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.
The essay that started it all (also available in Romanian)
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
I also expanded (and attempted to clarify) my ideas in an interview published in two parts on the blog Nerds of a Feather, here and here
Responses that particularly caught my eye came from:
Nina Allan, who wonders whether my idea of exhaustion might not also apply to sf cinema, a view that is echoed by Gary Dalkin
Karl Schroeder (whose Sun of Suns may be the answer to all my woes, according to Matt Hilliard)
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 …
Jonathan McCalmont said:
“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.”
One of the most interesting things about postmodernism is that while it may have been developed as a means of breaking down boundaries and challenging assumptions, it rapidly devolved into a way of pandering to the intellectual vanity of readers and writers alike with irony sugaring the pill: ‘we may look as though we’re sitting around patting ourselves on the back… but we’re not really!’
What frustrates me about these types of story is that, as you point out, they do nothing but pander to the readers but they present themselves as being in some way transgressive. Look what Cory Doctorow is doing to Asimov! Look what Scalzi is doing to Haldeman! Look what Stross is doing to Clarke!
There is nothing transgressive about winking references and satires. There is nothing transgressive about challenging genre boundaries that no longer exist. There is DEFINITELY nothing transgressive about writing a cowardly and unforthcoming childhood memoir and dressing it up with an idealised version of pre-internet fandom as part of a deliberate campaign to win an award.
What disgusts me most about the fact that these stories present themselves as new and interesting is the fact that by limiting their transgressions and deconstructions to a list of popular novels, they are effectively championing the idea that no world exists outside of that provided by escapist popular culture.
The talk of ‘challenging boundaries’ and ‘subverting genre expectations’ is really nothing more the old ‘Fans are Slan’ bullshit dressed up in pseudo-academic terminology. If you reduce the range of issues discussed by SF to SF itself then of course SF fans are going to seem supernaturally smart! There is a world outside of yellowing paperbacks and overheated convention centres and science fiction desperately needs to rediscover it.
Paul Kincaid said:
The only word I would disagree with here is ‘deliberate’. I doubt if any author sets out on a ‘deliberate campaign to win an award’. But pandering to the audience, flattering them with clever but far from opaque references to works they are sure to know, is all too common nowadays. And not just in science fiction.
Joris M said:
I believe there is a huge risk that your interpretation of the transgressive nature of those works you mention is off. The proportion of readers that are actually familiar with Asimov, Clarke or Haldeman is probably tiny, and most readers will only be familiar with descendants of these works a couple of generations removed. And probably then in games, television or film. People will be a lot more likely to have seen Aliens or the Verhoeven Starship Troopers, have played Doom or Halo, than to have read Heinlein’s novel. And that will influence the way these books are received and interpreted, even if a sub-population of readers will get the references to the older novels.
And those descendants, often due to the nature of their media, are often simpler than is achievable in written words. So a work that transgresses against those, more well known, forms might look too simple if one forgets they are out there and only focusses on the isolated written genre.
Paul Kincaid said:
What both Jonathan and I are saying is that such stories are NOT transgressive. Exactly the opposite, they are conservative and comforting.
And while the proportion of general readers familiar with Asimov, Clarke or Haldeman may be small (and I would dispute this, Clarke in particular is very widely read, and Haldeman is of course still writing and still winning popular vote awards, so I don’t think you can dismiss them that easily), the point that is being made is that the works we are pointing to are aimed knowingly at an audience that would be familiar with those writers.
Jonathan McCalmont said:
“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”
The reason why I get annoyed at the singularity argument is that the aging futures we have inherited were once both fresh and entirely outlandish. Verne wrote about traveling to the moon at a time when the idea was in no way under serious discussion… in those days, traveling to the moon was as bizarre a notion as building a motorway out of cheese. It was so far out of people’s daily experiences that it made no sense and yet it made perfect sense because it drew on the science of the day and it made that future seem somehow possible.
We live in an era of astounding intellectual richness. More people are professional thinkers now than 100 years ago and yet when asked to repeat Verne’s trick and come up with a possible future, contemporary writers suck their teeth and talk about how difficult it all is!
Nader Elhefnawy said:
Hi. I enjoyed the piece – and the point regarding your agnosticism about the future is taken.
Incidentally, I agree about the tension between a fictional future’s simultaneous exoticism to readers and familiarity to the characters. As it happened I found myself first thinking about it not as a reader, but as a writer, coping with exactly that problem; it was then that I felt myself dissatisfied with their approaches, rather than simply enjoying the weirdness.
