The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Preach it, brother!

I wish the local anti-smoking single-issue fanatics and their dozy pals in the Council and Parliament understood at least this much and then fucked off and got the life they evidently so sorely need:

New York State just passed a draconian anti-smoker bill. It was rammed through the legislature in four days, by weasels who ignored the desperate pleas of tavern and restaurant owners who know it will devastate their business. This is not the way democracy is supposed to work. It's a good model for a totalitarian regime, though. When the law goes into effect, my tavern patronage is going to drop dramatically. A bar where I can't smoke is as useless as acting lessons from Jennifer Lopez.

The Big Lie is that it's to protect workers in the hospitality industry. But talk to any nicotine nanny long enough and they'll admit their real agenda - they want to make it so difficult to smoke that people will quit. It won't work. They'll only succeed in annoying the hell out of us, and annoyed smokers calm down by lighting up.

(Via (and via a vast vicus of recirculation) James Hogan's entertaining if eccentricblog-like entity.)

Anti-smoking is one of those issues, like porn-censorship, animal rights and gun control, that can drive me to drink and libertarianism. These are issues I wish the left would drop, or agree to differ on, or take the non-PC (and pro-working-class) side on, as it used to on all of them back in the day (i.e. as recently as the 1970s). I like to think Frederick Engels, an enthusiastic fox-hunter and cigar-smoker who once wrote, 'The Republic will always be in danger while the soldier has a rifle and the worker has not,' would have agreed.

Does Science Fiction Have to be About the Present?

In articles and interviews which I've ruthlessly recycled as talks at SF conventions, I've put forward a by no means original thesis that SF can be more illuminating about the time of its writing than about that of its imagined future. In an interview or Q&A session at Swecon 2003, Alastair Reynolds pointed out that while there may be some truth in this, there are a great number of stories that aren't - even unconsciously - about the present, but quite straightforward and conscientious attempts to imagine what the real future might be like. He mentioned Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars.

Good point, I thought, and stole it at once. It's about time I came up with another topic for SF convention talks. Especially as the next one I'm due to give is in Dublin, and too many people there might well have heard me rambling on about SF-as-contemporary-reference before. (Some of them may have read this by then. They can have fun seeing how much I've changed my mind in the meantime.)

Besides, that whole argument gets uncomfortably close to a capitulation to the oft-heard claim (which deserves to become known as the Atwood Defence) that what is really interesting and important about SF just is its contemporary reference; that some novel that might superficially appear to be SF (because it's, say, set in the future after some genetically engineered plague has wiped out most of the human race) isn't really SF but satire, and really about the present, and not related to that vulgar stuff about rockets and rayguns and talking squids in outer space, and therefore may deserve serious consideration and can be safely opened without risk of releasing alien germs to which normal Earth readers have no natural immunity and which could sweep through the entire literary community and all die, oh, the embarrassment.

So, with space helmets on, brass bras brightly polished, and phasers set to stun, let's boldly go in search of SF that really is about the future, and whose contemporary reference is reduced to as close to a trace element as humanly possible.

Interestingly enough, the division between what I'll boldly call pure SF and SF-as-satire cuts across, rather than between, a lot of the themes and tropes and subject areas of SF. Let's start with the most obvious: stories set in the far future. Clarke's The City and the Stars, already mentioned, or Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker are undoubtedly novels which, while inevitably of their time, are not fundamentally interested in or secretly about their time. They are about the far future of humanity and the universe. But what about Michael Moorcock's 'Dancers at the End of Time' stories? They are about an opulent, irresponsible decadence, about ennui, about fin de siecle, rather than the literal end of time.

On to the second most obvious: post-apocalypse stories. It seems to me that Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is a story that can be understood without much reference to the time in which it was written, and gains little from applying a knowledge of that time to it. It looks at a post-catastrophe recovery of civilization sub specie aeternatis. The closest it comes to contemporary comment is in its final section, set a thousand or so years in the future, and in the eerie sense that section conveys that our civilization is a post-catastrophe recovery civilization, as indeed it is.

Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold, on the other hand, is so embarrassingly about contemporary concerns, as refracted through the nastier parts of Heinlein's mind, that to discuss it is to push at the fallout shelter's open door and let in all kinds of toxic and radioactive stuff. In this novel the descendants of Black Americans have come out on top after a nuclear war, and become slave-holding (and slave-castrating) cannibals. If that doesn't reflect racial and sexual fears I don't know what does. Whether you cut the Dean of Science Fiction some slack and read it in the spirit of Swift's A Modest Proposal, or read it (as I do) as a racist tract maybe one notch above The Turner Diaries, it has to be thrown out of court as a serious attempt to examine what a post-nuclear world might be like.

(More examples later.)

For now, though, I want to raise the possibility that the (British) New Wave is exactly what Mike Harrison recently accused Charlie Stross of saying it was: the source of all that was wrong with British SF for thirty years. (I take no position on whether Charlie said that or Mike misunderstood him - I've read most of the now famous New Weird discussion, and I can't be arsed.) It marked a turn from rationality to irrationality, from outer space to inner, from exploring the universe to inspecting navel fluff, and from popularity to respectability. Yes, 90% of Trad SF was crap. 90% of New Wave SF was crap, and boring, miserabilist, depressing crap at that. It was an abandonment of everything that justifies SF as a genre, in favour of what is acceptable to mundanes.


Post a Comment