The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Special weird things

Kim Stanley Robinson's claim that recent British SF is 'the best British literature of our time' and that 'three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn't read' has received a received a prompt smack-down from John Mullan, Booker Prize judge and professor of English at University College London, who said that he
"was not aware of science fiction," arguing that science fiction has become a "self-enclosed world".

"When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres," he said, but now "it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other."

Labels: ,


' is not to do with being a historical novel.' Although I'm sure Mr Mullan is highly cultured, that's hardly English to my admittedly Ex-Yank ears. So where does he come off writing such uninformed 'bullshit'? And who is he to judge my fannish activities as 'weird?' What conceited, ignorant, crap.
Here's another example of such Two Culture know-nothingness. It's from Oxford's holy of holies, All Souls College. In 1956 some snotnosed humanist there called scientists 'uncultured button-pushers and knob-twiddlers.' (Bertrand Russell, logic and Knowledge , a 1956 Russell anthology). I see no difference except the targets of these silly comments. The mental set's are quite similar.

This comment has been removed by the author.

This is the ever-lasting rift between the literary and SF genres. Even when an SF novel somehow manages to sneak into the literary limelight, they deny that it's SF up and down. They use highly pretentious words like "fabulist" or "interstitial." But in the end, it doesn't matter, because the literary community is a very small minority, whereas SF has a huge fandom. All that's wrong with this picture is that some people won't partake in the joy that is SF.

You think Mullan realizes the irony of his statement? You think he realizes that he's making Robinson's point for him? Am I the only one who thinks a literary judge's inability to form a coherent stream of thought is worrisome?

Professor John Mullan is a counterrevolutionary Enemy of the Peoples and deserves to be treated accordingly.

'a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.'

A bit like Trotskyists, really.

When and where was Mullan eighteen, that that can possibly have been true? I can't find any references to his current age, or date or place of birth.

I just consulted my newly-bought Concise OED and was not surprised to see that 'bullshit' has made it. It's OK to use it on your Civil Service exam when you apply for something in Whitehall, I assume. So Mullan has obtained a tiny bit of respectability by using an approved word. It's a word which anyone in my family back in the uncultured States would have bawled me out for no end had I used it in conversation. OK, use it. But what comes next? I use it too, but not when I'm trying to impress someone with my non-existent cultural superiority.

Mullan is demonstrating that he's a coward, isn't he?

Bookshop owners shelve the SF titles together (no doubt because publishers demand that the titles they are pushing are shelved at the front of the shop, and make discounts conditional on this, but hey, base, superstructure, schmuperstructure) and that's enough to keep him off. He would like to read more of it, but that would mean going into the back of the bookshop!

Similarly, he would be delighted...but the publishers just don't put them forward and there's nothing he can do. There's a terrible lack of curiosity there.

It's also the age-old argument that "We have no prejudice at all...but there just aren't any candidates who come forward!"

Also, I'm not sure whether John Mullen has *ever* been eighteen.

I'm reminded of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures (many thanks to posts and discussions here for introducing me to the work). The natural sciences were dismissed by traditional academic elite of the day as being less important to the essence of human existence than the great works of literature that had (for centuries in many cases) served as the pillars of culture. Regardless of their role in the maintenance of our species' humanity, the Humanities cannot claim much credit for the technological progress that allows (the luckier segments of) the world to live largely free of the plagues, famines, and myriad daily inconveniences so pervasive in times past. (And as a side note, I would suggest that Humanities are at least as responsible as the Natural Sciences for all of disastrous abuses of technology that have followed its development).

I am, I'll admit, a relative new comer to SF, but it seems to me that SF is the experimentally investigative science of literature. I mean this in the sense that in SF, the author is allowed to create controlled experiments, as though he/she were working in a laboratory. The parameters can be set and altered as necessary to optimize the conditions, and then the author can follow scenario to its natural conclusion, free of many of the constraints of the outside world. Then, as the themes emerge, more and more of the outside conditions can be re-introduced, in a systematic way, until the controlled environment resembles the outside world enough to allow reasonable extrapolations based on the investigator's (author's) observations. I would think that the writing of historical novels, or most other genres of fiction, would be more akin to field observations, in which the author can follow events in great detail as they proceed, but has far less freedom to alter or shape their courses, and can therefore only ever report associations and correlations, rather than the causative relationships sought by the experimental investigator.

Perhaps this is all a bit of a stretch, but building upon the (partially implied) argument that the Natural Sciences are the vehicle by which a civilization, as a whole, may potentially progress (or destroy itself), and upon the observation that regardless of the attitudes of the literary elite about the Natural Sciences, science and technology have continued to prosper, I propose that SF is the future of literature. It will continue to grow, and regardless of whether it is recognized by the Booker Prize judges and other such experts along the way, it will become to traditional literary genres what the Natural Sciences have to the Humanities -- not a replacement, and (I hope) not a direct antagonist, but rather a separate (and ever growing) culture whose power for understanding and shaping the world forces it to be recognized, acknowledged, and embraced... even if it is never fully respected by the elitists who are left to maintain their arts in the dusty halls and paper-strewn offices of an age that has past.

Not to mention that this is also nonsense:

"Around 40 years ago, it was historical fiction which was overlooked, he said. "Thirty to 40 years ago there was Georgette Heyer and it was generally speaking a fairly derided genre..."

CS Forester? Alfred Duggan? Josephine Tey? Mary Renault? Patrick O'Brian? George MacDonald Fraser? All writing more or less at that time, all wildly successful and highly regarded.