The problem I have with a lot of current sf is that it’s intellectually lazy. The writer has rummaged around in the toy box, dug out a trope and then used it without any regard for origin, meaning or intellectual rigour. Mainstream writers don’t just make shit up – they research it, they aim for verisimilitude. Just because a genre story is set in a made-up world or on a made-up planet, that doesn’t mean you can make it up as you go along.
Paul Kincaid said:
Digging toys out of the box without regard for what they are or what they are capable of doing is precisely what exhausts them. So yes, I agree absolutely.
What defines the “heartland of SF”? Awards and best-of books? What is socially validated at conventions? Or do you define it in literary terms, as what hews more closely to some particular vision of what SF should be attempting?
To put it another way, could you clarify whether you think the kind of fiction you are looking for is not (often enough) being written or whether it exists but is not sufficiently celebrated by traditional genre institutions. (Not that it will be completely one or the other, just wondering where the balance lies for you)
Paul Kincaid said:
It is impossible to define science fiction, so I suppose it is impossible to define ‘heartland sf’. But really we all know what it is. It is what John Clute refers to as ‘Genre SF’. It is what you’d think of first of all if someone asked you what sf was. It is the stuff you find most familiar when reading sf. Individual examples may differ from one reader to another, but overall it is the stuff where it never occurs to you to wonder whether it actually is sf or not.
I have no particular vision of what sf should be attempting. All I feel is that it should be attempting something.
The second part of your question is more complex than I really want to address here. It is actually one of the topics I want to consider when I come around to producing later parts of ‘What Rough Beast’.
Mark Tiedemann said:
While willing to concede the immense difficulties of defining SF, only corralling it into a hypercube is really impossible. But for shorthand, I tend to call it Epistemological fiction, since nearly all of it deals with some value of that as a principle metaphor.
Paul Kincaid said:
Mark, Epistemological Fiction would, of course, tie in with the ‘contes philosophiques’ I mention in my piece. But I’m still not sure it quite fits the purpose.
Mark Tiedemann said:
Epistemological Fiction would not be exhaustive—it would include something like Richard Powers’ “Goldbug Variations” as well as the more genre specific (like Gregory Benford, say), but I find that when faced with works as far apart in their tropes as Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” and Hal Clement’s…well, anything…it is the one constant, at least thematically. And given that SF usually separates itself from the pack by foregrounding its metaphors, this description plays very usefully for me since it allows me to cut through the distraction of arguing from tropes. It does mostly deal with the nature of knowledge and of how things are known across a wide swath of content and it does so in a more self-conscious way than any other genre (or non-genre). But to be fair, I most often use it as a counter to the argument that SF is a subset of Fantasy (capital F), which I then define as essentially religious fiction (not in terms of denominational religious but the essence of religious experience). It can make for an exciting conversation at the very least. 🙂
Paul Kincaid said:
Agreed, an awful lot of science fiction (and an awful lot of very interesting non-sf) could readily be classified as epistemological. But couldn’t a lot of it also be considered ontological?
Mark Tiedemann said:
Ontological in the sense of the nature of being would necessarily include Fantasy, so yes, SF would be ontological on the level of exploring both material and metaphysical states of existence. It would then divide from Fantasy on the level of epistemology since SF by its nature is directly concerned with distinctions of how and in what way altered landscapes impact what is already known and can then expand the category of what is knowable (and in what way), principally—since this is its dominant metaphor—materialistically. If I seem to be splitting philosophical hairs, I apologize, but I believe SF distinguishes itself (as you have suggested) by being quite conservatively concerned with material existence, leaving questions of “essence” entirely up to character development, while Fantasy concerns itself with Essence directly regardless of material plausibility. SF, as a conceit, pretends to a realism consistent with mimetic fiction, while Fantasy only uses that pretense in order to deal with the immaterial. Because most other fictions play with both sides of this as two among a number of ways to talk about character and theme, it can be said all fiction is ontological and on some level even epistemological, but that is not the major concern outside of SF (with a few exceptions—I think DeLillo plays with epistemology more rigorously than might be expected in that kind of fiction).
Before this gets away from the main point of your column (which I think is excellent, btw), let me state that I use this distinction more as a way of delineating the kind of experience I have with a good SF novel and as such it is a necessary and definitive component of what I’m looking for (and what I try to write). It’s not an experience I either expect or often have with any other genre.
