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Future Interrupted – Two

January 31, 2014

interzone250The postal gods are generous for they have given us the latest issues of both Interzone and Black Static. Issue 250 of Interzone includes short stories by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, David Tallerman, C. Allegra Hawksmoor, Rebecca Campbell, Greg Kurzawa, Caroline M. Yoachim and Georgina Bruce. The non-fiction side of things includes a long review and interview with the novelist Libby McGugan, Nick Lowe’s cinema column Mutant Popcorn, Tony Lee’s DVD column Lazer Fodder and some interesting book reviews from people including Ian Sales, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Juliet McKenna, Duncan Lunnan and Stephen Theaker. You can subscribe to the hard copy edition of magazine via the TTA Press website and I believe that e-copies are available but I’m not sure that the latest issues of IZ and Black Static are up yet. My fifth Future Interrupted column features in issue 250 of Interzone. Entitled “Profound and Beautiful Lies” it is all about Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and the connection between Science Fiction and Non-Fiction.

Reprinted here, my second Future Interrupted column is entitled “Dominion of the Dead” and it looks at the role played by the history of Science Fiction in determining what kind of stuff gets published as Science Fiction today and how we need to start picking our own genre histories.

***

Funeral Mask

It is impossible to overestimate quite how much human culture owes to the motivational powers of corpses. The nobles of ancient Rome would proudly fill their homes with the funeral masks and portrait busts of celebrated ancestors. Though macabre by contemporary standards, these installations served not only to impress visitors but also to remind younger nobles of what their family was capable of achieving. To grow up surrounded by images of famous ancestors is to grow up knowing the yardstick by which your life will be measured by generations to come: Will you be one of the fabled dead who inspire others to reach new heights, or will you be one of those embarrassing failures that are safely tucked away behind a potted plant or an umbrella stand? The only way to ensure a prominent position was to follow in your ancestors’ footsteps and do what your family expected of you.

While the structure of the family may have shifted over the last few thousand years, the bonds between cohorts have not: Born into an existing culture, we are subject to the causes, burdens and obsessions of past generations. Their prejudices are our values, their values are our laws and even when we do decide to rebel, we invariably wind up rebelling against their institutions meaning that our ancestors still set the terms of engagement. In our culture, every writer must have an inspiration, every scholar must have a bibliography and every critic must show that she is familiar with the classics of the field. We are crushed and shaped by the wishes of our cultural ancestors and we allow this to continue because only the dead can grant legitimacy, without them we are not so much originals as we are bastards. The only way to free ourselves from what the American academic Robert Pogue Harrison calls the “dominion of the dead” is to acknowledge its existence, recognise its power and seek new bases for legitimacy and excellence. The time has come for us to free ourselves from the history of science fiction.

The popular history of science fiction is one of unceasing progress. This genre, we are told, sprang from a primordial soup of ancient literary antecedents featuring visits to other planets and conversations with gods. Fed on this antiquated gruel and profoundly connected to the zeitgeist of their day, a group of 19th Century writers emerged and began producing the kinds of story that eventually ossified into a genre when American editors decided that they needed templates to help them fill and market their pulp magazines. Aside from uncovering a large market for stories of scientific wonder and adventure, the pulps also helped to create a market for longer-form stories that allowed generations of novelist to refine, transcend, and eventually deconstruct the genre templates laid down by those who came before. This story, we are told, is one of perpetual refinement and progress as what we think of when we talk about science fiction has evolved from an assortment of barely fictionalised thought experiments into a sophisticated literature filled with well-rounded characters, compelling narratives, stylistic experimentation and unyielding thematic complexity.  Subjected to this history in countless book reviews, anthology introductions and award ceremony preambles, we believe because we are flattered. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of an on-going project? Who wouldn’t want to be part of a cultural scene that has never been more complex, sophisticated and innovative? We believe in this history of science fiction and in so doing mistake it for something that actually happened.