In fact, it's difficult to think of a time when historical fiction was generally derided. Did anyone deride Sir Walter Scott? Or Robert Louis Stevenson? Or Disraeli, or Thackeray, or Arthur Conan Doyle (who reckoned his historical works the best thing he'd ever written)? Dumas? Rostand? Victor Hugo? Tolstoy?

Putting together Woolf's letter quoted by Robinson and Mullan's statement, the man must have been 18 in the 1930's.

Funnily enough, over here (in Croatia) we just had a literary critic claim that we have no tradition in the genre, and getting all surprised that a mainstream author had written an SF novel. Things are the same everywhere.

(Delurking after a loooong time - hi, Ken.)

Hi, Milena - are you the translator we met at a Zagreb con a few years ago?

Yes, I am. Nice of you to remember that!

Of course back in the "good old days" Kurt Vonnegut wouldn't allow his work to be marketed as science fiction for fear of being marginalised.
I think there may be less concern with style on average in SF, as it is the literature of ideas and those without any have to do something to justify the reader ploughing through their output.When mainstream writers attempt SF it does seem to be the case that they feel they can ignore any genre conventions, even those there for a good reason, Margaret Atwood's "The Haindmaid's Tale" being a memorable example.

As a gut reaction to the quote:

What, you mean like philosophy? Or classics? Or science?

The fact that seriously clever stuff gets hived off to it's own category is if anything a function of language creation. People reference, respond to, and do all that meta-language stuff that shears one way of talking from another.

Then there is a style of reading and "challenging" books that are just not for beginners, because they rely both on new muscles or precedents, using both to decrypt the high information transfer going on.

To resolve this? Harry potter starts as a children's book and turns into whatever JK wanted it to be. Building up your own precedent and moving from the super-simple lowest-common to your own particular garden is one way. Of course, that doesn't help the person who doesn't recognise gardens, and refuses to treat himself as inexperienced and read the childlike generality again.

So perhaps we need ladders on the walls; instead of a university-like funnel that scoops people into incompatible trenches, we need translation and peacemakers between pre-existing temperaments/language forms. What is the sci-fi bridge for english professors?

What is the sci-fi bridge for english professors?

I think most English professors would have a hard time dismissing, say, LeGuin's Dispossessed.

I'm wondering if the problem is the judges or the publishers. John Mullan's attitude is not good, but is SF even getting into the system?

If I'm remembering right, the publishers nominate books, from which a shortlist is selected, and the authors have to be British/Commonwealth. But what happens if, for instance, Neil Gaiman's books are published in the USA, and not in the UK? Is a US publisher even able to nominate?

But as long as people such as John Mullan are spouting as they are, I doubt there's going to be much done. As long as there's that public prejudice, is a publisher even going to bother?

Wow. It would appear that Mr Mullan is such a COLOSSAL arse that he has in fact disappeared completely up it. Now, I'm sure there are several good ideas for SF plots in that, to do with singularities, paradoxes, or the biology necessary for such an achievement. I may have to give out a prize of my own to whoever can write the best story based on this premise.

"Although by my own account I am unaware of this thing, I know that it is no good."

Milena, I do tend to remember the special kind of people who go to special weird things ... especially if they've translated Cydonia into Croatian :-)

Roderick, there's a reason why professors of Eng Lit don't dismiss The Dispossessed - of all the great SF works of, say, the past sixty years it's the one that reads least like SF, because it's the one most focussed on the relationships of human beings with each other rather than of human beings with (the rest of) nature.

Ken, your take on The Dispossessed convinced me to reread it. I had been thinking about doing so for several weeks, but other things had priority.
I read the book upon its paperback publication. At that time I was politically naive and not very good at formulating ideas about personal relationships. Hence I found the book to be decent but didactic: alternating accounts of the pros-and-cons of two sorts of society. Now that I know a bit more about such things I shall read it again.

The Left Hand of Darkness- 'prequel' to The Dispossessed, is the only Le Guin I can recall reading (shameful admission!), and I remember it as one of my most emotionally intense reads ever. When I think back to the cheap angst of the hand-wringing precious flowers who populate Lawrence's overrated oeuvre I find it easy to understand why Le Guin exerts such an attraction on academics forced to pander to their paymasters.

Take Mullan as a case in point. It'd be all to easy to belabour him with the vocabulary he so clearly deserves- phrases like 'cynical', 'self-serving', and 'hack' spring immediately to mind; but the poor man is plainly labouring under the burden of more than just the fuckwit geekhate prejudice he so shamelessly parades.

To wit: "when I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres". Yes, and then there'd've been the New Wave and cyberpunk, after which SF stood revealed as a metagenre which could happily stand on its own two feet without needing the nod of approval from the literati which had hitherto been something of a holy grail to the SF community. And that's just print. After Star Wars, and with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons and then computer games, SF&F moved from the cultural margins to become surely the single weightiest stream of modern cultural life.

So if Mullan "was [ie. is] not aware of science fiction," it can only be through self-imposed blindness; and the "self-enclosed world" to which he refers can only be a projection of the ever-decreasing circles of his own decadent milieu. ;)

And if you want a blinding illustration of how silly the whole thing is, read some (critically acclaimed) Iain Banks back-to-back with some Iain M Banks. Actually the other way 'round works better, then you'll recognise the knife missile in The Brigde.

Post a Comment