Paul Kincaid said:
Mark, are you also very keen on detective fiction? Because in many ways that seem to me to be the epitome of epistemological fiction.
But I know what you mean about the epistemological affect you are looking for in fiction, and it is something I share to a great extent.
I am keen on detective fiction (more so of late) but never quite as much as SF. That said, yes, they share a great deal. Problem-solving is basic to both, it seems to me, but the focus is shifted. (My wife has always claimed to read SF as if it were a mystery—instead of “who done it” SF is “what is it?” fiction.) The primary distinction, I think, is that the central question of a mystery/detective story is exhausted once the culprit and motive are discovered and the world can then “settle back” into a normative state. In SF, once that central question is addressed, the world is changed, but I’m not so sure that goes directly to the epistemological question except to show consequence of the epistemological experience.
C. S. Samulski said:
I’d like to add my own “YES” to McCalmont’s.
But I wonder, perhaps, if you are a tad overgenerous to assume this is the result of confusion on the part of the author—that they have mistaken exoticism or concept without boundaries (which is a euphemism for worldbuilding without rigor) as necessary for the telling of this future?
I think I tend to side, rather more pessimistically, with Sales and Elhefnawy on this question—namely that this is deliberate and more empty/repulsive for it.
As Elhefnawy put so clearly:
“However, the insistence on the world’s incomprehensibility can have yet another function, namely that of dodge.”
I would say you and (Niall) Harrison tend to err somewhat more optimistically, but maybe I’m mis-reading you both?
Most of all, however, I really want to repeat the quote that I thought hit home with the most awful lucidity on this matter, M. John Harrison’s reply:
“It’s not creative redevelopment, it’s not evolution by bricolage, it’s not the boring old being kicked apart to reveal an interesting new inside. It’s not even laziness. It’s the intense commodification of ideas & styles evacuated of their original meaning & impact, an apparently deliberate industrialisation of the commonplace & worn out.”
This, I feel, more accurately states the phenomenon than anything else I’ve read in all the posts so far (I’ve read all linked to here + comments + listened to the podcasts.) And yet it very wisely avoids implicating a single culprit and instead keeps this trend of exhaustion as something more like an inherent cultural impulse.
Of course even in this comment, I’ve managed to stoop to pointing fingers at authors as the likely culprits, or very nearly that, which is exactly what I decried originally in my own response. This too seems a hard impulse to avoid regarding this subject which makes me distrust it as a viable explanation. It’s also why I tended toward admiration for your and McCalmont’s critiques as I thought they were speaking in terms that were more systemic in explaining cause. (I assume that McCalmont’s singling out of certain authors was meant to be indicative of what he felt was a larger malaise contaminating them rather than hoisting them up as the origin itself.)
I thought I’d finish here by returning to a reoccurring and perhaps hopeful thread winding its way throughout this discussion: that sense some have invited that we may be on the brink of another New Age-like upheaval of norms and that this dissatisfaction is the normal course of events which must always precede the renegade breakaway.
I had the chance to hear William Gibson speak recently (which I wrote about ithere if you’re interested) and he recounted quite a bit about the time when Neuromancer was first published along with the original aims of the movement he’d unwittingly become a part of.
One thing he said particularly stuck out to me, which I’ll now decadently quote from my own article (emphasis added):
“But cyberpunk, rather than overturning the genre, was instead successfully absorbed, he says, as if genre possessed ‘an unplanned capacity to protect itself.’ Once a thing is named by the media and accepted by the mainstream, ‘your sect will inevitably fall into baroque decay.'”
It might be a little banal to end with “this has all happened before and will happen again” and yet, one has that eerie sense about it, no?
Maybe I’m jumping the gun, but should something like this come to pass, I wonder how genre’s amoeba-like absorption could be thwarted this time around to make for a more interesting landscape that doesn’t have to endure these boom/bust bubbles in startling, worthy fiction.
PS: I’d like to hear Speller’s side of the conversation at some point as well!
Paul Kincaid said:
Am I being generous? Optimistic? Not to hear some people speak. No, I think Mike Harrison is spot on (and puts it a lot better than I could), but I’m interested in examining the phenomenon rather than fingering someone for blame. I think these things are happening, and I just want to say: ‘here it is. Now, what does it mean?’
By the way, I’m sure Maureen will have something to say, because our conversation started with her thinking out loud about something she hoped to write. I certainly hope she does write it, because the broader point she was making was fascinating.
