A New Grammar for Science Fiction

Science Fiction is no longer a novelty.

We do not want to read Science Fiction because it is set in the future. Science Fiction must offer some deeper, truer view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.


Filtering by Tag: criticism

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. 

Hannibal and the Transcendence of the Autistic Mind

Hannibal impressed me right away by presenting an autistic character with "pure empathy." I understand autism to be definitionally a matter of unusually high empathy - a spectrum, sure, but above and beyond normative levels of empathy, not below. It's not as contrary or revolutionary a view as one might imagine, though it is somehow still a minority view. Ursula K. Le Guin (this enterprise's namesake) grasped it way back in 1971; her story Vaster than Empires and More Slow features an autistic character understood quite astutely in this way. But it has been forty-some years since then. The minority view is still a minority view. 

In tonight's episode, these traits - autism and an "empathy disorder" - were presented by one character as a contradiction. This irked me initially, until I considered that the context was a trial in which all the things which made Will useful were used against him. This is how autism works in life as well as fiction; how all uniqueness is cynically identified with its opposite in order to undermine it, which in turn serves to reinforce normative supremacy. The very fact that autism is seen- strike that, portrayed - as a lack of empathy is an indictment of normalcy. That a difference in presentation of emotional states should belie a lack of emotion seems itself the conclusion of a mind lacking in empathy.

In one of the episode's final scenes, Will and Alana have a conversation in which she asks what the killer wants. Will replies that the killer wants to know him. Asked what she wants, Alana says she wants to save him. Forgive me for reading too far in, but this seems, at the end of this episode in particular, a perfect summation of the gap in empathic states which runs as a tension throughout the series. While we as an audience might question the decision to play up the similarities between sociopathy and autism (I have a hunch we will eventually be treated to an illuminating discussion as to their differences), Will's gift has always been about his capacity for proximity to any other state or constitution. When he says the killer wants to know him, he is also explaining why he suffered through the traumas of fieldwork - he wanted to know the killer, to find his center in a life of other people by reaching toward the far margins of human nature. 

Normalcy seeks to save, holding normalcy as the highest ideal. It is born of a narcissism which betrays a lack of real insight. It is the force of entropy - uniform if only in death. Alana, good intentions considered, is merely a curious possible transformer, an agent by which Will might become saved - become normal. Of course, Hannibal's agenda will likely prove to be the exact inverse; to groom Will's oddness into actual psychopathy by emphasizing and increasing his alienation from everyone else. Both sides, when profiled (a type of reductionism from which the narrative manages to exact great nuance) are equally pathological in their goals. Normalcy, sociopathy - both are blind, manipulating extremes, set in unreal worldviews which cloud both judgement and perception. 

Hannibal presents autism as the optimal state, at least in virtue of truth. In the world as it stands, it is something else indeed: a dangerous clarity, as that of Cassandra. Will is the agent of an unpopular idealism, the personified torment of sanity in a psychotic culture. Will, after all, is the only truly sane one, even or especially in his capacity for self-doubt. Everyone else is falsely assured. 

While normalcy seeks to assimilate, empathy seeks to know, to understand - not an intellectual knowledge, but a personal one, a gnosis. To known another on its own terms, not through the self but despite it. The price of this knowing is steep; isolation, strangeness, an inability to blend in which is the natural result of clarity. 

Why do autistics withdraw? Because they see people as they are? Perhaps withdrawal is simply the natural reaction to an intimate apprehension of human nature.