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Future Interrupted – Six (Not a Series of Waves, but an Ocean)

September 19, 2014

Interzone #254 has been unleashed, as has its sister magazine Black Static #42. This month’s issue contains a column in which I compare Guardians of the Galaxy to Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies. It also features excellent columns by Nick Lowe, Tony Lee and David Langford and some excellent reviews by people including Maureen Kincaid Speller, Peter Tennant, Ian Sales and Paul Graham Raven. Interzone can be acquired via the TTA Press homepage.

The short stories included are:

  • “A Minute and a Half” by Jay O’Connell,
  • “Bone Deep” by S.L. Nickerson,
  • “Dark on a Darkling Earth” by T.R. Napper,
  • “The Faces Between Us” by Julie C. Day,
  • “Songs like Freight Trains” by Sam J. Miller

This issue also includes a new novelette named “Marielena” by the wonderful BSFA Award-winning Nina Allan, who has also signed on to become a regular columnist. Nina’s first column is about the surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning and the SF writer C.L. Moore. What unites these two incredibly talented artists in the fact that both of their legacies have come to be overshadowed by that of the men in their lives. In the case of Tanning, her relationship with the Dadaist pioneer Max Ernst has almost completely airbrushed her out of art history while C.L. Moore came to be seen as the junior in a creative partnership with her first husband Henry Kuttner.

C.L. Moore is one of those figures whose visibility has benefited from genre culture’s long-overdue drive to recognise women from its own past. I must admit that I heard of C.L. Moore long before I heard of Henry Kuttner but there’s a really interesting episode of the Coode Street Podcast in which Barry Malzberg describes her work as being ‘all the same thing’ as that of Kuttner, which is definitely something of an over-statement as Moore was a published writer before she even started her collaboration with Kuttner. Thankfully, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entries for Moore and Kuttner do draw a distinction between the two writers and even go so far as to try and point out which stories were likely to have been written predominantly by Moore. Nina concludes her column with a really interesting point:

I felt bound to ask myself whether we truly are the first generation of women SFF writers not to be at least partially defined by our male partners, editors, commentators  or industry professionals? I really think we might be, a fact I find both cheering and utterly dismaying. We are getting there, yes. But why the hell has it taken so long?

This is a question that I find endlessly fascinating as it speaks to the slipperiness of genre history.

The slipperiness of genre history is a direct result of genre culture having been built by enthusiastic fans rather than professional scholars.

Fandom has always been prone to what can only be referred to as back-of-a-fag-packet state-of-the-union diatribes in which a commentator looks back over the stuff they happened to have recently read and draws sweeping conclusions about the past, present, and future of the field. The thing about these diatribes is that they are incredibly simple to produce; all you need is a year’s best anthology or an award shortlist and you can quite happily mouth off about how you think the genre is dead, dying or teetering on the edge of a new golden age. Subjective, sloppy and steeped in personal ideology, these diatribes are never taken 100% seriously and the only reason the form persists is that a well-written screed serves to stir the pot and give people something to talk about. Recent exemplars of the form include Paul Kincaid’s “The Widening Gyre” from 2012 and Strange Horizons’ round-table discussion about the state of British Science Fiction and Fantasy.

All sub-cultures operate according to their own set of intellectual protocols but because these protocols are social constructs, they necessarily bear the imprint of said sub-culture’s power relations.

Genre culture state-0f-the-unions are designed to be quickly produced and quickly replaced in an effort to keep everyone talking, but there are times when a quickly produced state-of-the-union seems to (either intentionally or not) capture the public mood and stick around longer than it should. One excellent example of this process is how genre culture’s delight at the unexpected success of Cyberpunk resulted in the acceptance of back-of-a-fag-packet literary histories that made Feminist SF disappear. Though certainly unjust, this tendency to fall for simplistic social narratives also explains why traditional fanzines have come to be associated with writing about fans (rather than writing about books) and why negative reviews have become increasingly taboo in a public sphere that now sees itself as an adjunct to the publishing industry’s PR departments.

All genre histories are political and all genre histories are bunk, this is why it is invariably more fun and fruitful to take them with a pinch of salt.

