The OF Blog: Narratives of SFnal Identity

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Narratives of SFnal Identity

This week, The New Yorker published their special themed double issue on science fiction.  As a subscriber, when I first learned about this last week, I had a sense of trepidation about the entire affair, not because I thought the staff at The New Yorker would present the topic as a literary curiosity (having read several of the fictions published in the magazine over the past three years, such a notion had already been disabused), but rather that I suspected that if they asked certain well-known SF writers, the result would come across as being much less about the qualities of the fictions they had produced and much more about real and perceived grievances.  Having just finished reading the fictions and commentaries, what I noticed is that certain narratives emerged from the short commentary pieces that the contributing writers, ranging in age from Ray Bradbury to Karen Russell, wrote.

The first narrative that appeared was childhood, or at latest early adolescence.  Let us look closely at some of their comments:


"When I was seven or eight years old, I began to read the science-fiction magazines that were brought by guests into my grandparents' boarding house, in Waukegan, Illinois.  Those were the years when Hugo Gernsback was publishing Amazing Stories, with vivid, appallingly imaginative cover paintings that fed my hungry imagination.  Soon after, the creative beast in me grew when Buck Rogers appeared, in 1928, and I think I went a trifle mad that autumn.  It's the only way to describe the intensity with which I devoured the stories.  You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion."

China Miéville:

"Of course, the stories that got you all to hush, in kindergarten, were the ones that contained exactly those elements which you still seek out.  In that class full of six-year-olds, everyone was into dinosaurs and/or magic and/or Saturday-morning monsters, just like you.  By your teens, though, you are indeed in the minority.  Sure, some readers, especially after the hip discover Dick, Butler, Gibson, will come to the field later.  But they're rarities.  Mostly those "into this" are those who simply never leave.  So you can answer your interlocutors' question with another:  How did they get out of it?"

Margaret Atwood:

"The lobster placed in a pot of cold water that's brought to a boil doesn't know it's cooking until it's far too late.  Similarly, those of us currently in the science-fiction soup didn't know we were climbing into that particular tureen:  we started too early.  Children don't read "genres"; they read stories.  Below a certain age, they don't distinguish between "true" and "not true," because they see no reason that a white rabbit shouldn't possess a pocket watch, that whales shouldn't talk, or that sentient beings shouldn't live on other planets and travel around in spaceships.  Science-fiction tropes aren't read as "science fiction"; they're read as fiction.  And fiction is read as reality.  And sometimes reality lives under the bed and has very large teeth, and it's no use pretending otherwise."


"In the early nineties, Pizza Hut sponsors Book It!, to promote reading.  For every ten books you read, you get a certificate for a free, one-topping pizza.  At the end of each month, you come home from Mrs. Sicius's fifth-grade class and slam down the Book It! certificate in front of your parents like a hunter dropping a deer carcass on the kitchen table.  Book that, Family!  We are eating tonight!

"It turns out that there is no greater pleasure than reading for pizza.  No longer do you feel guilty about eschewing the "real" world for these fantasy zones.  Now you have an unassailable, American motivation; you're a breadwinner.  Literally.  It's November.  Since September, you've earned forty dollars' worth of garlic bread for the family.  For days at a stretch, you dissolve into Terry Brooks's "The Sword of Shannara" series–a sort of Tolkien spinoff, Middle Earth for Cold War kids.  There are elves, dwarves, trolls, and Shadowen monsters. You're only ten, but you're still pretty sure you ought to feel embarrassed about the unnameable emotions stirred in you by imaginary beings, the elves especially."

William Gibson:

"When I was five, I was chastised for disagreeing with an Air Force man, a visitor to our home, who made mock of my Willy Ley book.  I knew he was wrong when he said that space travel would never happen.  And I was right, at least in the relatively short term, just a few years off from Sputnik.  I was a native, I felt unquestioningly, of Tomorrow."

