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.

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