The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, October 22, 2010



Science fiction is the first human literature

[Note: This year's Novacon is less than a month a way. I'm not sure work and family commitments will allow me to attend, but while rummaging about for some reminiscences of Novacon 36 for this year's Programme Book, I came across my 2006 GoH talk. Here it is.]

The business of writing often begins with days of staring miserably at a blank screen or a smudged sheet of paper with a few pathetic scrawls on it. Well, it does for me, and I imagine it does for many other writers. And then, when the story comes into shape, we spend weeks and months bashing away at a keyboard. And what do we produce? Mainstream fiction writers produce stories of things that never happened. Science fiction writers produce stories not only of that but of things that never will happen. Why do we do it? What's the point of SF? What good does it do?

At the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this year [2006] I was on a panel with Charlie Stross, and he did a very impressive Charlie-style riff on how SF is actually the agitprop department of an early 20th-century totalitarian movement that never made the big time with the flags and uniforms and revolvers and never got a mound of skulls to call its own. Technocracy, the movement in question, has dwindled to a handful of old men in Oregon, busy putting the Northwest Technocrat on the Web after decades of cyclostyling, but SF soldiers on. It's as if collectivization and the Five-Year Plan had never happened but there was this genre, socialist realism - SR - that kept going on and on and on about tractors.

Now as it happens a few days earlier I'd been at the Book Festival interview with Lewis Wolpert, who was plugging his latest, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. One of the many things Professor Wolpert said that struck me as interesting was 'Causal belief is what makes us human'. And, he said, an understanding of cause and effect is itself a cause and a consequence of tool-making. Now that is distinctively human. As Douglas Adams put it, for all the rest of you out there, the trick is to bang the rocks together. Whatever may be said for the tool-making abilities and causal cognitions of African Grey parrots, New Caledonian crows, octopuses, and your cat, not to mention the dreaded six-fingered opposable-thumbed moggies that Leslie Fish is supposedly breeding to have a back-up race that shall rule the sevagram and do all the technocratic stuff in case the human race snuffs it, the fact of the matter is that humans have this ability and this cognition in a way and to an extent that no other species on Earth has.

More importantly, in humans the ability is cumulative, it's self-critical, it's a runaway feedback, it's progressive, and the chains of cause and effect are indefinitely extendable. We build on the work of previous generations, and when we don't we build on their ruins. I mean, I really hope I don't need to labour the point that there's a qualitative difference between a beaver dam and the Hoover Dam. You can make all the claims you like about how intelligence is required by the beaver, but the Hoover Dam or a watermill for that matter is a product of something more. It's what Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen call extelligence. We have it in spades.

So what I was thinking as I was listening to Charlie hold forth so plausibly and amusingly on SF as the pamphleteering of Technocracy was: No! Science fiction is far more significant than that! Let's not sell ourselves short, especially not in front of a Book Festival audience. In fact, let's make the most extreme claim we can think of for science fiction. And my candidate for the most extreme claim is this:

Science fiction is the first human literature.

What I mean is that science fiction is the first literature that is primarily about what is most distinctively human, in the sense I've just described. Not to be too disparaging of mainstream literature, but the mainstream is mostly about things we share with other animals - love and hate, war and peace, dominance hierarchies, sex and violence. Science fiction of course includes these but they are not what it's about. It's a literature of causality, a literature of consequence, a literature of human activity and human agency. It's not primarily about science and technology, but about 'if ...then'. Of 'what if ...?' and 'what about ...?' and 'suppose ...' and 'if this goes on ...'

And it goes about it in a particular and distinctive way, which is itself tool-using and problem-solving, a hands-on can-do approach to the universe, which is why SF's impulse can be mistaken for technocratic, and why it is not mistaken to call it American. 'In the beginning all the world was America,' John Locke said - a new world, and in the end it is all a new world still. If the basic attitude of science is, to quote Douglas Adams again, that 'any idea is there to be attacked', the basic attitude of science fiction is that any problem is there to be fixed. If it deals with a problem that can't be fixed, that is almost always seen within the story as a defeat, a failing, a crushing even, but not as a tragedy or an inevitability or, God help us, a vindication of the story's philosophical premises about the nature of existence. If the problem can't be solved it's because we got the chains of causation wrong, we had mistaken causal beliefs, or the problem was so big it simply overwhelmed us. Better understanding or greater power could, in principle, have overcome it.