Reminiscence, in both nostalgic and non-nostalgic forms, is a common tool used by essayists to reinforce their opinions on a topic.  In general, humans do form close attachments in their youth that last a lifetime.  However, in a narrative on science fiction, such recollections can possess a tinge of bitterness, of things that were forcibly cast aside.  Bradbury notes that the mania of childhood fades into something else by adulthood; it is not surprising to see in a number of his well-known fictions adolescent protagonists who have not yet lost this joie de vivre

Yet something seems to have been lost for several of these writers.  Gibson notes the challenge made to his kindergartener's perspective on the future.  He was "right," but only to a degree; something changed as he aged, even as his reasons for reading more "adult" SF like J.G. Ballard deepened into something more than wanting to imagine a future.  Miéville's piece, using the conceit of a "transmission" from "the future" to those in the early 21st century, is more biting.  Childhood here becomes a more "pure" place, where children aren't worried about what is "hip" or "cool"; they love their monsters, by God!  This ties in with Atwood's recollection of her experiences as a ten-year-old reading an unnamed SF short story (the summary of this tale is rather dreadful, which she notes with wryness).  At this age, it is "story" and not "genre" that matters.  Russell's piece deepens this with a story of a turning point in her young reading life, where a corporate-sponsored reading program turns into an investigation of just what she is reading and whether or not such should be lauded or condemned.  There is a discernible clash of what moves and what ought to move the young reader, which concludes in a rather distasteful way for the ten-year-old writer-to-be.

Some critics of SF have noted over the past half-century or more that it is a "juvenile" literary genre, that it encourages a facile view of the world that eschews a deeper, more direct wrestling with real, troubling issues.  At first glance, some SF does indeed do little to engage with historical/social issues such as war, poverty, or gender power disparities.  Yet some of these contributors prove this to be a non-universal.  Gibson says:

"By 1964, when I was negotiating puberty in the chill deeps of the Cold War, history itself had become the Atomic Disintegrator.  In those years, I was drawn to science fiction (and mainly to its prose forms) for the evidence it offered of manifold possibilities of otherness.  To a curious, anxious, white male child coming of age in an incurious and paranoid white monoculture, there was literally nothing like it – though a great deal of science fiction, possibly the majority of it, I was starting to notice, depicted futuristic monocultures that were dominated by white males.  The rest, however, had as much to do with making me the person I am today as anything else did."

Atwood's concluding paragraph reveals how the relationship between speculative and realist fictions affected her, both as a child and later as an adult:

"Heady stuff for a ten-year-old, or however old I was.  For adult readers, both then and in the future, there were several ways of decoding this story, from misogynist ("That's what women are like, the bloodsuckers") to feminist ("That's what men really think of women, the poltroons") to sadomasochist ("That's what I'd call a fun day out") to arachnologist ("That's an interesting commentary on the progeny-feeding stratagems of spiders").  But what the story gave me, as a reader, was a key new differentiator:  That was unlikely to be true, or ever to come true.  It was pure fantasy.  Whereas when I read Orwell's "1984," a scant few years later, I thought it could all too possibly become true:  in the midst of the Cold War, it more or less already was.  Such distinctions still matter.  To me, at any rate."

This second narrative of SFnal identity, the growing awareness of the adolescent-author of the distinctions between what is "real" and what is "not possible" is shown to have progressed from binaries (real/not real, fantasy/realism, true/not true) toward an assimilation, where the authors are seeing connections between what they have fantasized about in relation to their reading and their own worlds.  Russell notes that for a young child at the end of the Cold War, the devastation found in Terry Brooks's novels contains a processed reality that allows the young reader to formulate his/her own understanding of the symbolism without feeling as directly threatened by the text as Atwood did when she read Orwell at a young age.  Although this subsuming of imaginative literature into their developing world-views is not a major point in these essays (Bradbury and Miéville barely touch upon this aspect, if at all), it is still a lurking presence.

The third narrative is aggrievement.  This is especially seen in Ursula Le Guin's essay, where the perceived slights of those darn English professors and critics (and the responses given by SF writers) constitutes the first half of her essay:

"For a long time, critics and English professors declared that science fiction wasn't literature.  Most of them spoke from the modernist-realist basis of never having read any science fiction since they were twelve.  They were comfortable with a judgment that allowed them to remain both superior and ignorant, and quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety."

