Friday, September 5, 2014

An addendum to yesterday's post

I'm writing this quickly and distractedly at work, so my apologies for any awkwardnesses.

The largest part of what I was hoping to get at in my post yesterday was indeed the kind of issues raised by this excellent little post, which I am honored to have inspired however indirectly; related issues of epistemology and ethics in writing, the relationship of style and form to structures of power, and so forth, were raised in the exciting conversations I had with several people yesterday on twitter. But last night I started to wonder if perhaps I should have brought out more clearly a much more rudimentary aspect of what I was talking about — a very basic point that I worry may be lost* in the focus on these, if you will, higher-level problems.

*To be clear, I'm not saying any of the people who responded to the post were "missing the point"; I just want to make this more explicit, in large part for my own benefit.

Science fiction, as Joanna Russ argues, is a literature in which the work's insistence on itself-as-truth and on itself-as-lie is by necessity in a constant state of flux. The work's position on the status of the fictional writer and the fictional reader — does it seek explicitly to make us aware of their fictionality or not? in what way does it do this, or not do this? to what degree? are the "non-fictional" writer and reader implicated? etc. — is one of the major factors driving this flux. It is the work telling us what it is pretending it is possible for the writer and the reader to know — which is not necessarily the same thing as what is possible to know — or even what the work is actually asking us to accept as knowable.

To lead towards the famous example:

Someone writing in, say, the 19th century, from their everyday experience, has the authority to describe an action such as "She turned the knob and opened the door" (whether they have the authority to write this is a different question); a 19th century reader, from everyday experience, has the ability to understand this action uncomplicatedly. Someone writing today has this same authority and adds to it, again from everyday experience, the authority to describe an action such as "She walked toward the door and it slid open"; and the reader of today has the ability, from experience, to understand. Robert A. Heinlein, from everyday experience, does not have the authority to describe the action in his sentence "The door dilated." He knows this; the reader (who does not have the ability-from-experience to understand the sentence) knows this. But Beyond This Horizon, as a work, behaves as though* it were written by someone who did have such authority, and also behaves as though it will be read by someone who can understand.

*Or at least I'm told it behaves as though; I haven't read it. If reports are lying, the hypothetical work-that-behaves-as-though is a close enough approximation to a large enough body of science fiction that it still serves as a decent example.

It is attention to this sort of behavior, and investigation of what this behavior in any given particular work is doing, that I was urging in my post. Now, obviously, in pursuit of these questions we will very quickly come up against those issues of epistemology, ethics, and power that yesterday's discussions were concerned with (the word "authority" is a big clue) — but (and again I want to make clear that I'm not saying anyone yesterday "misunderstood" or was distracted by trivial points, far from it) we will also come up against other issues, other questions; and at any rate the investigation must start, as always, and as of course we all know, with a lively (and wherever possible sympathetic) attention to the work at hand.


Ryan said...

I actually started my post as a comment to leave here but it came to seem a bit different from what you were saying. I see today I was sort of right :). I appreciate the addendum!

Ethan Robinson said...

I would have welcomed it as a comment! - but I'm glad it became its own thing, as it deserved to be.