Future Interrupted – Three
Issue 251 of Interzone is now out in the world. The March-April 2014 issue boasts stories by Greg Kurzawa Tracie Welser, John Grant, Karl Bunker, Suzanne Palmer and BSFA Award-nominee Gareth L. Powell. However, while many genre magazines are quite content to focus all of their energies on short fiction, IZ manages to provide not only excellent fiction but also the finest dead tree science fiction magazine in the world today. Aside from the usual columns by David Langford and Tony Lee, issue 251 also includes a wonderfully pugnacious interview of Simon Ings by the legendary Paul Kincaid. There’s also a withering dissection of Joanne M. Harris’ The Gospel of Loki by Maureen Kincaid Speller and an uproariously puzzled and uncharitable review of Peter Watts’ short story collection Beyond the Rift by Jo L. Walton. This issue also includes my column about reclaiming the lost potential of science fiction’s golden age but the real stand out (as always) is Nick Lowe’s film column mutant popcorn. I was lucky enough to interview Nick Lowe for the 25th anniversary of Mutant Popcorn and I am still inevitably humbled by the depth of his insight and the sharpness of his wit. Just read the opening to this week’s column and tell me that Nick Lowe is not one of the finest film critics of all time:
Can we love what is not human? Will we? Should we? Must we? In a sense, we already do. Film is all about seducing us into loving the unreal, the dead, the Maschinenmensch, using our cognitive overspill to project on to the faces of the stars the illusion of inner life and being, as our hyperactive theory of mind already does for animals, toys, machines, and gods. But a singularity is approaching, where our relationships with imaginary friends outstrip our dwindling power to interact with living minds; where the worlds on our screens become more involving than the lives we inhabit and share, and our repertoire of affect dwindles as we fixate on ever more tailored and appealing simulations.
They say that you should kill your idols, but I’d rather read their opinions about films.
Speaking of opinions, here is my third Future Interrupted column. Titled “An Eternal and Meaningless Now”, the column asks what we might reasonably expect from representations of the future and how, rather than falling into the old trap of treating the future as a version of the past that includes rocket ships, why not consider making the future look like the present? A mess of disconnected and degraded images.
Our ability to imagine the future has long been constrained by the assumption that it must in some way resemble the past. Rather than treating the past as a series of random events, humanity has created a number of techniques it uses to distance itself from life’s perpetual chaos. By stepping back from the day-to-day and looking at an abstracted ‘bigger picture’ we are able to see through the apparent chaos of existence and detect underlying patterns and laws. For the Christian, that law is based upon God’s infinite love for a flawed human nature. For the Marxist, that law is economic and it explains why capitalism must rise and fall before we can hope to achieve true socialism. These increasingly complex techniques and systems have allowed us to cloak the world in story and the stories we create ensure that everything always makes sense… if only in hindsight.
Given that humanity has been telling stories about the past since the birth of language, it is perhaps unsurprising that we should resort to these tried and tested narrative techniques whenever we come to think of the future. While science fiction has always been somewhat ambivalent about the idea that history might have some pre-determined end point, the genre does seem to assume that if we are aware of the laws governing human civilisation then we should be able to imagine what society might come to resemble if allowed to develop along a particular path. This approach to the future is evident not only in much of H.G. Wells’ futurism and Olaf Stapledon’s The Last and First Men, but also Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, an epic future history about a human society shaped by awareness of the laws governing human civilisation. It is interesting to note that while the Foundation series takes place entirely in the distant future, its stories were directly inspired by History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbons’ attempt to impose some sort of narrative order on Roman history. Though other works of science fiction tend to be less brazen in their historicity, the techniques used to create these epic futurities are the same as those used to create the nightmare spires of William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the rape-infected space colonies of Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… We recognise these writings as great (or at least substantial) works of science fiction because we have been trained to expect futures that resemble the ordered mechanical systems of the past. But what if the future is not like the past? What if it more closely resembles the present?
