Monday, November 14, 2011

Welcome Aboard

Cruise ships and closed luxury resorts of the Club Med model offer the illusion of travel without exposure to other cultures.  Insulated vacations for bigots?  Safe zones for uneducated, uninterested human hamsters?  Or is it more about scarfing every penny for the corporation and not letting profit escape into the host economy?

Science fiction as a genre works on the same model.  

Choosing a book the cover of which proclaims it to be science fiction ensures the reader an experience of a certain kind.  They’ll know from the first page that it’s science fiction.  They’ll be kept supplied with ideas and action.  Embedded lectures will be fascinatingly scientific.  Plausible will be a watchword for every event, opinion, or speculation.  

Best of all, human foibles, other than glaring character flaws necessary for plot twists, will be emphasized by their absence.  There will be no ambiguity or irony.  The strong reliable captain really is strong and reliable.  What is said is meant literally.  They say what they mean and we know why they do everything; motives are kept clear as empty space.  
No messy human stuff, in short, will stay this story’s courier from the swift completion of its plot points.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas, we are told.  Repeatedly.  Science fiction fosters a sense of wonder about such things as the scale of the universe, the vast sweep of human ambition, and technology’s potential to transform everything.  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Sir Arthur C. C. Clarke told us in Profiles of the Future, 1961.  Magic is full of a sense of wonder.  Big ideas and the scope of far-flung adventures in futures where technology can do for us what wishful illusionists could only dream of, that is science fiction.

Science fiction is for ten year old boys, someone once observed.  He shall remain unnamed to protect him from the fen with Dixie cups of cold vomit who may wish to throw it on him.  Despite anonymity, however, this observer of science fiction had a telling point.  Boys of that age are interested in precisely the mix of things comprising science fiction.  They are also uninterested in girly crap like relationships, how people get along together, and all that touchy-feely emo stuff.  Cooties repel them.

This harsh observation is made in reference to the original readership for science fiction, which were indeed ten year old boys and engineer types with arrested development.  Many will hasten to point out that science fiction has moved on, grown up, and learned to embrace almost all literary traits from a wider world.  They’ll point to the New Age, which transformed the Golden Age of Science Fiction by infusing arts and humanities into the breadboard circuitry and Estes catalog trope and topos.  They’ll congratulate themselves with swelled chests and speak of science fiction being as good as any other genre and better than most, hastening to add that literary is just another genre, so take that, academic snobs.

Examples can be found to prove any point.  Yes, there are literate genre tales and moronic literary crimes.  Yes, there are works that span the range and exceed all limits, even in the science fiction idiom, even as there are fumbling pilferage of science fiction’s refined notions by clumsy literati desperate to seem bright even as their inspiration and ability wanes.

A good story well told is a writer’s goal and a reader’s joy, and good writing does not depend upon idiom, genre, or form.  

And yet.

And yet, science fiction in aggregate tends to be insular.  It resists change, generally speaking.  Space opera routinely dominates awards, notable exceptions aside.  In recent years, juvenile has become a term that seems to add cachet to a science fiction story’s chances at winning an award or being liked, bought, read, and discussed by the science fiction readers.  Does this mean they seek to rediscover the frisson of novelty experienced when they were kids first finding science fiction?  Are they sense of wonder junkies flailing for a fix?

Some dismiss such questions, saying they are outdated.  Science fiction has grown up, they assert.  It embraces all styles, approaches, and qualities of writing in the wider sense, they claim.  

Countering these objections requires an explanation for why, then, science fiction continues to be recognized as distinct from other genres.  Despite expansion and undeniable growth, science fiction has retained hull integrity.  

Which returns us to the initial image of cruise ships and closed luxury vacation resorts.  There are in fact things science fiction does differently.  Other genres do not focus on technology, for example.  In an April 1975 essay for Natural Science, Isaac Asimov wrote, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”

Some say science fiction predicts the future. It is more accurate to say it explores potential futures, some more realistic than others, some more solidly rooted in known science than others, but all considered possible.  Thus came the proposed new appellation, speculative fiction.  This came in with the New Wave writers, who had studied humanities perhaps more than science, and who wanted to free themselves from the picayune reliance on straight extrapolation from some science nugget.  Yes, science fiction speculates, sometimes from informed perspective, other times more like a grizzled geezer panning for gold in random streams.

Editor, writer, and bearded prospector Damon Knight defined science fiction as what ever he pointed at when he said science fiction.  His finger has written and, having written, has moved on, so we’ll have to rely on our own finger-pointing now, each of us.  Name calling is popular, too; feel free to join in.

Case in point, Margaret Atwood.  She hit it big with The Handmaid’s Tale, a grim dystopia featuring harsh ideological rule in a North American society gone evangelical Christian with a Taliban-like intensity.  Terrifying, harrowing, and all-too-feasible -- listen to the Dominionist-dominated GOP politicians if you doubt this feasibility -- this extrapolation of a bible thumper’s wet dream was pure If This Goes On and What If.  

It won literary accolades as well as selling well, and Atwood, asked about science fiction, made statement the science fiction guardians of ideological purity took offense at.  They called her names ranging from Clueless and Ignorant to A Literary Snob, Thief, and worse.

Seems only science fiction writers doing it “properly” are allowed to “use science fiction’s ideas” and when Perceived Others do it, well, it’s an affront, and outrage, and a sacrilege.  Insularity was threatened by such a breach in science fiction’s hull.

A wide-ranging pattern was noticed by science fiction defenders.  Literary types, bereft of ideas, lacking inspiration, and unable to be creative on their on merit, pilfered science fiction ideas they did not even grasp, and wrote fatuous nonsense that did not qualify as science fiction but was, of course, awarded literary honors and promoted into bestseller status.  How galling for all those On Board.

This in turn brought charges from academics against science fiction’s insularity, its determinedly low brow addiction to Mere Plot, and its insistence upon arbitrating Real from Fake.  Harold Bloom’s choleric tirade against genre when Stephen King was given a National Book Award is the low water mark for literary snobbery, bigotry, and sheer idiocy.

Consider science fiction as a vacation guaranteeing integrity of experience, though, and all becomes fair and clear and warmly sunny.  

So write, and read, what you want.   

Just remember, please stay on the ship and do not leave the compound.  We need the money.  And you do not need the aggravation of encountering Those Others.

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1 comment:

Erin O'Riordan said...

It's a shame that Harold Bloom, a man with such depth of understanding of, and appreciation for, Shakespeare can't appreciate the work of Stephen King. I'm no Harold Bloom, but I relish being able to both appreciate The Bard and enjoy a cartoon or a genre novel. We don't live in a cultural vacuum, after all. We're surrounded by cultural context, so why not enjoy its many fruits?