***

Entitled ‘Not a Series of Waves, But an Ocean’, my sixth Future Interrupted column was an attempt to drive home the slipperiness of genre culture by coming up with a semi-credible alternative genre history. In my history, Hugo Gernsback was not an ambitious crook but a Robbe-Grillet-style figure who raged against the Victorian confines of the bourgeois novel by breaking down the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. This is not so much history as it is headcanon.

***

Back in 1998, the author Jonathan Lethem wrote an essay entitled “Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction”. About as incendiary as you’d expect from a long-time genre fan settling in to a career as a mainstream novelist, Lethem’s essay describes 1973 Nebula Awards as a landmark moment in the history of science fiction.

Perhaps the most prominent cultural narrative of mid-20th Century science fiction is that of ever-increasing literary sophistication: From Burroughs to Bester and on through Ballard, Delany and Disch, science fiction was moving away from the simple-minded pulps and embracing complex characters, progressive politics and a modernist approach to prose style. Now associated with the British and American iterations of the New Wave, this movement towards greater literary sophistication earned the field a good deal of attention from literary journalists and academics but it did not enjoy universal support. Stuck in the past of whichever present you happen to name, the Hugo Awards largely ignored the New Wave but the real setback came in 1973 when the Science Fiction Writers of America gave the Nebula Award for best novel to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama rather than Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Jonathan Lethem describes the 1973 Nebula Awards as “a tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream” but a better way of looking at it would be to see it as the moment when the New Wave finally broke and rolled back down the beach.

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As frustrating as the 1973 Nebula Awards must have been for people heavily invested in bringing down the ghetto walls and merging with mainstream literary culture, the collapse of the New Wave simply marked the end of a single cycle in a much broader cultural system. Just as the collapse of the pulps cleared the decks for a new generation of writers with a new set of goals, the collapse of the New Wave created a cultural vortex that sucked in a number of female writers, fed on the energies of second wave feminism and created the swell that would later come to be known as Feminist SF. Indeed, the reason people keep talking about the death of science fiction is that the genre is forever moving between a state of collapse and a state of renewal. Each breaking wave starts the process again and, as much as we may cheer, denounce and agitate, there is really no telling which set of cultural energies the next wave will draw from. Like the scientists in Asimov’s “Nightfall”, we know that the end is coming and we know that something will eventually emerge on the other side but we are separated from that future by a wall of darkness, a tyrannical now.

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The big movements and trends may draw the eye but the field of science fiction is actually far more diverse than simple historical narratives might suggest. For every great cultural wave there are a hundred tiny eddies that never quite crest but whose cultural energies still contribute to the rise and fall of the cultural ocean. In 2002, Geoff Ryman’s Clarion workshop issued a statement foreswearing the use of scientifically implausible technologies in their fiction but while Mundane SF never caught on as a movement, its principles live on in the fact that FTL seems to have joined ESP as one of those tropes whose presence in a story signals a more nostalgic or fantastical bent. Between 2002 and 2005, Charles Stross worked on a series of stories that tried to rejuvenate Golden Age narratives by shifting their focus away from physics and engineering and towards a more 21st Century engagement with computer science and economics. The resulting fix-up novel Accelerando may have secured a Hugo nomination but rather than inspiring a new approach to hard SF, the stories actually accelerated the evaporation of genre boundaries and the collapse of traditional science fiction by providing Hard SF credentials to a great tide of post-Singularity fantasy stories. While both of these moments contributed to the evolution of the field, neither acquired sufficient energy or momentum to change the face of science fiction. Every innovative story is an eddy and every eddy is a Jonbar point at which the history of science fiction goes one way when it could just as easily go another. What might have happened if hard SF had been reborn with an interest in economics? What might the field look like today if the original New Weird discussions had not been co-opted by people looking for a way to sell postmodern fantasy stories? Thinking about the history of science fiction is not just about reading old books and paying deference to the heroes of generations past, it is also about wondering what might have happened if things had played out differently and yearning for some of those more pregnant possibilities. Jonathan Lethem has his broken wave and you probably have yours.

This one is mine.

