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Future Interrupted — The Consequences of the Present

August 29, 2017

Interzone #271 has been a thing in the world for a little while now. Anyone with an interest in getting hold of it can do so via the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

This month’s stories are a typically intriguing bunch:

 

  • “The Rocket Farmer” by Julie C. Day
  • “Gods in the Blood (of Those Who Rise)” by Tim Casson
  • “If your Powers Fail you in a City Under Tin” by Michael Reid
  • “Chubba Luna” by Eliot Fintushel
  • “When I Close my Eyes” by Chris Barnham
  • “Cryptic Female Choice” by Andy Dudak

 

As ever, the non-fiction is superb… Nina Allan writes about J. Robert Lennon’s art house thriller Broken River and considers the state of the ‘conversation’ in genre culture. Nina quotes part of a conversation I had with her and my fellow Shadow Clarke jurors in which I (predictably) point out that genre books inevitably improve the second they are published by anyone but a genre publisher and after failing to write about most of this year’s Clarke award shortlist, I absolutely stand by that assertion. In fact, this issue also includes an excellent review and interview with Allan by Maureen Kincaid Speller that contains an observation that perfectly articulates what I value not just in SF but in all art and culture:

 

“I love work that shimmers with a sense of the numinous, work that has something to say about the landscape and the time in which it was written. Above all, I admire deeply personal work that doesn’t give much of a toss about fashionable trends, and thus illuminates all the more brightly our sense of where we are as individuals, and as a species.”

 

Which is a great point at which to move onto this month’s reprint. The column was written last year not long after the American election and is a look at what I still consider to be one of the best science fiction novels published in 2016. The novel in question is Carl Neville’s Resolution Way from Repeater Books.

 

***

 

RW

 

On Tuesday 8th of November 2016, Hilary Clinton failed to beat Donald Trump in the presidential election. As news of Trump’s victory spread fear around the globe, people everywhere looked to the future and asked a question that lies at the heart of all great science fiction: What Next?

Literary science fiction’s reluctance to answer this question is a result of its economic history. When the pulp magazine market began to collapse in the 1950s, genre fiction ended its strategic alliance with popular science. Faced with economic ruin, genre editors and writers began to shift the field’s economic heartlands away from factual content and towards literary fiction. Building on ground broken during Cele Goldsmith’s tenure at Amazing Stories, Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds stressed the literary nature of contemporary genre writing while people like Judith Merril and Harlan Ellison shouted themselves hoarse confronting the entrenched assumptions of the American genre marketplace.

Nowhere is the call for economic reconfiguration more obvious than in J.G. Ballard’s famous essay “Which Way to Inner Space?” First published as an editorial in New Worlds, Ballard calls for science fiction writers to stop producing space exploration stories and begin producing stories that use genre tropes to explore the workings of the human mind. One interesting thing about this oft-cited essay is that Ballard bases his call for aesthetic renewal on economic factors; according to Ballard, America’s real-world space programme was proving to be so apocalyptically tedious that it was going to destroy the market for stories about spaceships. Another interesting thing about this oft-cited essay is that Ballard’s analysis was completely without foundation. Ten years after Ballard wrote the essay, Star Wars turned escapist rocket ship stories into a cultural phenomenon while the New Wave broke and Feminist SF wound up seeking refuge behind the walls of academia.

Genre publishing has spent the last forty years accelerating away from anything that might be described as realism. When the rise of big-budget science fiction movies undermined the market for escapist science fiction stories, genre publishers turned to epic fantasy. When technology finally caught up and multinational corporations started putting huge fantasy worlds both online and onscreen, the market for epic fantasy contracted and so genre publishers shuffled closer to YA but Young Adult fiction already had its own imprints and so we are left with a hollowed-out literary culture where everything looks and reads like epic fantasy and nobody is allowed to find their own voice.

 

NB

 

Given the extent of the commercial and cultural decline experienced by literary SF since genre publishers bet the farm on escapism, I wonder whether it might not be worth thinking about returning to the future. Not a future in which space admirals unleash righteous slaughter or grizzled psychopaths confront puissant magics in post-apocalyptic landscapes but a future in which we are confronted with the consequences of the present.

