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Future Interrupted — The Allure of Ambiguity

July 15, 2015

Issue #259 of Interzone should now be blowing down your chimneys, rattling your windows and pressing ominously at your doors. After the issue arrives, subscribers will turn on their TVs and be met by images of flooded out streets, snow-bound primary schools and the perpetual promise of travel chaos and interminable commuting times. Arriving home from work (much later than usual) they will be met by tonally jarring images of people sweeping water from the ground floor of local shops while children build snowmen until it all turns to slush and misery. Of course, the papers will ask why our country is never prepared for the arrival of a new issue of Interzone and the government will make apologetic sounds and quietly cut funding to emergency services. Sandstone is weathered, concrete cracks, chalk cliffs collapse into the sea… Subscriptions are available from the TTA Press website while digital copies are available via Smashwords.

This issue contains six stories:

  • “Silencer – Head Like a Hole Remix” by E. Catherine Tobler
  • “The Deep of Winter” by Chris Butler
  • “Rush Down, Roar Gently” by Sara Saab
  • “After his Kind” by Richard W. Strachan
  • “Edited” by Rich Larson
  • “Midnight Funk Association” by Mack Leonard, winner of this year’s James White Award

The James White Award is actually quite an interesting institution as it is awarded to non-professional writers, namely people who have not yet acquired the three professional sales required to qualify for SFWA membership. Given the on-going explosion in the number of venues paying SFWA rates and the difficulty in getting noticed even with three professional sales to your name, there is something really quite charming about the idea of an award that celebrates people who really are just starting out in their careers as writers. This interest in non-professional writers is partly a product of the history of British science fiction in that British magazines have seldom been able to compete with their larger American cousins and so many British SF writers came up through an amateur scene that has now been almost completely eclipsed by the globalisation of the field and the pressure to adopt SFWA qualification as the acid test for whether or not you can actually write. People who have been around longer than I would probably be able to tell you more about this quirk in the history of British SF but you’d be surprised by the number of prominent UK authors who published their first stories in what were effectively fanzines.

Speaking of quirks in the history of British SF, this issue includes an editorial by me that’s a response to that state of the British genre union piece published by Strange Horizons last year. The piece talks a bit about local music scenes and the idea of cultivating local scenes as an antidote to the creation of a single globalised field dominated by American authors and imprints.

Obviously, this type of conversation requires us to tread carefully as focusing on some people is often a nice way of excluding others but I think it’s relevant not only to the idea of different people and groups forming their own canons but also to stuff like the decision to bring all of Heinlein’s books back into a print in a country that had been getting along just fine without him as a cultural touchstone. Given that the hard right of American genre fandom has long used Heinlein as a means of determining who is and who is not a ‘real science fiction fan’, I struggle to see the decision to bring Heinlein back into print as anything other than the imposition of an American canon on a British scene that had been in the process of developing its own histories and selections of canonical texts. The idea of British SF being a literary tradition in its own right is beautifully unpacked in Paul Kincaid’s superb but difficult-to-find monograph A Very British Genre, which was written in 1995 and mentions Uncle Bob a grand total of twice.

Aside from my forays into cultural localism, this issue also contains my column reviewing Ian Sales’ magnificent Apollo Quartet, an inspired and inspiring rant by Nina Allan about A Game of Thrones, habitually brilliant film columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee as well as Barbara Melville’s engaging interview with Al Robertson and reviews by such luminaries as Stephen Theaker, Lawrence Osborn, Ian Hunter, Paul F. Cockburn, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Jack Deighton, Ian Sales, Andy Hedgecock and Elaine Gallagher who looks at the VanderMeers’ Sisters of the Revolution.

 

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Ambigu

This month’s re-printed column marked the beginning of a train of thought that eventually led me to start writing about the work of James Salter but it’s also relevant to both my thoughts on art house film.

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The Allure of Ambiguity

The older I become and the more I read, the more I am drawn to ambiguity. I am bored by stories that tell me what to think and energised by stories that encourage me to reach my own conclusions and create my own interpretations. I am not a passive recipient of story and neither are you.

Most psychologists will tell you that reading is an inherently dynamic process. Rather than sitting quietly and waiting for a story to snap into focus, our brains process the things we read by actively comparing them to what we already know about people, the world and different types of stories. As our eyes scan down the page, our brains draw on these reserves of knowledge to check the validity of our working hypotheses about what the text is trying to say and where it might be headed, almost as though our brains were writing their own alternate versions of the story. This process kicks in regardless of whether you are reading a shopping list or an M. John Harrison novel but you can really feel it happening when you read a clever thriller like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as the novel encourages you to believe one set of things about the characters before introducing a pair of well-executed twists that turn everything on its head.

