Putting the life back in science fiction

“…a insightful examination of our current culture.”
September 17, 2015, 8:22 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction | Tags: , ,

I have no literary pretensions, so my favorite book review comes from The Onion’s online book review every Monday. Back on September 7, Kyle Fowle reviewed Salman Rushdie’s venture into fantasy, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights (link to the review). Here’s how the review opens:

“Genre fiction has always been poking around the mainstream, but now more than ever it’s enjoying unprecedented success. Sci-fi and historical fiction, fantasy and bawdy romance, superheroes and dragons, are an integral part of the mainstream media diet, be it in literature, television, or film. Perhaps it’s no surprise that fantasy and sci-fi are enjoying widespread appeal. After all, most can relate to the way those genres explore class division, oppression, economic and moral collapse, and the constant fight between good and evil. Such themes feel particularly relevant and urgent in 2015, and the best fantasy and sci-fi writing isn’t an outlandish exploration of the future or some magical past, but a insightful examination of our current culture.” (emphasis added)

Of course I disagree with that last statement. I’m with Tolkien, in that I’m not terribly interested in writing allegories about the modern age, although I agree that good stories have taken this tack. Perhaps this is an example of someone attempting to turn personal taste into dogma? We can also debate whether LOTR, Harry Potter, ASOIF, Star Wars, or Dune are insightful examinations of the cultures of their times, or just worth consuming on their own terms.

Building on the last blog entry, “White Men in the Jungle, I’d say this perception of what makes quality fiction is another problem with cli-fi. My interest is in exploring what, to me, looks like a very outlandish future, to give people an idea of where we’re headed if we keep blowin’ GHGs and swiggin’ every resource in sight. Cli-fi that’s an “insightful examination of our current culture” is inevitably dystopian, sometimes narcissistically so, all about how we’re screwing up, something that all too often turns into a jeremiad. Indeed, it seems that people expect cli-fi to be about the jeremiad, to explore the ways in which the results of our sins will be visited on our descendants, if not to wallow in it.

But I love real creativity, and I think the most creative solutions happen within harsh limits. For instance, I love traditional Inuit kayaks and Micronesian flying proas, because they’re two examples of incredibly creative people taking almost nothing and making something spectacular out of it. In the case of kayaks, the Inuit took driftwood and seal carcasses and made these beautiful and incredibly maneuverable little boats. The proas are those beautiful outriggers with the asymmetric hulls that were the fastest sailboats in the world into the 19th Century. They were built with driftwood and the things you find on a coral atoll: coconuts (logs and fiber), breadfruit logs, pandanus for the sails, and clamshell adzes, because they didn’t even have stone to shape the wood. And proas sailed rings around European square-riggers when the latter first showed up. To me, these boats represent real creativity, far better than anything I could dream up if I was stranded on an Arctic shore or a Pacific island. In stories, I always love it when the author finds a way to get the protagonists through the impossible limits of a story with grace and creativity, when the book has good characters, good plot, and the literary equivalent of a kayak build as part of the climax.

So with cli-fi, we could make it a dystopian examination of our current culture, and that might be insightful, if a little tedious and self-absorbed. Or, just perhaps, we can look at it as an exploration of those strange worlds on the far side of hell that could just be our deep future.

Do you have any preferences?


4 Comments so far
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I like both. No real preference, though I have a preference for interesting stories over jeremiads. I don’t get a lot of pleasure out of repetition of “You’re doing it wrong”. I already knew that.

Comment by J Thomas

I like both styles as well. As prognostications about the future go, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Windup Girl are lackluster. But they’re both compelling books even if they’re more about the present day than about probable futures.

Stand on Zanzibar is perhaps my favorite book of SF futurology even though we now know the future didn’t turn out the way it envisioned. It’s not just preaching about the time in which it was written. It’s not cheerleading for an apocalypse that’s going to punish us sinners or a technological revolution that will send us to robot heaven. It doesn’t violate known science nor does it just predict “the present goes on forever.” It shouldn’t merit this much praise that a SF book actually works within the limits of science and doesn’t devolve into preaching about the author’s favorite Theory of Everything, but it’s rarer than I would like!

