Thursday, July 18, 2013

Explication and the inexplicable

In his fascinating review of M. John Harrison's Empty Space: A Haunting, Matthew Cheney writes:
At its core, science fiction is a genre of belief and SF writers specialize in producing belief in readers (or, as is more commonly said, they provoke the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief"). Thus, SF is the style of writing most shackled to notions of verisimilitude, most needing the reality effect. Hence the peculiar power of objects in science fiction: things metonymically create worlds in the reader's mind. Any world (no matter how specific, no matter how narrow) is never the sum of its words, and so by imagining worlds through words, traditional SF is an anamorphic format, framing future histories through the light of present language, hoping to project a wide image across the reader's brain screen.

But science fiction that seeks to elaborate worlds through words will always fall short. This is the failure inherent in the promise of SF, the fact that skewers the ideal.

He goes on from there, writing about uncertainty and inexplicability, and is extremely interesting.

This is very much the territory that I try to explore, fitfully, on this blog; Cheney's words have lit up my brain with excitedly conflicting reactions ranging among "Yes I agree wholeheartedly!" and "No I disagree vehemently!" and "Isn't that a bit beside the point?" (and beyond...). I know, however, that I'm not going to have the ambition or energy to explore these thoughts fully, at least not here, at least not for a while, so for now: this note.

Where I disagree, I think (and I mean that "I think" to carry as full a weight of meaning as the phrase can), is that I find sf's relationship to the reality effect, to verisimilitude, more complex than Cheney allows. For me much of the best sf explores precisely the failure he identifies: it dwells in it. He suggests a sort of alternate "lineage" of sf in which to place Harrison, a lineage including Stapledon, Lem, and Tiptree, among others; all are vital, but for me the lineage Cheney places them in opposition to (or perhaps tangential to), the Campbellian tradition for lack of a better word, often explores much the same territory, if not always as radically.

Or perhaps not "much the same"--but related. Something I've been struggling for some time now to write about is my feeling that the central tension in most of the best sf is that between explication--its pleasures, its successes, its linguistic forms--and the inexplicable, those infinite places where explication can do nothing but fail. Emblematic for me in this sense is Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, where the intricate and joyous cataloging of artifacts, the endless explication of the effects of acceleration and distance, finally fail in the face of ultimate unknowability. Rama, contra Gentry Lee, is essentially inexplicable, and in the face of this inexplicability Clarke's novel sputters into silence.

And this is what is at stake when Clifford D. Simak writes, in "Paradise" (the fifth tale in City, an agonizingly self-questioning work), "Fowler had written in his report: I cannot give a factual account because there are no words for the facts I want to tell." It is what is at stake when Van Vogt's supermen, far from the "power fantasy" they're usually dismissed as, spend entire novels being confused and overwhelmed; and it is what is at stake when mere paragraphs in to The Weapon Shops of Isher the character who is our point of entree--who we shortly leave behind almost forever--feels "a sense of being balanced on a tight rope over a bottomless abyss." Even Campbell himself, in the stories he wrote as Don A. Stuart, tried to explore this territory, though he was it seems constitutionally incapable of realizing what he was doing. (And though, sadly, it's probably a stretch to consider her a part of the main line of sf, I can't resist bringing up Joanna Russ, whose narrator in We Who Are About To... says that "A scientist might be able to make up theories about this cave, but I can only look at it.")

The best of the main line of sf, then, I find deals precisely with these questions of when explication is appropriate, and when it is not; what it might mean to apply the forms of explication to the inexplicable; and what it means, what happens, when explication fails, or simply does not apply. (It is, incidentally, in this area that I consider the so-called "sense of wonder," which I still consider central to the sfnal experience, to lie--another thing I've been struggling to write about.)

I've got nowhere to go with this, and I hope none of it comes across as forceful assertion or anything of the like. All of this requires considerable investigation, or at least I think it does (and I'm the one writing about it, so hey). Consider this, perhaps, notes towards a real essay, one which most likely will never be written.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Proust, women, power, privilege

(No sf here, move along...)