To walk down a British high street is to drown in a thousand incongruous images: Shop windows are filled with suits designed to make office workers feel as though they are going to work in a contemporary TV producer’s idea of a 1960s advertising agency. Cafés staffed by men sporting the facial hair of Edwardian circus performers bring Ethiopian coffee to Filipino nurses in cups that were made in South Korea but inspired by a 1940s British fashion for ‘real’ China porcelain. Dead people write books, dead people release albums and every cinema is clogged with fifth-generation reinventions of intellectual properties made in different times for different people. Don’t like Captain Kirk and Superman returning to the 1980s to re-fight the same old villains? Don’t worry… give it enough time and someone will come along and reimagine Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s response to the campy 1960s TV adaptation of a 1930s comic book. The odd thing about the incoherent deluge of contemporary culture is not that it is filled with old ideas but that so many of these ideas appear to have been lifted directly from other times and places. The problem is not a surplus of old ideas but a lack of interest in the broader cultural stories that once made these objects meaningful.
The American theorist and critic Fredric Jameson explains this phenomenon by arguing that it is in the nature of capitalism to strip cultural artefacts from their original cultural contexts and turn them into commodities that are easy to market and easy to buy into. For example, while yoga may well have been developed as one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, it is sold to Westerners as a set of vaguely ‘exotic’ stretching exercises. It is easier to sell stretching exercises and special yoga pants than it is to sell the benefits of a series of physical, mental and spiritual practices designed to help people achieve some sense of union with the divine. In order to sell yoga to a wider Western audience, it was necessary to discard the stories that once made those practices meaningful. This is why you do not need to be a 1960s advertising executive or an Edwardian strongman to wax your moustache or wear a pale blue suit. Capitalism crawls through the wreckage of human civilisation ripping objects from their original life-worlds and re-packaging them for new and broader audiences. You do not need to know where any of these objects came from or what they meant to the people who originally invented them… you only need the money to buy them.
As brutal and exploitative as this process of deconstruction may appear when framed in purely commercial terms, it is the exact same process that is used by adventurous writers to subvert traditional narratives and rescue good ideas from bad values. Indeed, what are Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels if not an attempt to wrench space opera from the American cultural hubris that birthed it? What is Aliette de Bodard’s Nebula and Locus Award-winning short story “Immersion” if not an attempt to take a conceptual vocabulary created by white people and use it to explain how it feels to grow up in a culture that sees white people as inherently superior? For good and ill, capitalism and postmodernism have boiled away the narratives of human culture leaving us with nothing but a jumble of disconnected and beautiful objects experienced as an eternal and meaningless now. There is no greater articulation of this disjointed present than the books of M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract series.
Harrison’s novels describe a universe in which a restless and squalid humanity have washed up near the event horizon of a perverse and inexplicable knot in the weave of reality. However, aside from Light and Empty Space using different timeframes to suggest some sort of causal connection between Now and Then, Harrison pointedly refuses to use any of the techniques that we have come to associate with the creation of good and/or substantial speculative futures. Where are the recognisable social trends? Where are the exaggerated familiar objects suggesting deeper patterns of continuity and relevance? In Harrison’s novels, the rippling newness of a sentient spaceship sits comfortably besides the shop-worn jet age futurism of a pink Cadillac while genetically engineered master races lose themselves in Matrix-style recreations of 1940s crime novels filled with the same dusty bars and down-at-hell private eyes as the real world of the novels. The difference between the Kefahuchi Tract and a lot of contemporary genre fiction is that while works such as Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series or the videogame franchise Fallout may feature anachronistic and genre-blending elements, the presence of these incongruities is invariably explained with reference to some past event. Harrison not only refuses to account for his subversive postmodernity, he actually embraces radical incoherence by having different books in the series contradict each other whilst also maintaining that all systems of abstract knowledge are apparently equally true. Far from being a product of sloppy world-building or a childish subversion of audience expectations, Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract is an attempt to construct an entirely different kind of science fictional future… one that resembles the present far more than it resembles the past.
Science fiction eagerly embraced postmodernity and the feelings of flatness and depthlessness that accompany it. Sceptical of cultural narratives and shameless in its capacity for cultural appropriation, much of what we think of as contemporary science fiction is little more than pastiche, homage and nostalgia: What if the red shirts in Star Trek became aware that the writers of the show were trying to kill them? What if someone wrote about a colonised solar system in the style of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar? Science fiction is very good at wrenching ideas from their original contexts but the tendency to transform these spoils into worlds that make sense (an impulse Harrison once referred to as the “clomping foot of nerdism”) has served only to separate SF from the present and bind it to the past. Over the next few columns I plan to look at forms of literature that fully embrace the idea that our future will feel more like the chaotic high street of present than it will the manicured gardens of the past.