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Future Interrupted – One

December 4, 2013

interzone-249Issue number 249 of Interzone should now be both in shops and with subscribers. The issue contains stories by John Shirley, Lavie Tidhar, Sarah Brooks, and Jason Sandford as well as some excellent non-fiction by Nick Lowe, Tony Lee, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Ian Sales, Jo L. Walton and Stephen Theaker. On top of all this you will also find a column by me about superheros and what recent comics history can tell us about the state of contemporary science fiction. This column, entitled “You Don’t Have To Be Your Daddy’s Batman” is the fourth in an ongoing series that began back in the May-June issue… which brings us to the real purpose of this post, making my first Future Interrupted column available online. Enjoy, it even has a Christmas-y theme.

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Surveying the landscape of popular culture, it is hard not to feel that science fiction is going through something of a troubled time. While the world of literary horror positively bristles with newfound creative energy and the grandees of epic fantasy are canonised by American cable TV, science fiction drifts aimlessly between nostalgia and self-immolation as awards and critical plaudits are split between the people who produce old-fashioned science fiction stories and the people who produce stories that could just as easily have been written under the auspices of an entirely different genre. As Paul Kincaid put it in a review of several Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies: science fiction is in a state of exhaustion. Its core ideas and values have now played themselves out to the point where they not only lack social relevance but also fail to resonate with contemporary audiences.

Sint

One of the best accounts of what can happen when a popular idiom ceases to resonate with wider cultural values is found in the 2010 Dutch horror movie Sint. Sint is set in contemporary Amsterdam where frisky students use the feast of Saint Nicholas (or “Sinterklaas”) as an opportunity to get drunk, get high and get laid. However, while this vision of a North European Santa Claus reinvented as the liberal patron saint of roach clips and threesomes may resonate with 20-something students, it shares very little with the myth’s original foundations. According to the film, the real Saint Nicholas of Myrna was a murderous bishop who rode around the countryside with a gang of North African cutthroats kidnapping children and selling them into slavery. When the film has the real Saint Nicholas turn up and resume his rampage, the gap between the Sinterklaas who murders students and the Sinterklaas celebrated by students beautifully illustrates the process of what some sociologists refer to as cultural drift.

While both the liberal and the regressive visions of Sinterklaas contained within the film are clearly exaggerated for comic effect, they are undoubtedly based upon a real and growing distance between the values of Dutch society and the values embodied by the original myth of Saint Nicholas. Faced with a choice between retaining the values that accompany their cultural icons and getting new myths to fit with contemporary values, generations of Dutch people have chosen to carefully re-interpret and remake the myth of Sinterklaas in such a way as to ensure that he remains more-or-less relevant to most contemporary Dutch people. Aside from explaining how a 4th Century Greek Bishop wound up serving as both a Coca-Cola mascot and the Senior Elflord of Christmas consumer debt, cultural drift has also been central to the history of science fiction.

One of the topics I would like to explore in future columns is the idea that, far from being fixed in stone, the history of science fiction is something that can (and must) be remade by each new generation of readers. However, the history that has been left to us by our forefathers (and it’s always fathers) is one of imperial expansion and contraction in which figures like Wells, Verne and Gernsback sense the raw potential of their civilisations and capture it in tales of even more powerful civilisations peopled by square-jawed men who marvel at their own moral grace whilst crushing the Universal Other under the heels of their immaculately-fitted space boots.

ST

Memorably described by Charles Stross as the “fictional agitprop arm of the Technocratic movement”, science fiction has tended to do incredibly well in periods of hubristic cultural expansion when the boundaries of possibility somehow appear both endless and within easy reach. Despite this proven track record when it comes to frontier spirit and two-fisted optimism, science fiction has also displayed a remarkable capacity for re-invention that has seen it resonate in periods of intense cultural retrenchment when all thoughts naturally turn to the moral difficulties of empire and what it means to live in a culture that has definitely passed its prime. In the case of the British Empire, H. G. Wells’ socialist futurism found its natural opposite in the terrified conservatism of John Wyndham, whose characters reacted to alien plants and eerie children alike with the same weary yearning for cups of tea and comfy armchairs. Similarly, in the case of the American global hegemony, the confused but emphatic utopianism of Robert A. Heinlein was gradually transformed into the tortured liberalism of Joe Haldeman, proving that bad wars tend to produce much better literature than good ones.

