Thursday, August 27, 2009

Science Fiction Is The True Modern Literature

Remember my post in which I vowed to destroy science fiction? Now I'm going to assert with J. G. Ballard (in his introduction to his novel Crash) that science fiction is the only true modern literature, and the only kind of literature that fits the science fiction universe we live in.

On the surface, the two are exact contradictions. But they're not. In fact, they're the same thing.

Going back to Jonathan Lethem's essay, it was clear until 1973 that the New Wave was on the verge of mainstreaming science fiction to the point where there would be no more need for the genre that pulp magazine publisher Hugo Gernsback took possession of and named back in 1926, when he founded the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. Gernsback's approach, which he enforced in publications such as Amazing Stories, was didactic "scientifiction" (the original form of the genre's name) that glorified not only the science (and trendy pseudoscience) of the day but also Technocracy. The New Wave aimed to sweep all Gernsback's and John Campbell's baggage right out of the genre. If Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula Award in 1973 (and Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star in 1977), a merger between science fiction and mainstream fiction would have been possible. But as Lethem points out, the 1970s were the heyday of identity politics, so fandom rejected the incursions from mainstream writers such as Pynchon and DeLillo (plus others such as Doris Lessing [one of whose science fiction novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, I own] and such "apostates" as Kurt Vonnegut) and adopted an identity politics of its own. After 1973, it would be more true to say that science fiction is the creation of its fandom than the other way around.

(Disclaimer: I myself am a longtime member of a fandom. Two, actually. But not science fiction. Rather, the fandoms I belong to are those of comics and anime.)

Today a mainstream literary critic could describe science fiction as a ghetto literature, if the ghetto is populated entirely by geeks, nerds, otaku, and high-functioning autistics. This clannish fandom may actually be shrinking. I look in the "Science Fiction/Fantasy" section of the bookstore and what do I find? The section is dominated by the latest craze: dark fantasy. Way too many sexy vampires and sexier vampire hunters, each one with a long and growing series. Meanwhile, some of the best recent science fiction novels go out of print after the first printing and are never reprinted in the author's lifetime. (Several of Philip K. Dick's major novels suffered that fate.) Remember Theodore Sturgeon's famous definition of "cult readership" as "seven readers short of the author making a living." Is it any wonder that some prominent science fiction writers decide to switch to fantasy or horror, or even (like William Gibson) go all the way into mainstream fiction?

Now, face it. Traditional literary fiction is dying out, along with newspapers and other stodgy old media traditions. In fact, literary fiction is dead — that is, it is static. The ideology behind it, Naturalism, applies Newtonian mechanistic determinism to Darwinian ideas. Your heredity, social environment, or both determine everything you are. There's a lot of fatalism in the old naturalistic fiction, and it tends to be strongly pessimistic because of it. Naturalism sacrifices plot for character, exactly the same way pulp fiction tends to sacrifice character for plot. The narrative approach is journalistic. To use the medieval term, the literary novel is a chronicle. Or, from another perspective, it's a kind of literary archaeological dig, analyzing people and their relationships as if they were fossils. The great writers of naturalist fiction during its heyday, including Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser, tended to have a strong left-wing slant, openly rejecting individualism and free will because they saw it as oppressively bourgeois when the masses of oppressed workers toiled to their deaths like slaves. But the deterministic premise of Naturalism was its undoing, because it undermines the very idea of fiction itself.

Now, how would I write the Ecobomber episode of Black Science in Naturalist fashion? The year is 1997. Dr. C. Henry Becket testifies as an expert witness at the trial of the terrorist Edward Rodchenko. His testimony gets Rodchenko convicted and sentenced to death. We find out about Rodchenko's working-class origins, his brilliance at school which gets him to Harvard in the late 1950s, his sense of inferiority toward upper-class scions like Becket despite his superior grades, and their participation in Dr. Henry Murray's experiments which ends up scarring them both. Then, at the end, after his testimony seals his old classmate's fate, Becket reveals (only to us, the readers) that it was he who broke Rodchenko and created the monstrous serial killer known as the Ecobomber. Rodchenko's model, Theodore "the Unabomber" Kaczynski, spoke of a "law student" who acted as Murray's assistant and harassed the test subjects until they broke. Becket was that "law student" — except he was not a law student (he was studying psychology under Murray) but an ROTC officer. The experiment was part of the CIA's infamous MKULTRA mind control program. With Rodchenko sentenced to death, Becket can now bury his sordid past.

