This was one of my Cognitive Mapping columns. It first appeared in Vector 196, November-December 1997:
you sat on the bed unlacing your shoes Hey Frenchie yelled Tylor in the door you’ve got to fight the Kid doan wanna fight him gotto fight him hasn’t he got to fight him fellers? Freddie pushed his face through the crack in the door and made a long nose Gotta fight him umpyaya and all the fellows on the top floor were there if not you’re a girlboy and I had on my pyjamas and they pushed in the Kid and the Kid hit Frenchie and Frenchie hit the Kid and your mouth tasted bloody and everybody yelled Go it Kid except Gummer and he yelled Bust his jaw
The 42nd Parallel (1930)
John Dos Passos
No, it’s not Donald I should show the door to. It’s Victoria. He’s told me a score of times about my preoccupation with paleass shiggies, and I never listened, but he’s right. Prophet’s beard, all this talk about emancipation! Just one of the shiggies who’ve been in and out of this apartment like doses of aperient was stunningly beautiful and solid-ground sensible and marvellous in bed and a whole, rounded, balanced sort of person. And that was Gennice, that Donald brought home, not me, and I was unappreciative because she was a brown-nose. I must be off my gyros. I must be busted clear out of my nappy old plantation-bred skull!
Stand on Zanzibar (1969)
Realism is a relatively recent literary invention, though it has been remarkably far-reaching in its influence. It was only in the middle years of the last century that, predominently, French writers such as Balzac began to play with the notion that their writing could somehow encompass the world. True realism lasted only a very short time, it was a political fiction in which the plight of characters was demonstrated by a painstaking recreation in prose of every aspect of their lives, circumstances, environment and work. The idea of realism, however, has lasted a lot longer: the notion that words provide a recreation of the world, that fiction tells of something as it is. It has provided the basic fictional form ever since; even today, whether we are reading a crime novel or a historical romance, a mainstream novel or a work of fantasy, we are meant to assume a one-to-one relationship between the words on the page and some actual world being described.
This is an approach to fiction that was being undermined even before the end of the nineteenth century. The development of theories of psychology by Freud and by William James popularised the notion that all of us see the world differently, that whatever the consensus reality through which our bodies move the interpretation of that universe is always unique, always idiosyncratic. And if there is no one true world, then there is no realism that prose can mirror. It was William James who coined the term “stream of consciousness”, and it was his brother, Henry James, who was among the first to bring these ideas to bear in fiction. Rather than the world of the characters, what mattered primarily in the modernist fiction of Henry James, Virginia Woolf and others were the characters themselves. Their perceptions and cognitions became the focus of the work: the world was not truthful, there was no absolute reality, truth now had to be found in people. (At the same time other scientific developments, such as relativity, were starting to seep into the literary consciousness, further undercutting the solidity of the external world and lending weight to the idea that truth could be found only in the relative realities of individual characters.)
Various literary techniques were developed by the modernists to explore and represent this relativism. Viewpoints shifted from character to character; stream of consciousness carried us on a rushing, tumbling ride through the immediate, unanalysed perceptions of the characters; the first-person narrator became more common than the god-like, all-knowing third person; neologisms started to creep in and grammer to depart to represent the individuality of the perceiver; extra-literary devices appeared in to the text and unreliability in the narrator’s voice. The early decades of this century, and particularly the years after the First World War, were rich in literary experimentation as modernism gave a new freedom to the writer’s voice. One of the most representative writers of the period was John Dos Passos, whose vast record of national decline, U.S.A. (The 42nd Parallel, 1930, Nineteen Nineteen, 1932 and The Big Money, 1936), is a concatenation of all the modernist techniques designed to make us distrust the world. It was, as so often with such experimental works, a political novel indicting the rise of big money and the decline of the ordinary man in post-First World War America. In sections headed “Newsreel” he presents a dizzying sweep through headlines, newspaper reports, fragments of incidents; in sections headed “The Camera Eye” (as in the passage quoted) he takes us into the stream of consciousness; still other sections carry the narrative forward or explore one character outside the timestream of the story, often using radically different narrative voices to move us from one view of the world to the next. The result is disorienting and disturbing, this is not a way of viewing the world with which we are comfortable, even in our normal lives, but like the vorticist paintings of the same era it is onrushing and liberating.
Although much of the serious fiction from the turn of the century onwards (at least up to the upsurge in postmodernism over the last couple of decades) has shown modernist tendencies, little of this technique has leached into popular fiction. This is understandable, if modernism is designed to upset our world-view then it is not going to work within the essentially reassuring and comforting confines of popular fiction. Thus, although by its very nature science fiction cannot be a truly realist form, it has continued to use realist techniques throughout much of its history. This is partly because describing an unreal event or situation in a realist manner helps to underpin the believability of the fiction, and partly because modernism demands an experimental approach to the writing which few early sf writers were willing or able to follow.
However, during the 1950s and early 1960s writers came into science fiction whose backgrounds were as much artisitic as scientific or technical while editors began to encourage a more literary approach. It was at this time that writers such as Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon and most particularly Philip K. Dick began to write stories that questioned the secure solidity of everyday reality. Although Bester was one of the great literary experimenters in science fiction, notably in The Demolished Man (1953) and Tiger! Tiger! (1956), this didn’t really translate into a modernist approach to science fiction until the New Wave emerged during the first half of the 1960s.
It was the British New Wave, an iconoclastic movement centred on the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock and reflecting the liberated attitude of the Swinging Sixties, which brought the disturbing and questioning style of modernism into science fiction. Writers such as Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard used stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators, they used the disintegration of the world as a symbol for the mental disintegration of their characters, they shifted between viewpoints to affirm that there is no one, secure, true interpretation of events. Again, as so often with modernism, it was often used for political purpose: undermining the security of our belief in the world also undermined the establishment viewpoint.
Writers as varied as Aldiss, Ballard, Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, Josephine Saxton and the Americans John Sladek and Thomas M. Disch have been identified with the British New Wave (the American New Wave, which began a little later than its British counterpart, was more concerned with questioning values and beliefs than in literary experimentation), and their works during a fairly brief period between the early 1960s and the early 1970s provide a good representative sample of the mode. Nevertheless, the one work which stands as an exemplar of the British New Wave, in the same way that U.S.A. stands as a symbol of modernism, is Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, for this, too, is a work that brings together the various literary techniques by which the New Wave re-invented modernism. In fact, in many ways Stand on Zanzibar is a mirror of U.S.A. Sections labelled “The Happening World”, like “Newsreel”, clump together newspaper cuttings, quotations, fragments that add up to a kaleidoscopic impression of the near-future world. Sections labelled “Tracking with Closeups” and “Continuity” would use a variety of viewpoints, stream of consciousness (as in the passage quoted), and differing voices to carry the narrative forward. While other sections, called “Context” would be snapshots designed to provide just that. Brunner was clearly and consciously bringing the technique of John Dos Passos into science fiction, and it worked. If received opinion previously had been that a realist style of storytelling was essential to allow suspension of disbelief in the non-real setting or events of a science fiction story, Stand on Zanzibar disproved that contention once and for all.
Modernism, in the form of the British New Wave, flourished in science fiction for only a short period, by the mid-1970s science fiction was going through a period of retrenchment, a re-establishing of traditional styles and subject matter. But it had had its effect, and ever since then science fiction writers have been able to employ an ever-increasing arsenal of literary techniques to tell their unreal stories.