Annoyed With The History of Science Fiction
0. Ways of Seeing, Modes of Blindness
There are many ways of seeing a text and every one of them is as valid and beautiful as the last. Some people read a novel and lose themselves in the minds of its characters. Others approach the very same novel and respond only to the themes woven around the characters and buried in the plot. There are many ways of seeing a text and yet some are more popular than others.
One of the most popular ways of approaching a text is from a historical perspective that traces both the streams of influence that went into the creation of the text and the river of influence that flows out towards the next generation of works. Critics working in the field of science fiction are particularly fond of this approach as it allows them to step back from the text and make sweeping statements such as the one put forward by Gary Westfahl in a recent essay for Locus Online:
The science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.
Even though I often write about films in historical terms, I must admit that the historical approach to writing about science fiction leaves me completely cold. My objection to the historical approach is two-fold:
Firstly, I believe that science fiction must either speak to the world as it is today or remain forever silent. I think that talking about science fiction in purely historical terms reduces contemporary works to little more than genetic vehicles, means of transforming influence past into influence future with little regard for either the vehicle itself or the world that gave birth to it.
Secondly, I believe that the historical approach to science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use this approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
1. Evidence or GTFO
Gary Westfahl’s Locus piece opens with a declaration that Robert Heinlein’s “broad impact on the genre is undeniable”. In support of this claim, Westfahl points to the number of Heinlein novels on the genre shelves of his local bookshop. From there, Westfahl moves on to indexing ““the full extent of [Heinlein’s] pervasive effects on science fiction” by referring to a few films and two other named science fiction authors, one of whom reached the peak of his professional fame with a book published seven years before Heinlein was even born.
To be fair to Westfahl, the point of his essay is not to rigorously chart Heinlein’s influence on other authors but to offer up a minor apologia for the fact that Heinlein spent his later years lecturing readers on the joys of fascism and fucking 11 year-old girls. The reason I am singling out Westfahl’s essay is that it illustrates the field’s lamentable tendency to allow these types of broad historical claims to go completely unchallenged and unsupported.
The problem with resting a history of science fiction upon received wisdom is that without a set of unambiguous facts to ground the debate, people will naturally gravitate towards histories that exaggerate the importance of the things they like and the people who look like them. It was in the shadow of a critical fraternity dominated by men that the career and reputation of Joanna Russ were very nearly lost.
Let me be as clear as I can possibly be: Given that science fiction has a track record of systematically marginalising and downplaying the importance of non-white, non-straight, non-male authors, claims such as
The works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.
Can no longer go unchallenged. By uncritically circulating this type of received wisdom, Gary Westfahl is lending his critical reputation to a historical narrative that is known to be deeply problematic.
People writing about the history of science fiction have a duty to question and re-evaluate received wisdom. Was Heinlein really all that influential? Did his influence continue after his death? Did his influence stretch beyond the realms of American science fiction? The problem is that, in order to begin answering these questions in a rigorous manner, SF critics need a means of both tracking and measuring creative influence… their claims need evidential currency but it is not immediately clear what form this currency might take.
2. A Mature Model of Genre History
One way of resolving this problem is to consider what a mature piece of historical genre scholarship might look like. One suggestion is that a mature history of genre might resemble a contemporary history of art.
Arguably the most widely read text in the history of art is a little book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing. Written in 1972 as the basis for a four part BBC TV series, the book comprises seven essays of which only four contain actual words. Part of what makes Berger’s book so powerful is that much of its critical heft is contained in Berger’s decision to place certain works of art next to one another in such a way as to directly demonstrate both their differences and their similarities. For example, in a section dealing with changing attitudes towards women, Berger says:
In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.
In modern art the category of the nude has become less important. Artists themselves began to question it. In this, as in many other respects, Manet represented a turning point. If one compares his Olympia with Titian’s original, one sees a woman, cast in the traditional role, beginning to question that role, somewhat defiantly.
This is the same type of sweeping statement made by historians of genre and yet Berger’s statements are immeasurably more rigorous by virtue of the fact that after the words come the images in question:
The parallels between the two works are immediately obvious even to someone with little appreciation for traditional art. We note the similarity in the women’s poses and yet we also note the differences in their expressions and surroundings. Titian’s Venus not only revels in her femininity but also in her status as a beautiful object in a luxury home, she poses naked while clothed people get on with their lives behind her. Manet’s Olympia is just as naked and just as feminine but the beauty of her form is at odds with the shabby state of the bedclothes and the fact that the other figure in the painting is bending over to give her something. Her resentful gaze speaks of a primitive feminism and the distinct impression that she has better things to do than lie around naked. ‘Get on with it!’ her eyes seem to scream.