Given that the literary science fiction scene has long been dominated by straight, white, middle-class, Anglo-American men, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of us have grown accustomed to a literature that is bound up with white, middle-class Anglo-American concerns. Indeed, the decline of the British and American Empires matter enormously to the people of Britain and North America and so it makes perfect sense that writers would inject those concerns into their writing and that critics would, in turn, extract them from their own readings. However, while the grand sweep of geopolitical history may provide a convenient way of tying together thousands of books published over a period of decades, science fiction can also react to much subtler shifts in the skein of human history. In fact, many of science fiction’s most fruitful creative eddies have had absolutely nothing to do with the rise and fall of white-bread empires.

The world changes every day and each new morning heralds the rise and fall of countless tiny empires. In some cases, the empires are so small that they are only ever mourned by individual authors who take their failed marriages, their unhappy childhoods and their uncertain sexualities and turn them into stories that will only ever make perfect sense to the people who wrote them. Other times, the empires are big enough and important enough that literary movements arise to chronicle their rise and fall. Like a simple organism clinging to the side of some deep-sea thermal vent, science fiction fed on the energy of second-wave feminism and western de-industrialisation and turned them into the feminist SF of Joanna Russ and the cyberpunk of William Gibson.

TFM

One explanation for the genre’s current state of exhaustion is that SF has struggled to find an empire big enough to lend it that sense of wider cultural resonance. However, far from being a failing of science fiction, this apparent lack of broad cultural narratives can be seen as symptomatic of a much wider problem with Western civilisation. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher argues that Western civilisation has now so completely internalised the logic of capitalism that it effectively finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than it does to imagine a time in which society might be radically different to the way it is now. This sense of the future’s intellectual unattainability also accounts for why one of the few growth areas in contemporary SF has been books in which the world comes to an end in a whimsical and unlikely fashion such as a blurring of the line between the actual and the possible in Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World or the evaporation of sleep in NOD by Adrian Barnes.

A different account of how science fiction lost touch with the future can be found in Daniel T. Rodgers’ magnificent Age of Fracture. Rodgers argues that the last forty years have seen Western culture growing increasingly hostile to the sort of broad and inclusive cultural narratives that once provided science fiction’s thematic bread and butter. Instead of placing themselves in the heart of great narrative empires, people today build little narrative platoons that resonate only with themselves and the people closest to them. The ever-shortening horizons of our cultural perspectives explain why the Hugo Awards seem to ignore the books most celebrated in Britain and no publisher thinks that books by non-English writers will ever make enough money to make them worth translating. As a culture, we have retreated in on ourselves and pulled our literature up after us.

AoF

This sense of blockage is everywhere… it’s in the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the films we watch and the books we read. Terrified of change, we cycle faster and faster through the last five decades, desperately trying to convince ourselves that everything is ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ rather than merely comforting and familiar. Though interrupted, a future is out there waiting to be written amidst the drone strikes, the cloud storage and the teenagers born into the twisted prisms of social media. Like Christmas celebrants tired of a blood-drenched Dutch Santa Claus, it is time to allow science fiction be remade anew. It is time to take a literary idiom designed to celebrate the dreams of Victoria and Roosevelt and use it to unpick the nightmare that the 21st Century seems poised to become. Enough with the deconstruction and the nostalgia, the future is out there and we can rebuild it… we have the mythology.

4 Comments
  1. December 5, 2013 12:55 am

    Jonathan, I always appreciate another entry in your continuing chronicle of SF’s exhaustion – and also appreciate the employment of Fisher’s work. I am curious though, as someone whose own literary home has always been more in the realm of genre horror and the literary fantastic, what are you thinking of when you say contemporary horror “bristles with newfound creative energy”? I have to confess, it doesn’t feel quite that way to me. There seem to be tricklings and inklings of something interesting, with the work of Quentin S. Crisp and the writers of Chomu Press, Laird Barron, and so on, but I wouldn’t go that far.

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  2. December 5, 2013 8:03 am

    I remember Horror being tainted not only by misogyny but also with echoes of the great market collapse of the 1980s. In the UK at least, it seemed to be exist solely by the grace of Stephen Jones anthologies and the rump of the BFS. Fast forward a decade and Horror is not only selling well, it has regained a good deal of its intellectual respectability.

    What I meant by my remark was simply that if you entered the Horror field now, you could reasonably expect to have your career follow an upward trajectory. People in Horror are doing well for themselves and the tides of fashion raise all ships (if only a little).

    Conversely, if you enter the field looking to write hard SF then I think that you will mostly likely struggle to be published at all. Hard SF as a marketing category is extremely toxic and SF in general is heading the same way (hence the fact that YA tends to talk about dystopian and utopian fiction rather than SF and some marketing blurbs reportedly even talk about Al Reynolds as far-future thrillers). If you enter the field as an SF writer then you will have to either shift genres or give up as nobody’s buying, nobody’s selling and nobody gives a shit.

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  3. February 11, 2014 11:17 am

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    Like

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