Early in September, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a long review-essay I had written called ‘The Widening Gyre’. I reviewed two ‘best of the year’ volumes and an awards volume. This is something I have done with almost tedious regularity over the last dozen or so years, and I didn’t really say anything this time that I haven’t said before. There were too many stories that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘best’ of anything, and reading the stories en masse they felt tired, repetitive, uninterested and uninteresting. This time, however, I remembered a famous essay by John Barth from the 1960s, and I used the term ‘exhausted’. Barth’s essay, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, was first published in Atlantic Monthly in 1967, and was collected in The Novel Today edited by Malcolm Bradbury. Inspired by the ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges, Barth wrote about ‘the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities – by no means necessarily a cause for despair’ (Bradbury, 1990, p71). He was paving the way for what we now think of as the postmodern novel. Whether that term crystallised ideas for me, or spoke to the readers, I don’t know, but it triggered a response. People are still picking up and running with ideas from that essay, which is both flattering and exciting. Perhaps, as Jonathan Strahan has said, we were just ready for the debate.
In this post I want to point towards some (though by no means all) of the responses to my original essay, and to carry forward some of the ideas and arguments raised in those responses. A number of these responses have said flattering things about the essay or about me, which is nice, but it is not why I have picked them out. They all have points of disagreement with or divergence from my original position and it is these that have caught my eye. You cannot have a debate if everyone agrees, and I believe it is the debate that is important.
There were other responses. Some people characterised it as yet another prediction of the death of science fiction, which is not what I meant by exhaustion (‘by no means necessarily a cause for despair’). Some people interpreted what I said about conviction as a call for optimism, which is very far from what I meant. I’ve been down those roads before, and probably will do so again, but for now I’m going to leave these arguments to one side.
This was discussed by Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe on the Coode Street Podcast
The next week I was invited to join Jonathan and Gary
And two weeks later they returned to it yet again in a conversation with Kij Johnson
Responses that particularly caught my eye came from:
John H. Stevens (though I think Stevens reads my essay in a particular way in order to suit his thesis).
There were also some comments at sffworld
Someone at sffworld counted the number of times I used the word ‘science’ in my interview. Apparently it appears 80 times, but on only two occasions is it not handcuffed to the word ‘fiction’.
To be honest, I’m surprised it was as many as two. I am wedded to the name ‘science fiction’, in part because of long familiarity, and in part because the alternatives are worse. But I am not at all wedded to the idea that science fiction is necessarily fictional science or fiction about science. Quite the opposite, I think science, per se, actually has very little to do with science fiction.
If you put an alien into a story it is science fiction, but the alien is not science. If you put a robot into a story it is science fiction, but a robot is not science. Both, if anything, are ways of examining our engagement with the other (other races, cultures, genders, generations, classes); but despite the fact that technology might presumably be involved in bringing us into contact with the alien or in constructing the robot, science is not at the heart of that engagement.
Similarly, casting a story forward into the future or outward to a different world is enough to make the story science fiction, but science need not be central to either. Where is the science in The Martian Chronicles or Dhalgren or Stranger in a Strange Land or The War of the Worlds? Science fiction is comfortable with a scientific worldview, tends to espouse a rationalist perspective, deals with the knowable. So in the sense that ‘science’ is derived from the Latin for ‘to know’, science clearly has a place within the structure and intent of science fiction; but science as an enterprise, as a set of procedures, has at best a tangential relationship with science fiction.
I suppose if science is represented within science fiction then it would most commonly be in the form of sociology or psychology, for an abiding subtext of science fiction concerns such issues as who we are, what it means to be human, how we engage with the world. But sociology and psychology are central to much of what we call mainstream fiction also. There is nothing necessary or definitive about the part they play in science fiction. In a sense, philosophy has a bigger part to play than science, because the concerns of science fiction are more likely to be congruent with the concerns of philosophy than with the concerns of science. I have sometimes been tempted by the French term ‘contes philosophique’, but even that misses the mark of what science fiction is actually doing.
