Sunday, 24 January 2010

Science fiction, old and new

I was interested to read the article by Jo Walton at tor.com about the mental adaptations required to read SF, linked through various places, and this post on Futurismic, highlighting a related blog post from a guy called Will Gillis, also caught my eye.

I don't quite agree with either post, as it seems to me that both ignore that the problem with a lot of SF is that, in certain particulars it just isn't very good. Walton's argument seems to suggest not that WE see something that non-SF readers don't see, but that non-SF readers can also see it but just don't think it's very important. A non-SF reader looks at The Forever War and thinks "Yeah, yeah, war is heck, but what the hell does a tachyon drive have to do with it?" I think it seems strange to a non-SF reader that we'd need all this tachyon drive bullshit to read a novel about war being heck.

Willis's contention that "old" SF is no longer tolerated becuase the digital age audience expects something different from what earlier SF audiences expected looks like a restatement of the old saw that SF ages more quickly than other forms of literature.

I don't believe that it's inherent in SF to age badly, but I think that poorly written books will eventually fall out favour and that well-written books in any genre will endure. Some books are never convincing, despite the acuity of their eye in some regards.

In my reading review of the year, I discussed the contrast between 1984 and Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants. They came out within a couple of years or each other, and represent the polar approaches to an SF dystopia. Ultimately, it's Orwell's powerful portrait of the gradual destruction of Smith's soul that sticks with you. The cynical hipster who narrates The Space Merchants has no depth, no roots. Orwell spends time exploring Smith's nature and back-story, while Pohl & Kornbluth keep Mitch Courtenay trundling along with the story. 1984 seems real, because Winston Smith still seems real, and he brings reality to the world around him. Courtenay never feels real, and his world is therefore a construction for us to mock.

Thinking about the older writers, Jack Vance and Phillip K Dick still seem fresh to me. Dick is heavy on the allegorical, but is also one of the origin points for today's futuristic writers. His down beat, commercialised future is still recognisable today and this gives his deeper content considerable power. He also addresses his themes through characters rather than just through the futuristic metaphor. The crises of Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Joe Chip in The Three Stigmata of Plamer Eldritch are perfectly embedded in the rising tide of kipple in Deckard's San Francisco or the arid, lifelessness of Chip's Martian colonial outpost.

Vance is a slightly different case. His books are also character driven, but Vance is less concerned with internal struggles. Vance's continued readability comes from his enjoyably orotund prose style and his clever and sardonic allegorical content. The two classic collections of stories (I hesitate to call them novels) about Cugel the Clever – The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga – look more like Rabelaisian satires than psychologically true fiction of the modernist sort.

Vance is also good at firing up a pot-boiling type of plot – a tale of vengeance, or a quest to return home, a search for a murder. He gives his characters a clear goal, and then stretches it out over a long quest across across sparsely populated territory. He subjects them to horrible defeats and reversals along the way, often at the hands of the eccentric, isolated communities they encounter on their travels. I've lost count of the number of times that characters have been imprisoned or kidnapped, losing all their possessions, or when key allies have turned out to be deadly enemies. The injustice of it all fills the reader with righteous indignation, and they demand to know how the hero's going to get out of it this time.

SF's focus on secondary worlds and allegory and futurism leads to a less intensive gaze at the other fictional elements – character and prose, in particular. There are few SF writers who deploy an especially distinct style, even from work to work, and characters are often controlled by other demands that are unique to SF. SF fans are happy to over look this if the rest of the novel is sound. Non-sf fans are not – I'm sure that's true of every genre. The SF novels that can merge their futurism, allegory or secondary world to a strong plot, good prose and deep characters will surely endure.

However, it is perhaps more of a danger for a certain type of "futuristic" SF, that will embody the technological mellieu of its day, to become less relevant. Gillis highlights this flavour of SF in his opening para:

For all the talk of impenetrable singularity, it occurs to me that the modern milieu of SF writers is almost entirely preoccupied with futurism and future-shock, in contrast to yestergeneration’s focus on allegory / thought experiment.


I don't think it's a question of generations but of different audiences, as the allegorists and thought experimenters are still there. When I go into Forbidden Planet and browse the shelves, it looks to me like the SF and fantasy audience is split into three broad approaches: futurism, allegory and secondary worlds.