This passage from Proust's Within a Budding Grove (in the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation) comes from one of the many episodes in which Marcel sees a "simple country girl," invests her with all the unspoilt charm and beauty of nature, and is frustrated that, surrounded as he is by family keeping an eye on him because of his ill-health, he won't get to sleep with her. In this case it's a "milk-girl" who comes frequently delivering cream to the hotel at Balbec at which Marcel and his family are staying. He thinks he has caught her eye, that a letter he receives is from her; instead, it is from a friend who has stopped by but been unable to see him. Marcel is crushed:

As for the girl, I never came across her again, any more than I came across those whom I had seen from Mme de Villeparisis's carriage. Seeing and then losing them all thus increased the state of agitation in which I was living, and I found a certain wisdom in the philosophers who recommend us to set a limit to our desires (if, that is, they refer to our desire for people, for that is the only kind that leads to anxiety, having for its object something unknown but conscious. To suppose that philosophy could be referring to the desire for wealth would be too absurd). At the same time I was inclined to regard this wisdom as incomplete, for I told myself that these encounters made me find even more beautiful a world which thus caused to grow along all the country roads flowers at once rare and common, fleeting treasures of the day, windfalls of the drive, of which the contingent circumstances that might not, perhaps, recur had alone prevented me from taking advantage, and which gave a new zest to life.

But perhaps in hoping that, one day, with greater freedom, I should be able to find similar girls on other roads, I was already beginning to falsify what is exclusively individual in the desire to live in the company of a woman whom one has found attractive, and by the mere fact that I admitted the possibility of bringing it about artificially, I had implicitly acknowledged its illusoriness.

Many, possibly most, people whose politics are similar to mine--particularly those whose bodies and minds are more marginalized and oppressed than my own--are inclined to dismiss writers like Proust, and the whole literary tradition he's a part of, as a bunch of elitist, racist, misogynist, well-off white men. And I certainly can't blame them! But as a white man who wants nothing more than to demolish patriarchy and whiteness and capitalism (and...), I struggle with this perspective. Though I respect and admire it I can't share it--because beyond (or better, wrapped up in) the considerable literary value I find in Proust is a just as considerable political value...for me, at least.

(Though similar things could be written about race and class with respect to Proust, and a more intersectional analysis would of course be ideal, this is going to, like Proust himself, focus on gender.)

Obviously Marcel's attitude towards women is problematic and disturbing (and I haven't even gotten to The Captive yet...). As so often in men's literature, they are simultaneously demeaned and idealized, which is to say objectified in the fullest meaning of the word. Beyond the sense in which we all, as products of patriarchy, are misogynists (most dangerously but not only the men among us), Marcel is a misogynist. Proust too is a misogynist, though I would argue in a different way. But whether In Search of Lost Time is "a misogynist work" is for me a much more complicated question; and at least as I read it and construct it in my mind, I lean towards thinking it is anything but.

What I find in passages like this one is an astonishingly powerful encapsulation of the unlivable contradictions instilled in us by patriarchy. As a man (or at this point maybe still a boy: what we now call a teenager), Marcel has been socialized to think of women in ways that make it natural for him to speak of them as objects for his "collection" (as he says a little earlier than what I have quoted), as "treasures" and "windfalls," as symbols of the splendor of the world rather than people. But it is clear that, just as with so much that he has been taught, he is coming up against the limitations of these notions, and is deeply puzzled, frustrated, and saddened by them. He knows that there is something wrong in the way he has been trained to think of and relate to women, but he can't figure out what it is. We can see the contradiction in his parenthetical about about how when desire is for a woman, it is for an "object" that is conscious; in his equivocation about "what is exclusively individual"; in his distinguishing the desire for a person from the desire for wealth,which the philosophy he references, "absurd" as this is, for the most part really does not; in his recognition of the "incompleteness" of that philosophy's wisdom, teaching him to limit his desire when what really seems needed is a transformation of it. In all of these he recognizes--but can't quite grasp--the human uniqueness of each individual woman, just as human and just as unique as that of each individual man.