So the idea of counting the times I use the word ‘science’ would seem to me to reveal nothing of what I am saying about science fiction. And yet the fact that the question is asked, that the count is made, is interesting and revealing in its own right. Because what this whole discussion that has grown up in the wake of my essay is about is the ways we perceive science fiction. And my view, in which I did not even consider the role of science when putting forward my arguments, is just one among many.
One among very many, in fact. For I think science fiction is a protean form that means something different to every single person who reads it. My understanding of science fiction is built upon my awareness of every work of science fiction I have encountered, adding in a rather fuzzier awareness of those works I have heard about but not directly encountered, and excludes from the mix all that vastly greater number of works I have not read. Everyone else’s understanding of science fiction is constructed on exactly the same model; but since it is highly unlikely that any two people will have encountered exactly the same works in exactly the same way, then no two people will see science fiction in exactly the same way. And, indeed, with every new work of science fiction I encounter, my understanding of the genre is subtly changed, so in effect I do not see science fiction today in the same way I saw it last century, last year, last week.
Given that understanding of science fiction, there is a sense in which this whole discussion is redundant, because we are all starting from a slightly different base. But I think there are enough of what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblances’ to allow us to talk meaningfully about a thing we call science fiction. Yet we must always allow that some look for the science, some look for the other, some look for a sort of mainstreamised fantastika. So in the disagreements that follow, I’ll try to keep in mind the question whether we are just starting from a different base. And I’ll try to make clear (I have been trying to make clear) what the base is that I start from.
The way the future was
Who popularised the term ‘singularity’ when talking about our technological future? Kurtzweil? Vinge? The way the notion has propagated throughout science fiction over the last twenty or thirty years it is not so much that the future is a black hole so dense that no light can get out, but rather it is a black hole so dense that no sense can get out.
I think, when Nader Elhefnawy writes so interestingly about this, there is a suggestion that I accede to this view of the future. I don’t. Or rather, I am agnostic about whether the future might actually be like that, but I am very unhappy with using this as a model when writing about the future.
The image that keeps coming into my mind is Christopher Priest’s Inverted World. As we drag ourselves along towards the future all we see ahead is an immense spike where everything is elongated, while behind is a dull flatness where everything is squashed down. But the point is that where we are, the present, is always normal size.
The sense that time is moving faster is a common experience as one gets older. The sense that new technology is constantly upping the pace is at least as old as the industrial revolution. Read some contemporary accounts of the newly invented railways and you get an extraordinary sense of the exhilaration and dread of speed that is hard for us to comprehend today. Read H.G. Wells writing about aircraft years before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and you get the feeling that the world is instantly transformed into a global village. They were seeing exactly the same spike, exactly the same technological singularity, immediately ahead of them. And yet we continue to live in a comprehensible present in which we have comfortably absorbed new wonders that would have astounded Wells.
What I am saying is that the singularity may be an appropriate metaphor for the approach of the future, but it is not an appropriate model for the everyday experience of living in that future. New technology comes at us all the time. I am old enough to remember when my family got its first television, our first telephone (a party or shared line), I was in my second job before I first used a computer. These things feel fast and world-changing when they first hit us, but it is amazing how quickly they become an accepted part of the furniture. We domesticate the new very successfully; it is what we have been doing at least since the industrial revolution and probably a long time before that. I am living in the future. I have around me as a normal and largely unconsidered part of my daily experience lots of equipment that would have been unimaginable when I was a child. If I had looked forward 50 years to how I live now, my ten-year-old self would probably have been unable to imagine how I cope. It would have appeared like a technological singularity. And yet the common experience of being here and now, in this particular future, is not one of being overwhelmed.
Therefore, if you are writing a story set in the future there is inevitably a tension. On the one hand, to the reader, it is the difference that screams at you. On the other hand, to the characters, it is the familiarity that is uppermost. The writer’s job is to negotiate that tension, to display the strangeness to the reader while at the same time evoking its familiarity for the residents of that future.