Isaac_Asimov_on_Throne

Like the children of Roman senators, we have fallen asleep surrounded by funeral masks and awoken with heads still heavy with the dreams of the dead. The funeral masks of writers like Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein continue to stare down at us and while these ghastly waxen figures may inspire some, many feel their presence as an unwelcome and uncomfortable constraint on how we think and talk about contemporary science fiction: What is science fiction? What types of stories are science-fictional? Who writes these types of stories? These are questions that can only be answered in terms of what has come before and thus contemporary science fiction writers are forced to follow the agenda set by previous generations. The effects of this pressure are particularly evident when it comes to the diversity of the field, is it really any surprise that science fiction struggles with issues of diversity and inclusivity when the history of the field appears to have been completely dominated by white middle-class Anglo-American men?

The history of science fiction is a battleground and no battle is more righteous than the on-going campaign to restore writers such as Joanna Russ and Alice B. Sheldon to their rightful places in the history of the field. Though widely celebrated during their most productive years, many writers associated with 1970s Feminist SF saw their reputations obscured by the huge popularity of Cyberpunk. One of the many lessons that Cyberpunk learned from Feminist SF was the importance of knowing exactly where you stand in the grand scheme of things. For example, stories such as William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” and essays like Bruce Sterling’s preface to the Mirrorshades anthology explicitly set out to position Cyberpunk as both heir to the New Wave’s radicalism and cure for the reactionary stuffiness of so-called Golden Age SF.

Unfortunately, in order for Cyberpunk to position itself as the saviour of science fiction, people needed to believe that science fiction was in trouble and so a period dominated with thematic experimentation and radical gender politics was gradually re-invented as a corrupt and self-involved ‘me decade’ that did little other than set the stage for the arrival of Gibson and co. Faced with a choice between uncomfortable historical fact and a historically inspired epic of narrative death and cybernetic rebirth, many people chose the epic and, in the words of fan and critic Jeanne Gomoll, dumped many Feminist science fiction writers out of cultural memory.

The moral of this story is to choose your literary ancestors wisely: Cyberpunk cut a dashing figure by ignoring the legacies of Joanna Russ, Alice B. Sheldon, Marge Piercy and Ursula K. Le Guin in favour of a far more flattering arrangement featuring the likes of J.G. Ballard, Alfred Bester and Hugo Gernsback. Cyberpunk rewrote the history of science fiction to suit its needs and the time has come for us to make it new again: If we want science fiction to have a future we must first ensure that it has a suitable past.

secret feminist cabal

If all the funeral masks above our beds are of straight, white, middle-class, Anglo-American men then chances are that we will live our lives believing that science fiction exists purely for those types of people. When asked about the themes and concerns of the genre, we will shrug our shoulders and point not just to the past but to the past as it was understood by those who came before us. Books like Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal, Brit Mandelo’s We Wuz Pushed and Julie Philips’ James Tiptree, Jr are incredibly important as they disrupt that historical narrative and show us that science fiction need not be a boys club. We choose to celebrate Joanna Russ as one of the greats of the field because her mere presence in the history of science fiction serves to open up the future of genre and transform it into a place where brilliant, angry and politically engaged women can make their marks as both authors and critics. We choose to celebrate Joanna Russ because we want to believe in the future she symbolises and by choosing to celebrate her instead of the authors we inherited, we are remaking the history of science fiction in our image and making our ancestors work for us.

Far from being monolithic and absolute, the history of science fiction is a construct as shallow as it is fragile. Rather than obediently following the conversation we inherited, the time has come to look at the world and imagine what type of science fiction might fit this new and terrifying future. Tomorrow’s SF must be more diverse, more inclusive, more engaged and more willing to experiment and it is up to us to construct a historical legacy that will support this literary future. We need the anger of Russ and the gender uncertainties of Tiptree but we also need to recruit ancestors from other genres, cultures and media. As I will explore in my next column, the twin forces of capitalism and postmodernity may well have denied us a single coherent future but lack of an obvious way forward need not condemn us to nostalgia as it also leaves us radically free to imagine a future that is uniquely our own. The history of science fiction is dead… long live the history of science fiction.

