Monday, November 4, 2013

What is "the New Wave"? What is "sex in science fiction"?

Well, yet again I've written and suppressed a very very very long and cranky post, this time a reaction to Lee Konstantinou's rave review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of Kingsley Amis's two "science fiction" novels. Konstantinou's review is a mess, a terrible, terrible mess, in which I could seldom read longer than two sentences without going "What? That's just plain wrong," or "You have no idea what you're talking about," or "What you've actually written is the opposite of what you seem to think you mean, and both options are terrible." This weekend I wrote a, basically, paragraph-by-paragraph reaction to it, but looking over it now it feels petty and mean. Konstantinou, as an associate editor at LARB, is a part of the gatekeeping apparatus, which makes his apparently total cluelessness (and his terrible writing) galling. But still.

There are two parts of his review, though, that I do think need to be addressed. This post deals with one of them; I will write about the other later this week.

Konstantinou writes:

Throughout [Amis's atrociously stupid book about science fiction] New Maps of Hell, Amis repeatedly laments that science fiction is nearly asexual. It “unshackles the libido but seldom, often appearing to go out of its way to be chaste,” he writes. Indeed, for all its imagination, “the nature and direction of sexual interest in science fiction is almost oppressively normal.” An attempt to correct this tendency, The Alteration might justly be viewed as belonging to the New Wave’s historical unshackling of the genre’s libido, just as much as any work by Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, or Joanna Russ. Amis finds in human sexual development a potent metaphor for thinking critically about the nature and significance of SF.
I'll start with "the New Wave." Contemporary usage is, I acknowledge, against me here, and as such I'm not blaming Konstantinou specifically for this, but I do think it's important to have a historical awareness of what lies behind this term.

The term "the New Wave" first entered the science fiction field when Judith Merril compared the work of a very small number of writers, most of them British, all of them associated with the British magazine New Worlds under Michael Moorcock's late 60s editorship, to the famous (and then-current) French New Wave in cinema. It was a moderately useful comparison: they were a group of writers who were conscious of trying to do something different, who were under the sway of a certain set of critical theories, who were tied together by one venue, a shared audience, and a central personality. Very soon, however, sf readers and editors started applying the term willy-nilly to anyone anywhere who was doing work that was in some notable way different from that of the so-called "Golden Age" of the 30s and 40s. What this ends up doing, though, is flattening out this "difference," making it appear as though all these different people were doing much the same thing for much the same reason; not only that, but it ignores the crucially important decade of the 50s.

The New Worlds writers, to all appearances, really did want to break with the entire tradition of sf; so too did some of the other notable writers of the 60s (Vonnegut, say), but many others (Russ, Delany) did not. They wanted to change things, they wanted to do their own thing, but they very much saw their contributions as a part of a continuous tradition--one which, significantly, included that work done in the 50s, which itself was much more varied than what had come before it. (Some others, like Le Guin, would have us believe that they gave all this no thought, though I often wonder how literally true this is.)

I think that, if we are to retain the term "New Wave" at all (a big if), it should be applied only as Merril originally meant it. In this usage, it makes sense to call J.G. Ballard New Wave, and Brian W. Aldiss, and the Americans Pamela Zoline and Thomas M. Disch. They are all very different writers--much as, say, Truffaut, Godard, and Varda are all very different directors--but there is a cohesiveness to their enterprises (as there is with those directors) that there simply is not with the other writers. To call not only these New Worlds writers but also people like Le Guin, Delany, and Russ (and all the others who often get lumped in with them, everyone from Tiptree to Ellison to Zelazny) "New Wave" flattens their differences just as much as it would to say that, for example, Ingmar Bergman and Kenneth Anger are also "New Wave" directors, because they also made movies notably different from those in the main stream at very roughly the same(ish) time as the French directors did.

Next let's deal with older sf's lack of sexuality (a tendency, incidentally, which had begun to break down long before the advent of the New Wave or of the specific writers Konstantinou lists). There are two very different but equally crucial things to think about here.