My feeling is that an increasing number of writers have taken this notion of the singularity as an excuse for not engaging with the familiarity of the future, only with its strangeness. That is, because everything is going to happen so fast that we cannot comprehend it, there is no point in trying to make sense of it. Now there are cases in which this externalised view of the future can produce excellent fiction. Frederik Pohl’s ‘Day Million’ is a case in point. But in Pohl’s story you have a clear impression that the residents of this future understand their daily lives, and consequently we readers trust that the author has thoroughly inhabited the world he is creating.
It is this thorough inhabiting of the world that we seem to be losing. If the singularity means everything coming at us so fast that it is incomprehensible, then the author feels no need to comprehend. The author is as much outside the world as the reader is. The story, therefore, is left to stand or fall not by the sense of a lived future (because we are left feeling that even the author hasn’t lived in it in her imagination) but by how much strangeness can be thrown into the mix. In effect, the stories are not meant to make sense, because the incomprehensibility of the future to the reader is the whole point of the exercise. And in this, both reader and author are excluded from the story.
Preceding this notion of the technological singularity was Arthur C. Clarke’s famous nostrum that any sufficiently advanced science would be indistinguishable from magic. It is another version of the same thing: from outside we cannot expect to understand the future. This never prevented Clarke himself from writing futures in which the inhabitants of that future understood it, hence reassuring the readers that the author knew his way around this future and so could help to make it understandable to the reader. But standing dazzled before the incomprehensibility of the singularity, many of today’s writers seem to have misread Clarke. They read: any sufficiently advanced science is magic.
In my essay I made two points that I suspect may have become confused (perhaps even to me). I made a point about the porous borders between genres, and the interaction between sf and fantasy; and I made a point about future science being presented as magic, complete with wizards and demons and all sorts of supernatural paraphernalia. I will come back to the porous borders later; for now, I want to talk about the (unintended?) consequences of Clarke’s Law as something separate from the interbreeding of genres.
What we get when we have stories in which some future technology is presented in terms of spells and magicians is not a blurring of boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. What we have, rather, is one form of fiction using the language of another as a way of escape.
All genres are sets of restrictions, of limitations. If you were to write a hospital romance in which there were no medical personnel and no romance, it wouldn’t work, it would be too far outside the genre boundaries to be accepted. Now science fiction is a far more nebulous form, the limitations are not so clear cut, but they are there nevertheless. The art of writing an original genre work is to play with those limitations, tease them, push at them, test them; but you cannot go to somewhere where the restrictions just do not apply. That is simply to stop writing within the genre.
The problem with language is that it has effects, and if you start using the language of fantasy then the words you use are seen to have the same effects as they do in fantasy. So to address a technological future as a thing of spells and magic is to escape the rationalism of science fiction and replace it with an authorial wave of the hand. It is just another example of how the technological singularity has come to be portrayed: I do not need to present this future in any rationalist, comprehensible way because it is just like magic. I say abracadabra and everything is resolved. It doesn’t even work like that in most fantasy; but to import into science fiction the language of magic without its rationale is to ignore the need to make sense of the future. And that is not to circumvent the limitations of the form, but behave as though they never existed.
What we are increasingly seeing, then, is worlds made up of a plethora of tropes and devices, a piling up of the strange, but not a world that has been imaginatively inhabited even by the author. The world is measured not by how much it makes sense as a world in which people might live and work and love and fight; but by the exact opposite, by how incomprehensible it is. And it does not matter if plots are constructed of incomprehensibility added to incomprehensibility, ludicrous twist succeeding ludicrous twist, because all it takes is a wave of authorial fiat and magic technology ties it all up in a neat bow.
But that way destroys meaning. Because if magic technology, the incomprehensible singularity, means that anything can happen; then it really doesn’t matter what does happen. And it is hard to care about a story in which any tension can be so easily and carelessly resolved.
