Sunday, September 6, 2009

As Literary Fiction Dies, Science Fiction Must Take Over

Face it: the traditional literary fiction that defined the mainstream in the 20th century is on its way out, much like the newspaper it drew from starting in the late 19th century. During its period of dictatorship, anything outside its narrow boundaries was ruthlessly relegated to the lowbrow genres of pulp fiction by the cultural establishment's literary police. But now literary fiction is almost extinct. Why? Because its ideology, called Naturalism, no longer reflects the daily lives of ordinary people.

What does? Science fiction. You see, far more than in Isaac Asimov's day, we are living in the world predicted by science fiction. Rockets and space stations? Check. Supercomputers, internets, virtual reality? Check. Robots do more of our manufacturing work. Cyborgs are increasingly banal. Androids and jetpacks are in development. Can interstellar spaceships, wormholes, antigravity, and time travel be far behind? And there's some amazing stuff now commonplace or in development that were inconceivable to the likes of Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and their contemporaries: nanotechnology, personal area networks, quantum computing, augmented reality — the list goes on...

The conclusion should be obvious. The central place in the mainstream of modern literature that was once held by the now dying Naturalist literary fiction properly belongs to science fiction. Why, then, is it still relegated to genre and fandom? Because the old literary establishment still controls the publishing industry.

Not that there's anything wrong with fandom. I myself am a comics fan of long standing. Without a fandom, a genre or medium is dead. Literary fiction has no fandom; the only thing resembling one is a shrinking hard core of the cultural elite, the modern survivors or descendants of the once all-powerful literary snobs that not only exiled most fiction to the pulp genres but also murdered poetry. Conversely, all the vital genres have fandoms, especially those that belong to that family of genres collectively known as fantasy, which includes horror as well as science fiction. The strength of a genre in the culture can be gauged by the conventions its fans hold.

Anyway, back to my point: the Naturalist method of traditional literary fiction no longer reflects our common reality. The method of science fiction does. Here's why:

Naturalism is based on the deterministic assumption of Newtonian mechanics, which claims that every single thing that ever happened or ever will happen can be precisely predicted into the infinite past or future. This strikes people as absurd today, but this was the common assumption in the 19th and 20th centuries. So traditional literary fiction came to restrict itself to the petty lives of insignificant people stuck in static or slowly deteriorating situations. It resembles the 19th-century social novel at least on the surface, but the method is supposed to be scientific or at least journalistic. The writer who most strongly defined the Naturalist school and its method was Émile Zola.

Science fiction has many precedents throughout history, but the defining works are the early novels of H. G. Wells, which he wrote in his struggle to understand Charles Darwin's then-new theory of evolution. Wells studied with evolution's great defender during the late 19th century, Thomas Henry Huxley; surely he learned a lot about the scientific method. In modern science fiction, the heroes are confronted with a discontinuity or radical change in situation, which they must understand/confront/resolve using quick thinking and the scientific method. This was Wells' post-Darwin innovation, and Hugo Gernsback encoded it, so to speak, in the genre's DNA when he reprinted Wells' novels in the first science fiction magazines.

In the theory of both Zola and Wells, the approach to storytelling is scientific. But in practice, the methods are opposite. The Naturalist treats their characters like an archaeologist studying fossils, an academic historian studying past events, or an anthropologist studying a primitive tribe. The science fiction writer is more like a particle physicist colliding particles in an accelerator (common in novels by actual physicists such as Gregory Benford and John Cramer), or the long-view historian who deals with social change itself (the canonical example in 20th-century SF being Asimov's "psychohistorian" Hari Seldon in the Foundation cycle), or, of course, the evolutionary biologist. In journalistic terms, the difference between Naturalism and science fiction is that between the journalist who writes profiles and the journalist who reports a revolution from inside the revolt.

Naturalism assumes stasis; science fiction assumes constant change. It used to be that things changed slowly and the world was stable. Today, we are not just surrounded by science-fictional technologies, but the world itself is in a state of constant and accelerating change. Naturalism reflects the worldview of a stable bourgeois world that no longer exists. The same middle-class shopkeepers, exploited workers, and quasi-monarchic corporate overlords are still around, but they now find themselves in a 21st-century world radically different from the seemingly static 19th-century world that created Naturalism. The same 19th century also created science fiction — but then science fiction, in turn, created the 21st century. Science, technology, and science fiction have a symbiotic relationship that the literary establishment that made Naturalism the literary dogma thought it had with journalism, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Our 21st-century world is the product of post-Newtonian science, starting with evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Science fiction is the literary method that fits our world of change and discontinuity.

Now, let's take a look at the genres. I'll regroup them by method. Literary fiction is in fact a genre that's becoming less popular than the American Western due to its Naturalist technique that people today find boring. The Western belongs to the larger family of historical fiction. Romance is a family apart, but it overlaps with Gothic fiction, much of which is actually called Gothic romance (and there is also paranormal romance derived from dark fantasy as well as Gothic). I'll separate science fiction from the rest of the fantasy family because of its method. True fantasy requires a suspension of disbelief so that readers can insert themselves into worlds where magic, supernatural beings, and monsters exist. For example: you'll find demons, werewolves, and sorcerers in urban fantasy but not in cyberpunk (unless you consider hybrids such as the Shadowrun role playing game). You can't ask hard questions of fantasy. But you must ask hard questions of science fiction. There's one other major genre, outside the fantasy family, which depends on hard questions: mystery. Crime fiction, in fact, is coming to resemble science fiction more than any other genre. In fact, it always has: Arthur Conan Doyle was Wells' contemporary, and Sherlock Holmes is the first true criminologist in fiction. Like the scientist in science fiction, the detective in crime fiction must make use of the scientific method in some form in order to catch and/or stop the crook, even if the hero's on a mission of simple revenge (the question: who should I get revenge against? if I punish the wrong person, there may be hell to pay...). Or the killer has to figure out the right target, or the thieves must figure out how to get into the bank, steal the goods, and get out in such a way that the guards and police won't notice until it's too late. (The scientific method can be used for evil as well as good; this is one of the points of my novel Black Science.) Mystery and crime fiction, in turn, have a family resemblance to the suspense thriller.

Not that genre boundaries are as hard and absolute as they are officially classed by the publishing industry, whose classification method derives from the 19th- and 20th-century segregation of the sciences (which also affected the humanities to their detriment). Many of those genre boundaries are as obsolete as the once hegemonic literary fiction itself.

The question I'm posing is: Is your life a fruitless struggle against an implacable fate, or are you caught in a chaos of change which forces you to rely on your wits just to survive? Between the Napoleonic Wars and the fall of the Soviet Union, most people were trapped in the first situation, like the plight of workers in Dickensian London or corporate executives in 1950s America; Naturalism reflects their experience of being crushed by implacable fate. But we now live in the 21st century, in which the normal state is something more like permanent revolution. Some people can't adapt to the new pace of change; they suffer from future shock. Science fiction is the literary method that reflects the new reality we live in.

The old literary fiction is dying. Few people outside the shrinking circle of the old cultural elite even bother to read it anymore. The new mainstream fiction must take its method from the once outcast genres, and that method is science fiction. This requires a revolution. Some writers are already fighting for the new order in fiction. I am one of them.

Back to Spanner’s World...

1 comment:

  1. For more information on Hugo Gernsback check out a new biography available on Amazon.

    The document was found by me when we closed down Gernsback Publications in 2003. It was an old ms that I edited and produced as a book.

    Follow the link and you can go to the book and thanks to Amazon’s “look inside” feature, you can even get an idea of what it covers.

    Hope you find it interesting.

    For more information feel free to contact me, Larry Steckler, at