Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Black Science: Destroy Science Fiction!

In his June 1998 article "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction", the author Jonathan Lethem makes the case for dismantling the science fiction genre altogether. He claims that the refusal to give the Nebula Award to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was the turning point: from that point on, science fiction followed the trendy identity politics that passed for "radicalism" in those days into its own ghetto, so that now (in 2009) it's nothing more than a minor subgenre of fantasy closely related to superhero comic books. Even cyberpunk has become reactionary, basically Blade Runner-type neo-noir set in the future. True speculative fiction is now a rarity. "Sci-fi" (or, even worse, "syfy" or "skiffy") is considered cheesy and disreputable; its place in the popular culture is now taken by horror and dark fantasy. Barry Malzberg is right to say that science fiction is one of the most reactionary genres in fiction. Therefore...

The purpose of Black Science: destroy science fiction!

(If I intend to use Spanner to destroy the superhero genre, then...)

So how do I go about destroying science fiction, particularly if the most important heroes and villains are scientists? if the story is jam-packed with astonishing inventions and bizarre scientific theories?

There are many subgenres whose convenstions I'm determined to avoid. The whole of Black Science takes place on Earth, so nothing from outer space: neither space opera nor military SF. No "grays" actually appear outside dreams or fictions; this is the sequel to my Bad Company, so the real "aliens" (i.e., the corporations) are far more bizarre than just about anything in science fiction and may be closer in spirit to the demons and evil gods of horror fiction. In cyberpunk, I'm making sure to avoid the neo-noir clichés and gangster pretensions that eventually get boring, like too much hardcore punk without any variety. No macho losers smashing themselves against the omnipotent corporations; instead, there's the beautiful lady psychologist and chaos theorist whose method runs more toward flash-mob populism. One more cyberpunk convention I'm pretty much abandoning is "cyberspace" or virtual reality, which I'm replacing with "augmented reality" or computer-mediated reality using cellphones and modified eyeglasses. This also suggests a new use for mirrorshades, that now banal cyberpunk icon.

One of my major targets is that pillar of the genre: rationalism. Dr. Henry Becket, the orthopsychiatrist, is the consummate rationalist. He is also insane: his madness is called successful schizophrenia, which passes for sanity. Rationalism is the sin of Robert McNamara and the blunt instrument wielded by raging Ayn Rand. Henry Becket embodies the close connection between rationalism and madness. His ex-wife and mortal enemy, Dr. Willa Richter-Thomas (who is, not coincidentally, the hero), left Rand behind not long after she left him. She is a dialectician, and a dialectical method structures the entire novel.

The defining cliché of movie sci-fi is the mad scientist. I'm going to play around with mad scientists the same way mad scientists love to play with brains. You have your good mad scientists (led by Willa, with her own scandalous past and pastimes) and your evil mad scientists (the weapons scientists who work for the government and its constituent corporations).

The name of the novel is Black Science, an analogy to "black magic". Black science is science used, like black magic, for evil. The canonical examples of black science in the novel are the nuclear bomb and the "psychotron" or mind-control machine. Science as such has nothing to do with morality or ethics; it, like beauty and intelligence, is a completely independent factor. Science isn't inherently moral or immoral; immorality enters with technologies whose sole purpose is destruction.

Needless to say, I'm not writing for the fanboys. Despite the role of scientists in the novel, it's not "science fiction". In fact, I'm packaging it as a political thriller. Now there's yet another genre with notoriously conservative conventions. However, I can smash those conventions without smashing the genre. You can no longer do that in science fiction. That's a genre that's not only conservative, it's downright geriatric. It lives in its own sandbox world apart from reality. It's as quaint a fantasy subgenre now as swords-and-sorcery, or for that matter the Western. But one advantage we have against the science-fiction genre is its notorious tendency to get its predictions all wrong. There is not even any speculative fiction (i.e., speculations about the future) in Black Science. So just as Spanner is the weapon with which I intend to destroy the superheroes, Black Science is the perfect means with which to kill science fiction.

Face it: we live in the science fiction universe. You could even say we already live in the cyberpunk universe. Thus, "science fiction" is properly present-day literature. So there's really no need for science fiction at all. It's either modern-day literature with lots of science in it, or it's speculative fiction that carries the risk that the predictions will be false.

So I intend Black Science to put an end to what is really a dead-end genre. Not that it'll keep the genre out of the bookstores. But after Black Science, science fiction will be irrelevant.

(Now watch me go and write some science fiction stories...)

Back to Spanner’s World...

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article. Not certain why you want to destroy the genre. I've read so many different science fiction novels that range the gambit from Azimov to Zelazny. There's always something imaginative and creative in all of these novels, even the ones that I wasn't too excited about, or liked very much. Still, I read many of the subgenres.

    Waiting to read your science fiction novel(s). Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting story is a romantic action adventure in space.