First, there are the material conditions under which that older sf was created and distributed. Algis Budrys, having been there at the time, discusses this far better than I ever could in essays like "Non-Literary Influences on Science Fiction," but basically: the companies that distributed the pulp magazines, that got them on store shelves, had near-total monopolies. What this meant in practice was that a distributor, by deciding not to handle a given magazine, could singlehandedly destroy that magazine, for good. And these distributors, for their own material reasons (operating in areas with varying prevailing "moral" standards, for example), were extremely censorious of any sexual content. In order for their magazines to survive, editors had in turn to be similarly censorious. Thus, the lack of sexuality in these older sf stories is neither intrinsic to the field nor reflective of any psychological "failing" in its writers, but rather imposed, basically, by corporate interests. This does not of course change the fact of the absence, but it does require a different analysis--and a different response from those trying to change it. Amis is very plainly not aware of any of this in New Maps of Hell, and Konstantinou follows him unquestioningly.

Second, though it was not by choice, this lack of sexuality as it actually manifested in older sf does not need to be seen as automatically a bad thing; in many ways it can be seen as a small shelter against the overwhelmingly compulsory forms of sexuality pushed in nearly all other areas of culture. Sexuality is an important part of life for most of us, it is true; but it is not the only part of life, and many are the people who find its constant discussion and expression just as stifling as the total inability to discuss it at all. (Indeed, for an example of the discussion of this very feeling in — pre-New Wave — sf itself, see Theodore Sturgeon's story "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff".)

Even more seriously, it is difficult to see or even to talk about in today's climate of usually unreflective "sex positivity," but cultural expressions of sexuality as such are not necessarily to the good. Think about the violence, the vicious misogyny of the sexuality in the "mainstream" of American literature at the time*; are we to be sad that the sf of the 1940s had no equivalent to Norman Mailer? And my god, look at the person who's pointing out the "problem." Do we wish that sf had had the "freedom" to write about sexuality in the ways that Kingsley Amis did?

*I say "at the time" only to create the parallel; I do not mean to imply that "things are better now." They aren't.

And all that brings me to my final point, which is that Konstantinou has unconscionably feministwashed, if you will, the "unshackling of sf's libido" by naming Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Samuel R. Delany as those who accomplished it. Because far, far, far more often what the entrance of sex into sf meant in practice was the importation of the sexual attitudes of the likes of Mailer and Amis (or more accurately the newfound opportunity for men who already shared these attitudes to express them explicitly). If you read, really read (rather than fondly recall a story or two from) Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies, for example--and they prided, nay preened themselves on their "mature," "honest" sexuality--you'll see what I'm talking about. Read the two stories about Jack the Ripper, by Robert Bloch and Ellison himself. Read Piers Anthony's "In the Barn". Read Henry Slesar's "Ersatz". (NOTE: You'd probably be better off if you didn't.) "Sex," in the context Amis is using it, most often translates into "brutal violence against women." It is long past time we stop uncritically valorizing its entrance into the field, and certainly long past time that we stop pretending that the nuanced explorations of Le Guin, Russ, and Delany are in any way representative of "sex in sf" in general.


Athena Andreadis said...

Le Guin has given plenty of thought to genre antecedents, as her many essays attest. The best antidote to Amis and his cohort of Mailer/Updike clones is Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes.

Ethan Robinson said...

With Le Guin I was referring, perhaps too elliptically, to her frequent claims that, when she began writing, she gave no thought to what field she was working in, and did not read the genre magazines. I wasn't saying she doesn't give any thought to what she does.

Athena Andreadis said...

My (perhaps also elliptical) point was that Le Guin was always aware that her writing was "political" in all the genres she chose to write, despite her protestations of Olympian detachment.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

philip jose farmer

Image of the Beast / Blown: An Exorcism2

Ethan Robinson said...

And "The Lovers" in what, 1953?