Though he only has extremely problematic tools with which to conceptualize it, Marcel's sense that the women he sees are an integral part of the beauty he finds in the world is very valid.* For one thing, while patriarchy offers only extremely debased versions of them (such as the kind we see in this passage), love and sexual desire are marvelous things for those who want them; as a queer man living in patriarchy I very strongly recognize the agonized, confused sense that there is something beautiful and true in the feelings inspired by the presence of someone beautiful or desirable (in any sense, physical and/or otherwise), but that this beauty and truth is wholly inaccessible and possibly illusory. Obviously this easily shades over into attitudes of the "eternal mystery" and "coquettishness" and "intrinsic eroticism" of women, but after all there has to be a reason--beyond massive funding--why such patently false (but useful to power) notions are able to exert such a powerful hold on the messed-up minds of men, and I suspect that this mystified and painful failure to grasp a sensed truth is a big part of it.

*And though I don't want to make a big point of it and am not sure quite where to put it, we should remember in the back of our minds that Proust was--uncomfortably--queer, and the women objects of Marcel's desire can at least on some levels be read as displacements of the men his author desired, which doesn't excuse the misogyny but does complicate it, especially when thinking of Marcel's frustration at the unattainability of what he desires.

And for another thing, while he is wrong to see these women as "symbols," particularly as symbols of some naive, unspoiled "nature," Marcel is not wrong to see in them the miracle of life-as-it-is-lived, a kind of life from which he is to a large degree cut off, both by his health and by his privilege. Again this line of reasoning easily shades over into really gross things: the idealization of the "genuine living" of the oppressed, the "it's so hard to be privileged" attitude, and more. I want to make clear once again that the biggest part of why these attitudes exert such a powerful hold on our minds and our behaviors is that they have been actively and systematically enforced by power for centuries, but I think it is obvious that if they did not play upon some real need no amount of structural violence and reinforcement could make them as intractable as they are. And I think passages like this one help us to understand why these gross things are so tenacious. Because power makes big promises to privileged white men, promises it certainly fulfills in the form of giving them immense power over those lower on the scale than they are, but promises that in other terms it does not and could never keep, because the deepest, darkest secret of power is that power sucks. The exercise of power sucks. When one is granted so much structural power, all one can do is to destroy the living of life, whether literally or figuratively; one cannot live. And when someone in this position encounters someone who they sense, no matter how accurately, to be living in some more meaningful sense, the feeling of isolation and failure can be immense.

When I read Proust, part of me winces at passages like these, and thinks, "I wish this weren't so misogynist." But I've come to think that, though it seems paradoxical, the part of me that wishes that is the part that is desperate to cling on to its privilege, while the part of me that welcomes what is problematic is the part that wants to face and question that privilege. Because while I certainly understand the perspective of, say, a woman who has no patience for yet another in-depth exploration of a man's mind, as a man who desperately wants to deconstruct and destroy my own male thinking, such explorations are essential. And though it's not the whole reason by any means (this blog post has hardly exhausted Proust!), this is a major part of why I have found it so valuable to read men like Proust alongside all of the feminists and other oppressed radicals I also read: not for any simplistic "Feminist X has taught me that what Marcel says in Scene Y is disgusting" kind of rote problem-spotting, but for the insight each gives me into the other, into myself, and into my (alas) fellow men.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Two things I've read recently have had effects on me that in turn have combined into an observation.

I read Vajra Chandrasekera's story, "Pockets Full of Stones," in the latest Clarkesworld. I half loved the story, half found it to be frustratingly stifling itself; even that frustration, though, is for me more positive than not, because in order for a story to feel like it's stifling itself there has to be something there to stifle--and here there very much is.

But that's all beside the point. (At least, beside the point of this post.) Part of the half-love (or the love half?) is the way Chandrasekera handles communication between a space station in Earth orbit and a ship headed to another solar system at relativistic speed.

I’d been ten years younger than Rais was now, when the plan occurred to me. I was still at Nha Trang University, working through the qualifying courses to apply for extraplanetary duty....The time dilation, Makemake Station, my career, the time and training I’d need to get there. I could talk to Rais himself; I could close the loop, answer the nagging little questions.

