Monday, August 20, 2007

Nature vs. Culture

It strikes me that one of the many reasons that science fiction is not, as a genre, booming with good and original works that are of memorable excellence at the moment might be that our assumptions about people have matured.

The wonderful and caustic Thomas Disch writes interestingly about the immaturity of science fiction-- not only audiences, but themes. Well, I know I read more of it when I was a teen, although arguably that was because I still had all the great classics before me... and I know there is a lot of SF that I find laughable, even endearingly embarrassing, now. Like a high school photo. It's true: late Heinlein's post-sexual-revolution fantasias, Dick's paranoid Freudianism, and even Herbert's grotesque wish-fulfillment rise-to-power narratives are juvenile in their essentials.

Any of the glorious war-vs.-the-aliens books, well, glorify war... you will note that our volunteer military pitches its glorifications to youthful potential recruits. Only in SF, the sinister alienness, the us-or-them dimensions of a war, are far more incontrovertible and indisputable than in the messy single planet upon which we find ourselves, where our enemies are potentially brothers. It is a clean universe of glory in a Manichean opposition of light vs. dark (sometimes literally... yes, I'm looking at you, Star Wars.)

It strikes me that the over-and-doneness I ascribe to the nature vs. culture debate in the preceding post (where I followed that up with a long rant about culture... I suppose I should have clarified first) may affect how we create and receive sf.

If nature is anthropogenic, which is a (much more current) viewpoint I will support and defend, prying apart nature and culture is impossible. And that makes it difficult to have absolutes, particularly absolute human or inhuman nature, without involving religion.* Absolute evil must be mystic, not biological; aliens become sympathetic; our nice neat Manichean black and white goes away and we are left with messy, depressing warfare.

Is the slow, ongoing fall of sf a result of battle fatigue, shame and guilt, and a feeling that instead of a hundred page book of how to whoop 'em, we should be reading a six hundred page history of negotiations? Could it be that there IS a sphere of resistance to the sound-byting that has fragmented and polarized our nightly news?

Dunno. I got up early, what can I say?

(*I'm going to say that if you write a story about an alien who is raised by loving humans in every kindness, he will be -- MUST BE -- human; I don't think I can say the same of a story about a hand-raised demon. See where I'm going with "religion" here?)


Robert Link said...


I just plain have trouble keeping up with you. That's a complement.

I've only skimmed and feel guilty, but if I get the gist of this post then I gotta say I don't know that I accept the premises fully. Is there an authoritative history of speculative fiction to which you can point, one you accept?

In some ways SF is more alive than ever, hell, we've got our own channel. In other ways it's less relevant than ever. Where once we might have liked to believe we had sufficiently conquered Earth such that we should worry about the stars, well, the folks literate enough to write interesting fiction of any genre are pretty well past that illusion. As the drive of science becomes informational and communicative, the fiction related thereto becomes social. Which means it becomes less recognizably alien, more about how we're coping in this increasingly alien world of our own.

Or so it seems to me...

Ducks said...

Excellent point, Robert-- you're right, as the genre evolves it may improve in many key ways.

Agreed also about its currency as a form of entertainment. I can only accept "sf is dead" arguments with a grain of salt, but I do point to Thomas Disch's excellent On SF as a pretty good history on the genre. No, its roots do not extend far enough back, but it is pretty compelling as a read even if it is not such as an accurate history.

However... a lot has changed about it. It is a disappointing reality that I can publish SF short stories and get paid (if I am lucky) $.005/word OR I can publish pr0n short stories and get $.05/word or better. Think on that. (I do understand that this is a different valence indeed for "mature audiences!")

I do find Disch compelling, and his arguments persuasive, but as with all literary critics, he makes me twitch when he gets too sweeping with his generalizations. So here I go, doing the same. =)

Point me at a strong and thriving SF community post-cyberpunk and I will be very happy indeed to be wrong. There are outliers-- my beloved Joe Haldeman keeps writing, and my beloved but angry-making David Gerrold keeps NOT writing... but do we have giants?

Thank you for the compliment... I'm all warm and tingly.

P.S. My brother Robert tells me that I missed "Hellboy." Yah, yah... so a domesticated demon can happen in fiction. But I would like to think that a domesticated alien is necessarily human; of demons, I say "not necessarily." This is purely flippant arabesques and froth from me... please, if you are inspired to write "My Human Demon," do so!

Ducks said...

I should point out that this conversation flourished beyond this blog... go look at Robert Link's blog to get a gander at it.

I wonder if maybe Robert and I mean something different by "decline of sf?" I can consider something terrible and love it; consider an art form dead and produce works in it; take note of a decline while agitating for change; be a connosieur of geeking it up in the lowest of lowbrow culture. In this case, when I say "decline," I mean an intersection of things... lousy economic returns to the point where it has become a labor of love to WRITE sf (yes, VISUAL sf has taken off, although arguably it's the same as ever... nothing had its own channel when sf began to flourish; now EVERYTHING does, including sf), generation of muddied and diffident "near" futures without grandiose vision (though they may be grand visions), and a complete fall off of other-than-niche consumption (arguable). I'm sure I have other stuff lurking in my background, but ... well, although I may state that it's a declining art, I have to say that rumors of its DEATH have been greatly exaggerated. Hopefully I am not heralding the End... just the Long Road Toward The End.

All his stirring examples are fine old vintage sf, but he's the defender of current-day sf...

Ducks said...

Haha... the end of that comment was what happens when what I'm saying changes while I'm saying it and I have pushed forward a sentence to address later.

I think Robert may be addressing republishing, circulation post-publication (used books, etc.), references, other media (films etc.) when he argues for its viability and what it does to his headspace. His examples are vintage and are very grand; he is arguing for the new works of today. Perhaps I'm conflating things... I think that's where I was going with that weird off-target sentence last comment, though, and my apologies.

It was not meant to read "neener neener!" or "and then a monkey!"

Robert Link said...

Sorry not to get back here sooner. Some days I'm not so happy with this distributed asynchronous set of tools loosely known as "the net". Feh.

Anyway, I think another part of the change in sf has to do with post-industrialism. Old sf, "new life and new civilization" was of greater interest to folks who could be sold a political campaign titled "New Frontier". We're no longer quite so interested in pushing our geographical boundaries and indeed that metaphor has lost a lot of power in the collective unconscious. What we do have is a) infoglut undreamed of by most of us even 10 years ago and b) here in America status as the new Rome. Smart folks are gonna wanna write stories about that; what the world looks like after the empire collapses and how we learn, change, "evolve" (yech; oughtta be a law against using that word without a license) to cope with too effin' much data.

Or so it seems to me.

Ducks said...

Very compelling and attractive take on it, Robert-- I think you are really onto something there. It's more difficult to examine within than without... perhaps that's crucial to the level at which we find it compelling. Chocolatiers don't eat chocolate; when I use a computer at work all day I am less likely to use my home computer for recreation; I don't balance my checkbook for fun... necessity erodes our interest in something, perhaps?

When the topic at hand is the future, yes, those parts of the constellation align. Perhaps that's why fantasy has soured on me... it tastes of bullshit in this day and age (or in my old age).

Robert Link said...

Don't balance your checkbook for fun? What's wrong with you!!! ;)

Ducks said...

Augh. Helping clients with payroll audit disputes for workers' compensation today... I don't get it! :) I'd balance my checkbook for fun if this were the only alternative...