Monday, September 24, 2012

Starting points: science fiction

The last post was about my current relationship to poetry as I begin the investigations of this blog. This one will be about my relationship to science fiction.

Unlike with poetry, my relationship with science fiction goes back quite literally as long as I remember. In fact one of my earliest memories is (perhaps a bit embarrassingly) of seeing a television commercial announcing that there was going to be a new TV series called Star Trek: The Next Generation and being thrilled because I had already seen every episode of the original series more than once and couldn't wait to see new ones. TNG started in 1987; I was born in 1982.

But that's media sf; I'm more concerned with written sf.* My history with this goes back just as far: I was an early and ambitious reader, and as soon as I was able to choose my own material I typically chose sf (and to a certain extent before, as my mother did not shy away from reading me sf).

*Though I will no doubt be discussing sf on television or in movies from time to time, the overwhelming focus on media sf even in many of the better outlets for the public discussion of the genre is a matter of deep concern for me. I thought about changing my lead-in to focus on written sf but I decided to leave it as is partly to point out how pervasive this focus is, and how easy it is to slip into it.

I grew up on an odd mish-mash of styles and periods. I loved Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, making no distinction between their different periods (as far as content goes this makes sense in retrospect for Clarke but not for Asimov; as far as quality it makes sense for Asimov but not for Clarke). If you're wondering about the other member of the trinity, I attempted Heinlein only once or twice in my childhood and found him dreadfully dull. (I still tend to dislike him to a degree far out of proportion to my political disagreements with him--the reasons for this, which currently elude me, may be a matter for exploration.) Skipping over the "new wave" (or when I did occasionally read works from it, not recognizing them as any different from anything else) I also read extensively in the hard sf "revival" of the 1980s and 90s, David Brin and so forth, and I remember at some point during the mid-90s discovering the Mirrorshades anthology and thinking cyberpunk was new and exciting.* For many years I had a subscription to Asimov's--during Gardner Dozois's editorship--and always read it cover to cover. In general, I would read anything with a rocketship on the spine at the library or in the science fiction section at the book store. I would be lying if I said I didn't devour Star Trek tie-in novels.

*Both of these movements, while containing much of value, I now find to be highly problematic. To begin a refrain that will have become very tiresome by the end of this essay: I hope to discuss this in detail in future posts.

Etc. The point is, I've loved sf my whole life. And just as I cannot remember a time that I did not love reading (and watching) sf, I do not remember a time when I did not want to write it.

Actually, both of those statements are technically untrue--late in my high school years, a friend with a personality and tastes that were dangerously overwhelming for me* convinced me that I should not and did not like sf. This lasted for several years--essentially my terribly, terribly wasted college years, when I went for a creative writing degree at Oberlin...during the only period of my life where I thought I was uninterested in science, science fiction, radical politics, "experimental" art, and classical music (all under the influence of this same friend). Oh, retrospect. A year or two after college I came back to science fiction, but it took about six years to really want to write again, and it's still an open question if I'm able to.

*Through no fault of his own; it was just that the "strong" portions of his personality corresponded catastrophically with the "weak" portions of mine. Years later this would lead to a crisis where I had to permanently cut contact with him in order to preserve my self. It was necessary but I still regret the unpleasant way I did it, not having understood what I was doing or why at the time. You'll never read this, but: I am sorry.

But anyway, I've been reading and thinking about sf for most of my life, and recently (the past two or three years) the "thinking about" part has escalated dramatically. I've been working at getting a systematic knowledge both of the genre and of its associated criticism. As I do so, I've been coming to understand the complex things that sf does to me, and trying to figure out how it does these things.

Whereas with my "starting points" post for poetry I had a hard time discussing anything really theoretical or critical because the ground is so unfamiliar to me, here I find myself having difficulty because I have too many thoughts to be able to introduce them briefly. I am tempted to leave it all for later posts, but at the same time I worry that if I dive right in to discussing individual works without laying out some of the basics of my evolving poetics I would just confuse any potential readers, not to mention myself. (Admittedly, too, much of my theory has been kind of swirling around in my brain, bits and pieces settling from time to time but all in flux and still sorting itself out.)