The Culture of Iain M. Banks is my favorite fantasy setting. It has all the trappings of tech-fantasy, like FTL communications and travel, nigh limitless energy, and teleportation. It’s certainly not about the future, because special relativity doesn’t weaken over time. It’s not a straightforward preaching about the present, either. The Culture is radically different from any present or past human society, but familiar enough to make readers of a certain bent (myself included) long for it. I frequently refer to the Culture as “Star Trek done right.”

Star Trek itself is Star Trek done wrong, a reflection of the times that gets worse as it ages. When Star Trek has a philosophical message at all it’s that bland 20th century Amercian liberal-centrism is correct. The wonder technologies that would radically transform society somehow don’t. Neither have ideas and norms changed all that much. You could learn everything really important to Star Trek’s 23rd century politics and philosophy in California high schools circa 1970. I prefer it over outright reactionary fantasies, but that’s not saying a lot.

Stross’s Rule 34 is probably my favorite contemporary hybrid approach novel of SF. It’s a story of artificial intelligence and alien first contact; of course the AI is the alien. The alien mind is truly alien, not just a human wearing a rubber forehead. It’s about the present in that the near future is born out of the present, but it seriously considers technological and social changes and doesn’t just treat them as set decoration.

Comment by Matt

There’s the omnipresent irony that Star Trek is actually a post-apocalyptic universe from the standpoint of in-universe human history (remember their WWIII is a nuclear holocaust?). Everyone seems to forget that, which says something about how we conceive of post-apocalyptic universes.

Otherwise, I agree with what you said. It’s fun to see The Culture labeled as fantasy rather than SF. There’s no reason not to have high tech fantasy, really. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy played with this idea too, although I think he was more influenced by the Orion’s Arm project than by the Culture.

To me, the interesting intermediate between the future as a what-if universe and the future as commentary on our world are the cyberpunks. In the 80s and 90s there was a legitimate push to make their reality exist, but as we’ve found, cyberspace isn’t the way we experience the internet. The data flows don’t lend themselves to visualization, at least in real time, and only the military seems to be cyber anymore. While cyberpunk was explicitly a commentary on 1980s politics, somehow it also turned into a different world that a lot of people thought would be cool to live in. Guess I’m showing my age when I keep wishing for Cyberpunk 2.0, not that it will ever happen. Things like solarpunk really are pale imitations.

Comment by Heteromeles

Have you seen this? http://www.wired.com/2015/06/tech-time-warp-week-cyberpunks-not-dead-fact-living/

“Cyberpunk was supposed to be a warning. Instead, it became an ideal. And now we’re living in it. Welcome to the future.”

You’ve reminded me that I should read The Causal Angel. The Quantum Thief is the sort of jargon-heavy, unmoored-from-science SF that I don’t read a lot of these days, but it was imaginative and fresh enough that I still found it enjoyable. With The Fractal Prince I felt that the tiring technobabble details were still there without it having as many compensatory pleasures.

I thought that The Quantum Thief was brilliant for its introduction of time as the fundamental economic constraint. For all I know that’s been done a dozen times before and I’m late to the party, but it was a revelation for me. Even in a quasi-post-scarcity environment you can’t manufacture more time. If the future has lots of smart machine labor and no fossil fuels then time might be the primary way of assigning costs. You can pay to circumnavigate the globe either with energy dense fuel or with time. Making fuel has its own time costs, of course. A ton of aluminum will cost you a month if you wait for the commune’s own metals grove to grow the ingots, or you can have it in two hours if you trade 4 tons of anhydrous ammonia with the group across the bay…

I’ve enjoyed out-and-out myths-and-magic fantasy authors too: in recent years Catherynne M. Valente, John Crowley, Susanna Clarke, and Lev Grossman. Also Stross’s Laundry Files, come to think of it. I think that Grossman and Stross are of the times if not completely about them. Their urban fantasy settings have telltale modern trappings like mobile phones. The fantasies of Valente, Crowley, and Clarke have many fewer cues. Give me their novels, anonymized, and I’d have a hard time saying which decade they were written in.

Comment by Matt

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