The Future is Not a Land of Enchantment: On SF’s “Exhaustion”
“I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work. So in that sense if I would be a bit worried if everything was all right with SF. I don’t think it is – but then, I don’t think it ever has been. Rather than perceiving a particular crisis affecting SF now, I see the field as being in a constant state of stagnation and renewal, constantly exhausting itself, constantly hitting new seams.” – Alastair Reynolds
“The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.” – Paul Kincaid
I was all set to write more about possible worlds in light of clearly impossible ones (such as those of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wind Drinkard) and ones that play with the idea of possibility themselves (such as Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams), but the internet is afire with discussions about Paul Kincaid’s recent essay in the LA Times Review of Books on SF’s “exhaustion.” Having read his piece, an interview with him, and some of the responses, I wanted to examine the core of his argument, and that of Jonathan McCalmont, a responder who agreed with and expanded on Kincaid’s critique. Each characterizes “the genre” with broad insinuations about its ideals and characteristics, and agree that “the genre” is not living up to its potential. My question is: does this approach get to the problem they see, and if not, how does that change the nature of the problem?
I think that Kincaid and McCalmont are correct that some stories are not perspicacious or innovative, and the field, however you define it, is filled with struggles between the familiar and the innovative. This conclusion is not surprising, however; most storytelling is about reproduction, reformatting, and comfort and is created out of tensions between the expected and the unexpected. But the idea that some new depth of ennui has been attained that has taken SF off-course and impurified it, is excessive. Sturgeon’s Law has been in full effect for the history of SF, and for much of storytelling in general. Yet both essays hearken back to, if not a golden age, at least one with more luster to it. There is a conservative nostalgia in their critiques about the genre as it used to be, what the future was in the tales of yore, as if to say “remember when we dreamt the future positively?”
Kincaid clarified in his interview that “I see no need for a ‘new positivism’ or ‘new progressivism’” but just before that states that a sort of positive outlook is what grasping the future is all about. Both critiques spring from the idea that a genre is not just comprised of tropes or trends, but of a spirit or meta-ideology. There are things that this genre should do, objectives that it should fulfill. It should not just be about the future, but should speculate about it in a narrowly-conceived constructive manner, a projection forward that grasps and manufactures the future for us. SF is about creating understandable futures, ones that have some sort of lesson for the reader to digest.
What has weakened SF is its admixture with other genres. Both essayists bemoan the appearance of the genre’s dissolution and blending with other genres, which for them has watered down the capabilities and effects of the genre, if not become an excuse to be blithe or sloppy with science. Other genres need to be harnessed to the genre’s core mission, not serve as distractions from its purpose. And here is where I feel the arguments falter, as they focus on “the genre” as an agent with a specific purpose, as a sort of hive mind animated by writers. Both discuss individual authors and stories, but they are examples of wider trends or exceptions to the conclusion that SF “itself” is broken, that what those stories called the best show us is how insular and degraded the genre has become.
In his Nerds of a Feather interview Kincaid knocks the seeming conservatism of many stories, yet his idea of vitality seems drawn from a classical view of SF, with its “fetish of novelty.” Novelty, surprise, novum, sense of wonder. . . all of these are invoked as central to SF and all seem to be lacking, or misused, in what is considered the best short fiction in the field. The conservatism is an existential one; as Kincaid notes “No longer sure of the future, therefore, an SF writer’s options seem to be to present a future that is magical or incomprehensible (like Valente or Grant), or to revert to older, more familiar futures (as Bear did).” It is not that Kincaid wants rocket ships and robots to make a big comeback; he is searching for something more philosophical. And yet, the fact that he seems more heartened by stories that reproduce that familiarity, that are more like the SF he is arguing for, valorizes that option over the first one he describes. But what if this ideal is not an eternal property of the genre but a transitive one? What if SF is about more than stories that try to comprehend the future to comment on the present?
McCalmont takes the argument further than Kincaid, assigning motivations and failings to the authors themselves, while Kincaid remains, as he reiterated in his interview, “descriptive” of what stories are, or are not, doing. McCalmont also develops a critique of the “postmodern” effacement of SF and both ties its malaise to and finds its salvation in engagement with neoliberalism. McCalmont looks to cultural and political-economic forces as feeding into SF’s weakening. No one is spared in his assessment, not even those he praises. In an odd digression he notes that non-straight white male authors seem subsumed by the forces within and outside of the genre to produce the same pap as the rest, when they should be using their own experiences and positions to critique the system. He then indicts straight white men who innovate as attempting to commandeer the critiquing of the genre. In the end, everyone seems to be a part of the problem, because everyone is somehow subservient to the genre even as they misuse it.
