The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Science Fiction Rant, Cont'd

What is it that distinguishes, and justifies, SF as a genre?

For thousands of years, people have been huddled around the campfire, telling stories. The stories were about what went on around the campfire (who was sleeping with whom, who had become king and who had plotted to depose him, etc) and about the figures that were seen in the enormous distorted human shadows that the campfire projected onto the surrounding darkness: gods and demons, ghosts and monsters.

Then, some time around the seventeenth century, the sun came up.

'Nature, and Nature's laws, lay hid in night.
God said "Let Newton be!" and all was light.'

Science fiction is the stories we tell about the surrounding landscape that then became visible, the world seen in Newton's light. As Swedish SF critic John-Henri Holmberg has said, it's the literary expression of the Enlightenment.

It's often not a very good literary expression. I'm not defending cardboard characters, clunky plots, chunky exposition or any other literary sins of SF. What I want to take issue with is the criterion of judging SF by its degree of closeness to 'realistic' or 'fantastic' literature, the literature of the campfire and the dark.

One of the most insidious ways of doing that is to privilege SF that deals imaginatively with social and political issues. Speculative political fancies have been respectable since Plato, who is more or less the Form of Respectability in the Western canon. Thomas More could write an approving speculative fiction about communism and remain respectable, not only canon but canonized. The most respectable work of recent SF is very likely Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed. To outflank any unwanted agreement, let me say right away that this isn't because it's feminist, because it isn't - it's Mills and Boon monogamist to the bone, as well as subtly homophobic and biological-sex-essentialist; and it isn't because it's communist or anarchist. James P. Hogan gave a much more attractive and indeed more plausible depiction of a communist anarchy in Voyage From Yesteryear, and I don't see that book on academic SF courses.

No, The Dispossessed is respectable because it's an SF book that people with no interest in SF can read comfortably. Its sole real SF content, the theory of the ansible, can whizz right over their heads. It might as well be radio. The real focus of interest is all the cosy familiar campfire stuff about the Individual versus Society, and Society versus Society, which plugs it neatly into the Great Tradition. In short, it's SF for people who don't like SF.

SF isn't fundamentally about that. Getting that right is good, don't get me wrong. Do for heaven's sake have some understanding of human beings before writing about them, at least to the extent that you do write about them. But what SF is fundamentally about is not the Individual versus Society, or Society versus Society, but humanity in the universe.

SF needn't thereby lose in human relevance and universality, because the situation it posits is both objectively true and universal to the human being, as a knowing subject confronting a knowable object. If SF about that is despised and rejected, rather than criticised and improved in terms of its own project, then both the Individual and Society are, in the long run, in deeper shit than any dystopia.

And that, comrades, is the real social relevance of SF.

Shopping as Sisterhood

Is this really an article by Naomi Wolff in praise of shopping, or is it a clever parody?


Post a Comment