Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Has Science Fiction Leaving the Ghetto Meant the Beginning of a Post Sci-Fi Age? Stupid Question #3182

I have always been a Sci-Fi fan, a scifi fan, and a skiffy fan. While there is much to admire in the philosophically or politically sophisticated science fiction story, or the well-written literary SF tale, I have always liked literature that knew what its purpose was and fulfilled that purpose. The purpose of a Sci-Fi story is to entertain an audience with visions of the possible, and impossible, in an exciting and enthusiastic manner.

The Sci-Fi story doesn't spend pages upon pages describing sophisticated political systems, though there is nothing wrong in doing so in other sub-genre of Science Fiction. Instead, the Sci-Fi story uses readily recognizable archetypes as shortcuts for the audience to follow. Sci-Fi is Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Luke Skywalker, Northwest Smith, and Vic Corsaire.

One could probably get into long arguments regarding what is or isn't Sci Fi versus what is or isn't SF (literary Science Fiction), and those are fun discussions to have, but that is not the intention of this post today. Today, I am here to once again lament those who insult and deprecate Sci Fi in favor of a literary sub-genre they believe to be a far more noble pursuit. For these individuals, the ideal Science Fiction tale ought to be literary and "important." The SF story should touch on topical issues and present intelligent arguments about these issues. Such works include, but are by no means limited to, works like Asimov's Foundation, the works of H.G. Wells, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Huxley's Brave New World, and Iain Bank's "Culture" novels. All of which are works to be admired, and are great literature and great Science Fiction, but none of which are the be all and end all of Science Fiction. In fact, many might not stumble into these wonderful stories if they weren't first enticed by the "fluff" contained in "skiffy."

As you can tell, I am an unabashed fan of the "skiffy." My fandom was carved deeper into my soul after I attended a Forrest J. Ackerman panel at the 2005 San Diego Comic Con. There's something about sitting in a room where the audience is fewer than 20 people in the audience of like-minded fans that solidifies one's fandom. It doesn't hurt when one of them is John Landis (sitting right next to you) and he keeps elbowing you just before Forrest Ackerman's punchlines and is mouthing the words to each of Forry's stories. It was obvious that Landis had talked with Forry numerous times and that each time was magical. That kind of excitement is contagious.

All of which brings me to an article by Damien Walter at the Guardian book blog. I first got word of the book blog entry thanks to the excellent folks over at SF Signal, where they asked if the "Sci Fi" label still applied. Their answer is identical to mine, "Yes, the Sci Fi label is still important." But after reading their post, and the piece in the Guardian, I realized that a short rebuttal of Mr. Walter's blog post was insufficient as a response to Mr. Walter's post.

In the Guardian piece, Damien Walter begs the question of whether we as a popular culture are now "post sci-fi." His central thesis seems to be that "with sci-fi filling up every corner of cinema and TV and mainstream literature borrowing its ideas freely" there is no further place for the literary tradition to advance now that it has become a cultural phenomenon. His post is an articulation which might as well be renamed "The End of Sci-Fi and the Last Man."

One of Walter's key arguments is that "the walls of speculative fiction [that dread phrase -- C.L.] as a genre are quickly tumbling down. They are being demolished from within by writers such as China MiƩville and Jon Courtney Grimwood, and scaled from the outside by the likes of Michael Chabon and Lev Grossman. And they are being ignored altogether by a growing number of writers with the ambition to create great fiction, and the vision to draw equally on genre and literary tradition to achieve that goal."

This is all well and good. It is even true as far as it goes, but it demonstrates (as Walter does elsewhere in the piece) a complete lack of understanding regarding the literary history of Fantastic Literature and Fantasy. What were the Iliad and the Odyssey, if not works of Fantasy or "Speculative Fiction?" What was A Midsummer-Night's Dream and The Tempest, if not Fantasy? The Faerie Queene? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Beowulf? The Oresteia? The Eddas? What is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward if not Science Fiction?

