Science Fiction Repair Shop: Getting It From Somewhere Else

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-03-05 12:00:00 No comments

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Apropos of totally nothing, I started re-reading William Gibson's Neuromancer — although at this rate it might as well be a first read, since the last time I read it was ... cripes, before I got married, I think. Even though some of the tech details here and there have aged, the flavor of the whole, the spirit of it, really hasn't aged much. What's a lot clearer to me now than before is the debut Gibson owed to noir, in big part because around the first time I read it I had encountered very little noir fiction, and so had little way to make the comparison. Neuromancer was far from the first time someone thought to juggle together noir and SF, but I think it was the first time someone found the parts of each that complemented the other so well: the cynicism and the moon-eyed romanticism both, just for different things.

New influences keep every kind of art healthy, including and especially popular arts. Every time we take two things that should not normally have anything to do with each other and ask ourselves, where do these things share a common concern?, we come away enriched. Sometimes all it takes is just believing in the nascent power of a potentially shopworn type of story (as Unforgiven did with the Western). But a lot of the time it's about being fearless. Ghostbusters fused two things that normally have the worst time coexisting, horror and comedy. The fusion worked because the characters themselves were using the latter attitude as a way to survive their experiences with the former.

When SF was primarily of the shelf-chinned, stout-chested John W. Campbell variety, it deprived itself of all manner of things that could have enriched it tremendously. Eventually, those other influences found their way in, sometimes at the cost of a career or two. Barry N. Malzberg gave up on SF entirely when he realized the kind of stuff he most wanted to write and most wanted to have the name SF was simply not the kind of stuff the editors and publishers and marketing machines wanted to deal with. But before that happened, he wrote more than a few things that showed people what other kinds of influences could be brought in and made part of the family. (He's only one of many possible examples.)

What those influences are goes beyond simple labels, too. Tenet was ostensible a fusion of spy thriller and SF, but even "spy thriller" is too open-ended a description. What kind of spy thriller? James Bond isn't the only flavor in that box. Graham Greene, John le Carré, The Falcon And The Snowman, Julius and Ethel? Each one of those things could bring something separate and teachable to the table if they were fused with SF, because none of them can really be confused with each other even if they share a superficial container. Same with noir: which noir? Georges Simenon, Dashiell Hammett, Sebastian Japrisot, Patricia Highsmith? This isn't to say that those particular authors should have their example followed slavishly, only that their distinct qualities are worth seeing in fusion with other things.

Many younger creators I follow have been raised on manga and anime. From it they are not pulling things about Japanese culture as such, but new modes of storytelling: comfort fiction, I guess you could call it, where plotting takes a backseat to establishing a mood of serenity and wholeness. Goals become less important than voyages; arcs of story give way to mosaics of experience. This is as legitimate an influence as any, and I think we have only started to explore what is possible with it if only because we have too many years of unquestioned assumptions about storytelling getting in the way.

Sometimes I think the more outlandish the crossover, the greater the possible success. What would we get if we fused SF&F with things that stand nowhere near it at all? Lester Bangs's Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung? Capote's In Cold Blood? Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"? (That last hews towards fantasy of a sort, but not the kind most of us here think of.) Notice how many non-fiction titles I nodded towards in that last batch. Jorge Luis Borges and Stanisław Lem come to mind, as they did such things in their own fiction, but I think there's room for even further expansion and assimilation than what was practiced by either of those two.

What we need is the willingness to be fearless with what we hybridize, and with that the equally stout-hearted conviction that our hybrids can and should be things people will enjoy reading. They shouldn't be things that we use to drag people closer to the likes of Borges or Lem (let them be discovered on their own terms or not at all, I say). They should be their own kind of fun, and I think we are now in better cultural shape than we have ever been to make those kinds of things and get them in front of people who care about them.

Tags: Neuromancer Science Fiction Repair Shop William Gibson influences science fiction