The cartography of science fiction
(Before I start, I want to acknowledge that everything I say here springs from a conversation with Maureen Kincaid Speller. All the questions I raise and the directions I head in are directly down to her inspiration – though the mess I make of that inspiration is, of course, my own fault.)
I talked above of the porousness of genre boundaries. Indeed, I have seen responses to my essay that interpret me as saying the whole problem is down to porous genre boundaries. Okay, as I pointed out above, it is easy to confuse the two issues of porous boundaries and misuse (or inappropriate use) of genre tropes, so I can sort of see where this claim is coming from. But even so, it was never more than one among a whole raft of issues and problems I was exploring, and far from being the most significant one.
But it is an issue that has been causing me particular problems, because all in all I like porous boundaries. As you can see from what I say above about the character of science fiction, what I find most interesting about it is its protean nature. When I look for the most interesting genre work I invariably find myself looking for what is being produced on and around the borders.
I tend to think of science fiction as something like those Mitteleuropean territories that changed hands so frequently during that early modern period when the idea of the nation state was just beginning to take hold. A resident of one of those border territories might find themselves owing theoretical allegiance to one state in the morning and another state in the afternoon. In reality, of course, such allegiances were pretty meaningless, so people just carried on doing their own thing (as we might put it now). The edgiest, and therefore most interesting and usually most rewarding works of the fantastic, are those that take their own particular path regardless of what theoretical allegiance they might be said to owe to one genre or another.
And yet, in practice I found the movement between genres, whether you see it as transmigration or cross-fertilisation, to be problematic. This is partly a titular thing. If you are reviewing a book that presents itself as the best science fiction or the best fantasy, then I think it is incumbent upon you to question not only whether it is the best, but also whether it is science fiction or fantasy. This is, after all, no more than determining what are the parameters of the work under review. But I admit that it is also in part the result of an inbred resistance to uncertainty, a tendency to taxonomies.
Yet, in the end, it is not on the borders that the problems lie. When I think of the most vital and energising works I have read of late — by Christopher Priest and M. John Harrison, by Karen Joy Fowler and Kij Johnson, by Mark Z. Danielewski and Kelly Link, by Adam Roberts and Maureen McHugh — they are works of the borderlands. It is here that the freshness and vitality will be found.
The problem is in the heartland.
It is at the core of the genre that we find the wearing out of genre tropes that I have characterised as exhaustion. This is hardly surprising. Out at the edges, where the rule of central authority is barely felt, it is easy to bring into the mix elements from postmodern and avant garde fiction, mainstream sensibilities, plot elements from crime fiction, or what have you. But it is not, I think, that the borderlands are growing further away from the heartlands, but rather that the heartland is turning its back on the borders. As it was when the Roman Empire was in decay, when troops and authority were steadily withdrawn from the furthest flung outposts, when the name ‘Rome’ that had once stood for everything between Scotland and the Sahara gradually came to stand for less and less territory, so the heart of the genre is coming to stand for an ever narrower set of tropes and attitudes.
The late 1960s, a period during which science fiction belatedly discovered modernist literary techniques and called it New Wave, we began to see the iconoclasm of the New Wave seep into core genre science fiction. In the 1970s, when second-wave feminism found expression in science fiction, we began to see gender sensibilities seeping into the heartland. In the 1980s, when postmodernism reigned, the novelties of the postmodern seemed to almost begin within the heart of science fiction with the emergence of cyberpunk. What was happening was that both the innovative edges and the conservative core of the genre were constantly aware of each other, they may not have liked what they saw (the New Wave era in particular was full of mutual disdain) but influences, sometimes subtle sometimes blatant, went both ways.
In the 1990s, however, the heartland turned inward. It concentrated on revitalising the core genre elements. We got new hard sf, new space opera: the newness was that writers brought to the fiction some of the literary skills, social concerns, humanity brought in from the innovative edges in earlier movements. For a while, this produced some of the most startling and powerful science fiction we had seen for a long time, ranging from, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars to Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War. But you can only look inward for so long before you start repeating yourself, before you start cannibalising the genre. More and more, as I read through the stories in those volumes I was reviewing, I came to feel that science fiction was eating itself.
