The OF Blog: Memes are not necessarily facts

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Memes are not necessarily facts

I found this link to a Wired article by Clive Thompason about SF being the "last bastion of philosophical writing." Curious, I read through the entire thing, paused a bit, thought some more, and then had a single verbal reaction:

This is bullshit.

Yes, not quite the most eloquent of retorts, but yet it was an honest reaction of mine, one that I've had from time to time when reading comments such as his. But since this has been on my mind more and more lately, I thought I would address this pernicious little meme that seems to claim that SF, this mostly-2oth century creation, has assumed the mantle of being "the fiction of ideas." So while I'll be using Thompson's article as a starting point, rest assured that my rebuttal is far more general in intent and scope than just addressing a few of the generalizations that Thompson makes in his short article.

Which brings me to my point. If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.

From where I sit, traditional "literary fiction" has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? I think it's because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I'd read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, "OK. Cool. I see how today's world works." I also started to feel like I'd been reading the same book over and over again.

The first question I had when reading this section was, "What in tarnation is this here 'literary fiction?' Are we talking about something extremely specific and defined, or is it a negatively-defined term, such as 'no Hobbits or space rockets allowed here?'" Thompson gives no details, nothing to support this assertation; "literary fiction" is just there, dull, stolid, bereft of ideas, according to him. So naturally, I have to dig further and question this assumption with some probing questions.

First, is "literary fiction" something that might earlier have been called "Borgeois Fiction," that fiction which reflects a conservatism endemic to the middle, non-working classes? The type of fiction that is very mimetic in scope because of its apparent descent from the Naturalism of Zola or Dreiser or the rather sparse stylings of a Hemingway? Novels that are more concerned with the "social condition" rather than the "human condition," as some might call it?

Working from just those questions and being quite aware that I may be off in my presumptions here, if "literary fiction" is to be defined so narrowly as to concentrate only on those aspects, then one must wonder if this is akin to assumptions by many readers both inside and outside of "fantasy literature" that "fantasy" equals Orcs and Hobbits and Elves and Dwarves and Dark Lord, oh my! Because when I look at my bookshelves and I see book after book of fiction that does not fall anywhere near the "speculative fiction" umbra or within the apparent parameters of Thompson's definition, I have to wonder.

For example, take Don DeLillo's 1985 classic, White Noise. While it is firmly entrenched in "the real world," one might argue (there are no flights of "escape" to other lands, to other imagined possibilities), DeLillo has bent the apparent rules quite a bit in that dark comic novel. Using various symbolic "white noise" moments throughout the novel (the dull blare of the TV set, radio transmissions, sirens, etc.) that represent all-too-well the droning nothingness devoid of any real societal implication, DeLillo's novel is not just the same-old, same-old. Rather it represents one facet of life, one that isn't too terribly pleasant, I'll admit, but one that bears keeping in mind: it represents the notion, the idea perhaps, that in our loud and brash American society, that silence and non-communication have somehow switched places with solitude and reflection. In order to communicate something, one has to be silent long enough to unsettle another.

If this is not a good enough example, then there are others. In Bret Easton Ellis's 1985 debut novel, Less Than Zero, we see not just a drug culture that reflects the seediness of the 1980s, but also the burned out, exhausted, buried in the hail (as Bob Dylan sung about in his 1975 classic "Shelter from the Storm") culture that saw little point in just dreaming big - that shit's all poppycock. While certainly not the sort of "literature of ideas" that Thompson seems to have in mind, I don't believe one should be quick to dismiss novels such as Ellis's, because they do seem to reflect quite well the prevailing societal attitudes.

So I am left wondering if by "literature of ideas," Thompson is looking back rather than looking forward. Do these "literature of ideas" contain social utopias? If so, would St. Thomas More's own original Utopia be claimed as being "SF" despite being written in Latin almost 500 years ago? Or how about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their ideas on how to engineer a proletariat uprising? Too 19th century? If so, then what about the various "Marxist" groups that are still active today, still writing novels that suggest solutions for how to deal with various matters?

