Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shuffling tropes

[With spoilers, for those who care.]

There is a moment in "Palm Strike's Last Case" — the novelette by Charlie Jane Anders that opens C.C. Finlay's guest-edited issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction — where a man, Luc, awakens from cryosleep twenty years later than the rest of the colonists who had made the century-long journey with him to the exoplanet Newfoundland. Something went wrong with his cryo-module, "the wake-up system failed," and only now has someone managed to construct a new one. In this moment Anders evokes, without having to linger on, the oddly multiple senses of loss attendant on such a moment: Luc knew going into cryosleep that he was leaving his Earth life behind, but to wake up to this truth (though he never believes it fully until the end of the story, if then) is something else entirely; not only this, but in missing twenty years he has lost the chance at anything but the most tenuous connection with the rest of colonists, the colony, and the planet itself.

The moment is one of loss specifically; more generally, it is one of disjuncture. I haven't written about it much here, but early on in my self-conscious project of trying to read sf with an actively critical eye (which predates this blog by a year or two) I hit upon "disjuncture" as a word to describe what is for me a central aspect of the sfnal experience. It is there in Joanna Russ's identification of "the Dislocated Protagonist" and "the Dislocated Reader"; it is there in older American magazine sf's traditional refusal (or, in some people's bizarre jargon, "failure") to attend to received notions of narrative progression and unity. There has always been a counter-current, a concerted attempt to smooth over sf's disjunctures in favor of seamless surfaces like those of so-called "mainstream literary fiction," * and ever since the artistic and sociopolitical explosions of 1970s sf were contained by the backlash of the 1980s, this counter-current has been in the ascendant. Today, with few exceptions, it has practically a stranglehold on the sfnal imagination.** Considering this, it is at least refreshing to read a story such as this that builds itself around multiple disjunctures, and that, though it exhibits some signs of wanting to smooth them over (e.g., that peculiarly orderly use of flashbacks that is so unfortunately common in much contemporary writing in and out of sf), in most ways steadfastly refuses to do so.

*Probably best exemplified early on by the critical work of Damon Knight and James Blish — though oddly enough at least the latter's fiction is often driven by such disjunctures (I think particularly of A Case of Conscience, which is as great a novel as it is precisely because it tears itself apart so frequently).
**All of this is why I was so inclined to defend Sandra Newman's admittedly clumsy Guardian article against what I saw as misreading and over-hasty denial.

There are other things to like, such as the story's attentiveness to ecosystems, human and otherwise, including both parasitism and symbiosis (and the difficulty in distinguishing the one from the other); but this leads me to my first real complaint (well, first in this essay, anyway; by this point in the story I already had my second complaint, which I will address in a moment). Much of the story hinges on the colonists' inability to grow crops in Newfoundland's soil, which had been rich at first but quickly became toxic; eventually Luc, a geo-engineer, figures out that it is because the colonists had nearly eradicated an insect-like creature they had thought was a pest, eating the plants, but which turns out to play a vital symbiotic role in the local ecosystem, detoxifying the soil so that the plants can grow in the first place. Anders sets up a resonance (a trivial and tiresome one, but not so much so that it singlehandedly destroys the story) between this and the drug manufacturers and dealers that have sprung up in the colony, who have a relationship with the rest of the (starving and hopeless) colonists that straddles the line between parasitism and symbiosis, and whom Luc, in an attempt to continue his pre-disjuncture life (on which more to come), wishes to eradicate. It is in the context of this latter aspect of the story that Anders, in a flashback to a conversation between Luc and the Earth-bound Josiah, introduces what you might call The Parable of Chairman Mao and the Sparrows. Criticizing Luc's simplistic crime-fighting methods (yeah...like I said, more in a bit), Josiah says:

It's like, during the Great Leap Forward, Mao sent every peasant in China out to kill sparrows, on the theory that sparrows were eating seeds and reducing the harvests. But once the sparrows were all gone, turned out they had been eating locusts, which had been eating the grain. It was an ecosystem. When all the sparrows were gone, everybody starved.
Now, it is important to remember that the list of similar cases is almost literally endless. The casualties of modern rationalization are countless, so it is important to ask why Anders chose this particular parable-from-life out of myriad options. No doubt if asked she would say she chose it because it is a particularly clear example of "pests that turned out to be essential," that like her story but in reverse it has to do with the relationship of insects to crops, maybe that sparrows are nicely poetic. All of these for me are reasons why the parable is much too on-the-nose to carry any weight. Far worse than this, though, it is yet another case of how The Horrors of Communist Central Planning are still and always the go-to example for this kind of problem — despite the fact that now, right now, it is the very real and very current horrors of global capitalist central planning that are destroying the entire world. Mao's simplifications caused a lot of destruction, it's true; but those of the stockholders, the profit margin, and the invisible hand have caused and are right now causing a great deal more. In the face of this, it is difficult to interpret the continued, overwhelming tendency, especially among people from countries that have been capitalist for as long as capitalism has existed, to raise the spectre of the Red Menace yet again, yet again, and yet again, as anything other than dangerously obfuscatory propaganda — whether conscious or not. (There is also the issue that Anders for the most part avoids asking for whose benefit this kind of "symbiosis" exists, but enough.)

