Brian McHale, Christine Brook-Rose, Christopher Priest, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Frederic Jameson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry James, Iain Banks, James Joyce, John Fowles, Katherine Dunn, Kathy Acker, Kim Newman, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurence Sterne, Miguel de Cervantes, Paul Auster, Richard Jefferies, Robert Coover, Samuel R. Delany, Steve Erickson, Thomas Pynchon, Virginia Woolf, William Gibson, William S. Burroughs, William Vollman
Another of my Cognitive Mapping columns, this one appeared in Vector 219, September-October 2001. As with the column on Modernism, my views are likely to have changed somewhat in the interim.
Molly was snoring on the temperfoam. a transparent cast ran from her knee to a few millimeters below her crotch, the skin beneath the rigid micropore mottled with bruises, the black shading into ugly yellow. Eight derms, each a different size and color, ran in a neat line down her left wrist. An Akai transdermal unit lay beside her, its fine red leads connected to input trodes under the cast.
Asleep. Naked. I saw her. A transparent cast ran from her knee to a few millimetres below her crotch, the skin mottled by blue purple and gree patches which looked like bruises but weren’t. Black spots on the nails, finger and toe, shaded into gold. Eight derms, each a different colour size and form, ran in a neat line down her right wrist and down the vein of the right upper thigh. A transdermal unit, separated from her body, connected to the input trodes under the cast by means of thin red leads. A construct.
Empire of the Senseless (1988)
Probably for as long as we have had language we have listened to storytellers, whether we are Greeks clustered around blind old Homer, or Saxons in a smoky hall hearing tales of Beowulf, or modern day Iranians listening to someone declaim the stirring tale of the demonic, horn-headed Iskander who we know as Alexander. And if, wide-eyed and attentive, we sit in the audience often enough we will hear the story change: lines are forgotten or placed in the wrong sequence, contemporary references are inserted, time constraints result in a necessary ellision. The story is not fixed, it never has been.
That same fluidity continued even as story found a new medium on the page. Geoffrey Chaucer gave readings from The Canterbury Pilgrims (c1387) even as he was writing it, and when he heard criticisms that his rhymes were pretentious he put the comments directly into the mouth of his Man of Law. In what was still, at the time, a primarily oral tradition, Chaucer was simply letting audience and story interact. The introduction of printing, and more importantly the spread of literacy that followed in the wake of cheaper, more readily available books, tended to fix the story permanently in the words on the page. Even so, writers found ways of loosening that grip. Miguel de Cervantes addressed his readers directly in Don Quixote (1605-15), then pretended that certain sections of his book did not come from his pen at all. Laurence Sterne, in writing Tristram Shandy (1759-67), played with the very physicality of the book, incorporating, for instance, one page that was entirely black.
It was only really with the rise of Realism as the most common literary device during the middle years of the 19th century that this fixity became a necessary part of the storytelling process. The story was a reflection of the world, an expression of reality, and if reality could not change then neither could the story. Increasingly, however, our century has questioned the fundamental notion that reality is fixed. Einstein’s Relativity, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty, Popper’s Falsifiability, Derrida’s Deconstruction, Lorentz’s Chaos; the names of the principles that have become the common intellectual currency of our age are enough to show how unfixed our notions of reality have become.
One response to this has been the rise of what is called Postmodernism. In architecture, for instance, where the term appears to have originated, postmodernism freely mixes styles from many different eras to separate the building from its function — a museum does not necessarily require a grand Palladian manner, an office does not need to be a four-square block, each might partake of elements of the other. In literature, which took on postmodernism during one of its periodic bouts of experimentalism in the late 60s and 70s, it mixes styles and techniques to separate the fiction from the book. These are not necessarily new techniques, as in architecture postmodernists borrow from any age, which is why Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is an almost textbook example of a postmodern text even though the author died nearly 200 years before the term was invented.
In literary terms, postmodernist stories tend to be marked by devices that make the reader complicit in the telling of the story, whether by directly addressing the reader or making the reader play a part in the construction of the story (as, for instance, John Fowles did by providing alternative endings to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)). At the same time, distancing techniques keep the reader alert to the fact that we are being spun a yarn; we do not immerse ourselves in a postmodernist tale, living for a while fully within the world of the novel, rather we watch from outside, enjoying the writer’s game of shifting between voices and perspectives and techniques and formats (as Thomas Pynchon does in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), or Gabriel Garcia Marquez mixing the fantastic with the real in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)).