The American academic Brian Attebery argues that while stories from the Golden Age of science fiction undeniably drew inspiration from both literary (Poe, Verne, Shelley, Wells) and commercial (Buchan, Hammett, Sabatini) fiction, they also drew from the emerging field of scientific journalism. Many people look at early works of science fiction, see the weird plotting and poorly drawn characters, and take these things as indicators of a lack of artistic maturity. However, a more fruitful way of approaching these early texts is to view them as stories written to an entirely different set of aesthetic principles. One that is simply no longer in fashion.

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In 1950, the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet produced an essay in which he called for the novel to cease its preoccupation with plot, character and action in order to focus upon objects and a depersonalised vision of the world. Robbe-Grillet’s argument for this radical departure was that the principles of the modern novel were laid down in the 19th Century by people seeking to cultivate an audience of upper middle-class people who wanted to see their bourgeois ideals legitimised by art. By 1950, the world was said to have changed sufficiently that an entirely new form of novel was required. Robbe-Grillet was undoubtedly correct but what he did not realise is that science fiction was, by that point, selling hundreds of thousands of magazines packed to the brim with stories that tore down the traditional boundary between fiction and non-fiction.

In his own crooked way, Hugo Gernsback was a far more radical literary figure than Alain Robbe-Grillet. Gernsback began his publishing career with a magazine called Modern Electronics but despite setting out to cater to the then-trendy hobby of amateur radio, Gernsback treated his audience’s interest in electronic communications as a Trojan horse for getting them into the habit of thinking about society and the future in a more systematic way. One of the ways in which he encouraged people to think about the future was to embed those patterns of thought and speculation into what were ostensibly works of fiction. Given Gernsback’s enormous influence on pulp science fiction, it is unsurprising that many of science fiction’s native techniques (including info-dumps and eyeball kicks) are means of either directly presenting readers with a scientific concept or forging subtle connections between existing ideas that cast them in entirely new lights. In fact, much of what is now hastily dismissed as ‘weak plotting’ or ‘poor characterisation’ is actually a result of using literary techniques to pursue non-literary ends. Moving from magazine to magazine, Gernsback carried with him the idea that the tools of literary and commercial fiction were only a means to a far more interesting end: Equipping his audience with the conceptual tools required to make sense of rapid technological change.

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Gernsback’s campaign to create a new form of figurative popular non-fiction effectively ended with the collapse of the pulp fiction market at the end of the 1950s. Incapable of supporting themselves, science fiction’s remaining professional writers began to adapt their style in order to meet the demands of a publishing industry built around the traditional novel. This shift ended careers, buried reputations and set the stage for the New Wave, but what if the pulps had never collapsed? What if science fiction had nurtured its journalistic influences rather than striving to outgrow them? What if science fiction had devoted itself to explaining and critiquing an increasingly complex world? What if Olaf Stapledon had emerged as a more influential writer than Robert Heinlein? That is a Jonbar point worth thinking about.

If the recent history of the Arthur C. Clarke award tells us anything it is that Jonathan Lethem was intensely foolish to write-off science fiction’s ability to engage with the mainstream. His mistake lay in assuming that once a wave broke its energy would be lost but the New Wave is no more dead than Feminist SF. Science fiction is an ocean made up of a thousand once and future waves.

5 Comments
  1. September 20, 2014 3:18 pm

    It looks like your essay was interrupted. On my screen it ends mid-sentence at “Science fiction is an ocean made up of a thousand once and fut”

    It’s a interesting read so far.

    Like

  2. September 20, 2014 3:19 pm

    It’s an interesting read so far. Sorry about that.

    Like

  3. September 20, 2014 10:03 pm

    Ooops… copypasta problema now rectified.

    It was only a few characters, thanks for the catch :-)

    Like

  4. September 22, 2014 1:39 pm

    Very excellently researched and fascinating article. I wasn’t aware of many of the waves you mention here, though as an adult, I was beginning to wonder why certain literary works are considered scifi and others are not, usually divided down a line determined by critics: good writing (Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Poe) is not SciFi, bad writing is. The part on Gernsback and the origin of one potential evolutionary line of scifi as “figurative non-fiction” is something I’ve often thought about but had neither the terminology nor a historical context for it. Great read.

    Like

  5. September 24, 2014 7:00 am

    I was reading Nina Allan’s “The Silver Wind” and… wait a minute! Did I spot a “Game of Thrones” in-joke in that story? Are such pop-culture references common in SF nowadays?

    Like

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