My second complaint has less globe-spanning implications, but since we are dealing here with fiction (which is of limited political use at best) and it is a more "purely literary" complaint — and since it is more pervasive throughout the story — it is probably much more serious. This complaint is that everything in the story, good and bad, the positives I have identified and those I have not, the negatives I have identified and those I have not, all are subsumed to the tedious "trope"-shuffling that has if anything an even tighter stranglehold on contemporary sf than the smoothing-over tendencies I identified earlier. This is what happens when a field of literary endeavor finds itself at a certain age, weighed down by its past, having long ago closed off the possibilities that it had once been in the process of opening up for itself (I refer here once more to sf's backlash against its 1970s), and so gives itself over wholeheartedly to postmodern genre theory (as genre triumphalism) without stopping to ask at what price its renewed self-confidence comes.

The trope-shuffling is telegraphed by the story's title, with "Last Case" clearly invoking the "back for one last case" clichés of another field (in the game of trope-shuffling you get extra points for bringing in "tropes" from other "genres"). It then quickly establishes itself as the answer to the squee-bait question "What if one of the grimmer versions of Batman became a terraformer on an exoplanet?" (I could also see it as a movie pitch: "It's like The Dark Knight meets Survivor — in space!!" or something) — for Luc, geo-engineer by day, is also...a crime-fighting superhero (by night!), with a supervillain arch-nemesis he suspects may have followed him to Newfoundland.

This foundational silliness infects everything in the story, most egregiously so in the gleeful grimness of its violence. It seems to me that to create a character like Luc's son Rene solely in order to give him a particularly horrible death solely in order to give Luc a "motivation," is far more morally bankrupt in a story such as this, that seeks to impress us with its grown-up self-consciousness, than it is in the much more naïve early comics that such story elements originated in — not to mention that to fetishize this kind of personal pathos in the face of the worldwide catastrophe the story hints at strikes me as not far removed from certain tendencies in today's blockbuster movies that have come in for a lot of justified criticism lately.

Every time the story seems to be trying to break itself free from its limitations, every time it seems to be using its self-awareness to try to stop doing what it's doing, it turns out instead that it's just slamming itself back into its box even harder.

The light of the first moon draws shadows under her eyes, while a second moon sneaks up on her, illuminating her hair and her rought jacket. She looks as if she's in the middle of one of those rite-of-passage moments where you surrender some of your illusions on the way to adulthood. Something is breaking forever inside her. He has no idea what he's supposed to do about this.
She "looks as if she's in the middle of one of those rite-of-passage moments"...and she is. Nothing exists outside of the constraints of generic narrative. Events either adhere to "tropes" or they do not occur. Story is life, life is story; there is no difference between living and telling.

"Trope," in current usage, means at base a concept shorn of context in the interest of making it as interchangeable as a part on an assembly line. The colonization of an exoplanet, once a notion heavily bound up in a specific, if you will, ecosystem of ideas (or maybe better a set of such ecosystems), can be lifted out of that ecosystem and placed anywhere you like. The tragic death of a loved one and resulting quest for vengeance, ditto; et cetera. (None of this is to say that contexts are fixed, or cannot be changed — merely that one must attend to them.) The trope-shufflers, too, make no distinction between those tropes that were once interesting or worthwhile ideas and those that were not, nor do they attend to the contexts which once determined these differences. They see this practice as a triumph of personal freedom — "I can do anything I want!" "Tear down the walls!" — but to shuffle these tropes around, to mix and match them, even to "subvert" them as people are so fond of saying, not only treats that which is not interchangeable as if it were, it also reinforces, reifies them in their most dishonest form. The removal of things (in the broadest sense of the word "things") from their context is the original and ultimate act of violence; and though the scales are obviously not at all comparable it is fundamentally the same kind of intellectual error that leads to such catastrophes as that of the sparrows.

Trope enthusiasts of the world, quit it! You have nothing to lose but your chains. The correct answer to the question "What if Batman were a terraformer on an exoplanet?" is "Oh, good grief."


Athena Andreadis said...

Or, as Mark Twain said, "Dream other dreams, and better."

Ethan Robinson said...

No fair condensing my 2000 words to five!