Continuing this even further, Thompson's rather curt dismissal of "literary fiction" as being just a series of permutations off of a particular stimuli-response path leads one to wonder if this "literary culture" perhaps should have been qualified with the addition of "Anglo-American" to it, since there are quite a few novelists from Latin America in particular (and doubtless elsewhere in the world that I have yet to discover due to my own linguistic limitations) whose novels, hyper-realistic as they might be, that are presenting quite a few pertinent questions that aren't often as easily visible in their Anglo-American brethren. For example, take some of Alberto Fuguet's work since the early 1990s. This Chilean (who spent part of his childhood in California before his family emigrated back to Chile in the mid-70s) author in works such as Mala Onda (Bad Vibes) and Las películas de mi vida (The Movies of My Life) questions, via the all-too-"real" lives of his protagonists, just how "right" these social/cultural movements, so many of them imposed from "above" by the cultural hegemony of the US pop culture dissemination, are in the lives of others. These are deeply subversive fictions, ones that contain "ideas" without screaming "IDEA! IDEA! IDEA!" out at the reader.

But yet these are "small-idea" novels, I suppose. Here is more of Thompson's argument:

Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender's Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.

Adults and serious intellectuals used to love ruminating over this stuff, too. Thought experiments formed the foundation of Western philosophy — from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes to Simone de Beauvoir.

So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers? Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi's most famous authors — like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick — have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.

Ah, yes. The old "massive, brain-shaking concept" argument. Almost a dinosaur, that, I suppose. Gone the way of the Dodo and the Yippies, one might wonder, except of course for the "reservation" that is SF. Why am I getting this mental image of an asylum, a place where certain "dangerous thoughts" have been shoved off to the side, swept under the rug, and intended to be out of sight, out of mind for the general populace (who presumably is more wrapped up in reading about the all-too-realistic struggles of Pietro dealing with his life struggles while he works as a construction worker building skyscrapers in New York City)? Must be some nefarious plot to drain "idea seeking" from the general public.

But Thompson's references to Socrates through Beauvoir is a bit disingenuous, I believe. Yes, these authors were concerned with issues of "truth," but yet "truth" still occupies a major place in philosophical writing, just it's not capital-T "Truth" that holds court, but rather a more fractured, less cohesive small-t "truth statements" that occupy the hearts and minds of quite a few philosophers and authors (to the determined opposition of many others). But Thompson likely isn't interested in "postmodern" fictions, since the very Ideas that he craves have been whittled down to small-case "ideas" that explore more minute facets of our global societies and cultures.

Thompson's weakest argument occurs when he just throws in the "execrable prose" bit (I can only presume he is talking about the rather wooden style of an Isaac Asimov, for example), followed immediately by the "deranged" ideas of a Heinlein or a Dick. There really is no exploration of this (not that Thompson would have had much space due to the limitations of his article's intent), so I can only point out that there must be something else other than the "execrable prose" and the misogynistic attitudes of two prominent (and dead) SF authors that is at play here. If I had to present a hypothesis for testing, I would suggest that there be a closer look done at the relationship between societal attitudes on relationships, religious/cultural symbolism, demographic shifts, etc., as I suspect there would be quite a bit more cynicism and lack of faith in "Idea" in a time of cultural turmoil.

And now for the final part of Thompson's argument, that dealing with certain "literary" writers:

But the worm is turning. For whatever reasons — maybe the reality fatigue I've felt — a lot of literary writers are trying their hand at speculative fiction. Philip Roth used a "counterfactual" history — what if Nazi sympathizers in the US won the 1940 election? — to explore anti-Semitism in The Plot Against America. Cormac McCarthy muses on the nature of morality in the Hobbesian anarchy of his novel The Road. Then there's the genre-bending likes of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Susanna Clarke, and Margaret Atwood (whom I like to think of as a sci-fi novelist trapped inside a literary author).

Those aren't writers whose books are adorned with embossed dragons. But that doesn't mean they don't owe that dragon a large debt.

On the surface, this would sound convincing, except when one looks back over the past century or so, every now and then we see evidence of the same appropriation of tropes to suit particular authors' needs. Books such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or William Golding's The Lord of the Flies have long been "claimed" as being "SF," but yet there's been such a strong connection of those stories (and their authors) with such very "real" things such as World War II, the eugenics "program" of the National Socialists, or with the sometimes-violent hierarchies that youth develop (things that can be seen even today in the rise of "fight clubs," some might argue). Chabon and Lethem write stories that speak quite well to the problems of today, while an Atwood questions takes certain trends and teases them out into a near-future setting. While on the surface these sound like a "triumph" of SFnal elements, one would have to question whether or not there really has been such a strict divide in the first place?

