The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, June 19, 2009

'The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me.'

Asked what his take is on the transhumanist genre of science fiction (Ken Macleod, Alistair Reynolds, Iain Banks, Richard Morgan, etc.) and their take on technology and politics Michael Moorcock answers:
I'm not entirely sure about transhumanist fiction. It holds no attractions for me. Assuming I really know what it is. I've only really ever been interested in 'humanist' fiction. That is, fiction about people. As I've said, I don't read sf for pleasure and very little of it for review, so I'm no expert. I think I'm probably sympathetic to the writers you mention, but personally believe political fiction should be set in at least some version of the here and now. [...] This was always my argument about sf -- that generally, by abstracting it, putting it in some 'other place', you lost some of the relevance. That said, I haven't been vastly interested in technological advance since I was young. I have every sympathy with Banks, Mcleod et al, but to be honest I've been no more able to read more than a page of their stuff than I have Heinlein's or Asimov's. The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me.
Ah well. I've always enjoyed what I've read of Moorcock's work, and I never imagined that anyone would ever ask him what he thought of mine. It's a bit more startling to find I'm part of 'the transhumanist genre'.

A very friendly interview with me - spaceships, container trucks, and all - by journalism student Ewan Angus, is in the current SF Crowsnest. It includes some questions and answers about The Restoration Game, due out in March 2010 and (mostly) set in the scientifictional year 2008.

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I'm one of those 'few' who object to your very first quote. It loads the dice in a sneaky way. Look at the word 'can' in that claim. Just WHY 'can' the two be compatible? If the quote is true, then there MUST be some accomodationalist answer that might be true. As an atheist I won't buy into that for one femtosecond. As a philosopher I was trained to look for such mealy-mouthed uses of words like 'can'. The philosophical literature of the West is filled with such sly moves.

Weren't the omnipotent intelligences descended from human ancestors in Dancers at the End of Time basically the definition of transhuman?

@ Mike: That was my first thought on reading this as well. But to be fair, they were really just bored aristocrats, and weren't the best moments of story those that came when they were stripped of their powers? For my money, the real transhumanist stuff eschews the cheat-y trope of "taking the power rings and the enhancements away" and tries to imagine the unimaginable, truly post-human personalities. And, yes, Ken Macleod, you do that. (And well.)

Hmmm... interesting that he should say that "political fiction should be set in at least some version of the here and now". As I was recently loaning my (prized, imported) copy of Night Session to a friend I spoke of its relevance to the here and now. "Sure," I said, "there are humanoid robots and space elevators, but those are not so far off anyway. The great thing about the book is how real the people are -- these religious zealots are the lot with whom I was raised." Then again, Mr. Moorcock probably hasn't read Night Sessions, given that the book does deal with some (near earth) space ships. In any case, it is the feeling of reality -- the feeling that all of the events in the books could really be happening in a very real earth in just a few years (or a couple decades) -- that makes Fall Revolution, Execution Channel and Night Sessions so powerful. What use is political fiction that is set so much in the here and now that we already see it in the true here and now? OK... I guess I better go find out who this is Mr. Moorcock is before I run my mouth any further.

"The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me."

He must have interesting problems with the newspapers...but perhaps he does.

Sadly, Moorcock actually seems to be at the cutting edge here. There's a trend I call the New Space Travel Is Utter Bilge movement that sneers at any human presence off the surface of the E
earth as a kind of nerdy woo-woo. To them, yes, all space travel *is* the same as transhumanism.

I can't stand these people. Every time I've ever pointed out to them that their vision of the future condemns the human race to extinction (as we gradually run out of resources and wind up just waiting for the next big rock to wipe us out), they mumble something about sustainability, mutter a non sequitur about not being able to get everyone off the planet, or just ignore the point entirely, as they have no valid response.

Screw it. Give me the spaceships. Otherwise, it's Soylent Green all the way down.

The minute a self-pitying albino wielding a keening rune sword turns up, you've lost me...

A writer who has spent much of his life writing fiction set in imaginary alternative worlds talks about the need to focus on the 'here and now'? Didn't Moorcock address political issues (obliquely) in his Elric romances (and others - I recall the Hawkmoon novels had villainous members of the nasty Gran Bretan empire based on Harold Wilson's cabinet and critiqued imperialism within a fantasy world).

In his dotage, Moorcock has started to sound like those middle-brow English writers he used to despise and witheringly chastise. I don't think 18 years living in Bush country (East Texas) has done him much good. He has even started sounding appeasing about Christianity, a sharp contrast with his younger self.

Speaking as someone who really likes Moorcock's work, I have to say that I really disagree with the idea that political fiction should be grounded in the here and now. What with 'there is no alternative' and all that, i'd say that merely describing a different world is in itself a pretty revolutionary act, one that reminds the reader of the possibility of difference... I know the descriptions of alternate societies in the Fall Revolution novels did more to keep me involved and fired up with radical politics than a hundred dry pamphlets and manifestos. After all, political tracts and speeches tells, good science fiction *shows*.

I loved Moorcock's admission (boast?) that he had never read Brave New World. I wish I'd never read it.

Further to the politics of the real world and the influence of SF thereof I just came across this interview with the writer of a new book on military robotics:

Mother Jones: Was there anything in particular that surprised you or scared you as you researched the book?

Peter Singer: I think three parts were most surprising. One was the openness with which people talk about how science fiction influenced what the scientists build and what the military asked to be built. That's what drew me to research science fiction's influence on science reality. I was really driven by just how many people would describe some weapon or robot and say, "I was watching this Star Wars movie with my kids and I thought it would be cool if we could have something like that." And it'd be a Marine colonel saying that. There is also a great scene in the book where the folks at a human rights organization I was visiting are referencing Star Trek more than the Geneva Conventions.

Mike Moorcock could only weep at this outcome (much like Bob Heinlein, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven inspiring Ronald Reagan's SDI program).

Could be embarrassing, Mr MacLeod, should some Military officer cite your work as a source of inspiration (OTH you might find it flattering).

I have every sympathy with Banks, Mcleod et al, but to be honest I've been no more able to read more than a page of their stuff than I have Heinlein's or Asimov's. The moment a spaceship turns up, you've lost me

But, yes, mad gods, runeswords, immortal seventeenth-century mercenaries, immense armoured landships, zeppelins, icewhales, ice schooners and flying steam locomotives are all the sign of a creative genius firmly grounded in the here and now?

There is little way to 'get away' from a here and now, no matter where a ground may lie, as the old saying Funny how it reminds me of Ronnie the elder Reagan.

personally believe political fiction should be set in at least some version of the here and now

If we interpret "some version" broadly enough, then most sf and fantasy already does take place in "some version of the here and now." But if he means it narrowly enough to mean anything definite, then it's a very odd claim. Why wouldn't it be a useful form of political commentary to project the utopian, dystopian, or mixed possibilities of possible political futures?

I know Moorcock is a fan of Alan Moore; I wonder what he thinks of V for Vendetta?

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