Friday, February 20, 2015

Science fiction, "characters", and individualism

There's a pair of things that people say frequently. Often the same people, often in the same breath. And it's not so much that the two assertions are incompatible — indeed, they're both true, after a fashion — as that I wish the strangeness of their juxtaposition would make people think harder about what the two mean, to what extent they're true, and in what ways they might be incomplete. The two statements are:
  1. Traditional American sf is irresponsibly and chauvinistically beholden to individualist ideology, and
  2. Up until [year/decade/movement/writer/editor/magazine x], sf was no good at creating believable, complex characters; after the revolution in character portrayal brought about by x, the field became mature and worth reading.
Obviously there's a sense in which the two are easily compatible: the individualist (almost always white male) "hero" is neither believable nor complex. QED. But there is another sense, one which I for one feel much more deeply, in which they are antithetical. After all what is a "character" — or rather, what is a focus on the literary illusion that we call "character" — other than a demand for the sheerest individualism? I would go so far as to argue that "character" in fiction, as we currently understand it, emerged a handful of centuries back as one of the primary tools in the creation, even the enforcement of that poisonous individualism so central to western, modern, capitalist ideology. In this sense the move to character in sf is surely a move towards, not away from, individualism.

(This may be one reason why the British "New Wave," with its focus on the "exploration of inner space," is so eternally iffy to me.)

White, macho heroics are a central support in the structure that is the science fiction of the American magazine tradition, it's true. There's a great deal of profound ugliness there, a great deal of still-unreckoned culpability, and I wouldn't dream of denying it. But nothing is all one thing. And for a long time — since long before I could make even this kind of a beginning at articulating it — this sf tradition has been my refuge from the constant pounding of this ideological drum. Escapism perhaps, but sf has been one of the few areas of the culture in which I could find some respite, and maybe even the beginnings of an alternative.

What we for convenience call "characters" in the work of this tradition are usually nothing of the sort. To refer to some of my usual touchstones once more: think of the van Vogtian (supposed) "superman", who far from the juvenile power fantasy he is usually made out to be is much more the literal presence in the work of the reader's bewilderment upon encountering the work; or of what Joseph F. Patrouch referred to, pejoratively, as Isaac Asimov's "labels for different parts of the story machine"; or of the figures in Clare Winger Harris's stories, who exist for no purpose other than to spout glorious science-like nonsense and to partake in ritualized, curiously impersonal melodrama; or of the "characters" in Rendezvous with Rama, who simply show up when they are necessary and vanish when they are not. And almost at the precise beginning of this particular tradition stands (or floats) the entirely hypothetical observer to the etherless negative whirlpool in the first chapter/installment of Ralph 124C41+, who may not be real but certainly carries a pipe.

(This is to say nothing of the long and wonderful tradition, whose most noted practitioner is likely Stanisław Lem, of sf-without-characters, which apart from certain rigid formulas — the "list story," for example — has died down considerably in recent years but which continues, intermittently, in freer form to this day, in multiple media.)

These are not characters, in the sense that word typically carries. These are not concatenations of words and sentences and recurring patterns seeking to convince us that there exists somewhere beyond them some kind of a coherent, separate self — and to convince us thereby that this is what we are. Instead they are figures that exist in order to allow the work to unfold. They are "people" only in the sense that thinking minds must intrude in order for an unfolding to be an event;* in a sense they remind me of the Greek tragedy, at least as it is explicated for a contemporary anglophone audience by people like Gabriel Josipovici, who takes great pains to remind us that the mimesis Aristotle famously ascribed to tragedy is "not the imitation of human beings, it is the imitation of an action which involves human beings."

*Or vice versa? I'm uncertain of this phrasing.

I do not argue that all this is how these works have by and large been read. Obviously they have not, or if they have it has had little influence; one has only to look at the sleazily individualist and bigoted behavior of the larger chunk of the sf readership (and writership) for proof. Nor were all of these works "intended" this way. But they are legible in this way, with remarkable consistency; it is how I have read them, and how I have internalized them. And I have to think that it is at least in part some similar reading that drew to the field the very people who are so often claimed as both the innovators of "character" in sf and the revolutionaries who led the field away from individualism. People like Joanna Russ (whose We Who Are About To... is one of those [movement X] works that creates spectacularly successful characters, but which does so in order to stress that they are untenable), Octavia E. Butler (whose Kindred is "about" an individual primarily in the sense that the whole human context impinges on each of us, and whose Patternmaster revolves around "characters" just as masked, just as extrapersonal as any figure in Greek tragedy), and even Samuel R. Delany, who has sought more successfully than most to merge the better aspects of the bourgeois novel of character with the social- and object-focused aspects of sf. I have to think that it is in part some similar reading that made them, like me, think sf had created a new kind of space.

I am not headed toward any grand conclusion here. I simply would ask people to think about the assumptions that underlie the received opinions that get bandied about; to wonder if all the "literary character-based" sf we're bombarded with today is really an advance; to perhaps try to be open to alternate readings, and through these alternate readings to be open to different kinds of writing and what they might be doing.

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