Actually, this isn’t surprising, because cannibalism is the mode of the moment across the culture. Youtube is crowded with mash-ups and parodies. The cinemas seem to be mostly filled with remakes and sequels. Sampling continues to be a feature of pop music. There is a sense that re-using, revisiting, repeating is currently the creative norm.
Nevertheless, after nearly a quarter of a century, the new hard sf doesn’t feel so new any more. And for a genre that fetishizes novelty to the degree that science fiction does, there is something ineffably dispiriting in reading a collection of what is supposedly the very best work of the moment and finding work that would not have been out of place in the science fiction magazines of 50 or even 70 years ago, work, indeed, that seemed intent on repeating the sf that had been. These are not stories that seem intent on making new the hoariest of genre clichés. Quite the opposite, they seemed to be relying on that familiarity for their effect.
There is an inherent conservativeness in this. The genuinely new always has an element of shock or disturbance about it. Difference is not comfortable, and at its best science fiction has always shocked us out of our comfort zone by making us see something from a different angle, by suggesting that things may not turn out the way we imagine, by illustrating the fragility of the life and the world we so readily accept. But when genre turns back to the familiar for the sake of that familiarity, what M. John Harrison calls ‘the intense commodification of ideas & styles evacuated of their original meaning & impact, an apparently deliberate industrialisation of the commonplace & worn out’, what you find is that the re-used tropes no longer have a point or an impact.
If (to quote just one, and by no means the worst, of the stories I was reviewing), the primary effect of a story is to make a reader recognise one of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, then the story is not relating to the world as it is now but to the world as it was imagined 60 or 70 years ago. Asimov’s robots served a purpose, they represented a way of regarding industrialisation and also the role of the (black) worker in the (white) social world. This is not to make any grand claims about Asimov’s mechanistic prose, but they are some of the undercurrents that can be detected swirling around in the milieu from which the story emerged. To revisit Asimov’s robots now is not to locate them in that milieu, but to make them artefacts of science fiction, and to make science fiction itself at least a part of the subject of the story. It is, in other words, self-regarding. It is a story written knowingly for the science fiction fan.
Nor custom stale
But in this criticism, am I just making a virtue of my own nostalgia for the way sf used to be?
That, certainly, has been one of the criticisms levelled against my essay by a number of people. This is, to my mind, a curious reversal of what I was actually saying, since one of my prime arguments was that science fiction itself has become overly nostalgic. Nevertheless, we should weigh this idea in the balance.
I am now 60 years old. I have been reading science fiction for close to 50 years, and I have been writing about it for close to 40 years. It would not be unexpected if I had fond memories of how sf used to be while regretting a genre that has become a pale shadow of itself.
Naturally, I don’t see it that way. Nostalgia is a form of conservatism, a way of wallowing in the comfort of the familiar past. But what I am actually arguing is that this is not what science fiction should be doing.
I believe, strongly, that science fiction should disturb the reader, should upset our preconceptions, above all it should make us think. And you do not think if all you are being fed is a cosy diet of the safe and the familiar. If science fiction does nothing but repeat the past, replay old glories, that is literature as pablum.
Any story that goes down the old ‘fans are slans’ route, that consists of tropes borrowed from elsewhere not for the sake of reinvention but to invite the reader to tick them off in some sort of I Spy SF game, that reinforces its generic position by loading on unconsidered trinkets from a host of other sf novels, is not using sf to say anything. It is, rather, saying something about sf. And that might be fun for the cognoscenti, but that’s hardly the height of literary ambition.
So yes, saying that too much of what is written as sf these days has lost its ambition might be a coded way of saying that things were better when I was a lad. But it might also be a way of saying that current sf isn’t as ambitious as it should be.
And there I’m going to draw this discussion to a temporary halt. This piece is already getting way out of hand, so I’m going to post this first part now. In a little while I’ll come back with some further things I want to discuss.
To be continued …