McCalmont claims that “the point of this essay was never to make monolithic statements about the true nature of science fiction but rather to draw attention to a broad narrative of detachment that has transformed the mainstream of science fiction into an airless postmodern vacuum.” He “would like to see the genre seize this historic opportunity and rediscover its heritage of engagement and prediction” rather than continue to engage in what seem to be fawning, unchallenging literary efforts. He too would like a return to the grand ideals and revolutionary potential of SF, to stop reveling in irony and make bold statements about where the world is going.
But the future is not what it used to be, and this is not just an effect of post-modern lensing. The problem is not some seductive literary approach/ideology that thumbs its nose at risk and conviction. It is not that authors en masse are dissolute, lazy, hesitant, or drained of ideas, or that “the genre” is exhausted. The problem is that time has moved on, the world has changed, and that “SF” and “genre” are not agents, but conventions and discursive tools that everyone involved in the field reproduce and refashion.. The field of cultural production is both static and dynamic, and that is reinforced or challenged by individuals: readers, writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, fans. If science fiction seems tired, it is not because we have lost sight of the past; it is that the present is a different place and the future is simultaneously nascent and enigmatic.
One can certainly point to the problems that capitalist conditions cause the field, and there is no doubt that commercial considerations are a factor in each writer’s work. Literary theories and critical discussions can also influence what writers produce. But in the end the field is still vital, even though that vitality may seem spotty. If the field were not vital, if it was drained and irrelevant, this discussion would not be taking place. It is precisely because the field is in flux, is multivalent and contentious, that this conversation is taking place. Some writers are complicating the models while other merely update tropes and re-present them. But this is neither exhaustion or cowardice; this is the way that the field has always worked, just with different proportions and assumptions about how to tell stories and be a part of the circulatory system of literature.
Alastair Reynolds put his finger on a significant element when he noted that “If I was truly happy with the state of SF. . . I suspect I’d feel very little incentive to write it.” If readers were happy with it they would not discuss the stories and social aspects with the vigor and emotion that they do. As a writer I try to create stories that are distinctive from others, writing from passion and joy, but also from conviction and a need to add something different, odd, perplexing to the literary conversation. And as a reader that is what I look for too. And many writers are also doing this, even if they don’t get much attention for it. What we are seeing is a new dynamic of flux and reflection, in some cases involving struggles with the ideas we have of the genre and the stories connected to it, in other cases following the tenets of the field and the expectations of readers. What is different than in previous era is how this is happening, what external influences are trying to shape it, and how writers of SF (and fantastika more broadly) write to reify or deconstruct both “the genre” and the idea of genre along a spectrum of ideas and tropes from their individual standpoints, which are rarely monolithic. Some want to create something new, some to twist what we have, and others to produce familiar tales. It seems paradoxical to assert fatigue or laziness when so much is being produced, and while we can discuss issues of quality and effect and relevance, I think we need to step back from blanket indictments and seriously engage specific texts and critiques, which Kincaid does in his essay, although in the context of a broad assertion.
That assertion is based on the idea that writers of SF are no longer trying to comprehend the future. But, if SF is about novelty and surprise, should we not do more than try to grasp the future? Shouldn’t we question the future, debate its presence, its effects, and the nature of it? Shouldn’t we interpret it from many angles and not just try to build projections? The future is not just what lies ahead; it is what we are making with every thought and action of our living each day. It is the stories we are telling now because every story tries to say something about the world now, and thus hints at where we might be going. There is more to telling the future than speculation or positive constructions of what may be. The future has become not just nebulous or scary, but an integral part of our humanity. Classic SF made projections, and those ideas influenced our interaction with reality. But as we come to grasp reality as something different, we also look at past, present, and future differently. The best SF (which I think is rarely in the anthologies) grapples not with what may come, but what we might be making now, how imagination, memory (which we’ve learned may be more about the future than the past), and action make many futures possible. Perhaps SF is now becoming a way to think in new ways, some unsettling, about just what the future is and where its roots lie in stories of the past and present.
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