Now at forty-two I was as old as Mom when she had me. Ten years older than Rais, who had aged less than a year in my two decades of putting all the pieces together. I’d thought I knew him from Grandma Abena’s stories, from the things Mom didn’t say. Rais had grown bigger in the tellings, his absence having density and mass.

In person, he was too small, too young.

This (and much more in the story) gives me chills.

Now time dilation is nothing new in sf. Indeed it's been such a common theme for so long that almost forty years ago (in "Toward an Aesthetic of Science Fiction") Joanna Russ called it sf's "favorite piece of theology" and Ursula K. Le Guin (in "Semley's Necklace," aka "Dowry of the Angyar") had ten years earlier been able to use it--almost without explanation--as the basis of a fairytale; both of them were depending on an already-lengthy tradition in order to make their points. And though the concept is, for me at least, intrinsically awe-inspiring, it has certainly been dealt with tediously at times; at other times, it has been treated simply as a quotidian aspect of the world of the (interesting or not) story (for a lovely example of the interesting-quotidian, see L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Gift"). But when a good writer with something to say about it (and Chandrasekera seems to be a good writer, and certainly had something to say about it) takes up the subject of time dilation, no amount of familiarity, not even any amount of tediousness in others' hands, can keep it from being, as it is, awe-inspiring.

As I said on Twitter when I read the story, "Time dilation is literarily inexhaustible."

And I've just read Justina Robson's near-excellent space opera, Natural History. I say "near"-excellent because at times I find it to be infected with that particular glib "hip"ness which has been the bane of sf at least since, I don't know, Bruce Sterling?* But anyway it's not nearly as bad about it as most, it can for the most part be overlooked, and in general Robson seems much more interested in being what I can only think to call, for lack of a better word, genuine.

*Also, I'm sorry but Don McLean is unforgivable.

But again, that's beside the point. Were I more ambitious, I'd write a whole post about the novel, which really is quite fascinating, but I'm not at the moment so I just want to point out a very small thing Robson does, at the beginning of chapter 17, on page 173 of this 325-page mid-00s space opera:

No visuals or information supplied by the Abacand made it feel real to Zephyr. How could they be in another solar system, just like that? Yes, she could see it on the screen's portrayal of information from Isol's own eyes. Yes, it was certainly not Sol (too orange) not Earth (too much brown, wrong continental shapes), not Luna (shiny and coloured, and besides, two of them) and there were no signs of any constellations she recognized. But she was so used to all kinds of unrealities and simulations that this made as much impact as a student project, and she felt nothing. Why should she, here in her tiny womb? For the time being, however, she must accept it as if it were the truth.
This passage is interesting to me on a number of levels. Like much of the novel--indeed in a sort of microcosm of many of the larger concepts of the novel--it is simultaneously wondrous and precisely about an estrangement from wonder: at this point as readers we are fairly certain that the instantaneous travel did happen, that Zephyr really is in another solar system not a simulation, and we are in awe at the attendant possibilities; she on the other hand wants to feel such awe but is incapable of feeling much anything at all (and note how Robson, in a manner reminiscent of Joanna Russ, humorously creates and defuses the wonder with matter-of-fact phrases like "and besides, two of them"). And if we are honest, this tension between the wondrous surroundings and the inability to respond to them reflects how we are feeling, indeed how we (or, OK, I at least) often feel when reading sf*, recognizing the wonder of what we're confronting and yet feeling a peculiar distance from it, a knowledge that after all these are only words, and anyway haven't we seen it all already? And yet the awe, somehow, in some not-quite-expressible way, remains...somewhere.

*Indeed one of the many levels on which Natural History works is frequently as an allegory of reading sf.

It's a very complicated and fascinating situation we're confronted with in this unassuming little paragraph, one whose depths I have scarcely touched here. But my real point in bringing it up (and it's a much smaller one) is that what we (and Zephyr) are feeling this complicated awe/non-awe about is the plain fact of interstellar travel--and not relatively speaking very huge interstellar travel, a question of some twenty-seven light years or so.* Obviously this is an absurdly, incomprehensibly enormous distance, but relative to the size of, y'know, everything, and in sfnal terms, it's local travel.

