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Future Interrupted — Death, Closure and the Great Genre Swindle

September 24, 2015

Interzone #260 is a thing in the world, complete with a wonderfully weird cover by Martin Hanford. Despite spending the bulk of my time reviewing films, I’m not generally that sensitive to cover art but Hanford’s work on IZ this year really has been top notch. This month’s cover imagines the cast of the Mad Hatter’s tea party as drug-addled astronauts but Hanford’s run as cover artist has featured all kinds of surreal and fantastical images rendered in the dull blues and greys of the contemporary space programme. I love how the dulled colour palate lends the image a melancholy feel that is only amplified by Alice’s dead-eyed stare down the ‘camera’. Alien landscapes and intelligent hares should be vibrant and exciting and yet Hanford somehow manages to make them feel deliciously tarnished. One could almost read his run on the cover as an evolving critique of science fiction as an idiom: Take a weird and wonderful image, dress it in the trappings of SF and voila, a source of sadness and disquiet! You can pick up the rest of the Hanford-illustrated issues (or indeed subscribe) via the TTA Press website while digital subscriptions are available from Smashwords. You can also pick up individual issues for your kindle through Amazon should you so desire.

 

The stories included in this month’s issue are:

  • “Weedkiller” by John Shirley
  • “Blonde” by Priya Sharma
  • “No Rez” by Jeff Noon
  • “Murder on the Laplacian Express” by C.A. Hawksmoore
  • “The Spin of Stars” by Christien Gholson

 

Even if it weren’t written by Jeff Noon, the Jeff Noon would still stand-out as it’s one of those stories that does all kinds of interesting things with formatting, type-setting and syntax. I won’t claim to understand all of it but it seems to be set in a world where augmented reality is normal and held in place by an economic system that echoes our own whilst muttering darkly about things that are inevitably to come. In this world, un-augmented reality seems like a potent hallucinogenic drug. The story keeps repeating the idea that ‘You are What You See’ and I take that to be a commentary upon the way in which we appear to have completely surrendered to constructed visions of reality that don’t so much pander to our existing prejudices as provide us with pigeon-holes in which to sit and world views that we pull over our heads like cowls. Interesting stuff and it actually looks like a story about the future too!

 

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The non-fiction is typically excellent as well. Nina Allan looks at the post-Ballardian fiction of Tom McCarthy, Nick Lowe muses on the cracks forming in Marvel studios’ production process and Tony Lee writes about a number of things including the final Quatermass series, which has recently been released on Blu-ray. Tony Lee is a writer I very much admire and his DVD columns in both Interzone and Black Static are these densely-written treasure troves of critical insight. With a lot to say and little space in which to say it, Lee’s approach is to boil reviews down to the thick black paste of raw insight… no frills, no fuss, just beautifully formed and expressed opinions about the films and TV series of the day.

There are typically excellent reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Duncan Lunan, John Howard, Juliet E. McKenna, Stephen Theaker, Paul Graham Raven, Ian Hunter, Ian Sales, Jack Deighton and Jim Steel as well as Shaun Green reviewing and interviewing Becky Chambers as part of an extended look at her recent novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Also interesting is Ian Sales’ editorial giving us a potted history of the recent Hugo scandals and concludes with a suitably sarcastic “They must be really proud of what they’ve achieved”. Oh… and there’s also a column by me in which I compare Alex Garland’s Ex Machina to that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they use a court case to determine whether or not Data is actually a person. Turns out that some groups are more likely to be treated as objects than others… nobody would ever think to call Captain Picard’s personhood into question. SO MUCH STUFF! WHY AREN’T YOU SUBSCRIBING?!

 

Anyway… enough with the present! Let us turn out attention to the past as I reprint my column about the Sex Pistols, the death of science fiction and our instinctive need for narrative closure

 

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Back in 2000, Julien Temple made his second attempt at capturing the history of the Sex Pistols in the form of a documentary film. Drawing upon archive footage and interviews with the band’s surviving members, The Filth and The Fury presents the Sex Pistols and the British punk movement that followed them as an act of defiance against a system that had closed the books on an entire generation of working class kids. Sure… the band might have gone in for the odd publicity stunt and their antics certainly helped to shift over-priced clobber from Chelsea shops but the band would never have enjoyed the success they did if they hadn’t managed to connect to something real. Those of us who want to believe in Britain’s untapped reserves of revolutionary energy are doomed to buy into this flattering picture of the punk movement but The Filth and The Fury only tells half the story.

Temple’s first attempt at making a documentary about the Sex Pistols was released a couple of years after the band began to implode. Heavily dependent upon the myths and memories of the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren, The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle presents the Sex Pistols as nothing more than a cynical publicity stunt designed to help McLaren “peddle bondage, whips and chains to Britain’s children”. Wilfully perverse and decried by many as nothing more than the flexing of McLaren’s oversized ego, the documentary is best understood as an attempt to preserve punk’s nihilistic message by destroying the reputation of a band that was already well on its way to a place in Britain’s pop cultural canon. By muddying the waters and suggesting that British punk represented nothing more than £2 Million in the pocket of a smartarse Chelsea shopkeeper, McLaren denied the Sex Pistols an uncomplicated place in history and ensured that people would keep debating their ideas and politics for generations to come. Science fiction could stand to learn a lot from Malcolm McLaren as while genre culture certainly loves its revolutions, it has a terrible tendency to tidy them away the second they start to get underfoot.