I suppose a good place to start is the traditional game of definition. What is sf? It is a complicated question, and very difficult to answer, as most attempted definitions either include works that everyone would agree are not sf or exclude works everyone would agree are.* It is tempting to go to the famous definition given by Damon Knight: "science fiction is what we point to when we say it." Frederik Pohl gave a similar definition when he reportedly said that sf was what he bought as an sf editor, and this more practical version hints at a very important aspect of what sf is: a marketing category. As this blog progresses, we will likely see how inseparable economic concerns are from the nature of sf, in this and countless other ways.

*Not that this is always bad in individual cases--I recently read a very good argument that the remade Battlestar Galactica series is not sf, and at some point I may attempt an essay on why I feel that Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is (and no, it has nothing to do with the overtly fantastical elements of the story). And of course the whole issue helps to illuminate the general problem with any attempt at defining anything.

Important as it is to remember that sf it as least as much a publisher's contrivance and a bookseller's convenience as a genre, however, it is equally important to recognize that sf is and does something very different from other forms of literature. After all, Asimov's The Gods Themselves did not cease being sf when its publisher refused to label it thus because doing so would limit its potential sales figures; and we can recognize (if not always uncontroversially) that works such as Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and P.D. James's The Children of Men, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, are all sf despite rarely being sold as such.*

*This is not to say that many or all of them may not be other things as well.

(The nature of the majority of the examples just listed--the last four particularly--raises the question of utopian and dystopian literature's relationship to sf. The fact that a similar majority--the first four this time--are written by women raises the question of the relationship of women to sf, particularly at these fringes. These are extremely complicated questions, which I will certainly be addressing as this blog progresses, but for now I leave them as far too huge for an introductory post.)

So what is sf? It is likely a contentious claim, one which I hope to defend in coming posts, but I believe (after Samuel R. Delany) that sf is not a "genre" in the sense that the western or the detective story are genres of prose, but rather in the sense that poetry or drama are genres of literature; that it is no more (or less) similar to non-sf prose fiction than that fiction is to poetry or drama.* To be sure, a given work may belong to more than one of these genres: a novel may be non-sf prose fiction and sf simultaneously just as verse drama is drama and poetry simultaneously; there is also sf poetry, which belongs to both genres.

*In fact, following Delany again and Rosalie Moore (whose poetry I have not read), I tend to think that sf and poetry may have more in common than do sf and non-sf prose fiction.

Most definitions of sf are "content" based--trying to explain what sf stories are "about." Take for example the working definition proposed by Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., in the introduction to his The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov, which is fairly typical of these attempts:

My own personal description of what I mean when I use the term is "science fiction is that fiction which examines scientifically plausible alternate settings for human consciousness."
If you have not yet detected the clunkiness and wishy-washiness, I should inform you that he immediately spends the next several pages qualifying what he means by "scientific," "plausible," "setting," "human," and "consciousness" until each term is essentially meaningless. While perhaps interesting as a sort of naïve self-deconstruction, this is hardly useful.

Perhaps the best content-based definition of sf which I have come across is that of Robert H. Canary, which he gives in his intermittently useful essay "Science Fiction as Fictive History" (in Extrapolation 16.1, 1974). Sf, he says, is "a fictive history laid outside what we accept as historical reality but operating by the same essential rules as that reality." We can see that, aside from the interesting move of defining sf in relation to generally agreed-upon history, this definition achieves its neat functionality largely through the same method by which Patrouch's achieves its lack of functionality: vagueness. Just who is included in his "we" is left unstated in the definition itself, though Canary does explore this question in his essay. Also unstated in the definition, perhaps more importantly, is the nature of the "essential rules," which allows Canary to take in sf's concerns with science itself as well as, perhaps, those elements of sf which are similar to literary realism; and it allows him to include those works of sf which are not particularly concerned with science or technology per se while at least nominally excluding fantasy.* His use of the unspecific word "outside," too, allows him to take in works laid in the future, the "real" present, or alternative presents and histories (these last are often a stumbling block for definitions of sf; everyone seems to understand almost instinctively that they belong to the genre, but it can be very difficult to explain why).

*There will surely be more to come on the elusive difference between sf and fantasy.

But if sf truly is a distinct literary genre in the same sense that poetry is, something more than a content-based definition is needed. Poetry, after all, can theoretically be "about" anything; it is its structure (speaking broadly) that defines it as poetry. Delany, from whom we will likely be hearing a great deal, has provided interesting speculations on what the defining structures of sf are in his many essays on the subject; in "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words" (collected in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction) he introduces his concept of sf's "subjunctivity,"

the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between word and object. [For] a piece of reportage, a blanket indicative tension informs the whole series: this happened. . . . The subjunctivity for a series of words labeled naturalistic fiction is defined by: could have happened. . . . Fantasy takes the subjunctivity of naturalistic fiction and throws it in reverse . . . could not have happened. And immediately [this level of subjunctivity] informs all the words in the series. . . . [In] SF the subjunctivity level is changed once more . . . have not happened.

Events that have not happened are very different from fictional events that could have happened, or the fantastic events that could not have happened. . . .

Events that have not happened include those events that might happen: these are your . . . predictive tales. They include events that will not happen: these are your science-fantasy stories. They include events that have not happened yet. . . . These are your cautionary dystopias. . . . [They] include past events as well as future ones. Events that have not happened in the past compose that SF specialty, the parallel-world story.

The original passage is much longer and full of fascinating and essential observations, but this elision of it, which I actually take from "Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction," an absolutely essential essay by Joanna Russ (from whom we will also be hearing a great deal), collected in her To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, contains the fundamentals.* It is clear that this "definition," if it is that, is to a certain extent still "content"-based, but we are beginning to move beyond that to something more fundamental. As Russ comments, "Delany has here gone beyond the usual concept of science fiction as predictive; and what is more useful, he has uncovered a distinction between fantasy and science fiction that does not depend on estimates of the author's intentions or his scientific accuracy." She might just as well have said that he uncovered such a distinction between sf and non-sf.

*Incidentally, the brackets and ellipses are all Russ's, and the emphases are all Delany's.

The implications of all this are much too much to explore here, and will likely form a great deal of the subject matter of this blog.

There is much more introductory ground that I feel I should cover: my notion of sf's disjunctions; the centrality of modes of exposition to my sense of what makes sf so powerful; the usefulness of even very white male technocratic sf to marginalized people; what I call sf's "problem of the reader"; didacticism; the use of highly schematic symbolism and characterization in highly chaotic story structure. Much more. However, again, it is all too huge and unsettled for an introductory post which has already gone on too long, and hopefully as this blog continues, as I discuss specific works and general theories, my ability to convey these thoughts--and my own understanding of them--will evolve.

Some closing notes:

I think space and space travel are very important to sf, and that contemporary sf when it hasn't abandoned space tends to treat it very poorly--partly by misunderstanding the importance of it in older sf.

For reasons related to that and for many, many others, I think the current state of the field is very, very bad. I worry, however, about saying this, because I recognize that people said very similar things at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s as part of a backlash against the expansion of sf to new perspectives, particularly that of women, at the beginning of a movement towards closing the genre off again to these perspectives. I don't think I am doing that, but it is a concern.

Despite its limitations and its vagueness, I am comfortable with the term science fiction to cover the ground I am interested in. However, it is very difficult, though vital for the kind of discussion I wish to have here, to come up with a name for that prose fiction which is not sf. Mainstream fiction? Contains notes of elitist dismissal, as well as not applying to other forms of non-mainstream fiction such as modernism or so-called "genre" fiction. Realistic fiction? Suggests a limitation to realism. Mundane fiction? Tempting, but insulting. For the time being, I may stick with non-sf. Additionally, as I go on it will become clear that I see modernist fiction and sf, though very distinct, as possessing certain similarities that make it valuable at times to discuss them together, which makes a term containing both of them desirable. I am at the moment drawn to "heightened fiction" for this, but have a feeling that I will come to regret it. All of this, too, will probably be a matter for quite a lot of discussion as the blog goes on.

And finally, on my area of study: I will be focussing primarily on anglophone sf, partly because I, alas, can read only in English and there is very little sf available in translation, but also because anglophone sf is very much its own tradition, which overlaps in some ways with sf in other languages but in many other ways does not. To the extent that this is chauvinism, I regret it; to the extent that it is me examining my own literature, my own tradition, rather than that of others, I do not. At times I may stray into sf from other languages--I'm interested in Stanislaw Lem, Michel Houellebecq, and Haruki Murakami, among others--but it will not likely be a focus. As for the temporal rather than spacial area, I am interested in the influence of earlier writing on what we now consider sf--Mary Shelley in particular is a literary hero to me--but for the most part what I call "sf" is that literature that began in April of 1926 when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories.

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