More on why and how SF bottles itself in, unthinkingly.
A while back I came to the conclusion that the biggest reason SF is more or less off in its own ghetto of readers and producers is the same reason modern literary fiction has ended up in a similar cul-de-sac. The people responsible for it make you work so hard to be part of the club and to so little effect -- albeit in different ways -- that it's no wonder most people just give up and reach for the Dan Brown and the E.L. James. Readers have better things to do with their time than beat their heads against walls erected by the self-important. The hard part is not identifying this problem; it's doing something about it.
The only real answer may be in the form of individual pieces of work that strive as much as they can to not embody all the most overarching failures of their respective genres. I'm turned off by a lot of modern SF not because it's not SF (or even because it's SF) but because it's being written more and more in a self-sustaining vacuum. When it takes ideas from other literary paths, they're mostly stylistic rather than spiritual. Earlier SF is far more an influence on current SF than, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Accidental Tourist are (that last book garnering my vote for the most unpretentiously successful work of literary fiction from that decade). The field is starving itself to death, but no one seems to be particularly worked up about it -- or, rather, most of the responses to such a state of affairs involve borrowing all the wrong things from all the wrong places and calling that "innovation".
On the bad rep of SF&F fans.
I keep running into the sense that many people outside of SF&F just find the whole thing fundamentally silly.
I suspect that's because they are so used to it being associated with either the types of stories that are nothing but juvenile wish-fulfillment (Renata Adler said much the same thing about 2001) -- or, maybe more importantly, where the audiences for such material themselves exude an attitude of juvenile wish-fulfillment. I suspect it's the latter: they wouldn't be caught dead with the rest of those ... nerds.
More about escapism.
My post about Jeannette Walls the other day came back to mind. She does have a point, albeit a clumsily-expressed one. The problem with escapism is not that it's escapism, but that running away from the world you're in gives you that much less to actually talk about.
My Muse Hack¹ cohort Scott Delahunt posted over at his site about his character creation process, so I thought I'd use that as the excuse I needed to say a few things in that vein. When I was a kid,...
When I was a kid, I hijacked the Art through the Ages textbook that my mother had used in college and used it to play a game akin to an inkblot-reading test. Not knowing the contexts for many of the paintings (or simply not caring about them), I'd look at the pictures and ask myself: what's going on here? Who are these people and what do they want? How do they see the world? It was hard not to look at some of them and hear how they might speak, or imagine how they might walk across a room, or speculate on how they dealt with a given problem.
The most fantastic things work best when they are rooted in the most familiar.
[Man of Steel screenwriter Goyer:] The first scene I wrote was the scene in which Jor-El and Lara give up baby Kal. And I said, "Alright, I'm going to write it initially as if they're not on Krypton. I'm going to write it generically as two parents that have to give away their son. The kid could be saved from the concentration camps... whatever." I just wrote it like that. And from the emotion of "What would it be like to give birth to your son, and then half an hour later have to put him in a pod and hope that he won't get killed?" I wrote that scene, and it felt emotionally right to me. And from that point onward, anytime I was writing something that was heavy science-fiction or involved crazy superpowers, I would write the scene as if Krypton didn't exist first, and then I would go back in and add the science-fiction stuff. That was the way that I found that I could make it make sense and relatable, I guess.
Goyer's work for that scene comes through most clearly in the moment where Jor-El and Lara lament that they will never hear their son speak their names, that they will never see him taking his first steps. It works; it's one of the best little moments in a film where the little moments do more than the big ones -- to the point where when the movie tries to scale up, it almost loses its footing. But that's another criticism for another day.
On the canard of "Reality is just so interesting, why would you want to escape it?"
I’m not a huge fan of experimental fiction, fantasy or so-called escapist literature. Reality is just so interesting, why would you want to escape it?
I have a hard time not seeing this as a way to completely miss the point. At its best, SF&F is not about escaping from what exists, but about transmuting what exists -- allowing ourselves to see things in a new way. Reality is fascinating, but it's also only reality. The two are not zero-sum.