Berger’s is a mature historical analysis of two different paintings. He makes a claim about the paintings and then presents the paintings in such a way that the reader can see not only the influence of Titian upon Manet but also the difference in how both Manet and his model saw themselves.
Another example of a mature style of historical criticism can be found in David Bordwell’s On The History of Film Style. Tracing the reaction to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane among early French film critics, Bordwell describes why it is that many critics took Welles to heart almost immediately:
In discussing both Welles and Wyler, the nouvelle critique writers claimed that profondeur de champ allowed the spectator freedom to scan the frame for significant information. Astruc declared that profondeur de champ “obliges the spectator’s eye to make its own technical decoupage, that is, to find for itself within the scene those lines of action usually delineated by camera movements.” Bazin argued that both The Best Years of Our Lives and Citizen Kane coaxed the viewer into participating in just these ways. The critics may have been aware of Wyler’s own assertion that using depth and the long take “lets the spectator look from one to the other character at his own will, do his own cutting.”
Other Hollywood offerings confirmed the importance of Welles’s and Wyler’s innovations. Deep-focus and the long take seemed to define the future of cinema. Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), consisting of a mere eight shots, suggested that far from being the essence of cinema, editing could be almost completely suppressed. Now a film could be rendered suspenseful and expressive solely through the choreography of characters and camera.
Bordwell’s quotes from Andre Bazin and Alexandre Astruc demonstrate that, even as far back as the 1940s, film criticism was capable of a) isolating a single cinematic technique, b) explaining the impact of that technique on the audience and c) tracing the influence of that technique from one film-maker to another. Indeed, were Bordwell required to justify the claim that Orson Welles was a hugely influential filmmaker, he could effortlessly point to his role in pioneering and disseminating a number of experimental techniques that would later come to form part of every director’s toolbox.
The difference between the history of art practiced by John Berger, the history of film practiced by David Bordwell and the history of science fiction invoked in the article by Gary Westfahl is that Bordwell and Berger both have ready access to a form of evidential currency that allows them to demonstrate the veracity of their historical claims. Conversely, when Westfahl claims that Heinlein continues to be an enormous influence on the field it is genuinely unclear from the context of the article what form this influence is supposed to have taken.
Despite being largely unimpressed by the Heinlein novels I have read, I am not radically opposed to the idea that Heinlein was a huge influence upon the field of science fiction. What irritates me is that people happily repeat this claim without either pausing to consider what it means or considering the possibility that it may no longer actually be true.
Even more frustrating is the fact that Heinlein’s influence is not only taken for granted but assumed to be positive. For example, the received opinion is that Robert Heinlein pioneered a number of techniques that are now used widely within the field but when you attempt to ascertain what these techniques might have been you will struggle to find anything more involved than an airy assertion that Heinlein’s fondness for sentences such as “the door irised open” marked a radical improvement over the field’s historical reliance upon a form of lead-footed exposition now dismissively referred to as ‘info-dumping’.
Terms like ‘info-dumping’ are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic’s ‘deep focus’, ‘long take’ and ‘dynamic editing’. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don’t-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what it is that they have just read. However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience. I would even go so far as to argue that Lem’s approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels’ literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don’t-tell.
If we simply assume that show-don’t-tell was a linear improvement on the info-dump then it follows that writers like Stephenson and Lem are nothing more than unsophisticated writers who have yet to acquire the skills necessary for Heinleinian narrative immersion. However, if we assume that science fiction is a literary tradition rich enough to create its own literary techniques and that the info-dump might be a literary technique with its own affective payload then experimental info-dumpers such as Lem and Stephenson immediately appear more important and influential.
In fact, one account of the field’s historical marginalisation of women is that women and writers workings outside of the American tradition were deemed unsophisticated for their failure to produce works identical to Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. The fact that these writers may have been producing science fiction to a different aesthetic goal achieved using a different set of literary techniques was lost in the scramble to lionise the popular white guys. When William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” positioned cyberpunk in the history of science fiction, he presented cyberpunk as a direct response to golden age SF and not as a development of the techniques and perspectives pioneered by feminist SF. Had genre historians had a better grasp of the techniques that went into creating the cyberpunk aesthetic then chances are that feminist SF would never have been marginalised in the way it undoubtedly was.
