Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Alan DeNiro's "The Wildfires of Antarctica"

In the contemporary science fiction field of my dreams, disliking this story would come to me very easily. Stories so aware of their own status — both as stories in general and as science fiction stories in particular — would be common, as would stories so willing to be sort of batty and borderline incoherent. As things stand, however, such stories are vanishingly rare, and as such the temptation simply to accept this one as it is and praise it for the ground it is uncommonly willing to occupy is strong; and it takes an effort to say, no, I can't get behind this.

One of Samuel R. Delany's most famous contributions to the study of sf is his identification of sentences* that perform what I (stealing from Jo Walton) call an incluing role, as being particularly sfnal. Sentences such as Heinlein's "The door dilated," Delany has argued, which would be immensely odd — or simply meaningless — in works outside of sf, take part in the stated or unstated "scientific discourse" set up by the sf work, which not only frees such otherwise meaningless sentences to mean but also is itself revealed by such sentences. In other words, because we know that Beyond This Horizon "is" science fiction, we are free, in the face of the sentence "The door dilated", to understand that in this work doors work differently in such a way that to describe their motion as "dilation" is meaningful; conversely, in order to come to this understanding we are forced to imagine not only what this difference is (some kind of mechanical iris apparatus) but what it implies about everything else in the world of the work: i.e., we know that this world possesses the technology (and the economy) to create doors that function this way and, for whatever reasons (which we already begin provisionally to sketch in), the desire or need to do so. In such a way, to return to my favored terminology, we are "clued in" to the socio-technological differences between the world as we know it and the world of the work without actually having been told about any of these differences. In this sense the sentence is a window into science fiction. Simultaneously, science fiction is a window into the sentence — because if we haven't already decided that the work is science fiction, we won't know how to read the sentence.

*Delany likes to speak in terms of "sentences". I find this both less productive and less interesting than he does, but for the moment I will follow his example for ease of discussion.

So goes Delany's argument. He is clearly a partisan of such sentences, as is, far more so, Walton. In this they differ from me: I think that both incluing and the poorly understood, much-maligned direct infodump are central to the sfnal experience, and that the character of any individual sf work is determined to a large extent by the structural variation it establishes between the two.* (Indeed almost everything I write here is to some degree founded upon an analysis, implicit or explicit, of such variation.) At any rate the Official Party Line — which was in considerable flux when Delany began his critical project — has by now come down so firmly on the side of incluing (which is, we're told, "sophisticated", "immersive", and "subtle") against infodumping ("clunky", "takes you out of the story") that anyone who values the latter is practically forced into polemic.**

*This is one of many reasons that I think it is important to consider Joanna Russ's critical work along with Delany's; her frequent focus on sf's "didacticism" nicely complements his focus on what sf leaves unstated.
**Even the term "infodump" itself is generally understood as a pejorative, though I like it enough to try to reclaim it as a neutral descriptor.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Well, put a mental bookmark in the bit where I said that these sentences are for Delany particularly sfnal, but for the moment I'm saying it as a prelude to one of the things that makes me want to ignore my reservations and praise DeNiro: which is that his deployment of incluing in this story is strong, playful, and, I want to say, ostentatious — an intriguing counter to the received notion that the technique's primary virtue is subtlety.

An early example might serve to show what I mean. The narrator, a wealthy art collector, is observing (by means of "surveillance bees") Roxy: Shark * Flower, a genetically engineered living artwork he commissioned (who is in many ways the protagonist of the story, to the extent that it has one), as she is displayed in an art museum along with two other works.

[O]ne time she presses her body against the glass of the panorama, close to Epoxy and Paint. As if trying to capture the false sunlight in her body. (She does not photosynthesize.)
The parenthetical does not serve to reveal what it literally says, that Roxy does not photosynthesize (for why would we assume that she did?). And while it does establish that she could have been designed to do so, doing so is not its primary purpose either (it is an inexperienced sf reader indeed who would be startled by such a possibility). Rather than these technological facts, what the parenthetical conveys is more a sociological mindset — it reveals that what reads to us automatically as, and is intended by its (fictional) writer to be, a would-be poetic extravagance ("As if trying..."), would read just as automatically to people in the world we're reading about as conveying a specific set of unexceptional but relevant factual information, were the point not clarified. (It also suggests that the narrator is one who likes to indulge in poetic extravagances, but worries terribly about being misunderstood when he does.)

My point is not that DeNiro is able to accomplish so much with such a small gesture (good job, gold star, etc.; if technical skill were Enough, I for one would not particularly feel the need to write criticism). Instead, I point this out to indicate that when DeNiro does so, he calls attention to it. There are any number of ways to convey all the same information he does here in the kind of subtle way that the average incluing fan would approve of ("As if she had been designed to photosynthesize," say, eliminating the parenthesis altogether), but DeNiro does not want us to miss the complex of mental processes that are called up by an arrangement of words on the page, and so he all but points at the words, saying, "these are words that make your brain do things, you should think about it." Throughout the story, from the two very funny and unsettling of courses early on* to the sudden, somewhat bewildering indirect information about the narrator's appearance in the final paragraphs**, DeNiro insists, for the most part admirably, on such pointing. Even in less specifically sfnal terms, the story refuses to behave in the usual manner of stories; see for example the one scene of real interaction between the narrator and another person (the artist who designed Roxy), which, simply, is not a "scene"; it comes and goes as quickly and uninvolvingly as it can, as though embarrassed by its own anecdotal nature.