I would suggest by the way that this is the real distinction between SF on the one hand and on the other mainstream literature set in the future or on other planets or about technological developments and scientific discoveries. Every SF reader knows, I think, the disappointment, the sense of something missing, when they read a novel like that, usually about clones. Some chromosome hasn't been copied correctly. It's not the material, it's the attitude to the material. Margaret Atwood could write about talking squids in outer space and still not be writing SF. So I don't resent that defensive response, that cloud of squid ink as they jet away, from mainstream writers as much as I used to. We have to acknowledge that yes, they aren't writing SF and they are across the road from our gutter, coming from somewhere else and going somewhere else.

As another aside it may be that the same attitude prevails in certain other genres such as crime fiction and sea adventure stories, which may explain why they are popular with SF readers.

Now I need to make some caveats here. There's a danger of that attitude slipping into a sort of glib optimism about personal and social problems, a danger that has been quite rightly high-lighted by Mike Harrison. Come to think of it, there's a danger of that attitude slipping into glibness in general, in a way that is damaging to serious thinking about serious problems, a danger high-lighted by the Mundane SF school and memorably by Geoff Ryman tearing a strip off an inoffensive and bewildered American rocket entrepreneur and would-be space colonist at last year's [2005] Worldcon.

But having said that word of caution I will now throw caution to the winds and emphasise how radical and new the SF attitude is. For thousands of years literature has shown us man as a fallen creature, man as a rational animal, man as a political animal - all those definitions handed down to us from the philosophies and scriptures of antiquity. It's just over two hundred years since Benjamin Franklin said that man is a tool-making animal, a definition that Marx quoted approvingly in Capital. It took the Industrial Revolution to make Franklin's claim not just credible but obvious. And it's less than a hundred years since Hugo Gernsback smashed together some already existing genres - scientific romances and air adventure stories and future war stories and so on - and created a literature that takes seriously Franklin's definition of the human.

And by doing that, it actually changes human beings' conception of themselves. One of the first things we learn, back at the bash the rocks together stage, is that the changes we make in the world change us. This applies to our literary and imaginative productions too. Patrick Nielsen Hayden is quoted in the current Ansible [232, November 2006] as saying: 'The book is the source code, the brain is the compiler, and the experience produced in the reader is the executable.'

What, then, is the effect of science fiction on the reader? By focusing on humanity as homo faber, man the maker, it implicitly downgrades all distinctions between human beings that are irrelevant to that capacity: those of nation, race, sex, religion and class origin. Class as a position within the production process can be relevant, as can the relationship of that process to the rest of society and to the rest of nature, and these all figure in SF - hence all those engineers and entrepreneurs harried by bureaucrats or mobs.

At a party recently a former SF fan told me about how SF had affected her life. She was, she said, a happy child until the age of nine, when her family moved to a town where the first question she was asked by the first kids she met was: 'Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?' She didn't know, so she went home to ask her mother. Back she came to the park with the answer: 'We're Christians.'

This was the wrong answer.

Around about this time she discovered 1950s SF, and she soon figured out that although much of it was ostensibly about aliens, it was really about black people and white people and women and men. And it gave her the hope, she said, that somewhere in the world we could be free of all this bigotry.

I found her story quite moving, and quite salutary, in that it shows how SF with all its failings and blind spots can still be a force for good. In my experience, both personally and in years of talking to other SF readers and fans, I think the reading of SF instills a certain ideology. It's not at all difficult to identify what that ideology is. It's humanism, Jim, but not as we know it. It's often favourable to various opposed kinds of universalist politics - liberal or libertarian, socialist, even conservative - but seldom to identity politics or nationalist politics. (In fact, where it is nationalist it pretends to be universalist.) It sees humanity as potentially united in the face of an indifferent or hostile universe. It's not friendly to religious fundamentalism of any kind, though it's open to religious belief and indeed to piety, as witness the novels of Orson Scott Card and Gene Wolfe. I suppose it would be possible to write scientific creationist science fiction - Sci-Cre sci-fi! - but it's hard to imagine, let alone to imagine its being any good. Likewise it's hard to imagine explicitly racist SF: the notorious exception, The Turner Diaries, is utterly marginal.

Finally, and I want to make this point particularly to this audience, is that I've found that SF fandom by and large really does reflect the attitudes I've described here. It's what makes fans such good people and such interesting company! There is much more to be done, of course, in terms of broadening SF fandom and making it more open. There is even more to be done in terms of developing the potential of a great literature that, I have argued, we see the beginnings of in SF. But if these things are done, they will be better done if they, too, are done consciously - and that means with an understanding of what SF already does right.