Simply to list the literary techniques used by writers working within the postmodernist mode would take more space than is available in this article. And even that would be to provide no more than a partial picture. No writer is divorced from her age, any book will, to some degree, emerge from and reflect back the culture in which it was written. And postmodernism — so far as it can be isolated as a cohesive movement at all — is a product of the post-Second World War Western World, which is why some theorists such as Frederic Jameson have identified it as the literature of late-Capitalism. Behind the techniques, therefore, there would need to be another and equally extensive analysis of the political and cultural ideas and assumptions that underlie the literature. (That is, if we are even to accept that postmodernism exists as an identifiable cultural form. As yet we do not have the historical perspective that allows us to identify, with comparative ease, the unifying features that mark out, say, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as modernists. Postmodernism is a diffuse form and academics continue to argue back and forth with a host of contradictory theories as to what — or even if — it actually is.)
One intellectual position, however, does seem to underpin all (or at least most) expressions of postmodernism: that it is anti-hierarchical. There are no distinctions between high and low culture, between past and present, between fiction and reality, between author and reader. Such a breakdown of the distinctions between so-called high and low art, has brought science fiction into the postmodern playground. Most of the readily identifiable postmodern authors have written at least one work that is clearly science fiction, in intent as well as in content: Big as Life (1966) by E.L. Doctorow, Ratner’s Star (1976) by Don Delillo, In the Country of Last Things (1987) by Paul Auster, Xorandor (1986) by Christine Brook-Rose, while others, such as Robert Coover’s surreal account of the Rosenberg case, The Public Burning (1977), or William Vollman’s hallucinogenic take on the history of the Americas in The Ice-Shirt (1990) employed fantastical devices that would previously not have been seen outside the genre. Steve Erickson, all of whose novels have been both science fiction and postmodern, even managed to employ fantastic effects in a book that was outwardly a work of political journalism, Leap Year (1989).
And while science fiction was slow to take up the forms and manners of modernism, it was quick to pick up on postmodernism. Indeed the cross-fertilisation between the two has been extensive: in an essay called ‘POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM’ (1991) critic Brian McHale has pointed out how Thomas Pynchon was inspired by science fiction in his early work, notably Gravity’s Rainbow, how Pynchon’s work in turn inspired William Gibson’s early novels such as Neuromancer, and how Gibson’s cyberpunk, in an extension of the feedback loop, provided further inspiration for Pynchon in Vineland (1990). Though it is difficult to think of a more direct cross-fertilisation than Kathy Acker’s plundering of other literatures as postmodernist architects plundered other styles and cultures in her wholesale (and acknowledged) use of passages from Neuromancer in her own novel, The Empire of the Senseless. Clearly familiarity with cyberpunk in general and Gibson’s work in particular was meant to create resonances in the mind of the reader which would further enhance the world and the story being created by Acker.
There are science fiction writers who are also postmodernists, notably Kurt Vonnegut whose Slaughterhouse 5 (1969) combined dizzying shifts in time and location, autobiography and fantasy in a graphic conflation of postmodern techniques. Others use postmodern techniques readily and knowingly, as, for example, the narrative circularity employed by Samuel R. Delany in ‘On the Unspeakable’ (1993) and Dhalgren (1974), and the notebook with its crossings-out and emendations which forms the final section of the latter. Still others would probably deny being a postmodernist while using postmodern techniques, for instance the jarring scene in The Affirmation (1981) by Christopher Priest (who has also vehemently denied being a science fiction writer), in which a manuscript is suddenly revealed to be a pile of blank pages will jerk the reader out of the world of the story and into full engagement with the author as effectively as any postmodernist could wish, or even the free and playful use of the postmodernist mixing of real and fictional characters in novels such as Anno Dracula (1992) by Kim Newman. And there are those, such as the cyberpunks, who are acclaimed for writing ‘postmodern science fiction’ although the narrative devices owe as much to earlier science fiction as they do to the influence of writers like Pynchon or Acker, and most cyberpunk demands awareness of the story more than awareness of the text. (Cyberpunk probably gets called postmodern more as a political, ‘late-Capitalist’ form than a literary form, taking as its common premise the breakdown of Western, industrial society; although if that is the only criterion there are huge swathes of science fiction from Richard Jefferies’s After London (1885) to Iain M. Banks’s Excession (1996) which would probably similarly qualify as late-Capitalist.)
Nevertheless, postmodernism has had a far greater effect upon science fiction than modernism did, not just in what has been written but in how sf is perceived. The breakdown of boundaries between high art and popular culture has helped to break down boundaries between science fiction and the rest of literature. This has not only facilitated movement into and out of the genre, but has also led to the development of the strange Marches known as Slipstream inhabited by books as varied as Cities of the Red Night (1981) by William S. Burroughs or Geek Love (1989) by Katherine Dunn, works which aren’t exactly science fiction but which couldn’t exist without the freedoms of sf or the experiments of the mainstream.