Sunrise”), let alone in the way that muckraker novelists like Upton Sinclair used to. When we call literary writers “political” today, we’re usually talking about identity politics. If historians or critics fifty years from now were to read most of our contemporary literary fiction, they might well infer that our main societal problems were issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death. If they were looking for any indication that we were even dimly aware of the burgeoning global conflict between democracy and capitalism, or of the abyssal catastrophe our civilization was just beginning to spill over the brink of, they might need to turn to books that have that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine. That is, to science fiction.
Science fiction is an inherently political genre, in that any future or alternate history it imagines is a wish about How Things Should Be (even if it’s reflected darkly in a warning about how they might turn out). And How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding), in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident, whereas conservatism holds it to be inevitable, natural, and therefore just. The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.
It would be safe to say these two guys do not agree. I find myself more in sympathy with the New Yorker guy. There is no doubt that the boundaries between SF, mass culture, and what I might as well call “fine art” culture have broken down. But they have broken down in different ways. Due to computer graphics, SF has flooded into mass art. Movies, TV, and video games can now represent the most visionary ideas of SF. Of course this new technology must be used. How better to use it than in science fiction and fantasy stories? A realistic movie is not going to display computer graphics or 3-D especially impressively.
But the SF and fantasy stories appearing in mass media are pretty much the old-fashioned space opera and epic quest tales, hackneyed and full of clichés, the stuff that Raven clearly does not like. My response varies. I have liked a couple of the Marvel superhero movies and I liked The Lord of the Rings, though I am much less happy with The Hobbit. I love Miyazaki and Kon, anime directors whose movies are full of tropes from generic SF and fantasy.
Something else is happening to the boundary between SF and fine art. Realism has eased its death grip on literary fiction, and a new generation of literary writers has appeared, who know science fiction and like it. There is now fiction written outside SF, which is fantastic or uses SF tropes: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu comes immediately to mind. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon is another example.
At the same time, a number of writers associated with the SF community are producing fiction that sits the border between SF and literary fiction. What they write has been labeled “slipstream” or “interstitial fiction.” The Interstitial Arts Foundation (IAF) is devoted to “artists without borders.” Looking at the IAF team, I see many names I recognize from the science fiction community.
So on one side we have generic SF flooding into popular culture. On the other side we have a fuzzing of the boundary between SF and fine art fiction.
What I like about SF as a traditional category is that it has room for both slipstream and pop culture. It does not merely use pop culture, as a fine art writer might do, it includes it. The gamers and cosplayers and comic fans are not the subjects of our art. They are us.
I don’t want SF to evaporate into fine art culture or vanish into mass culture. I want it to remain as a bridge and a more or less (though it could do better) democratic community that includes all kinds of art.
So that is one reason why I hope Paul Graham Raven is wrong. The other reason brings me to The New Yorker review. As the review says, science fiction is inherently political. SF is not usually manifestos, though it can be. (This is not encouraged, at least in the US. Overt manifestos make Americans uneasy.) However, the classic SF topics bring the field again and again to politics. SF talks about the relationship of people to technology, the effect of technology on societies, social organization, change, and the future. To give a couple of examples: The Time Machine is about evolution and social class—what we could become, if our classes remain deeply separated. The upper classes evolve into the ethereal Eloi, and the workers become the brutal Morlocks, who—if I remember correctly—eat the Eloi. The War of the Worlds is about biology and imperialism, the latter a hot topic when the story was written. It is a reminder now that imperialists do not always get their way. Small things—microbes, sand in a desert war, CO2 molecules in the atmosphere—can defeat the most powerful organizations.
There is no reason why realistic fiction can’t be political. Huckleberry Finn is about the morality of slavery. The Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembene wrote his most famous novel, God’s Bits of Wood, about a strike in Senegal. The Grapes of Wrath is about poor farmers driven off their land in the Great Depression. The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge is about the Russian Revolution and its destruction by Stalinism. These are all books about big social issues and about living in a time of change. (We always live in a time of change, though how fast the change happens varies, as does how much we are aware of change and our own ability to make change.)
Science fiction has three advantages over realistic fiction that deals with politics. (1) It is easier to get it published. (2) It deals with science and technology, which are hugely important topics. (3) It deals with change and the future. Broad expanses of history have been one of its natural topics, starting with The Time Machine and continuing through the Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series to Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
Right now we are looking at levels of climate change that may destroy human civilization. This is not the time to be writing about “issues with our parents, bad relationships, and death”—at least personal death. The death of societies, species, and ecological systems are all fine, timely topics. We should also be writing about possible better futures, since the present seems badly screwed up.
The big issues can spill into pop culture science fiction. Avatar is about imperialism and exploitation of the environment, though it does not offer a plausible solution to these problems, and it has the inevitable white guy hero. And the big issues can also appear in slipstream, though slipstream’s closeness to literary fiction may mean it is too much biased toward the personal and problems of style.
Raven says the best of science fiction has evaporated out of the field, leaving a generic residue of “outdated stylistic tics and (the) aesthetics of a marginal pulp-modernist medium.”
It seems to me, however, that modern SF is more than a black, sticky mass at the bottom of a test tube. There are still writers who are writing serious work that is recognizably science fiction. I think Robinson is one of them.
I am not going to define SF, because it is a community and a cluster of related genres and hard to define clearly. The kind of SF Robinson writes combines a plain style with an interest in world-building, broad expanses of space and time, and big ideas. I would call it dead-center, pure-quill SF.
It is well suited for dealing with the issues we now face, and it’s important, even essential, at this point in human history. On my bad days, I think we may be looking at the end of human civilization or human life. There is no question (in my mind, at least) that the world cannot and will not continue as it is. That means we have to think about change.
Kreider writes: “The meta-premise of all science fiction is that nothing can be taken for granted. That it’s still anybody’s ballgame.” There is no more important message at a time when we absolutely must think about the future and make conscious changes in the way we live.
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