Science fiction, and the new breed of mainstream fiction it's influenced at least since Michael Crichton started writing, the static, deterministic approach of the Naturalists is replaced by a new assumption: the evolutionary process hasn't stopped. Science fiction author James Gunn, in his book The Science of Science Fiction Writing (which I'm reading), says that where traditional literary fiction is a literature of continuity, science fiction is the literature of change and discontinuity. Any fiction in which characters encounter new situations or attempt new solutions to familiar situations either is or closely resembles science fiction. Where Naturalist fiction interprets, say, Darwin in terms of heredity (good, bad, and ugly), science fiction sees the process of evolution instead. And human evolution, it turns out, is accelerating, not just cultural but biological.

We live in the age of future shock. Is is any wonder that technocrats, religious fundamentalists, and other reactionaries are trying to put an end to evolution altogether?

Now, let's see where the Ecobomber episode actually fits in Black Science. Fast forward to 2009. Rodchenko's still on death row, but he's no longer important; he's backstory now. Henry Becket is now disoriented by the rapid pace of political changes since the fall of "Operation Permanent Republican Administration" last year. And how about all these new technologies that are undermining social order? It was bad enough in 1996, when Rodchenko put out his infamous "Ecobomber Manifesto". Becket, it turns out, agrees with most of what Rodchenko wrote; the two of them have held these views at least since their college days in the 1950s. Like Rodchenko turning terrorist, Becket has fallen victim to future shock. The world is spinning around him like a vortex, ever faster and faster. And now the secret he thought he had laid to rest twelve years earlier is coming back to haunt him, courtesy of the CIA's worst enemy: the FBI. Which just happens to be looking into a new Dictel Corporation scandal involving a huge CIA secret assassination operation in Afghanistan. And his own worst enemy just happens to be his ex-wife, Dr. Willa Richter-Thomas (our heroine), who is actively fighting against his efforts to coerce the world's greatest scientific researchers and technological designers into Dictel's weapons development division. It's enough to break a ruthless technocrat like Dr. Henry Becket.

The difference: In the first scenario, Becket puts the past behind him, at the expense of an old enemy who has dogged him for decades. In the second, the future rushes at him like an out-of-control freight train and is about to slam right into him. Even his enemies are different: in the first scenario, his opponent is a serial killer facing him on his own turf, the legal system; in the second, he has to face the formidable Willa, whom he sees as a shapeshifting shadow he can't even bring into focus, much less defeat, and he must fight her in her world, a roiling world of technological advance and social unrest that mutates and metastasizes and threatens to destroy the American Empire he's single-mindedly dedicated his life to building and defending. The first scenario is simple and the outcome determined. The second scenario is complex and ever changing; in Willa's world, whether in 1993 (when they were married for one month) or 2009, he's the proverbial fish out of water. His only chance of beating Willa is to get not just Dictel and its savage band of corporate lawyers but the federal government behind him. Problem is, the wrong party's in power and the wrong guy is president...

Naturalism was cutting-edge modern literature when Zola wrote Germinal (Havelock Ellis translation here) or Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy (an online edition here). Dreiser's novel was published in 1925, when Naturalism was at the absolute peak of its influence. To illustrate his theme of "the evil of capitalism", he has a cad drown the factory girl who's pregnant with his child in order to marry a rich girl and move up into the ranks of the managerial class, only to get caught and executed. (He based the plot on an actual sensational murder trial and execution from 1908.) How do I illustrate the same theme in Bad Company? I have a conspiracy of right-wing corporations threatened by a rising wave of democratic and antiwar populism (which got America's first black president elected) try to overthrow the US government and establish a corporatist dictatorship. It's the difference between case study and car crash video. In the introduction to Crash, Ballard introduced his novel as a science fiction novel set in the present day using current technology. Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Spook Country were written on the same principle; they are his first mainstream successes. Then there's all those Crichton novels that escaped the sci-fi ghetto, from The Andromeda Strain to Next, plus the entire subgenre of the technothriller (much of which, however, is military fiction derived from Tom Clancy and as reactionary as any military space opera). My personal approach is derived heavily from Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, and the other pioneering cyberpunks.

The world has changed. You won't find the kind of static life you find in literary fiction in many places in the West. The pace of evolution continues to accelerate. Mainstream fiction is abandoning the (relatively) ancient verities of Naturalism and adopting science fiction's methods as its own. Will science fiction finally merge with the mainstream, like Jonathan Lethem says it should have back in 1973? Well, such subgenres as military SF will surely continue to exist on their own, alongside the superheroes. But it's possible that the bulk of speculative fiction within a certain range of future time may be absorbed into the mainstream of fiction. After all, traditional literary fiction, with its ever narrowing subject range over the decades, is no longer the might obstacle it was back in the 1970s.

But what will the fans think? What do they think? Are they willing to take over?

Back to Spanner’s World...

1 comment:

  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.