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14 Comments:

I'm going to have to think about this for a while before I can comment adequately, so for now I will content myself with saying, Fucking inspirational.

Doesn't a lot of actually-existing nationalism pass itself off as universalism - American nationalism in particular?

Inspiring from someone who took the time to be inspired.

absolute
certain laughter
exploding spontaneous
unearthed a cloudburst absolutely
nothing could hold it back, nothing will

"At the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this year [2006] I was on a panel with Charlie Stross, and he did a very impressive Charlie-style riff on how SF is actually the agitprop department of an early 20th-century totalitarian movement that never made the big time with the flags and uniforms and revolvers and never got a mound of skulls to call its own. Technocracy, the movement in question, has dwindled to a handful of old men in Oregon, busy putting the Northwest Technocrat on the Web after decades of cyclostyling, but SF soldiers on."

In The Roads Must Roll, an early Heinlein short story, the protagonist is opposing an attempt at a technocratic takeover - and there is a bit of talk in there undercutting its premises.

Likewise it's hard to imagine explicitly racist SF
Not greatly surprising when the positing of aliens shifts the racial divide off-planet (see Heinlein's Starship Troopers). A quick google revealed this accusation of explicit racism in the SF community.

If the basic attitude of science is, to quote Douglas Adams again, that 'any idea is there to be attacked', the basic attitude of science fiction is that any problem is there to be fixed. If it deals with a problem that can't be fixed, that is almost always seen within the story as a defeat, a failing, a crushing even, but not as a tragedy or an inevitability or, God help us, a vindication of the story's philosophical premises about the nature of existence. If the problem can't be solved it's because we got the chains of causation wrong, we had mistaken causal beliefs, or the problem was so big it simply overwhelmed us. Better understanding or greater power could, in principle, have overcome it.

Obviously a few years after the fact - and any generalization interesting enough to be worth talking about has exceptions - but Ted Chiang's Exhalation looks to me like SF which explicitly argues against this.

Henry - yes, that's a fine story about a problem that's completely unsolvable within the framework of the story. Mind you, the story give me claustrophobia just thinking about it.

P.M.L. - sure, there's classic SF that's explicitly against Technochracy, just as there could be (in my imaginary analogy) 'SR' stories directed against socialism. I don't think we need to take Charlie's riff too literally to see his point.

Phil - yes.

skidmarx - hmm.

The 'not racist' think is however, not quite as dominant to the fandom as we might like to thing. For instance, the sprawling RaceFail of '09.

Which... is sadly still going on in some places.

This comment on a thread defending Elizabeth Moon's recent misstep for instance. (Warning, thread full of fail.)

Douglas Adams is a cool name

What kind of explicitly racist fiction is there of any genre that isn't utterly marginal? White nationalism is a marginal political movement that produces marginal fiction.

Sorry to focus on this one sentence in an otherwise good and interesting piece.

Explicitly racist fiction? Check out quite a bit of the later Kingsley Amis. Explicitly racist science fiction? Farnham's Freehold made me so uncomfortable I cried when I was about 14 (58 tomorrow!). SF is no more immune to reactionary thought than any other genre/branch of literature. But it's potential for liberationary thought IS undoubtedly greater than for most forms.

I didn't make myself very clear here, and I would probably make the point differently now. The reason I mentioned The Turner Diaries was that Tom Disch had referred to that book in his The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of as if it represented something significant in SF.

It's not difficult to find examples of implicit racism in SF, but SF explicitly based on thought-through racial hatred and theories of racial supremacy (rather than unthinking assumptions) is rare. Farnham's Freehold is a very dodgy text indeed (as is, in a different way, Eric Frank Russell's 'classic' Sinister Barrier) but as I understand it The Turner Diaries goes way beyond that, not surprisingly as its author was an out-and-out Nazi.

I did mean to write something cogent, starting with Philip K. Dick's observation (in one of the story notes in The Golden Man) that he was a lot less sanguine about the idea of mutant supermen being figures to admire than was John W.Campbell, maybe suggesting that the essential nature of the genre may affect the way in which Earthly ideology is expressed, but doesn't necessarily alter it (as taking hippie drugs doesn't turn rugby players into prophets of peace and love, or taking punk drugs turn us into fascists), and that maybe the most that could be said is that it enables the writer to take a leap away from the context in which such issues are thought about by the mainstream, but places no boundary on which direction it is taken (and remembering Sladek's Law that 90% of everything is crap and Vic Reeves' Law that 86% of statistics are made up).
Then I found this link at Making Light:
Everything I Know About Diversity,I Learned from Superhero Comics

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