So while Thompson's piece sounds nice and cheery and rah-rah, go, SF, go, boom-sis-bah!, I just cannot help but to question whether this oft-repeated meme of "SF is the Literature of Ideas" really is that "true" of a statement. While certainly there is much of worth in SFnal writing, comments such as that show just as much of a tendency to segregate and to exalt uncritically the genre as what certain SF proponents accuse the "mainstream" "literary fiction" crowd of doing. I suspect the "truth," muddied as it is, if not fractured into innumerable shards, lies somewhere in the ties that bind all fictions to the material cultures from which they sprang. But what do I know? I'm just asking questions and doubting any and all possible answers here.


Jonathan M said...

What a lot of bluster for really not very much constructive commentary!

I'd argue that mainstream literature's obsession with subjective truth/small T "truth"/Understanding is precisely what distinguishes it from decent SF. I'd also argue that philosophers are very much interested in real Truth. Even if they're post-modernists arguing for the socially constructed nature of Truth, they're still making claims about the nature of the universe.

Having said that, not all SF is about ideas. There's also a lot of romantic SF.

Chabon's a high-concept author (at least his genre stuff has been high concept... or one concept "Jews in genre") but I wouldn't say he's all that interested in ideas or in Truth.

Larry Nolen said...

It was a 3 AM writing that rambled (as this reply might if I don't limit myself and go to bed like I promised myself), so doubtless if I had read that article at 3 PM, it would have been much shorter and to the point.

This post wasn't meant to be "constructive," but rather, as I believe my last few sentences indicate, it was meant to be skeptical and rather mistrustful of any overarching claims. As for philosophers, it would depend of course upon which school seems closest to that particular person's PoV. Myself, I am disillusioned with the neo-Marxism of my university days and to an extent even with the poststructuralists. Language is what interests me, but I am wary of Derrida's differance. But yet, there's something in his arguments that appeals to me and I still am struggling to define that. But that is a matter that is only incidental to what I found to be troubling about Thompson's post.

But speaking of skepticism, I still haven't heard of a good definition for "mainstream" that isn't negative in its defining characteristics. If I go by "popular fiction," then either I'm including elements of the "speculative," or I'm excluding elements that a large percentage of the populace likes. That's part of the issue at stake: what semantical terms are going to be employed to argue what points? In such a battleground, there will (I suspect) be competing truth claims in regards to how people are going to view matters, but "Truth" itself is not going to be a universally agreed upon area. To argue along such a broad, sweeping area I fear would be akin to missing the twists and turns of a particular forest in favor of trying to show this broad, vaguely greenish area that some have called "forest." Probably best to keep it to a very limited area and not try to make broad claims.

As for the various varieties of SF, they are so many and have (in some cases) those who argue that such works are not "really SF." After all, what keeps an Eco or a Calvino or a Pavić from being labelled "SF"? It's the terribly imprecise nature of these definitions that makes me very wary of trying to look at any literary form outside of its historical esprit du temps. I suspect (but am not certain) that some interesting avenues can be opened up if fictional works are treated more as being products of their material cultures than being set off to the side and being proclaimed as being full of Ideas, but without any grounding in the times. That is something that I would like to see explored more, rather than the usual circular arguments that basically come to a halt without any real consensus being reached on defining the terms of debate.

As for Chabon, it was Thompson who brought him up and all I did was note in passing (along with Lethem) that his stories have been "claimed." I've only read one book of his, Wonder Boys, and while there is nothing of the "Idea" element that Thompson mentions in his article, there certain are some conceptions of the human/social condition that make that novel worthwhile reading. So I'm not really in a good position to speak from any "authority" on that particular issue.

But I've rambled a bit too much and I have to be awake in 5 hours. I'll just close by reiterating that without a consensus on the terms of debate, how can one claim that one area (which may or may not be as distinct as the original author seemed to believe) possesses the "ideas" or the "truth"? I'm just very skeptical of all this.

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