If other authors of straight fiction have this attitude as well -- and I have good reason to believe it's prevalent -- that goes a long way towards explaining why most attempts by litfic to borrow SF tropes and trappings fall so flat.
And some SF&F authors have the same problem, just in reverse. They see reality as being so boring that it's not worth doing anything with except escaping from. Small wonder SF&F and litfic don't think they have anything to teach each other.
Godhood without humanity: the gains hardly seem worth the degeneracy.
The transhuman desire for transcendence as a way to get away really misses what humanity is about. It’s a desire to cut ourselves off, to wrap ourselves in pleasure, to get distance, to “win.” It just makes us less human. It’s not transhumanism – it’s inhumanism.
Among the books that I have been meaning to write about for ages, and never managed to do so because I was intimidated by the prospect of having to say something coherent about it, is Barrows Dunham's Man Against Myth. I've mentioned it in passing before -- it's the work of a man who had just seen the United States and its allies emerge from WWII with both blood and dust on their hands, and was worried that a number of social myths that had been prevalent before and during the war would continue to lead men astray long after it. Among those myths: "That There Are Superior And Inferior Races", "That the Rich Are Fit And The Poor Unfit", "That You Can't Change Human Nature", "That You Have To Look Out For Yourself" -- does any of this sound familiar? (The last is particularly haunting and relevant right now: "That You Cannot Be [both] Free And Safe".)
Whenever I hear some new creed that purports to be new and courageous simply repeating the fallacies of the past, I suspect the one who devised it hasn't done his homework.
"I want to live forever." Yes, but which I?
A transhumanist should ask ‘What is this “me” that I’m trying to preserve and enhance? What is the point of what I’m doing? Who am I doing this for?’ The ultimate question of Transhumanism is one of identity.
The title I slapped on this is of course a callback to the magnificent David Gerrold, and the whole question of "Which 'I' am I?" is one that wove itself through most any book I found myself picking up, from Zamyatin's WE (the source of those very words, in fact) to most anything Phil Dick sneezed in the direction of.
The real issue for me here is how transhumanism too often boils down to leaving the rest of the human race behind -- that it is not about a rising tide that lifts all boats, but rather getting there firstest with the mostest, and about having yet another excuse to coddle and sanctify one's own ego above all else.
Art's not about what's sold (again).
Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong were not the first folks to point out that Adam Smith's notions of the "invisible hand" have been misquoted and used drastically out of context. Smith was making an argument against the idea that you can, in DeLong's words, "make your country wealthier by imposing tariffs and other restrictions on imports". Not, as so commonly claimed, that the market as a whole is a rational actor, because it's plain it isn't -- and neither are the individuals who participate in it. If it were all so rational, then finance would be more akin to a well-suppported computer program that only occasionally hiccups, and not the rollercoaster of risk- and profit-taking we're all too familiar with.
Given that the "invisible hand" doesn't exist in the form we think it does, why then do we put such faith in the market as an arbiter of the value of creative work? Because it's easier to do that then to assess such value for ourselves. A number means one less thing to think about.
More on imagination not just being about making stuff up.
From the comments to Science Fiction Repair Shop: Not A Soul In Sight Dept. (Genji Press)
... many magical worlds do use magic as a form of technology, and much as it suffuses our lives and our lingo, it should suffuse theirs. To leave things to just be "as is" really misses the point of writing and exploring.
This goes right back into much of SF&F being rooted in escapism rather than transcendence. Most SF&F is not written as a way to look at a counterfactual future or past as a way of imagining new aspects of the present (and future, and maybe also re-assessing the past). It's written, like most fiction, as a way to merely appeal to someone's sense of novelty. A new system of magic or a clever justification for faster-than-light travel is not why I read a book, but if the set point for people's expectations is low enough to begin with, it can become that way.
Some SF books I'd love to see filmed, even if I know the odds are slender.
It's been a while since I did a piece of this ilk: a rundown of some SF books that haven't been filmed, and that aren't likely candidates for same, but which I would love to see nevertheless.
This page contains an archive of posts in the category Science Fiction Repair Shop for the month of June 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind