Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Take the paperback, tear it in half

The other day I read for the first time Samuel Beckett's play Endgame, which in addition to its characteristically Beckettian absurdity and stasis can be taken to be "postapocalyptic" in the sfnal sense. The play's reputation is such that I hardly need to tell you that it's excellent. And obviously this is far from the only thing to say about it, but it got me thinking about sf--thoughts that were reinforced when, a few days later, I started, and quickly stopped, reading Scarlett Thomas's 2006 novel The Last of Mr. Y. Bear with me...

Reading Beckett I was reminded of Steve Mitchelmore's comments through Michael Holland (here and here) about the failure of sf to "think the totality of what it projects." These comments are, I think, extremely perceptive, and sf writers would do well to take them seriously (and I mean those links to be clicked through), though as an sf reader I obviously don't exactly agree with the way he applies them. But anyway, in this connection I remembered a fanzine essay of Teresa Nielsen Hayden's, "Apocalypse Now and Then" (collected in Making Book), about her very real apocalyptic fears (this was written I think in the early 80s, so very Reagan-and-the-bomb) and the dishonesty of postapocalyptic fiction, which ends like so:

I think that if the bomb comes down all the stories end, right there, all their duration and complexity compressed into one white-hot nanosecond, all our futures frozen like our shadows on the wall. No denouement, then, no Clarke or Heinlein or Marge Piercy future: take the pulp paperback, tear it in half along the spine, and hand it back to the reader.
Tearing the book in half (not to mention "futures frozen like our shadows on the wall") is essentially what Beckett does in Endgame.

And the reason I bring Thomas into it is that though The Last of Mr. Y isn't at all postapocalyptic, you could hardly ask for a better example of an sf (or sf-ish) novel that fails to think its totality. It's part of that aggravating subgenre that straddles the boundaries of the sf field (both in terms of marketing and in in terms of "artistic" issues), whose existence and extravagant critical praise I kind of blame on Neal Stephenson: essentially faux-highbrow (but still pop, because of postmodernism!) Dan Brown. The Last of Mr. Y thinks it's about Derrida and thought experiments and metatextuality and mysticism, but really it's just about how hip it can make us think it is; it thinks that being about those things makes it smarter than The Da Vinci Code but really in the end its awareness of these ideas and possibilities just makes it more embarrassing than Brown, who at least doesn't keep telling us that he should know better.

This judgment is possibly really unfair, because I read 40 pages (out of 400) and quit in frustration, so maybe it gets better (though the writing style certainly doesn't change, as a flip-through indicated). I tend to doubt it; and at any rate I hope this is all understood as being representative of a broader movement in contemporary sf in general, a pervasive, though just barely not omnipresent, problem. The End of Mr. Y is a book that's about the ways that literature changes our thinking and our perception of reality, that features fictional books bleeding into the one we're reading, and so on and so forth, and yet it's still written as if these things aren't going on, like it's just another thriller-mystery with clues strewn all throughout its realist telling details, with a sassy-hip first-person-present-tense narrator, and my god, how inappropriate is this, fundamentally, as an undertaking?

I hope it's clear that I wouldn't want all (or maybe even any) sf to be "more like Beckett," but this fundamental inappropriateness is a quality of too much of what passes for sf today. These writers insist that they are producing Literature, without wondering if this is what they should be doing or bothering to interrogate what literature might be; they have internalized too willingly postmodernism's emptiest aspects. A handful of works from the past few decades escape this (Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, Candace Jane Dorsey's A Paradigm of Earth, and Kij Johnson's "Spar" are emblematic for me, and no doubt there are more I am unaware of), emerging as vital works with something to say to us, but they are too few in a field with such promise.