A mature form of critical writing about science fiction would, like Bazin and Berger, be able to isolate a particular technique, describe its effect upon the reader (thus explaining why the author used that technique in the first place) and then trace not only the dissemination of that technique across the field but also recognise innovations and improvements made by later writers. The lack of technical awareness also makes it less likely that genuine innovation will be either recognised or celebrated. For example, to approach M. John Harrison’s Light armed only with show-don’t-tell is a recipe for disastrous mystification and the mindless parroting of received opinion. Yes, Harrison is a great writer but what is it that makes him so great? Is it perhaps the way in which he uses recurring motifs to link together a number of seemingly disconnected plot-strands? Is it the way that he moves smoothly between a realistic descriptive register and a more fractured and expressionistic approach to represent the fraying sanity of his characters? Is it the way he includes a nourish virtual world as a means of reminding us that the spaceships in the novel’s foreground are really nothing more than a distraction from the novel’s actual focus? There are many ways of accounting for the brilliance of Harrison’s writing and blandly stating that the book is ‘beautifully written’ is definitely not one of them.
The creation of a more precise critical jargon for discussing science fiction would make evaluation, thematic description and historical assessment a good deal easier and more rigorous. It would also allow critics to examine received opinion and rebuild the history of the field on a less prejudiced footing. Thankfully, while I think that genre criticism has a lot to learn from film criticism, the job of overhauling the field’s jargon has been a work in process for some time now.
3. Blueprints for Maturity
A blueprint for the style of criticism I am yearning for appeared in October 1969 in the pages of Science Fiction Review. Titled “About 5,175 Words”, the essay by Samuel Delany broke with tradition by arguing for a highly technical approach to writing about science fiction. SF, he suggests, is not only about content but about the style in which that content is delivered:
“The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth” by Roger Zelazny has been described as “all speed and adventure” by Theodore Sturgeon, and indeed it is one of the most exciting adventure tales SF has produced. Let me change one word in every grammatical unit of every sentence, replacing it with a word that “means more or less the same thing” and I can diminish the excitement by half and expunge every trace of wit. Let me change one word and add one word, and I can make it so dull as to be practically unreadable. Yet a paragraph synopsis of the “content” will be the same.
Anyone who has read the work of Peter F. Hamilton, Neal Asher or Philip Palmer will know precisely what Delany is talking about. These are authors who claim to be in the business of writing exciting adventure stories but in reality their books are bloated monstrosities with about as much pace and precision as brick rolling downhill. Again, the field’s lack of technical awareness has allowed the talentless to market the poorly written as the fun and the mindless as the undemanding.
In his introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Matthew Cheney suggests that “About 5,175 Words” changed the discourse around SF while the collection of essays as a whole helped to steer SF criticism away from the descriptive and taxonomic and onto a more technical footing that brought “linguistic, structuralist and poststructuralist concepts to bear on the material”. Given that most SF criticism is still concerned with plot synopses and vague thematic description, I would argue that Cheney’s assessment is somewhat premature. The message contained in “About 5,175 Words” is doubtless revolutionary but the revolution never happened. In fact, one could almost say that the notoriety of Delany’s essay has allowed the field to effectively sweep it under the carpet and continue as if nothing happened. Everyone read the essay and heard its clarion call and then promptly went back to wafting hot air through the convention bar whilst congratulating themselves that Delany’s essay had changed everything.
The problem is not that Delany’s brand of criticism does not exist, it is that it is so rare that most critics never encounter it and so do not think to delve down into the bones of a text in order to explain how a particular affect is achieved. I have seen this style of criticism in the wild but both times it was in the context of a classroom deconstruction conducted by established science fiction writers who took a bunch of critics through a text line by line asking us the function of every words and clause. In truth, I expect this approach to analysing SF is chiefly found either within the informal context of a writer’s group or the more formal classroom context of a writing programme administered by a university. To my mind, this is absurd: one does not need to be a filmmaker in order to examine a film in a technical manner, why should one need to be a writer in order to do the same to a work of science fiction?
I am bored of the history of science fiction because I believe that much of what passes for historical analysis of the field is in fact little more than old brags and press releases passed back-and-forth and down through the generations. In order to stay fresh and relevant science fiction must remake itself over and over again and but in order to do that, people must first come to realise precisely what it is that we are talking about when we use the words ‘science fiction’.