A recent example of how to approach the near-future is Carl Neville’s debut novel Resolution Way. Resolution Way is set in a Britain that has been pulverised by wave after wave of punitive austerity. The book begins by introducing us to an ambitious middle-class journalist who stumbles across a beautifully-written piece by an author who disappeared before he was able to get any of his work published. Fuelled by a lethal cocktail of smart drugs and entitlement, the journalist uses social media to piece together the author’s social networks and sets about badgering his surviving friends into handing over what is left of his literary estate. Right from the start, the journalist comes across as a duplicitous predator who wants nothing more than to pass the abandoned work off as his own but before we can settle into a nice comfortable hate-read, Neville switches viewpoints.

Much like Lavie Tidhar’s superlative Central Station, Neville’s book is less a conventional novel than a series of interlinking short-stories designed to show us a particular time and place from a variety of different perspectives. The journalist character provides us with a path into the Britain of tomorrow but most of the book’s speculative heavy-lifting is done in images taken from the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to get by. Having begun the novel from the perspective of the ‘haves’, Neville proceeds to shuffle us back and forth between the perspectives of different ‘have-nots’ including single mothers who are hounded by loan shark-like council officers, aspiring musicians who are forced into indentured servitude when they fail to pay back their student loans, and local shopkeepers who are trapped on abandoned high streets by negative equity mortgages. Each of these futures is rendered in an affectless and under-punctuated prose that perfectly conveys Neville’s vision of a socially and economically desolate future. The lives of the characters intersect at acute angles but so do the oppression and exploitation that is forced upon them by the system.

One of the really remarkable things about Resolution Way is the way that it shows the systemic nature of capitalist oppression. Neville crawls inside each character’s skin and unveils the source of their pain and misery but every time we think the source of the oppression can be traced to a particular agency or person, Neville catapults us into the mind of that potential oppressor and forces us to empathise. In one vignette, we are asked to understand a council worker who smashes families and hurls people into prison because the only other option would be to lose their job and risk it being taken by someone who actually enjoys the power. In another scene, we are confronted by people working for a private letting company tasked with turning run-down Victorian seaside towns into venues for expensive steampunk-themed staycations. They understand that jacking up rents and forcing poor people out of town centres only serves to create social and economic problems but nobody cares and nobody listens.

Another remarkable thing about this novel is the way that Neville pushes the limits of empathy beyond those who are merely complicit in the exploitation of others. Having ignored the ambitious journalist for over a hundred pages, the book deposits us in the life of his equally ambitious middle-class wife. The journalist’s wife paints a picture of a man who invested all of his being into the dream of becoming a successful novelist; well-schooled, well-connected, and well-disciplined, the man did everything that society asks of its cultural entrepreneurs only for his dreams to be smashed by accusations of plagiarism. Like many middle-class people, the journalist followed the rules and sacrificed his humanity but still this was not enough to save him from a system that treats everyone like fodder. Even the billionaire funding the journalist’s quest turns out to be trapped on a treadmill, forced to run ever-faster lest he fall off the back and wind up being sucked down into penury. Some may benefit more from the system than others but its grinding inhumanity ultimately consumes us all.

 

CR

 

Neville’s vision of the future owes an acknowledged debt to that elaborated in Mark Fischer’s superb essay Capitalist Realism: Tomorrow’s Britain does not so much produce new things as slowly dismember and digest the remnants of the past as tycoons compete for ownership of teenaged mix-tapes and unpublished novels using money made from turning the welfare state into a torture chamber.

For decades now, science fiction has devoted itself to the task of providing people with a means of escape from their day-to-day lives. Fictional universes built in accordance with transparent moral imperatives and simple narrative logics might have turned some writers into household names but the genre as a whole is less wealthy and less visible than ever before. It is time for a change of direction… rather than helping us to escape the world, science fiction should start preparing us for whatever is coming next. Someone needs to.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2017 1:59 pm

    I freely admit to have only half digested this essay, but some immediate questions occur to me.

    Ballard’s essay “Which Way to Inner Space?” was published in 1962 and it feels as though dozens of other writers have articulated some desire for science fiction to posses more mimetic qualities in the fifty something years since, but what will it take for this impulse to become the mainstream? Will this always be an underground current within SF? What will it take for things to change?

    Like

  2. August 30, 2017 5:05 pm

    My first instinct is usually to follow the money…

    The rapprochement with mainstream lit that was the New Wave was a product of old pulp markets collapsing and writers trying to get their stuff published in other markets.

    At the moment, genre publishing is going through a conservative phase. While a laudable and necessary attempt has been made to broaden the demographics of genre, genre publishing has simultaneously lost interest in the kinds of edgy, different, and technically ambitious works that used to be the bread-and-butter of publishers like Gollancz.

    I think there was a moment (the Mieville moment to be precise) when the boundaries dropped and the institutions of mainstream literary culture took an interest in genre output but genre publishing struggled to make the most of it and now (as the reaction to the Shadow Clarke suggested) there’s *real* hostility to any suggestion that science fiction could be more aesthetically ambitious than it currently is at novel length.

    I think interesting novels are being published, just not by genre publishing. Which is where following the money stops being useful…

    There are interesting SF novels being published by mainstream publishers and small imprints. Fact. The question isn’t so much why these books aren’t being discussed as why they aren’t being discussed in places that are visibile to us and at that point we’re talking about why genre culture is the way it is and whether it’s worth trying to either change it or create a spin-off conversation.

    My instinct is to try and create a spin-off conversation and that’s what I had in my head when I decided to take part in the Shadow Clarke process but it’s really difficult to sustain the motivation to create a new conversation when you’re beset with negativity from the original conversation.

    So I don’t know really…

    Like

  3. Mark Pontin permalink
    August 31, 2017 3:35 am

    ‘it’s really difficult to sustain the motivation to create a new conversation when you’re beset with negativity from the original conversation.’

    Heh. Do elaborate.

    I mean, I absolutely agree with you about genre publishing. I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and the relatively interesting books that sometimes got published — Delany’s TRITON & DHALGREN, Budrys’s MICHAELMAS, Russ’s THE FEMALE MAN, Ian Watson’s THE EMBEDDING, for a few instances — before the movie STAR WARS hit in 1977 like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

    It was right after that Judy and Lester Del Rey began publishing about fifty STAR WARS tie-in novels a year alongside various derivatives of Tolkienesque high fantasy, as if they were consciously trying to flood the market with crap and thereby create a Gresham’s Law dynamic that would suffocate any possibility of intelligent SF getting published. I’ve sometimes speculated that in fact the CIA secretly sponsored Del Rey Books — as they did the PARIS REVIEW and Abstract Expressionism — to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more of those subversive little SF books like those commies Pohl and Kornbluth wrote in the 1950s.

    It was after STAR WARS and Del Rey’s surge that the marching morons of fandom arrived. Someone invited me one time to one big do where Harlan Ellison was jumping up and down on a stage, exhibiting full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, and the idiots were lapping it up. I left and out in the parking lot I saw a bumper sticker that said ‘I brake for unicorns.’ I’ve made a point of never being around fans and genre culture since: it’s been much better that way.

    dynamic

    Like

  4. September 1, 2017 6:26 am

    I don’t think Russ, Delany, and Watson would get beyond the slush pile with today’s genre publishing. Their early novels might well land them an agent but said agent woukd immediately talk them into producing standard space opera or hooded man fat fantasy.

    Del Rey is definitely an important figure in the cultural shift that took SF away from the mainstream but I think there have been several cultural re-orderings since and each one has served to furthe undermined those values and force out those people.

    I 100% share your horror at the idea of watching Harlan Ellison though. I remember a few years back there was a recording circulated of him doing a but at that year’s Worldcon and it was just an hour’s worth of unfunny nasal shouting. With regards to fandom, I think I related to a corner of fandom that was already dead by the time I got to it… I can totally see myself lapping up the fiction and conversation surrounding New Worlds but there’s nothing for me in the Tors and io9s of today.

    Like

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