Like most cultural scenes, science fiction moves between periods of revolutionary expansion and puritanical retrenchment: During expansive periods such as those associated with the New Wave, the New Weird and Feminist SF, the field encourages experimentation as editors reach out to new audiences who might have been turned off by the genre’s pre-revolutionary state. While the ideas explored during these expansive phases are never truly lost, they do eventually lose their urgency and their capacity to energise writers and critics. When a revolutionary moment begins to run out of steam, the field naturally cycles round to a period of self-examination and aesthetic retrenchment dominated by musings on the death of science fiction and concerns about what might have been lost in the rush to break new ground and find new audiences.

 

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For reasons that have everything to do with its nature as an American-dominated fandom, genre culture has always been uncomfortable with the negativity engendered by these periods of aesthetic retrenchment. In fact, whenever people like Lester del Rey, Barry N. Malzberg, Charles Platt, or Paul Kincaid stick their head above the parapet to express their concerns about the state of contemporary science fiction, genre culture’s first instinct is usually to paint them as the embittered remnants of some notional old guard. Rather than recognising that self-doubt and self-recrimination are part of the process of cultural renewal, the field ignores its own down passage years resulting in a history written in major chords where glorious revolutions spring up out of nowhere only to neatly pack themselves away in time for the next leap forward.

The academic Roger Luckhurst explores genre culture’s obsession with death in an article entitled “The Many Death of Science Fiction”. He points out that while anxiety about science fiction having lost its way often manifests itself as a melancholic obsession with the genre’s imminent demise, a similar desire for annihilation can be sensed in the field’s more expansive moments. For example, Harlan Ellison introduced his seminal 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions with the apocalyptic observation that the New Wave “has been found, has been termed good by the mainstream, and is now in the process of being assimilated… Science fiction is dead”. Though misguided, echoes of this statement can still be heard whenever a genre writer lands a deal with a mainstream publisher or a cohort of mainstream authors start churning out decent genre fiction. Luckhurst’s analysis may focus upon the relationship between genre and literary fiction but a similarly apocalyptic tone starts to creep in whenever a critic invokes ‘evaporating genres’ to justify a rapprochement with commercial fantasy or an editor pushes for greater diversity in their tables of content by offering various groups the chance to ‘destroy science fiction’.

The reason that death figures so prominently as a recurring motif in the history of science fiction is that both sides of genre culture yearn for narrative closure: The aesthetic puritans invoke the death of science fiction because they believe that science fiction that ceases to engage with the future is no longer science fiction. Conversely, the various flavours of revolutionary expansionist talk about the destruction and transubstantiation of science fiction as a means of liberating writers from a literary tradition they deem outdated and oppressive. Look beyond the rhetoric and what you find are two tendencies resistant to the idea that science fiction is in a continual process of re-invention and change; the traditionalists keep wanting to drag science fiction back to a point closer to their entry into the field while the revolutionaries want to pull the ladder up behind them to prevent the genre from reverting back to engineering puzzle stories the second their back is turned.

 

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What McLaren realised and genre culture has yet to learn is that placing things in a historical context is a great way of denying them power in the present as associating an argument with a particular point in genre history encourages us to view that argument as finished and dealt with. In 2012, the legendary novelist Christopher Priest asked whether the appalling selection of books nominated for that year’s Clarke Award suggested that those working towards improving science fiction had lived and fought in vain, thereby implying that the fighting should have stopped once victory had been secured. But how do we know when the battle is won and who gets to make that decision? A real commitment to artistic innovation means that the books never close on old arguments and nobody gets an uncomplicated place in history. Had science fiction absorbed everything it needed to learn by the time the New Wave broke and rolled back down the beach in 1973? Had science fiction dealt with the field’s institutional sexism by the time Cyberpunk was burying 1970s Feminist SF under a landslide of historical revisionism? Of course not! A healthy cultural scene is one in which there is no death, no closure and no victory.

In the spirit of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, let us throw open the books by smashing the icons of our faith and calling into question the myth of progress that binds today’s authors to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Lucian of Samosata, or whichever household deity you have chosen as your own. Did J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock hoist the black flag of modernism because they believed in literary excellence or because they knew that mainstream publishers paid better than the collapsing market for pulp magazines? Did Cyberpunk strike a genuine nerve or did a couple of film producers pick up the rights to Neuromancer and spend a small fortune promoting what they thought was going to be the next Blade Runner? Is it natural for the boundaries between genres to soften or did someone realise that novels containing fantastical elements tend to sell a whole lot better than straight science fiction? Does the current drive for increased diversity reflect a genuine interest in exploring historically marginalised subjectivities or is it just that the market for adult genre novels continues to decline while the far more diverse field of young adult literature expanded by 38% in 2014 alone? A thriving literary culture will always have more used for live swindlers than dead saints.

2 Comments
  1. October 2, 2015 9:25 pm

    Jonathan, you might be interested in a recentish history book called The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman. He writes a lively and breezy history of people bemoaning the “death of culture” and how the next generation is always somehow worse than the previous one. It’s not quite as penetrating or as rigorous as an academic work (it’s written for the layperson) but it might help you as scaffolding for further theorizing on genre’s obsession with its own death.

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  2. October 10, 2015 12:51 pm

    Sorry for the slow response but thanks for the recommendation. It looks really interesting as my only real knowledge of how that rhetoric has been used in the past is that Roman historians invariably used it to beat a drum for militarism and the need to reconnect with traditional tough-guy values.

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