Skip to content

Future Interrupted – Rest In Peace, Uncle Bob

January 25, 2015

February 2015 must surely have been raised by heathens for it promises to come upon us unbeknownst. A month down the line and the timelessness of Christmas is but a fading memory, the mustiness of childhood bedrooms and Quality Street Victoriana banished for another year by a future that will not be denied. In 2015, the Conservative Party of Great Britain and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will battle for control of our collective brainspace… they will demand entry with images of ruined cities and whisper of looming threats that can only be averted through the actions of certain expensively-marketed media constructs. Who do you trust to run the economy? Who do you trust to sell you cars and fast food? The sickness will spread on the words of people who should at least wash their hands if they aren’t going to do us the courtesy of gouging out their own eyes. Remember… friends don’t let friends circulate viciously right-wing fantasies. What better way to prepare for this ugly future than with the latest issue of a magazine that remembers when the future was still trying to gets its foot in the door? A magazine that knows where the skeletons are buried and who took a padded envelope to look the other way… That’s right! Issue #256 of Interzone is out in the world for your dee-light and dee-lectation! This month’s issue includes such stories as:

  • “Nostalgia” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
  • “An Advanced Guide to Successful Price-Fixing In Extraterrestrial Markets” by T.R. Napper
  • “The Ferry Man” by Pandora Hope
  • “Tribute” by Christien Gholson
  • “Fish on Friday” by Neil Williamson

Aside from the usual columns by David Langford, Nina Allan, Tony Lee, Nick Lowe and myself, there are interviews with the artist Wayne Haag and the writer Ann Leckie as well as the usual suite of book reviews by such luminaries as Maureen Kincaid Speller, Paul Graham Raven, Stephen Theaker and John Howard. One idea that particularly caught my eye appears at the end of an excellent Nina Allan column in which she expresses her frustration with Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. Musing on the current relationship between British SF and mainstream publishing, Allan quotes an optimistic piece by Martin Lewis:

So my hope is the non-genre boom simply becomes the start of a new wave of British science fiction without boundaries and that the next time the broadsheets come calling we have some better broadsides.

Allan has been enthusiastic about the SF that is being published in Britain by mainstream presses before and yet her response to Lewis’ optimism is a fascinating note of caution. Quoting a rather disappointing Nick Harkaway interview from the Independent she writes:

My heart says bring it on, but my head says never gonna happen. Many of the mainstream writers cited by Lewis — not to mention their publishers — seem at pains to distance themselves from the science fiction label, often citing SF as a childhood enthusiasm rather than an ongoing preoccupation.

I am sceptical because we have been in this position before: Cast your minds back to 2003 when China Mieville was first acquiring broadsheet respectability and the strength of the British scene would result in an all-British Best Novel Hugo short-list only two years later. Unlike Harkaway, Mieville had steadfastly refused to distance himself from the British genre scene meaning that the attention lavished upon him was trickling down to authors who, though well-known to people in genre culture, were almost completely invisible to people outside it. The now infamous TTA Press forum discussions that saw the birth of the New Weird were, first and foremost, an attempt to capitalise on this rare moment in the mainstream cultural sun and find a way for British genre writing to break free from its old chains and find a way of operating without boundaries. Needless to say… this new creative space was shut down almost as soon as it opened. Genre institutions were too rigid and paranoid to provide much support to mainstream-published SF and attempts to discuss the cultural moment in genre spaces were rapidly swamped by American authors who couldn’t see the point and genre commentators eager to see science fiction slipstream the commercial success of post-Tolkienian fantasy via the dissolution of genre boundaries. Waves of historical revisionism have stripped the Britishness and the Science Fiction from the New Weird moment and American-dominated genre spaces have (if anything) become even more indifferent to the interesting stuff being done on the margins of British genre publishing. Then, as now, British science fiction is beginning to assume a really interesting shape but I would not look to the institutions of genre culture to provide much in the way of support. Now don’t you wish you could read the rest of that column and the magazine that contains it?  Well now you can! Physical subscriptions are available via the TTA Press website and digital subscriptions can be found on Smashwords! Anyway… on with the reprints!

***

My Seventh Future Interrupted column is entitled ‘Rest in Peace, Uncle Bob’ and it is best thought of as a continuation of the line of thought I began in “Dominion of the Dead” and continued in “Not a Series of Waves, but an Ocean”, which is to say that it is another examination of the history of science fiction and how various systematic and commercial forces shape our cultural history. The piece of cultural history covered by the column is the career and continued visibility of Robert A. Heinlein.

