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Posts Tagged ‘speculative fiction’

IMG_2819I was just looking through Gardner Dozois’ Best New Science Fiction 31st Edition (published in the UK as The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 27th Edition) and nearly fell off my chair when I noticed that my story Automatic Diamanté had got an honourable mention. I’d had no idea that it had snuck into the book at all. There the title was nestling between works by Charlie Stross, Rachael Swirsky, Lavie Tidhar and Adrian Tchaikovsky. All I have to do now is make it into the actual table of contents.IMG_2820

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It’s commonplace for evaluations of the speculative fiction canon to hinge upon the predictive accuracy of its texts. You know the sort of thing: Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite, Jules Verne described the moon landings in meticulous detail and Philip K. Dick predicted which aerosols you could extract cocaine from after a three day DMT binge at a shopping mall.

This is a shame as it’s not only often the least interesting aspect of the writers in question, but also the reductive implication that when a work’s predictions are wildly wrong or anachronistic then the text is somehow devalued.

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Image courtesy of Zoe Harley

This is clearly bunkum. Huxley’s Brave New World isn’t any the less valuable because it imagines a world where people whip back and forth from one orgy to the next in helicopters. (A vision of the future which only really accurately predicts the lifestyle of Jay Kay from Jamiroquai).

Instead of telling us what our smart phones will be doing next week or how we’ll update our Facebook status by arching our eyebrows (or the mileage that Jay Kay will get on his jet copter) it seems to me that the most interesting aspect of the genre is the way that it can give us an intimate and subversive sense of what the future might feel like.

This subversive streak runs thick in speculative fiction and I suspect it is caused by the interaction of two things:

  1. What the cultural theorist Raymond Williams calls structures of feeling.

    “[these are] meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt … characteristic elements of impulse and restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships” (p132).

    So, rather than historical or technological proxies for a given age (e.g. steam-trains and Victorian England), structures of feeling enable us to imagine what it might feel like to be alive in a particular milieu at a given historical (or imagined) moment.

  2. The fact that speculative fiction is not an entirely respectable literary tradition.

For his part, Williams shows how different structures of feeling give rise to three different components of culture which he calls the residual, the dominant and the emergent. While the residual refers to those aspects of contemporary culture that originate in the past and the dominant provides a framework for the lived experience of the majority (what cultural conservatives might refer to as “what is normal or natural”), the emergent is where, “new meanings and values, new relationships and kinds of relationship” (p123) develop.

And here we come to the crux of the matter: far from predicting technological advances surely what the best speculative fiction actually does is articulate, inform and incorporate these new structures of feeling into art and entertainment. Indeed, the reason it can do this so readily is precisely because it sits far from the disapproving eye of “respectable” literature in the bug powder dust party of the emergent.

At its best then, speculative fiction isn’t just about ray guns or steam-powered blimps or spaceships (although these are all well and good): it’s about how automated birthing might change how we value human life, wondering what it might feel like to be gendered for only part of an earth-year or how being practically immortal might alter our psychology and sexuality.

It invites us to imagine worlds where notions of humanity and its attendant cultures are very different from our own and then try them on for size. The fact that dear old Arthur C. came up with space elevator really is the least of it.

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I used to love space-opera. As an Earthlet I grew up reading Clarke’s Rama, Asimov’s Foundation, Heinlein’s bugs, A.E. Van Voight’s icky inspiration for Dan O’Bannon’s Alien and Blish’s Spin-Dizzies. As I got older though, I got more interested in Burroughs and Borges and Vonnegut and drifted away from the spaceships ‘n’ aliens end of speculative fiction. This might have had something to do with the fact that the girls I liked all liked Burroughs and Borges and Vonnegut, but there you go. Superficial me.

Recently though, I dipped my toe back in the water to see if there were still thrills to be had in the veritable old genre. I don’t know if I’m just getting cynical and jaded (actually, I know I’m getting cynical and jaded, so no comment necessary there), but I’m sad to report that what I read suggested the genre might have become something of a prisoner of its conventions.

Firstly, a word about setting. I don’t know if this is perhaps a manifestation of our perceived contemporary economic and cultural uniformity, but much of what I’ve recently read seems to treat the universe as one huge mall in a, “humanity reaches for the stars and builds a Starbucks on every bleeding planet it arrives at” kinda way.

This is only exacerbated by another problem that afflicts some space opera: world-building Tourettes. I don’t really need to know the exact nature of the concrete used to build a space-bridge nor how the protagonist’s galacto-socks are held up, unless, of course, the story is about how her galacto-socks came up with a really neato new formula for the concrete of said space-bridges.

A more troubling observation is the that women in many of these stories still seem to tend towards the whore-bitch-mother stereotype (or that late 20th century addition to the canon: “action-man-wearing-a-bra”). Even in the more enlightened books where your gutsy pistol-totting heroine doesn’t sport a figure-hugging jumpsuit and a pair of intergalactic chest-zeppelins, there’s a good chance she’ll be sexualised to a degree that male protagonists never are.

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Moreover, these male protagonists themselves seemed to be wish-fulfilment writ large. White Anglo-Saxon middle-class billionaire types with multi-wives predominated. When they weren’t tanned, lantern-jawed George Clone-ys they were spindly geeks who made billions selling hyperwidgets over the interspatial cyberweb. Despite the fact that these fellows lived forever due to advanced medicine their psychology was, somewhat puzzlingly, exactly like ours. If I was cynical I might conclude that is because pondering how immortality might affect what it means to be human is hard, whereas writing about chicks in cat-suits is, you know, fun*.

Many plots tended towards the generically anodyne and epic. Some ancient horror is discovered/awoken/remembered it had always intended to wipe us out, but had gotten distracted and lurches towards us across the void of space. However, the empire of billionaires isn’t ready for this because they spend most of their time drinking space-lattes at the space-mall and bedding pneumatic pistol-totting bitch-whores. The narrative that follows builds a bow-wave of palm-sweating anticipation as characters spend the next 500 pages discussing how to escape via a really, really big space-bridge and panic buying galacto socks.

Alas, this sense of threat evaporates when The Evil-Ones finally materialise in their million strong battle fleet and turn out to be bees crossed with pigs that wear hats. The millinery obsessed bee-pigs demand the empire’s cheese reserves. No! cry Earth’s leisure-suited masses: our cheeses you cannot haz! before engaging their grizzled family warrior/retainers in a desperate battle to decisively set up the next tome in the series.

In summary, I think the thing that I found most disappointing about the books I’ve read over the last few months was how bland many of the imagined worlds and protagonists were. Despite its reputation as a medium where “sensawunda” abounds, these books for the most part explored a very limited set of tropes through to very inevitable conclusions.

20110816-050101.jpgThat said, I’m keenly aware that these observations are only based on the works that I’ve read recently, which again can only be only a small percentage of what’s out there, so does anyone care to steer me in the direction of books that take good ole Space Opera somewhere where no-one has gone before?

*I have nothing against the fun, just bored of the lazy.

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