*Reminding me of Delany's comment that one occasion of the word "obviously" in Russ's And Chaos Died "could occasion pages of explication de texte."
**Of a living "sculpture of me": "Its skin gleams white as mine gleams. Its eyes are opalesque like mine." — suggesting what we should have but I at least did not already guess, that he himself is heavily genetically modified.

All of this is especially appropriate given that the story concerns itself specifically with the nature of art, particularly the role of art under capitalism (and if we are living under "late capitalism," the story is set during extremely, extremely late capitalism*) and the attempt, perhaps by an artist, perhaps by several, perhaps by art itself, to break out of that role. The narrator is not so much an art collector as an art consumer (he calls his buying trips "going shopping," has a "favorite art-buying suit," says that "Art, above everything else, is a sign of one's station in life") and his attitude toward art in general is a parody both of the philistine and the refined, disinterested aesthete — both attitudes unique to modern, Western(ized) capitalism. And as "his" art misbehaves, bucking against these attitudes, so too must "his" story.

*The decadence of the setting is perhaps best exemplified by the narrator's aestheticization ("I actually think it's beautiful") of the titular wildfires, product of worst-case global warming. Or maybe by his casual recreational activity of "firing satellite armaments into the ruins of Buenos Aires."

But let's take a look at this misbehavior, shall we? The fictional artworks first. Roxy, deliberately designed by her maker to have violent tendencies ("Would you have asked Goya to make Saturn Devouring His Son a little less violent?" he asks), gruesomely kills several museum guards (as do other works, by other artists, displayed along with her). The rigged sculpture the narrator is sent at the end of the story, it is implied, is intended to kill his comatose wife. The art, apparently, has not been reminded to "punch up," and so the primary victims of its violence are — as has long been the case — proletarians and women. The case of the latter is particularly telling, as Roxy was literally made in the narrator's wife's image — the former's DNA is based on the latter's. Passive to the point of being coma-bound, her only role is to inspire, and then be destroyed by, art.* Sound familiar?

*In this connection it is also not irrelevant that Roxy is specifically a "she".

All this is not necessarily "bad", in terms of evaluating the story at hand — these are after all issues that must be addressed in any thorough examination of the modern role of art — but given the way the story conducts itself — its own specific ways of misbehaving — I find it all, well, misguided at best. It's not that I think the story "endorses" the view that art should rise up and kill working people and women,* or whatever nonsense; I don't think the story seeks to endorse anything at all, and certainly it parodies the artist (almost) as much as it does the art collector. But the whole thing just gives me the feeling that DeNiro is certain that he's better than what he's writing about — which is never a good look, and it gives the proceedings an air of glibness that I find frankly irresponsible, not to mention irritating. Despite all I've said about the story's welcome self-awareness as art exploring the self-awarness of art, this air of certainty and superiority makes it all fall flat; DeNiro seems to me at least to see himself as above all that, and as such everything seems to come just so easily. Lob a missile into Buenos Aires, make a crack about an art-buying suit, kill that woman, sink the Netherlands under water, shove a Pollock into the side of a whale: it's all the same, it's all easy, it doesn't matter, it's all down there somewhere. Even the eyecatching incluing I described earlier starts to feel less like a work of art insisting responsibly on its own artificiality and more almost a kind of juvenile bragging.

*Recommended reading: Joanna Russ's "A Boy and His Dog: The Final Solution".

I'm not saying the story should be deadly serious rather than comic. I'm saying that it needs to not be so glib. There is a difference. Reader, glibness is the enemy: it tricks us into not caring, into thinking everything is ultimately the same, ultimately dismissible; it tricks us into thinking that these are the attitudes of the mature adult, who has left caring about things behind with other youthful pursuits.

Glibness is the characteristic tone of much that is called "postmodern". Though this strain of postmodernism* has been eager to clasp sf to its heart, and much of sf has been eager to return the favor, I've always found that what is valuable in sf is very different, and that the alliance between the two has been catastrophic to precisely the extent that it has been successful in its own terms. Sf, even at its most naïve, even at its blandest, is about texture, variation, difference, disjuncture; and while postmodernism sells itself especially on this last, the glibness betrays it every time — by smoothing everything over into one textureless mass which the artist, only playing dead, surveys from his (or, less often, her) lofty perch, nods, and says "Yes, I can make use of this." The kind of analysis I find valuable in approaching sf (not to tootle my own flootle, but say for example what I was able to find by taking Alaya Dawn Johnson literally, or just in general the kind of examination of variation I mentioned earlier) finds itself with nothing to do.

*As with so many words the poor literary critic is forced to use, "postmodernism" means so many different things to so many different people as to be basically meaningless. Here when I use the term I am speaking specifically, if also vaguely, of "this strain" of it, though also as a general rule I think that to suggest we are "post" modernity is premature to say the least.

Delany, I said earlier, considers the kind of sentences DeNiro deploys so skillfully (as examined above) to be specifically sfnal. I don't think this is the case anymore. They have been absorbed by other modes — or maybe rather, contextless aspects of many modes have melded together into a slurry. Delany (and first publication in Asimov's) notwithstanding, this story's use of these formerly sfnal techniques reads to me not as sf so much as generic — indeed genre — postmodernism. Or, perhaps, I could consider the story either mediocre-to-bad at being sf (flat, thin, superficial, too preoccupied with metaphor), or good at being postmodern — but not both. And if I come down on the latter side, which I think I do, the question, which I'm pretty sure I know how I'd answer, becomes whether "good postmodernism" is actually a good thing.

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