***

Heinlein

    I remember Robert A. Heinlein being dead, which is not the same thing as remembering when he died. Back in the 1990s when I was first getting into science fiction, Heinlein was almost out of print in the UK. Contemporaries such as Asimov and Clarke still enjoyed vigorous sales and a reassuring amount of shelf space but Heinlein himself was disappearing beneath the historical waves with only the spires of Starship Troopers still visible. In fact, Heinlein’s legacy was far more obvious in the works that reacted against his style and values, from the stripped-back futurism of cyberpunk to the progressive politics of the so-called Radical Hard SF. I remember Uncle Bob being dead but something seems to have disturbed his well-earned rest. After decades of being an American phenomenon, Heinlein’s works are back on the shelves of Britain’s remaining bookshops. Gollancz’s prestigious Masterwork series has expanded to include Double Star and The Door into Summer alongside its existing editions of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Meanwhile, non-fiction presses have been doing their part to stimulate academic interest with the publication of not only a two-volume hagiography by William J. Patterson but also a series of critical volumes that acknowledge the problematic aspects of Heinlein’s patriarchal individualism and sex-positive incest advocacy but try to present them as evidence of a complex and progressive sensibility. Even the storm-tossed seas of online fandom are helping to wash Heinlein back into the limelight as certain corners of American genre culture have taken to using his position and popularity as indicators of the moral and aesthetic health of science fiction as a whole. What is going on here? Why are we seeing a concerted effort to repair the reputation and standing of a man who died over twenty-five years ago? There are a number of answers and most of them are partially true. One explanation is that Heinlein’s back catalogue represents a substantial financial interest for the copyright holders. Time, fashion and the collapse of the mid-list are unkind to long-dead authors and while Uncle Bob’s books might well have leapt off the shelves in 1988, the current beneficiaries of Heinlein’s estate must now work harder to keep his books in the public eye. Sometimes this work might involve working with tame biographers, other times it will involve cutting deals that make little money for the estate but do at least keep Heinlein’s books in print. Clareson and Sanders’ book The Heritage of Heinlein includes anecdotes about Heinlein’s widow trying to block re-publication of work that she deemed ‘vulgar’ but the concerted effort to get Heinlein back into print suggests that such prissiness has now been replaced by steel-eyed pragmatism and the realisation that the dead no longer look after themselves.

HoH

  Another thing to bear in mind is that while Heinlein’s reputation has been declining in the UK for decades, American genre culture still considers him to be a central figure in the history of science fiction. One of the more regrettable aspects of the online marketplace of ideas is that sharing a language with Americans and Australians means that it is proving difficult to maintain the distinctively British genre culture that once flowed from British magazines, conventions and publishers. Like every other product of neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism, the Internet provides a level playing field on which local concerns and sensibilities are dismembered and devoured by their much larger and better-resourced competition. Don’t get me wrong… American genre culture features an over-abundance of great stories, books, writers and ideas but the price of gaining admission to that abundance includes having to pay attention to American issues, American histories and American ideas about what constitutes a canonical author. Shifting realities of genre publishing aside, the campaign to restore Heinlein’s reputation and standing may also have something to do with the fact that a particular generation of science fiction readers are now reaching the end of their natural lives. The growing concern about Heinlein’s status and visibility are reminiscent of a similar concern regarding the status of the film producer and director Roger Corman. One of the most intriguing books about American film that you are ever likely to read is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Drawing on extensive interviews and biographical research, Biskind describes how the post-war baby boomer generation came of age in the 1960s and set about changing the face of American film. The book’s opening chapters are upbeat and filled with anecdotes about the likes of Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola and Dennis Hopper taking on the system and convincing the studios to give them enough freedom to reach a new generation of filmgoers. However, while this strategy did deliver huge successes such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, it also allowed for ruinous failures like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. According to Biskind, New Hollywood engineered the golden age of 1970s Hollywood but their excesses and individualism also paved the way for a backlash in which studios reasserted control and forced talent to cooperate with the blockbuster business model that endures to this day. The nuance of this historical account is entirely missing from a recent film made about the exact same time frame.

