Thursday, July 10, 2014

To take sf as seriously as those who distrust it

A lot of people write, and write about, science fiction without ever asking what science is, or what fiction is. Some also, or instead, call it speculative fiction, and though they tend to recognize a bit more that just what speculation is needs explaining, they seem always to know already how to explain it, and at any rate they are usually no more curious as to the nature of fiction. Others speak of imaginative fiction, without wondering what an image is, while others identify the fantastic, as though "it" were something simply there to be identified. People write, and read, stories set in the future, disregarding simultaneously both that this is an unreal conceptual construct and that it is something decisively other than the present.

Sometimes it seems to me that (some of) sf's outsiders and skeptics (if not enemies outright) take its premises far more seriously — and understand these premises better — than its own practitioners and readers. Steve Mitchelmore, in two posts I will probably never stop linking to, asks, through Michael Holland and Maurice Blanchot, what it would mean for sf to "think the totality of what it imagines." Blanchot himself, in an obscure essay on sf ("The Proper Use of Science Fiction"), asks a similar question in, surprisingly, more prosaic terms: "How can the advent of a world that is radically alien, a future that is absolutely futural, be communicated?" Gabriel Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism? suggests that "Modernists look with horror at the proliferation in modern culture of both fantasy and realism...[n]ot out of a Puritan disdain for the imagination or the craft of letters, but out of respect for the world," drawing the connection between (here) fantasy and realism that sf's partisans too often fail to see: that both tend carelessly to rely on obscuring, as Josipovici has it elsewhere in the same book, the fact "that living and telling are not the same thing at all" — and that they do it in largely identical ways.

This post is about concerns that are always on my mind, but its immediate inspiration was my seeing Blanchot, in The Space of Literature, quote Pascal: "What vanity is painting which wins admiration for its resemblance to things we do not admire in the original!" My response on reading this, or rather part of my response, was to think: there are infinite ways to disagree, with varying degrees of vehemence, with Pascal's assessment of this as "vanity", but the phenomenon, the relationship between painting and that which it "resembles" that he identifies here is of the utmost importance, and demands the serious attention of anyone who cares about art, whether or not the art they care about seeks to resemble "things we do not admire in the original." In staking out a position opposed to a certain kind of art, Pascal takes that art more seriously on its own terms than most of its supporters.

People in the sf world tend to be very dismissive of sf's skeptics, writing them off en masse as snobs; oftentimes this is the case, but it is important to recognize those times when it is not. In my writing on this blog it is my aim, no doubt seldom achieved, to take sf as seriously as those who, with reason, distrust it — and if possible, to convince those who immerse themselves in it to do the same.

1 comment:

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

would the comedy troupe firesign theatre qualify as science fiction? anyway, back in the previous millennium, they had a skit in which various persons in the street were asked about "the future"

one character said, "This is the future. You got to live it, or live with it."

the third and eventually inevitable alternative, although not explicitly mentioned by them, is "get out of the way"