This view unfortunately dominates so many SFnal narratives, not just in the magazine at hand.  All one has to do is see reiterations of these relived "clashes" between the vaguely nefarious (and doubtless wannabe-pipe smoking) "literary fiction" élites and the plucky and daring genre-defending knights, who sally forth to defend their beloved literary genre's besmirched honor.   Most of these erstwhile "defenders of the genre faith" fail to even make the distinctions that Le Guin does here.  Instead of noting it is a difference between modernist-realist adherents and others (with the subtext of this being a historical clash of ideals that has shifted over the past half-century or more), the narrative bifurcates into a) those elites are still repressing us (even though Edmund Wilson, whom Le Guin cites as the quasi-ogre of the time, has been dead for nearly forty years) and b) we are winning this battle (often with citations of SFnal movies, TV shows, and other non-prose media, with the occasional Harry Potter or Katniss tossed in).

It is a rather tired old refrain that does little for most anyone.  Considering the fiction posted in this very same issue of The New Yorker, Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" and Junot Díaz's "Monstro," the first element has to have its received validity questioned.  What critics, minus the few who possibly are purposely tweaking the sensibilities of the over-sensitive, still engage in such practices (as if there ever were a monolith of these staid English professors; here, the magazine's cover conveys a dual sense of perceptual irony)?  If as some argue, that the "gatekeepers" have fallen, then why do they keep harking back to this point?

Le Guin references the notion of "genre ghettos," with such having both beneficial and deleterious effects.  The latter often is not discussed in rah-rah pieces such as the Lev Grossman and Damien Walter pieces I linked to a few paragraphs above.  No, their focus is squarely on the promotion of this notion of SFnal/"genre fiction" as being "disruptive" to the old received truths to the point where Walter appears to bend truth to suit his need (e.g. the average output of poor Jeffrey Eugenides, who seems to have a literary "small dick" in comparison to Jack Vance and Harlan Ellison (!)) in his recent article on this so-called "new pulp," which ultimately is the same as the old bos...err, old pulp.  Nope, pieces such as theirs are pallatives meant to ease the worries and to massage the egos of those who want "their fiction" to be the fiction. 

This is a rather detestable SFnal narrative twinning, one that certainly does no favors to those who would like to suggest that if a The New Yorker reader liked the Egan and Díaz pieces, then s/he might also want to read something produced by say a Brian Evenson or Aimee Bender.  No, theirs is a haughty, chest-thumping, crotch-grabbing display, meant to call the like-minded masses to war and not to parlay at the table of literature.  It is a shame that traces of this appear in Le Guin and Miéville's essays, even though Le Guin at least notes some of the deficiencies of this approach.  After all, some who might otherwise find the other narratives of SFnal identity to be intrigued may find this final set to just reconfirm their own suspicions and worries about this branch of literature.  Rapprochement is certainly better than jingoism.  Maybe some will learn what this means and apply it in the future.


Ben Godby said...

What do you expect? The latest issue of Clarkesworld--a respectable beast of the spec fic genre--has a piece from Elizabeth Bear chiding that very literature for its failure to address the topics and themes she thinks most worthy. I am more and more convinced that spec fic--and science fiction in particular--is the whiner's genre par excellence.

I mean, I personally am an enormous griefer.

Matthew Cheney said...

Clearly, SF fans need a sports team. With a team, you can criticize the coaches and certain choices of players, but when it comes time to beat up the enemy team (Snooty Literature), everybody unites! (It doesn't matter if the enemy team is imaginary, or the equivalent of four kids on in a field with a stick and some stones. As long as there's an enemy team, we can play the game!)

Or maybe SF fans need a country. Clearly, we love to define our territory and set up borders and pass laws about immigrants. The country of SF would have 8,392 states, and John Clute would be Minister of Naming. Each state, of course, would have various counties, municipalities, towns, villages, precincts, etc. -- enough to satisfy the taxonomical horde for eternity -- but when the evil empire known as the Nation Of Lit rumbled and groaned about how great it was, we'd gather our forces and scream, "You hate our freedoms!" Then blow them to Alpha Centauri with our zap guns.

Anonymous said...

Should've got Salvatore for an essay. He would have talked about Icewind Dale and his love of James Joyce instead of the genre is the true way chest-thumping.

And man, I loved Book It! I thought it was only like a free personal pizza every few months, though. Kind of a ripoff looking back

- Zach H

Larry said...

Great, now I have this mental image of a SF version of the "War on Terror," with Clute ordering the waterboarding of Harold Bloom and other hapless "lit people."