*Just to make it clear that I read the whole book, haha, I am aware that this gets complicated later on; I'm talking only about the situation as we're aware of it at the opening of chapter 17.

Because interstellar travel per se hasn't been a new and exciting concept in sf since at least Doc Smith (and...who?). Skylark of Space was in 1928; were sf (or indeed literature or even life in general) merely the constant quest for novelty that both its skeptics and many of its defenders make it out to be, a scene of travel to another star in a space opera (and halfway through the novel, remember) published nearly eighty years later simply could not be so striking as it is in Natural History, where indeed it feels not novel but new--to the point where it can even withstand its immediate dissolution into a discussion of how disappointingly not-special it feels!

I think in both cases part of what's at issue is that the wondrous element is extraordinary in the world of the characters. In "Pockets Full of Stones" communication between those humans on or near Earth and those on the ship traveling away from it is supposed to be limited to impersonal scientific and technological exchange; to have personal conversation is a transgression (considered a waste of resources), and while an awe-inspiring story could surely be written about the impersonal communication, to speak to one's semi-time frozen grandfather, younger than you, about family matters is on another level of existence. And in Natural History, the society filling up the solar system feels the lack of interstellar travel quite strongly, and the unprecedented nature of this instantaneous travel is a major topic of discussion throughout the entire work. And yet this in-story extraordinariness, I feel, cannot quite explain the feeling these moments give me.

One could say that all I'm talking about, what Chandrasekera and Robson are doing, is "revitalizing sf tropes," but that's not it at all. For one thing, I don't think they're revitalizing anything; much more accurate to say that what they are doing is simply vital, in both senses of the word. And besides, I tend to be of the opinion that "tropes" are not so much "a bad thing" as just a bad concept for use in discussing literature; it might be too much to say that the moment you start talking about your literature in terms of tropes you've killed it dead, but I'm tempted to say so anyway. Time dilation, interstellar travel: these are not "sf tropes," they're wondrous ideas; they're elements in a conversation that's been going on nearly a century now (or better, they're nearly century-old elements in a much longer conversation). Indeed they are wondrous concepts in ways quite external to the literature that makes up that conversation. But when brought into that literature, they are immensely rich in their imagery, their metaphor, their resonance; as I said before, they are inexhaustible and therefore neither need to be nor even can be revitalized.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Astoundingly accurate prediction

Mark Siegel, in Hugo Gernsback: Father of Modern Science Fiction:
Gernsback's inventions and promotions fed and were fed by his astoundingly accurate predictions of technological development. As a more detailed look at his fiction will reveal, he was a tireless prognosticator in a number of widely varied areas. In 1915, he described atomic war in the following manner: "Setting off spontaneously the dormant energy of the atom--the entire city of 300,000 souls, houses, churches, bridges, parks and everything else have gone up in a titanic vapor cloud; only a vast crater remains." (Hiroshima had a population of 320,000 when it was bombed.)
The "critical" model based around the notion of sf as "predictive" is foolish and useless for more reasons than I could even begin to recount,* but here we have a perfect example of how plainly tasteless it is, at its not-too-extreme logical extension.

*It is not that discussion of the "predictive" model is inappropriate to a discussion of Gernsback, who indeed foolishly thought that was what sf was for. But to buy into it so wholeheartedly leads nowhere good.

To begin with, if one really must reach for "accurate Gernsback predictions," one need not go to the extremity of atomic war--why not television, or plastic furniture, or even, if you absolutely have to bring up a large-scale catastrophe, scientific agriculture? To brag that Gernsback was "astoundingly accurate" in his prediction of nuclear war, while treating such war itself as some kind of neutral marvel, is, again, breathtakingly tasteless.

As for that closing parenthetical, there are no words. We see here someone working according to an automated process: "match figures, match figures, if they're close mention them." Because if Siegel had devoted a second's thought to the cute little factoid in his parentheses, he would have realized that there is no reasonable way that this can be considered a "prediction."

Honestly, why is it there? Are we to think that Gernsback--what, predicted the approximate size of cities likely to be nuked to hell? Are we supposed to be pleased about it? Impressed? Am I to chuckle archly? Tell me, Mark Siegel, what is that parenthetical for?