Reading is a skill that continues to improve long after you leave school. It isn’t just that your ability to comprehend text improves as your vocabulary expands; it’s that the questions you learn to ask of a text become more and more sophisticated the more you read. Every time an author relies upon heavy-handed symbolism to get their point across, you become more sensitive and more likely to spot a subtle use of imagery in another text. Every time you fall for a red-herring or fail to spot a plot twist, your brain becomes more alive to misdirection meaning that you are more likely to spot the next Grand Reveal coming a mile off. Psychologists refer to these lines of critical interrogation as schemata and our stocks of schemata grow the more sophisticated our thinking becomes.

Unfortunately, these gifts come with a heavy price as your ability to ask sophisticated questions of a text means that texts are less likely to surprise you and surprise is one of the most powerful effects that a book can have. The reason they say that the golden age of science fiction is twelve is that twelve-year olds are sophisticated enough to comprehend most texts and yet naïve enough to be surprised by nearly all of them.

The natural tendency of audiences to grow more sophisticated with the passage of time is a problem inherent to human culture. The form of classical song known as opera has evolved considerably since its inception in the 17th Century and every time instruments changed, orchestras swelled and vocal technique shifted, it was in response to an audience that had grown tired of hearing the same old thing week after week and year after year.

 

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Much like opera, science fiction responded to the growing sophistication of its audience by trying to become more sophisticated in turn. The result was a sort of cognitive arms race whose traces are most evident when you consider the evolution of single tropes: In 1895, the idea of someone travelling into the future was so mind-blowing that H.G. Wells was able to get an entire novel out of it. By 1958, the idea of time travel had grown so stale that Robert Heinlein was moved to write “—All You Zombies—” about a time-traveller who impregnates his own mother only to learn that his mother is in fact a future version of himself who has undergone gender reassignment surgery. The cognitive arms race between reader and writer is visible all across the history of science fiction. In fact, most of the great reformation periods of genre history can be explained by the need to find new ways of reaching an audience: What was the New Wave if not science fiction trying to stay ahead of its readers by incorporating more literary techniques? What is the current drive for greater diversity if not an attempt to replenish the field’s dwindling creative energies by drawing on the experiences and cultural heritage of people with different backgrounds? Once a culture hears the drum beat of the New Shiny, it becomes as loud as it is relentless. However, while this type of cognitive arms race is one solution to the problem of growing audience sophistication, it is not the only one.

Back in the 1960s, the world of cinema was forced to contend with a Hollywood machine that was beginning to spend more and more money in an attempt to stay ahead of audiences. Rather than trying to compete with the deep pockets of the Anglosphere, some filmmakers set out to make films that would deal with sophisticated audiences by working with them rather than against them. By encouraging home-grown directors to take risks and reaching out to filmmakers from non-European cinematic traditions, European filmmakers built a network of festivals and magazines devoted to films that gave audiences room to make up their own minds and draw their own conclusions.

 

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Art house film realised that the story an audience experiences is not necessarily the same as the one that was created for them. Instead of seeking to maintain control over the story that existed in the audience’s heads, art house film presented audiences with incomplete texts and encouraged them to fill in the gaps for themselves. For example, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura begins with a young woman going missing on an island only for her friends to rapidly lose interest and wander off. Why? Well… your guess really is as good as mine and therein lies the point. A similar kind of technique is evident in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon as it presents the audience with several radically different versions of the same event. This deliberate ambiguity encourages audiences not only to speculate about what really happened but also to reflect upon why it is that humans feel the need to lie and deceive in the first place. The greatest works of art house films are not those with the most engaging stories or the most impressive ideas, but those that provoke the most thought. Arguably the single greatest science fiction film ever made, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker has as many interpretations as there are people who have seen it and while none of those interpretations is strictly ‘correct’, all of them are guaranteed to be beautiful.

Science fiction has never been entirely comfortable with ambiguity. While readers of the fantastic always had classic texts like Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and James’ Turn of the Screw encouraging them to forego the joys of cognitive closure, the canon of science fiction took its cues from popular science and preached only clarity and precision. Like many aspects of traditional science fiction, this cultural aversion to ambiguity has been under pressure since at least the New Wave. The first step towards embracing ambiguity was allowing for a form of moral ambiguity. This meant that while authors were still expected to construct their societies with scientific precision, they could leave it up to the readers whether or not they found said societies attractive. This is why Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Samuel R. Delany’s Triton are respectively subtitled ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’ and ‘An Ambiguous Heterotopia’.

 

 

Ambiguity has been one of the great benefits of eroding genre boundaries. M. John Harrison’s decision to make the world of Viriconium more and more ambiguous with each passing novel puzzled fantasy readers in the early 1980s but his decision to pull the same trick in a series of science fiction novels has left the genre feeling grubby and self-conscious. How can you go back to reading James Corey’s Expanse series or John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels when the likes of Light and Empty Space have already taught you how to ask much harder questions? Nina Allan’s The Race is one of the finest science fiction novels of 2014 precisely because it encourages you to ask difficult questions of the novel, its plot, its characters, and its themes. Great novels don’t just give you a single well-crafted story; they give you the space to come up with messy ones of your own.

 

10 Comments
  1. July 16, 2015 4:12 pm

    Again, an interesting commentary. And the more interesting to me because as of late I’ve been thinking about some of the same matters–if from a different angle. And because I’d recently had occasion to revisit “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony.”

    I’ve thought for a long time (and think it even more now) that the upmarket end of contemporary culture fell too much in love with ambiguity in the twentieth century; wallowing in it, hiding in it, precisely because instead of teaching us to ask hard questions, it let us off the hook from asking any questions at all–in part, out of fear of the answers.

    (Speaking of ambiguity-any special significance in talking about how UK science fiction got along just fine without Heinlein, then bringing him up again later in the piece?)

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  2. July 16, 2015 6:59 pm

    Haha… On that last point, that would be me not practising what I preach ;-)

    I know where you’re coming from on this and I’m actually pulling some thoughts together for a piece on this very question. Isn’t it weird how so many texts seem to amount to nothing more profound than the contents of a self-help book?

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  3. July 17, 2015 11:40 am

    I’d say unfortunate-but given the broader tendency, all too predictable.

    I’ll look forward to that upcoming essay.

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  4. July 17, 2015 1:34 pm

    Thanks :-) As a teaser, you might want to take a look at the debate surrounding David Foster Wallace’s self-help library and the upcoming film.

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  5. July 20, 2015 3:28 am

    Wonderful analysis. Insightful, learned…and sensitive. Ok, I just discovered you so please excuse my enthusiasm (I’ve commented elsewhere); it’s just that on the Internet… “all before us lie deserts of vast eternity.” 1’s and 0’s never die.

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  6. July 20, 2015 6:33 pm

    Thank you Stephan :-). That’s very kind of you. I am glad you enjoyed those pieces.

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  7. July 28, 2015 7:59 pm

    I started reading Leviathan Wakes, the first Expanse book, and I was blown away by how aggressively middlebrow it is. None of the concepts are new, but rather packaged as cleanly as possible, as blandly inoffensive as you can imagine.

    I was especially struck by the blandness of the worldbuilding, specifically that the political concepts put forward are so simplistic and binary; the audience is expected to root for the heroes if only because the alternative is so cartoonishly evil (“terrorism is bad you guys”). However, what makes this even more egregious is the author’s attempt at introducing ambiguity in its protagonist — but only because the market demands it. No longer are white hat protagonists fashionable, so the narrative shoe horns in some reductive child’s play level thought problem that one of the heroes has had a hand in fascism. But this is countermanded by the fact that we’re repeatedly told “he felt bad about it.”

    Everything about this book seems calculated by marketing executives rather than artistic choices.

    I decided to read Herman Melville — just to wash the taste of this pablum out of my mouth.

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  8. July 28, 2015 8:51 pm

    Yeah… At first I thought it was a bit like those massive Peter F. Hamilton novels but Hamilton’s moral complexities work better for being more heartfelt and personal. I might find his protagonists creepy and his utopias unbearable but that does at least create a sense of complexity that actually rings true :-)

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  9. August 20, 2015 1:42 am

    Update: I finished Leviathan Wakes and I think it’s the book I hate the most this year. Poorly plotted, overlong, retrograde in gender politics (the key female figure is dead and an object to be quested for), and stunningly quotidian.

    Though I did end up starting Harrison’s Light and so far I’m quite pleased.

    I also finished Absolution Gap and quite liked it. I assume you’ve read the Revelation Space novels, Jonathan? What did you think?

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  10. August 20, 2015 6:27 am

    Harrison’s Light is one of my favourite SF novels of all time. In fact, I think it broke a lot of other SF for me because I keep hoping it’ll be like Light and it really isn’t! I liked the first Revelation Space novel when I read it but I struggled with any of the other books in the series. I also read Termination World and found it so jaw-droppingly bad that I mentally shelved Reynolds as a burn-out until I read the short fiction he wrote for IZ earlier this year and that really surprised me and sold me on his new one Slow Bullets, which is space opera as a metaphor for coping with PTSD. Really enjoyed that.

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