All of the above a great literary works, written to be great fiction, and yet all of them fit neatly within any imagined definition of Fantasy or Fantastic Fiction. True, few of them are Science Fiction qua Science Fiction, but SF is the sub-genre not the genre -- a simple fact that Walter gets horribly wrong in his piece. To quote, "yet the literary tradition that has its roots in HG Wells and Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and George MacDonald, that grew through the writing of Tolkien, Lieber, Howard, Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, and branched into the modern genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction, may have reached its fruition."

HG Wells and Jules Verne are the "roots" of the tradition? One might think of them as the branches closest to the trunk of the tree, but the roots? Is Walter serious? All the writers Walter mentioned are influenced by those works of Fantasy that predate them. One might argue that the 20th century was one where the literary world felt compelled to carve unnecessary categories into the literary landscape, categories designed to serve market interests, but one oughtn't think of 19th century writers as the root of a tradition. Don't even get me going on how one would attempt to draw a direct literary line from Wells to Howard.

It is not baffling that Walter piled Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction together, as they are both sub-genres of the Fantastic Tradition. That is true, but so is the work of Michael Chabon. Anyone who thinks Gentlemen of the Road is an attempt to scale the walls of Fantasy genre fiction from the "outside" is woefully mistaken. Gentlemen of the Road is a wonderful story in the direct tradition of Fritz Lieber, with no pretenses to being something else. It should be noted that much of the fiction of Avram Davidson is as worthy of literary consideration as that of Michael Chabon, and was as genre breaking for its day.

Just because Michael Chabon can draw from literary traditions other than the Fantastic Tradition when writing a story isn't a sign that we are in a "post sci-fi" era. It is merely a sign that Fantastic Fiction is ending a period of incestuousness where it fed off of itself for as long as it could. The fact that people are talking about the science fiction, or fantastic, elements of "literary fiction" is a sign that speculative fiction [that dread term again] is overcoming a certain stigma given it by literary critics and by "fans" who deride the fiction within their sub-genre which seeks to appeal to a wider audience.

*3182 is the number of lines in the epic poem Beowulf and his used here because of the muddled way Damien Walter articulates the lineage of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Christian!

Thank you for your extensive response. The Guardian piece was designed to spark some debate, so I'm glad you took the time to make a well considered response.

I'll respond to a few of your points, hopefully we can avoid falling into a dead-end debate on semantics.

My overall goal with the article was to suggest that the era where we as a culture put anything in the fantastic tradition behind a wall of genre...be it Sci-Fi or SF or anything else, seem to be over. The fantastic is once again accepted by mainstream audiences, as it once was.

I would contest that I demonstrated a 'complete lack of understanding regarding the history of Fantastic literature and Fantasy'. I agree, the fantastic has a history that weaves right through human history. The earliest oral storytelling was likely fantastic and mythic in nature. And there has been fantastic literature as long as there has been publishing. I referred to Verne and Wells simply as convenient markers that most of the GU readership would recognise to make it clear that SF had a rich heritage. And because they emerged at the point that the fantastic started to be separated away from the mainstream into a genre, the point that we are now emerging from I believe.

Again, I think we actually agree about a writer like Chabon. When I say he is scaling the genre walls from without, what I mean is that he is classified as a literary author, hence his work is reviewed that way. His genre influnces are clear, as is his respect for genre, but he is attacking the problem of the disrespect for genre by placing himself outside those walls. In contrast to an author like JCG, who is working away at them from within.

I think perhaps you reacted against my post because you interpreted it as an attack on skiffy. I think skiffy is great! and often love reading and watching it. By I do think its valid for writers who are aiming for a different goal than "to entertain an audience with visions of the possible, and impossible, in an exciting and enthusiastic manner" to distinguish what they do from skiffy. SF can do much more than entertain. SF can talk about important ideas, and do it seriously. Thats not to say that is better than entertaining, but it is different.

Again, thanks for your response. Come and let me know your thoughts on the GU blog if you want to continue our discussion.