Considering how much of that war was based on (self)deception and inferiority complexes, it might be too true of a comparison.

Too old for Book It!, as I was already in college I think when that program was around (plus I don't eat pizza of any sort). It'd be nice to have a revival, with modification to allow for variety (readers should not live on the bread of Hunger Games/Potter alone, but by the (insert quasi-spiritual reference to all sorts of writing)).

But on a more serious note, if I didn't see references to things like this Elizabeth Bear piece in the comments here or on Twitter, I'd have very little clue as to what genre fan feathers have been ruffled. It's funny how my conscious choice not to read those venues (outside the occasional solicitation from someone I know) has improved my attitude toward various literary genres.

Paul Smith said...

I am being haunted by the ghost of Edmund Wilson. Every night he comes. I lie in my bed, trying to will him away, but he will not go. He cannot go. Like Marley's ghost and his chains, Wilson shakes a copy of Axel's Castle at me and demands that I repent. The night is so long, I don't know if I can go on...

Larry said...

Don't worry, your heart will go on and as you strive to shake Wilson's chains, Celine Dion (not Céline) will sing of your tragic end.

rreugen said...

"The first narrative that appeared was childhood"

"second narrative of SFnal identity, the growing awareness of the adolescent-author of the distinctions between what is "real" and what is "not possible"

"The third narrative is aggrievement."

Uh, so the writers of those essays effectively said, well, let's just repeat what was said before but for The New Yorker readership?
That's sort of lazy. Or maybe that's it, that's all they had to say?
That one was intense about reading SF as a kid? Does that imply that he wasn't intense about other stuff? Well, what can I say, seems boring. I was intense about my reading as a kid too, but equally intense about mostly everything else. Going fishing! Finding baby bats! Look, a flat rock! Ha, a cool book! And so on. Crazy and fun childhood. Yeah, I can see a kid being like that only about books (not all books, just sf ones it seems) but I am not friends with that kid. It's not that I don't like him, but as a kid, you know, I want him to be intense about quite more stuff.

Then that distinction between what's real and what's not possible. So Anna Karenina, for example, is on the "real" side? To me it's not possible, it never was, and it never will be. The simple idea that some real persons could ever do exactly what the writer wrote in that novel, have those exact thoughts, wear those exact clothes, do the exact gestures in the exact sequence with the exact timing fantastic.

Finally, the third narrative which is the whining is...meh.

(All of the above is boorish simply because of your posting schedule. I love all the writers who wrote those essays INTENSELY.)

Larry said...

Yeah, that's a good point, about this sense that it's all a rehash for an audience that might be receptive to more than just a repetition of tired old complaints. I especially agree with your comment on the kid who would be wearisome if s/he just rhapsodized about only one subset of literature. When I was growing up, I loved reading...but I loved even more playing sports and getting to meet people and learning about life from those encounters.

rreugen said...

I kept thinking about these three narratives that you identified and it struck me how cliche they are.

In a way it is fitting. Most SFF is built on cliche, so our view of it has to be a cliche too.

But, again, I wanted more from The New Yorker and these writers I admire.

Larry said...

I wanted more as well. Some of it was the constraint of having 500-700 words to write something about SF and their lives (Miéville's reads more like flash fiction), some of it was just laziness, I guess. I think there are more narratives to SFnal identity than what I identified from these articles, but they are not emphasized as much in the conversations people have about what constitutes speculative fictions.

Tudor said...

I’ve not read the issue, only your article, but I think that the problem was with what The New Yorker wanted to do – an issue on SCIENCE FICTION with bold capital letters. So they put a big heavy SF doll on the table and ask the authors to write short pieces about this clear defined object. This started an inappropriate and expired response from these writers, when, instead they should have written about how this doll does not exist anymore and how brilliant complex literature has become; a clear thing if you read their own excellent books.

Tudor said...

Having just finished Railsea by China Mieville, I can’t help thinking how nostalgic SF writers are. This is a very complex and slippery discussion, but probably their childhood has still its own identity in the back of their minds and can reach into their adult minds much more clearly and with more force. I don’t think that this incomplete integration of their childhood is a good or a bad thing, it is just something else.

Foxessa said...

I was tired to death of this bs 25 years ago already.

This is what you get from people who proudly proclaim they are not adults and never will be adults and don't want to be adults.

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