Science Fiction Repair Shop: Under the New Sun Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-08-08 14:00:00 No comments

We all know, much to our dismay, the deal about there being nothing truly new. It received its first and most timeless expression in Ecclesiastes, which you ought to be able to quote with your eyes shut: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

The problem is, what classifies as being "new" or "original"? Why do we attach those labels to something in the first place? Especially creative work, which despite the label is more often than not made up of other things?

"Newness" is at least as much a matter of attitude as it is experience. Some of you probably have a book or movie you re-read or re-watch every so often, because there's something new to be found in it each time. That's not just you or the book, but the space between the two. You being in evolution is one thing, but the work itself is also in flux — in big part because of the culture it exists in, and you in that culture as well. (There was a time when Star Wars was something other than "the thing George Lucas ruined".)

The larger culture, with its attendant history, provides a continuity for something. To that end, the most radical form of newness is in breaking from tradition, although that also comes with the risk of being entirely unmoored. The newness of something like Finnegans Wake stemmed from it being as loosely tethered as possible to language as we were accustomed to using it. But that also made it all the less accessible, and it along with Ulysses have allowed too many writers to learn all the wrong sorts of lessons from both books. Since all the old stories have already been told to death, why bother telling a story at all? Why not simply revel in the use of language for its own sake? It was a good idea, but it produced vastly more dross than anything else, and it revolved around the arguably false assumption that every story worth telling had already been told, etc.

The problem of the new is perceptual, not conceptual, and so a lot of what prevents us from seeing the newness in things is how well our viewing equipment is working. It's not that there's nothing new, ever; it's that we're such good pattern-finding machines that we often have no choice but to conclude there's nothing new. We look at the new and are reminded of the old because that's how we understand things in the first place: by looking for the old in the new, by connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar and working from there. A truly new piece of work, one which has absolutely no ties whatsoever to the past, is disorienting because our brains can find no foothold in it.

Some sense of "nothing new" is useful, in the same way that a genre label is useful because it works as a reading instruction. But too much of it becomes suffocating, and leads to a sense of being jaded. If everything is made out of something else, what are those "something else"s made out of? Students of Buddhism like myself may be reminded here of the concept of dependent origination, where no one thing exists as an atom but rather only as an arising from the interaction of various processes. The creation of literature and the history of same could be considered processes to be looked at in that light, and when I do so I see not things repeating themselves but constant acts of fructification. The end product is of course important, because that's the part most anyone else bothers with, but the process has a good deal to say as well.

The newness of something like Star Wars wasn't in the ingredients, certainly, but in the way they were put together into a special whole and channeled through the sensibilities of a particular person (for good or ill). That very act also re-imbued the ingredients with that much more potential newness. If we think of an enemy today as a "Darth Vader clone", where did that come from? The more you dig into any one of the "un-new" elements, the less "un-new" they seem — which says once again how all of this is a product of our vision as observers and appreciators. But all that requires the will, and the insight, to dig in the first place.

Most audiences are not made up of critics, and never will be. But the effects of a little critical seeing can spread through a larger audience — maybe not at once, but over time, and can allow us to see the new in things that might not have been new at first glance.

There are plenty of new things under the sun. Our problem is that we are, by and large, working with viewing equipment that prevents us from seeing them.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop creativity genres writing