I am still puzzling my way through my response to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr’s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. It is, I think, a necessary if somewhat belated corrective to the Marxist/Suvinian orthodoxy that is the common academic response to science fiction, in that he eases back on cognitive estrangement and is actually quite radical in his re-evaluation of the novum. But I’m still not sure that he goes far enough.
Let’s be clear, I have no problem with the Marxist view of science fiction, and I understand why science fiction in particular has an appeal to Marxist theorists. The western myth of science, ever since the days of Francis Bacon, has been that science represents an inevitable advance towards truth and material well-being. This makes it a very good fit with Marxist ideas of historical inevitability. And as a proponent of, and channel for, much of that western myth of science, science fiction seems to match very closely ideals for how fiction should work.
My problem is that I’m not sure science (in the public arena if not in the laboratory) matches those ideals any more. Even if you don’t know how science works, an awful lot of broad and fuzzily understood notions have leaked over from science into the public arena over the last century, all involving terms like relativity, uncertainty, falsifiability, chaos, which don’t exactly inspire one that the inevitable advance towards truth is all that inevitable. As for material well-being, the atomic bomb undermined that comfort of science. Instead, particularly over the last quarter century or so, the quest for truth has tended to shift away from science and back to religion, to the extent that an eminent scientist like Richard Dawkins can seem to spend more of his time talking about religion than he does doing science, while faith schools expand and Intelligent Design is considered a fit addition to the science curriculum. Keeping pace with this, over roughly the same period, since the high-tech high water mark of cyberpunk in the 1980s, science fiction seems to have become increasingly indistinguishable from fantasy. Even some of the most overtly science fictional ideas in the recent literature, the radical transformations of nanotechnology and posthumanity, have a magical air about them. Consider the Marxist future of Iain Banks’s Culture, the absence of shortage and the ability to transform oneself however one wishes is pure science fiction, but this allows one character in Matter to manifest himself as a bush, which is pure fairy tale.
I have never been entirely convinced by cognitive estrangement or by the novum, and though Csicsery-Ronay’s reconfiguration of these is persuasive and appealing, I am not sure that it goes far enough to accommodate the shape science fiction has been taking over recent years.
First published at LiveJournal, 26 April 2009.