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Ian McDonald said:
I wonder is Ian Sales has put his finger on it. I’ve thought for some time that science fiction has been losing its heartland to visual media (which is why I find any debate about whether Scifi movies have become exhausted amusing: they were never alive to begin with) and a reduction to tropes. This is intellectual death: both creatively and critically; writing becomes a gazeteer of tropic tick-boxes. A little like the old joke about de-natured jokes: someone reads out ‘Number Six’ and everyone laughs until they cough up a lung. And it brings us into the hideous area of the mash-up: when everything is a trope, what could be more fun that mixing them like a cocktail? While not as blatant as the ‘plus Zombies’ trope, a lot of SF that deals with the core –that hollowed-out core– is trying find a market (not a life) by adding tropes… ‘plus Knowing’. ‘plus self-referentialism’. Joke Number 6. There is a place for it, (I’ll quite happily play that game myself when I desire) but it’s not what the genre is about. The heartland, but not the heart. And it’s not what I want to write.
Paul Kincaid said:
Yes, very much so. Tropes are tools that can be used as a way of addressing other issues, as such they can be vitally important. But if all you use the tropes to do is address other tropes, to play with the fact of them being tropes, it is insular and self-regarding. I see no point in any literature that does not make an attempt to connect with something outside itself.
Wow… you’ve touched on soooo many concepts here, it’s hard to pick one for discussion.
At points I agree, at others I disagree, which to my mind makes this a great post as it means it is thought provoking on multiple layers. Some have characterised your post as a bit of a rant or an attack on current science fiction, but if I may be forgiven for presuming to understand your motives, at a guess I would say this post is the result of a debate you’ve had with yourself as you’ve wrestled with these concepts internally. I think it’s a healthy discussion.
I like the classic definition of science fiction. If you took the science out or substituted something else (like magic) for science, a sci-fi novel would fall to bits and you have fantasy by another name.
You ask, where is the science in War of the Worlds? I think there’s several pivotal points. The idea of intelligent extraterrestrial beings could certainly be replaced with angels or monsters, but terraforming Earth to suit the Martian’s environment couldn’t. Neither could their eventual defeat, not at the hands of Will Smith in a souped up alien knock-off, but by bacteria, highlighting an often overlooked aspect of our biosphere, but one that is absolutely essential to life on Earth. So the knowledge of science saves the day => science fiction.
Once you get to the end of the book you realize that the whole story has been about misunderstanding our place in the universe. We think we’re so important (anthrocentric), but these aliens see us as we would observe ants under a magnifying glass (from the opening of the book), putting us in our place. Then we’re “saved” not by our ingenuity, not by our courage, but by humble bacteria. In that regard, Wells extends the Copernican principle, that we’re nothing special, and that viewed from a scale above/beyond us (the Martian perspective) and from beneath us (bacteria) we’re just another species competing for life. I think that’s a master stroke of science fiction genius.
Along these lines, you might enjoy…
Paul Kincaid said:
I don’t know whether it is a rant, that is for others to decide. But it is certainly not an attack on science fiction. Frankly, if it is an attack on anything, it is an attack on those whose reading is so shallow that they make such assumptions. It is written out of a deep love of science fiction, and could not have been written without that love. And yes, it touches on things I’ve been wrestling with for a long time.
I used to go for that ‘classic definition’, as you put it. But the more I read, the less it seemed to hold. There are any number of brilliant works of science fiction that have no science in them. Pavane or Fahrenheit 451 or Earth Abides or, turning to more recent works, The Affirmation.
As for The War of the Worlds: at issue here, I think, are different uses of the word science. Yes Wells infused his novel with ideas about evolution that he had picked up at the Normal School and that continued to inform his fiction throughout his career. But it is not a novel about science, science is just the world of knowledge within which the story operates. In that respect there is just as much science in something like Tomorrow by Graham Swift or Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. (I pick those examples carefully, there is actually quite a lot of science as part of these novels, but they could not be characterised as science fiction.)
Even at the time Wells was writing, there was good reason not to imagine that Mars held intelligent life. But Wells was using the story as a way of making a political point in response to the Germany Invades stories that had become a massively popular genre since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and also against Britain’s colonialist ventures (which he’d written against on other occasions).
Yes it is a book that highlights the insignificance of humankind within the grand scheme of things, but that is a theme that Wells reiterated throughout his career in works that had not one tenth of the scientific content of The War of the Worlds. So science is there, but, as I say in the essay, only in the broadest Latin sense of knowledge.
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