(Before going any further, it's worth saying that as with every other point in the matter of genre, these divisions are malleable, and become ambiguous at the fringes. Walton quotes Sam Delaney:

Samuel R Delaney argued rather than try to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and of describing it more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions.

So, these three strands represent the centres of these circles, within the broad circle of stuff we call SF. It's like a Venn diagram, I guess. In fact, the Venn diagram is the perfect vehicle for discussing these topics, ins't? It's like it was invented to demonstrate the ways that genres overlap. I guess this is all just three more circles on the great Venn diagram of genre, and if you filled them in the whole thing would be scribbled black by it all.)

Futurism “includes” the writers and works that Gillis talks about: Vinge, Stross and MacLeod, plus people like Greg Egan, Geoff Ryman, Richard Morgan and so on. These are the guys Gillis is talking about, “the modern age has given rise to a very distinguishable modern clique of SF authors interested in worlds with recognizable causal connections to our world.”

I think that Gillis is right when he identifies one of the sources for this as the movie Blade Runner. I've described here before how I felt after I first saw Blade Runner back in the mid 80s[link], that rather than being a seamless new environment of clean design and modernist purpose, the future would be crudely bolted on to the crumbling remains of the present.

These writers are the descendants of the cyberpunks, who swiped the baton of critical acclaim from the new worlds crew and ran off with it in the 80s. You can see it evolve in the work of Bruce Sterling's work, starting with the allegorical, second worldy Involution Ocean to ultra-engaged works such as Distress and Zeitgeist (natch), via a stint in technology journalism. He's now almost entirely concerned with material futurism, re-imagining the world environment in terms of imminent tech.

These guys get some mainstream recognition – as they appeal to social critics and the politically minded, who can see through the SF fa├žade to the economic and sociological implications. For this audience, it's informed by the new journalism, particularly in pop culture and the tempting world of electronic gadgets. Sometimes I think that the ideal neo-cyberpunk story would be a mash-up (good neo-cyberpunk word there) between a gangsta rap video and a detailed review of the latest high-end mobile phone. It's a thrilling and exciting subject, of course, and one that quickens our pulses with the imminence of it all, just as the promise of a life on Moonbase did when I was growing in the seventies.

But I think that they are in their way as out of touch with the main audience for SF as the dinosaurs of the golden age were at the time the cyberpunks first appeared. Gillis talks about “limited focus authors” who I think occupy the other two strands, allegory and secondary worlds. Gillis dismisses these as if they are no longer relavent to SF, but I think that between them they represent the biggest and most influential actual audiences for SF

Allegorical SF is a bit rarer now than it used to be, and was last in critical favour within fandom at the time of the new wave writers. Ray Bradbury is probably the proto-allegorical writer. It's this sort of SF that seems to attract the most attention from outside the genre. I don't think it's a coindidence that the new wave was the last time SF received attention from the mainstream literary establishment. It's the route taken by literary types who do SF – Atwood, most obviously, but also Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It's interesting to compare Cloud Atlas with Richard Morgan's Black Man for a contrast in how they use the genetic engineering. I think this is difference that confounds Walton's metaphor fan. Mitchell uses genetic engineering as a metaphor in his examination of character; Morgan's book really is about genetic engineering.

The third strand is perhaps most often ignored in this type of argument, secondary worlds, those works dominated by M John Harrison's “the great clomping foot of nerdism” (remember that little kerfuffle? Good times!) My feeling is that it represents the majority of what's bought and sold under the banner of SF and fantasy, when taken at its very broadest.

This category includes everything that depends on a well-developed secondary world for its impact, be that the hard SF distant future, battling galactic empires or medieval fantasy worlds, from Star Wars & Trek to hard sf epics by the likes of Alistair Reynolds and Dan Simmons to Harry Potter. The big franchises mix heavy doses of allegory into world building, but it's usually of the more banal and aphoristic sort, to an extent that it becomes so divorced from reality or context that it it is no longer a useful philosophical or moral observation but only makes sense in the context of the setting itself.

This is the stuff that tomorrow's young firebrands are reading: Warhammer novels, Star Wars tie ins, Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman. This is what that generation will think of as the golden age. Those guys won't be getting to Charlie Stross or Peter Watts for years, in just the same way as I was feverishly reading everything by Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison and Robert E Howard when I was a kid, I wasn't ready for Philip K Dick or Ursula K le Guin or 1984.

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