Optimism, Agency and the Future of SF
This recent Cracked piece really got our goat - needless to say. Aside from the larger argument consisting of an eye-rolling carbon-copy of the argument we've been seeing all over of late, it also takes aim at Philip K. Dick, particularly with respect to his characters. Most of you know that both editors of this magazine come from - and met through - the odd, insular and incredibly dynamic PKD fan-community; so I won't claim there's no emotion involved in seeing the author so thoroughly undermine Dick, particularly his characters.*
I won't spend much time arguing this absurd contention; I wouldn't want to protest too much.
What I will say is this: It's possible that sometimes Dick's characters weren't the focus, but there is another abstraction than the speculative scientific concept: that of people broadly. Individual Dick personages may have been a bit flat at times, but he was always writing about people.
Of course, he was very often writing about specific people, often with more artfulness and humanity than most of his peers. Dick's characters were often almost direct translations of people in his life, their limitations reflections of Dick's own limited life experience. One could go on for quite some length about the interaction between, and importance of, the artist on the art. But Dick is fruitful no matter how you cut him, so long as you don't expect him to be anything but a flawed person.
I didn't want to make too much of the criticism, and yet here we are. The author seems to only recall characters with anachronistic garb; the mention of Indiana Jones serves my larger argument all too well, Jones being a "memorable" character whose stories of imperialism-run-rampant are scarcely watchable now. I hope the SF of our era dates better than these films.
With that apologia completed, I turn to the greater issues at stake in this quite terrible piece. David Brin, with whom I have some affinity and also a significant amount of disagreement, posted the piece on his Facebook page, praising the article for the way it “skewers the absurd modern obsession with gloom, cynicism, anomie, nostalgia and regret that has taken over much of sci fi, robbing it of its fun… but also its utility as a source of important thought experiments about tomorrow.”
Of course, there is no good single argument against a worldview which considers cynicism absurd; this is a gestalt position, and can't be argued effectively from particulars. But I do take issue with the caricatured way he paints critical SF - as the product of "this dismal omphaloskepsis - this reflex toward silly-drivel dystopias with drooling-simplistic villains...”
There are ways to write which involve neither cardboard villains nor outdated "thought experiments" lacking literary merit. I see a lot of complaints about "gloom and doom," but outside the YA crap being translated into 2-hour Subway commercials these days,** I don't see much of it in the mags or on the shelves. I'd argue that nostalgia isn't a hallmark of the critically-minded thread in SF at all, but of the golden-age revivalist camp who see SF as nothing more than a source of ideas for engineers. Am I the only one who resents this assertion? Some of us want insight from our lit, not just a novel object.
The increasing influence of Brin and his revivalist camp is based largely on the fervor for nostalgia, and the outcry against critical content, which underpins this piece. Brin, along with Stephenson, Doctorow, and their ilk, assert over and over again, with their immense visibility, that pessimism is taking over and must be curbed. Would that they were correct. Instead, like many a movement which plays on emotion, the enemy is of straw, at least as she stands in the public forum. Thus the easy contrasts between futurists and SF writers on display here.
What is most wrong in this contrast is the utility which is assumed to be shared by each camp. It's a problem exacerbated by actual, existing SF writers who see their own work as merely an inspiration for scientists (or, more likely, material engineers). SF writers operate within the paradigm of literature, of fiction, of story-telling. There are those willing to sell this short for a place within the dominant field of material science, as there are always such individuals. But there are also, as always, those who have not lost sight of the fiction aspect of science fiction - those for whom it is not merely an avenue to express scientific ideas.
The genre has long been a haphazard confluence of pessimists, optimists, and everything between. This is part of the beauty and the difficulty of the field. I do not mean to cause unnecessary conflict by hitting these points over and over again; I do mean to keep the value of this genre alive to the best of my ability. The optimists and techno-progressives have their spokespeople. Those who see the aims of all art as partially concerned with the critical seem underrepresented still.
Let us try to keep hard aims at bay in favor of moderate ones. Criticism isn't about tearing everything apart; it's about checking it for problems before you take it on the highway. If we are to be reduced to mechanics, let us seek at least to save a few lives. Better yet, let us not be reduced; let us be storytellers - conveyors of fact and fancy and doom and redemption. Let us be writers.
* Dick can be a troubling hero for a feminist, but his progression is inspiring if incomplete. At the urging of Ursula K. Le Guin, and despite his own defensive protestations, Dick seemed to accept some criticism of the women in his books and incorporate it into future characters, particularly Angel Archer. Not that this excuses him - that's an unnecessary act, especially in a culture so keen to excuse such positions and so reticent to critique them. But perhaps we can hold these conflicting views of Dick simultaneously.
** The movies have been OK, despite the white-washing and deep irony of the Subway campaign, mostly because Jennifer Lawrence is just that good. Still, though.