Future Interrupted: Harder-Core-Than-Thou
Interzone #264 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.
This month’s non-fiction is brilliant even by the legendary standards of Interzone. First up is a fascinating editorial by Elaine Gallagher about the representation of trans people in genre fiction.
Then there’s Nina Allan kicking arse and taking names with a fantastically insightful column about the literary canonisation of J.G. Ballard. According to Allan, Ballard’s posthumous elevation to the status of cultural icon has required the systematic downplaying of his cognitive strangeness. As someone who only discovered Ballard’s science fiction after I started reading his mainstream works, I definitely agree that his later works are in some senses more easily digestible than his earlier work. Of course, one of the really lovely things about Ballard was that he not only knew how to be interviewed, but seemed to relish the opportunity to bounce ideas off the head of a sympathetic yet baffled interviewer. Seek out Simon Sellars’ excellent collection of interviews entitled Extreme Metaphors and you’ll discover an author with a lot more on his mind than disembodied celebrities and spunk-encrusted concrete. Indeed, one of my prized possessions is a DVD of Jonathan Weiss’s adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which includes a commentary track by Ballard himself in which he happily sends deadly little ideas bouncing out into the world.
The reviews section is similarly brilliant with John Howard writing insightfully about the latest volume in Mike Ashley’s history of science fiction magazines, Stephen Theaker considering a cultural history of Batman, Duncan Lunan expressing profound ambivalence about a Stephen Baxter and Al Reynolds collaboration, Peter Loftus being uncharitable to a re-issue of Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, Jack Deighton enjoying both Ken Liu and Robert Jackson Bennett, Maureen Speller being unmoved by Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, Ian Hunter being impressed by the collected short fiction of James Morrow and me waxing rhapsodic about Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. Seriously: If that book doesn’t win a few awards next year then I question the wisdom of having the bloody things to start with.
Tony Lee‘s Laser Fodder column is surprisingly sparse this month but it includes a lengthy piece about William Peter Blatty’s much under-rated The Ninth Configuration. Nick Lowe‘s Mutant Popcorn column is typically long and just as brilliant as ever. People familiar with Lowe’s work as a genre critic and an academic will know that he’s probably one of the most insightful people on the planet when it comes to the mechanics of storytelling. One of Lowe’s favoured themes is the idea that genre fiction in general and comic book writing in particular have served as a distended womb that occasionally disgorges utterly novel narrative techniques. Lowe is particularly sharp on how these mutant techniques are finding their way into the mainstream through summer blockbusters and his piece on Batman vs. Superman contains some writing that might very well be described as ‘peak Lowe’:
When the first extended universes had begun development, none of their architects had foreseen how easily these thrusting vertical structures of narrative and light, each home to a thousand characters and storylines, could collapse into fanboy revolt and civil war. It was possible now to see the architecture of the comics universe had been a dangerous blueprint for film, with its promiscuous polyontological impreium of reboots and retcons, Ultimates and New 52s, reversible deaths and revertible futures on a canvas spanning all possible galaxies, dimensions, and epochs of time.
“Promiscuous polyontological imperium of reboots and retcons” — Fuck.
This issue’s fiction includes:
- “Starlings” by Tyler Keevil
- “Breadcrumbs” by Malcolm Devlin
- “Mars, Aphids, and Your Cheating Heart” by James van Pelt
- “Lifeboat” by Rich Larson
- “The Tower Princesses” by Gwendolyn Kiste
My Future Interrupted column from IZ#264 intersects somewhat with Maureen’s piece on The Ship in so far as it takes a look at Claire Vaye Watkins’ Californian post-apocalyptic novel Gold Fame Citrus, which I very much enjoyed. However, having read Maureen’s piece I am left wondering whether Californian post-apocalyptic novels might not actually be a ‘thing’ at the moment. Answers on a postcard please.
That piece will be reprinted here in a while but in the meantime, here is my piece about the idea of ‘Core SF’, where that idea comes from, and why I think it’s problematic. The column also contains a rather unconventional approach to genre history that presents aesthetic change as a process of economic adaptation rather than the talk of artistic innovation that usually informs histories of genre culture.
‘Core Science Fiction’ is one of the most contentious terms in contemporary science fiction. Often deployed by reviewers and publicists in quite an unthinking manner, the term is associated with a strain of science fiction that echoes the style and subject matter of stories first published in pulp magazines during the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. In order to understand why ‘Core SF’ is a contested term, it is first necessary to understand how the discourse surrounding genre fiction periodically changes in an effort to reflect emerging commercial realities.
When the market for pulp magazines collapsed at the end of the 1950s, the science fiction field abandoned its association with popular science magazines in favour of an association with literary fiction. However, in order to appeal to the types of people who read and edited literary fiction, genre authors were forced to change both the style and format of the stories they produced. Some writers struggled to adapt and so disappeared from the field completely but the economic and aesthetic changes caused by the re-positioning of science fiction’s economic heartland meant that the field also began attracting authors whose work would never have been a good fit for magazines aimed at amateur radio enthusiasts.
In hindsight, the differences between pre- and post-collapse science fiction are so pronounced that it would almost make sense to talk about the stories published in pulp magazines as having been part of a completely different genre to those produced by literary publishers. However, the presence of certain individuals and institutions in both contexts means that it does make sense to talk about genre culture as a single evolving entity rather than a series of much shorter-lived scenes. Genre culture did not so much die as evolve thanks to a collection of authors, critics, and anthologists who presented the changes in genre literature not as a product of economics but as the natural and desirable result of science fiction having progressed and become more sophisticated.
While genre culture likes to remember its brief flirtations with literary respectability, the truth is that the genre’s off-again, on-again relationship with literary fiction has proved just as economically unstable as its earlier association with popular science. The economic heartland of the genre shifts every few years and what genre culture calls ‘progress’ is really little more than the unending and undignified evolutionary scramble to keep making sales even as old markets collapse and reform.
For example, it was probably not until the 1980s that the people running genre imprints began to realise that the market for fantasy was considerably larger than the market for science fiction. The emergence of Dungeons & Dragons novels as international best-sellers seemed to take genre publishers completely by surprise but the discovery of an enormous market for fat fantasy changed the economics of the genre and resulted in science fiction novels getting progressively longer as complex plots and detailed world-building came to be seen as more important than psychological complexity or stylistic innovation. By the beginning of the 21st Century, science fiction’s economic heartland had moved so close to that of epic fantasy that critics began to talk of ‘evaporating genres’ as a way of describing the use of science-fictional tropes and techniques in novels which, like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, were almost indistinguishable from those marketed as epic fantasy. It is no accident that while the New Weird may have begun when the British literary mainstream (re)discovered the existence of the British science fiction scene, the movement was later re-imagined as a blending of conventional genres by American authors and anthologists who simply could not see beyond the impulse to justify collapsing three very different literary traditions into one enormous market for commercial fantasy.
A similar shift is now underway as the market for epic fantasy is shrinking almost as fast as the markets for young adult and children’s literatures continue to expand. As with the shifts towards literary fiction and epic fantasy, the current rapprochement with YA is driven by a shift in the market that is accompanied by both a re-ordering of aesthetic ideals and changes in the discourse. Just as the New Wave justified itself in terms of the genre naturally becoming more sophisticated, many of today’s authors, critics and anthologists present themselves as inheritors of a future in which science fiction is naturally more inclusive and diverse.
Genre culture likes to think of itself as progressive and so every shift in the market is processed and internalised using rhetoric that champions the new and revolutionary at the expense of the old and reactionary. This dialectic is common to most cultural ecosystems and every time the new wins out over the old, it creates a crisis of legitimacy in which the benefits of the new are weighed against the cost of abandoning the old. Unlike other cultural ecosystems where the old and the new are often presented as antithetical, genre culture has grown quite adept at reconciling the old and the new meaning that the old rhetorics of conceptual novelty and literary sophistication often sit quite comfortably beside the new rhetorics of genre-transgression and diversity, but the fact that these aesthetics are not seen as being in direct conflict does not mean that legitimacy is no longer an issue.
‘Core science fiction’ is a deeply problematic concept as it suggests that some forms of literature are central to science fiction while others are more peripheral. When people point to recent works like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and declare them to be works of ‘core SF’, they are effectively suggesting that works that could have been published thirty years ago under the auspices of science fiction are somehow more legitimate than works like The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, which might not have been identified as SF were it not for a generalised culture of hipness about genre boundaries.
Given genre culture’s fondness for re-inventing itself, I completely understand people who feel that their sub-culture has slipped away from them… As someone who was drawn to literary SF by the short fiction of Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, I’m not sure how this is supposed to translate into a willingness to engage with the aspirational narratives of novels like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor or most of the stuff published under the rubric of Young Adult fiction. I understand the urge to throw up boundaries and explain how ‘that stuff’ is different to ‘this stuff’ but personal preferences are not objective and attempts to bolster your preferences through appeals to legitimacy and purity tap into a set of cultural energies that can turn very ugly very quickly.
Few things take a moral edge better than the rhetoric of aesthetic purity. It doesn’t take much to move from expressing frustration with the current state of your chosen cultural scene to arguing that things used to be objectively better and from there it is nothing but a hop, skip and a jump to the conclusion that the best way to improve things is to purify the scene by kicking out all of the interlopers, carpet-baggers, and wrong-heads. Peruse the proclamations issued by the Hugo ballot-stuffing Sad Puppies and you will see a defensible call to celebrate unfashionable story forms getting lost amidst calls for purification based upon age, race, gender, sexuality, and politics. As with Gamer Gate or any other moral crusade you care to mention, calls for purity inevitably attract people who are more interested in the act of purification than the thing they claim to be purifying and so the crusades stop being about corrupt games journalism or the lack of space opera on the Hugo ballot and transform into something much darker and uglier.
I don’t think that ‘Core SF’ is inherently racist, sexist, or homophobic but using the rhetoric of cultural purity to help sell certain types of book legitimises the use of that rhetoric elsewhere and perpetuates the myth that some voices are superior simply by virtue of having been around for longer. ‘Science fiction’ is a term with no fixed meaning and it will continue to re-invent itself as it always has. Read what you want by all means but tradition and legitimacy are terrible standpoints from which to defend anything, let alone a future-facing literature like science fiction.