***

PS – While I referred to Jeanne Gomoll’s “An Open Letter to Joanna Russ” in the article, I feel the need to underline quite how important that essay has been not only to my personal understanding of science fiction history but also cultural history in general. We are trapped in an eternal present, unable to see past the boundaries of contemporary fashions let alone contemporary political structures and Gomoll’s essay reminds us how fragile and manufactured that present is.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2014 11:33 am

    Hi Jonathan,

    Interesting comments. As it is sort of(ish) related to what you are saying here, you might be interested in our recent article on Isaac Asimov – ‘Mantle of Optimism’ (we even use the same picture!).

    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/992/isaac-asimov-mantle-of-optimism

  2. January 31, 2014 1:40 pm

    I note that Ms. Pat Cadigan was considered a leading light of the cyberpunk movement…

  3. January 31, 2014 5:19 pm

    Hi Danny :-)

    That’s an interesting piece, I’m currently working my way through a load of Golden Age stories as part of my research for the next column. It’s interesting what you find when you look beyond received opinion.

  4. January 31, 2014 5:21 pm

    Hi Cat — I don’t think the existence of Pat Cadigan undermines the fact that Cyberpunk positioned itself as response to the Golden Age, heir to the New Wave and so unintentionally airbrushed out the achievements of Feminist SF.

  5. January 31, 2014 9:45 pm

    Thanks for writing this. It is indeed a struggle, sometimes, for me to find a role model among all the death masks. I was lucky enough to meet LeGuin in person in university; she made the possibility of being a female SF writer seem real to me. I also had a mother who raised me to read, who never flinched from genre, who encouraged me to read Stephen King and Margaret Mahy and Frank Herbert and whatever pleased me. (She also encouraged me to write. Thank goodness.) But there’s a reason that as an adolescent I found the female characters I wanted in Japanese anime — it seemed like the only place to find a complex female character with problems I could actually identify with, presented in a humane, compassionate way. For all anime and manga’s peculiarities of gender representation, there’s always been room for female writers to have a voice and a career, and it shows in the stories told. I didn’t hear about women like Russ and Sheldon and Cadigan until grad school! That’s how history has been re-written.

  6. February 1, 2014 2:47 am

    There’s been some kind of hold-up with the electronic versions of Interzone 249 and 250, but very much looking forward to your columns.

  7. February 5, 2014 4:15 pm

    This might be silly to leave as a comment, but in case I don’t get to write about the thoughts this sparked over at my place, I just wanted to say: I think it’s interesting how often your thoughts simultaneously mesh and don’t at all mesh with mine. Like I agree with every single thing you say here about the falseness of sf history and the erasure of 70s sf, particularly as regards that written by women, AND about the self-congratulatory erroneous belief in a progressive project, but the conclusions I draw from all of it are so radically different… (e.g. I DON’T see that Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, et al., actually weigh much on the contemporary scene, and in fact think that going back to them and appreciating them in a different way than they have been in the past, in the context of and along with a hell of a lot of other things, might help lead to a healthier contemporary literature.)

  8. February 6, 2014 2:05 pm

    Hi Ethan —

    Funnily enough… I’m currently working my way through some ideas on how successive waves of cultural re-invention have distorted the legacy of the Golden Age and turned it into something that serves as little more than a convenient touchstone for shit/sexist/politically iffy writing.

    I’ve read and re-read quite a few Golden Age stories recently and I think that scene was actually far more radical than anything we have in science fiction today. I think that, rather than viewing it as fiction with poor characters and narratives, it is more fruitful to look at Golden Age SF as a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and non-fiction. One of the reasons why SF is in a state of decline is that we have lost touch with that radical tradition and re-invented it as a far more bourgeois combination of 19th Century realism and fantasy.

    So our thoughts might mesh quite soon :-)

  9. February 6, 2014 6:00 pm

    “So our thoughts might mesh quite soon”

    Hah! From what you just said, I’m thinking so!

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