cormans-world

  Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel features many of the same names as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls but rather than describing a period of boom and bust in which some directors were indulged at the cost of what turned out to be much less creative freedom for everyone else, Stapleton presents the ‘50s and ‘60s as the opening steps of a long triumphant march towards the era of the blockbuster that began with Jaws and Star Wars. The interesting thing about this film is that despite being an inexperienced director, Stapleton managed to secure interviews with a large chunk of Hollywood royalty who all turned out to praise the vision and independent spirit of the man who made terrible films like Battle Beyond the Stars and Frankenstein Unbound. Much like Heinlein, Corman has become so closely associated with a particular moment in cultural history that it is almost impossible to pass judgement on the man’s work without also seeming to pass judgement on that moment in cultural history. Sure… Corman is an important historical figure whose strategy of targeting younger audiences with genre material laid the foundations of contemporary Hollywood, but the real reason Hollywood royalty lined up to praise Roger Corman is that he represents a spirit of independence and experimentation that is entirely at odds with the reality of today’s Hollywood machine. The re-invention of Corman as the Man Who Built Hollywood suggests that Hollywood baby boomers are trying to write their own epitaph and ensure that their generation is remembered for its experimentation and individuality rather than its complete capitulation to the forces of big business.

ballard_cokliss1

J.G. Ballard’s short work “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” makes the point that Ronald Reagan the person was an entirely different entity to Ronald Reagan the political figure and media construct. Similarly, the ideas and principles represented by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein and Roger Corman bear only a passing relation to the real people buried beneath the weight of those names. We fight over these names because of what they represent. We fight over these names because we want recognition for our values and concerns. Some right-wing American fans want Heinlein to remain visible because they think that science fiction should continue to embody a blend of iconoclasm, rugged individualism and patriarchal power worship that is common to both Heinlein’s writing and the contemporary American right. Some progressive fans accept that Heinlein had a huge impact upon the development of science fiction but want to re-invent him as a progressive or even quasi-feminist figure because re-inventing Heinlein to fit your values is a means of ensuring that your values will be as much a part of the history of science fiction as Heinlein himself. Despite sharing the desire to emphasise science fiction’s history as a political literature, such revisionism strikes me as wrong-headed, why go to the trouble of papering over the cracks when it we could instead re-plaster the ceiling? We do the future no favours by seeking to deceive the present about the past.

5 Comments
  1. January 28, 2015 7:17 am

    We live in a time when “spin” is so ubiquitous, I get more and more sick of it. Nobody wants to just take people for who or what they are — everyone tries to spin everybody for some agenda or to make money. One part of this sickness is the culture’s inability to see people as individuals anymore — everyone’s re-interpreted as a “figurehead” or “symbol” for this or that…

    I’ve always thought Heinlein was weird — real weird, like Philip K. Dick weird, indeed like most SF writers are weirdos. Fans are reluctant to admit that most SF writers don’t really write for readers, but *intensely* for themselves, their personal obsessions or dreams or demons. That they still manage to connect with readers is a small wonder in itself, or proof of the power of language.

    Take his short “All You Zombies,” for example. It’s astonishing that this story could be published at all in 1959. The final lines of that story… I dare you, Jonathan, to decipher their meaning.

    Like

  2. January 28, 2015 9:45 am

    That’s a by-product of the age of post-political politics that we seem to have stumbled into: Nobody wants to compromise, nobody really wants to understand the world or make meaningful changes to it but they’ll refer to themselves as activists and obsess over the symbolism of popular culture.

    I only read “__ All you Zombies __” comparatively recently and was quite shocked by the fact that such ludicrously self-indulgent nonsense was ever considered to be serious science fiction, let alone serious science fiction by a progressive author who still has interesting things to say to modern audiences.

    I think your comparison with Dick is entirely apt… it’s just that Dick’s obsession with blurring realities and narcotics were a lot more universal and evocative than Heinlein’s obsession with fucking his children, his mother and ultimately himself :-)

    Like

  3. January 28, 2015 10:01 am

    SF is the perfect genre to Get Away With Things… to defy censorship if you live in a dictatorship, to indulge in obscure personal obsessions (Quick: count the number of Furries on the covers of Baen books), or just spaz out…

    …as long as you wear the cloak called “Science Fiction.”

    Like

  4. January 30, 2015 9:23 am

    There seems to be a link to a review of a Heinlein book appearing every day now in SF Signal’s daily Link Post.

    Incidentally, Heinlein himself thought ‘…All You Zombies…’ was a piece of fluff, and could never understand why it had proven so popular. He whinges about it in Grumbles from the Grave.

    Like

  5. January 30, 2015 9:54 am

    Yeah… it’s dead weird. I did wonder if the Heinlein foundation (or whatever quasi-corporate entity currently controls his literary estate) might not have been handing out grants to academics in an effort to kick-start a ‘Summer of Bob’.

    I’ve not read Grumbles from the Grave… my trawl through Heinlein scholarship was weird enough! :-)

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: