Future Interrupted – La Politique des Editeurs
The November-December issue of Interzone (#255) is now arriving in dataports throughout the Human Imperium. For this gift, and many others, the Emperor would usually require only that you hate but in light of recent events he has chosen to require only miniature British flags and a fresh lick of paint before he comes round to open your local sports centre and/or scout hut.
This month’s issue includes:
- E. Catherine Tobler’s “Oubliette”
- Jannifer Dornan-Fish’s “Mind the Gap”
- Tom Greene’s “Monoculture”
- Malcolm Devin’s “Must Supply Own Work Boots”
- Tim Major’s “Finding Waltzer-Three”
- R.M. Graves’ “Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha”
- Thana Niveau’s “The Calling of Night’s Ocean”
It also includes regular columns by Nina Allan, David Langford, Tony Lee, Nick Lowe and myself. In addition to some fantastic book reviews there’s also an interview with Hannu Rajaniemi by Paul Cockburn and an obituary for Graham Joyce by Andy Hedgecock that includes the beautiful line:
He had a gift for shepherding seriousness away from solemnity.
This month’s Future Interrupted column is entitled “The Origins of Science Fictional Inequality” and it’s another one of those columns in which I take a somewhat critical look at the conventional narratives of genre culture and try to provide an alternative… but you’ll have to wait a few months if you want to read that one for free!
This month’s reprint is a column entitled “La Politique des Editeurs” and, with the added insight that comes with time and space, I must admit that it is not one of my better ones. The problem was that my ideas on the subject were still in a state of flux when I sat down to write the column meaning that I approach the idea rather than simply state it and then unpack it in a way that makes it clear. Ah well… I’ve developed the idea in different ways since then (most notably in this month’s Future Interrupted column) but the point I was trying to get across is that genre history assumes that authors are the only people with agency whereas many phenomena (including inequality) only make sense once you look beyond books and writers and begin to concentrate your attention on magazines and imprints.
Humans are said to be social creatures because they spend the bulk of their time in worlds that are born of social interaction. Other species live their lives manacled to things and places but humans live amongst words, principles and stories. These social worlds are so exhaustively complete that it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the entire universe operates on a human level: Histories are filled with great people, religions turn the universe into a machine built to produce either salvation or enlightenment, and conspiracy theories take the world’s oceanic complexity and reduce it down to teacups filled with simple emotions such as fear, greed or hatred. Science fiction has a glorious track record of confronting our species’ egocentrism.
Arguably the most famous example of this type of story is Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” where a shuttle pilot is forced to chuck a stowaway out the airlock because the laws of physics are indifferent to human suffering. While an unsettling number of Hard SF stories are similarly questionable attempts to blame the laws of physics for behaving like a right-wing sociopath, more progressive works use a similar technique to edge us towards less harrowing political programmes. Back in 1986, David Brin and Gregory Benford collaborated on a frankly demented novel entitled The Heart of the Comet. Set inside Halley’s Comet, the book tells of an archetypal competent man who battles to save his fellow spacers from an alien infection before realizing that the human body itself is nothing more than a succession of bacterial colonies co-existing in a symbiotic relationship. Thus, rather than seeking to defend the human against the inhuman, the book’s protagonist recognizes the inhuman in all of us and so focuses on a way to allow the spacers to live in harmony with their environment. Similarly bizarre is Adam Roberts’s New Model Army in which a cybernetic mercenary company becomes so heavily networked that the company itself becomes self-aware and emerges as an entirely new form of life with its own desires and personality. Equally effective in making us refocus on a different class of entity is Bernard Beckett’s overlooked novel Genesis, which includes an attempt to reconstruct evolutionary biology with the meme rather than the gene as the primary focus. According to this theory, humans are little more than a means for ideas to spread and reproduce themselves. Having reached the point where the planet is struggling to sustain six billion idea-wombs, the memes most likely to survive are the ones that encourage the creation of new and more effective host mediums such as television, the Internet and artificial intelligence. However, while science fiction is full of books that compel us to blink and refocus our eyes on a universe not built on a human scale, science fiction itself is still prone to talking about itself in strictly human terms.
One of the most influential blinks in the history of Western culture came when a group of writers operating in and around the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema decided to begin talking about film in an entirely new way. Up until that moment, film critics had tended to talk about films in terms of their script, their cast, their genre and whether or not they were faithful to their source material. Disgusted by the ‘respectful’ literary adaptations that were dominating French cinema at the time, the Cahiers mob began to agitate on behalf of films that displayed cinema’s potential as an art form in its own right. This new way of looking at film demanded a new way of writing about film, one modelled on traditional literary criticism in which directors would assume the role of authors with the power to both find their own voice and make those voice heard in every film they made. Despite having had an enormous influence on the way that people talk about film, the so-called “politique des auteurs” (or ‘policy of authors’) has always been hamstrung by the fact that filmmaking is an inherently collaborative process in which the director is only a single voice in a chorus that grows along with the film’s budget. Many of today’s film critics shy away from that overly humanistic perspective, preferring instead to treat films as complex phenomena hewn from an assortment of social, political, cultural, economic and environmental forces. Science fiction is also a complex phenomenon and yet people seem reluctant to adopt a policy of editing.
When the shortlist for the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award was found to contain nothing but books by male authors, the understandable first reaction was to accuse the jury of sexism. After all, the jurors had received a number of books by women but had chosen to perpetuate the gender inequalities in the field by choosing to look past them. However, as the author Liz Williams pointed out in an article written for the Guardian: The jury’s choices were not made in a vacuum but in a time and place where few science fiction novels by women were getting published. The market for science fiction was shrinking anyway and any woman intent upon chancing her arm in that particular market was forced to contend with the publishing industry’s self-fulfilling superstition that science fiction novels by women simply will not sell. In other words, the best way to understand the state of British science fiction in 2012 was not to look at books or the people who wrote them, but at the economics of genre publishing and the institutional sexism of the publishing industry as a whole. Some problems (including diversity) require you to blink and refocus.
As with film criticism, the groundwork for science fiction criticism was done by fans that loved individual books and got excited about particular authors. This humanistic approach to genre criticism explains why histories of science fiction tend to focus upon great authors breaking new ground rather than institutional factors such as economic and demographic changes in the marketplace. An excellent example of this overly humanistic approach is in the way that the history of the New Weird has come to rest on the figure of China Miéville inspiring a new generation of writers to ignore traditional genre boundaries. What they do not talk about is the fact that while Miéville’s work may or may not have inspired a new generation of writers, it definitely changed economic realities by proving that novels could sell to large audiences without fitting into a particular marketing category. The ongoing dissolution of genre boundaries owes less to individual vision and creativity than it does to economic reality: Fantasy outsells science fiction by an order of magnitude and allowing fantasy to stray into the realm of science fiction means that more books can be sold to a much larger audience. When one talks about the exhaustion and death of science fiction, what one is actually talking about are the collapse of a particular market and a means of selling books. Just as contemporary marketers are more likely to appeal to the audience’s desire to be individuals than they are to their desire to appear respectable, the publishing industry finds it easier to sell escapist adventures than stories filled with scientific wisdom and philosophical curiosity.
The one great exception to the humanistic tendency of genre criticism is the work of Mike Ashley whose critical trilogy The Time Machines, Transformations and Gateways to Forever present the history of science fiction in terms of the rise and fall of different magazines. While these books provide a fascinating insight into the personalities of editors who built the genre, their true genius lies in looking beyond individual books and authors in order to see the history of science fiction as a succession of opening and closing markets that welcomed some authors, excluded others and prompted many to experiment with new genres and fresh techniques. Much like the spacers in Heart of the Comet or the mercenaries in New Model Army, people who choose to work in a literary tradition such as science fiction are opening themselves up to the people and institutions that surround them. These institutions may allow individual authors to sell their work and acquire reputations but they also impose limits on how those individuals think and express themselves.
One of the most insightful writers on this particular topic is the anarchist thinker James C. Scott whose books Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed look upon institutions such as states and corporations as forces that reshape both the environment and human nature to suit their own requirements. People often speak about science fiction as a conversation but they forget that this kind of inter-generational conversation is also a form of institution with its own life and structure. By focusing solely on the voices of authors, we are overlooking the fact that these voices are shaped (for good or ill) by social forces that require their own set of tools and their own special language.