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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Why Is Science Fiction A Literature of Ideas?

It has long been a commonplace to describe science fiction as "the literature of ideas." There is a lot of truth in that observation -- H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Connie Willis, Octavia Butler, Bruce Sterling, Nalo Hopkinson all wrote or are writing genuinely provocative novels of ideas that also work as popular and gripping entertainments, for example. But to say these represent a literature of ideas is surely not to deny Denis Diderot and George Eliot and Mark Twain and Ralph Ellison wrote the same? If not, then what exactly is the phrase meant to evoke?

So much of what so many people seem to mean by the science fictional novel of ideas is what fans of Ayn Rand seem to mean when they call her ungainly unbrainly bodice-rippers "novels of ideas" -- whether they are talking about the leaden bricks of hard sf's Golden Age or the wave after wave of libertopian/singularitarian tracts that swamped sf's New Wave since the 80s. I hope I am not making the facile point that a literature of ideas will elaborate ideas that are both good and bad, ideas that I both like and dislike: I am wondering about the structural conditions out of which science fiction, a genre under contestation on many fronts, might be uniquely productive of or for ideas -- or possibly what passes for ideas.

Athena Andreadis, a scientist and also a marvelous science fiction writer, has pointed out to me, in terms at once incisive and practical, that "high concept" in science fiction parlance often translates to the one-sentence sales pitch, "ideas" are often just immediately recognizable citations of conceits from the sfnal archive, and "prophesy" is something that attracts bigger speaking fees at cons. In this piece she takes on some of these issues in her own inimitable style.

I can't help but wonder if science fiction gets to be called a literature of ideas because it is less insecure at being called propaganda but also more secure in the expectation it won't ever be called art? That is to say, there may be a kind of anti-intellectual intellectuality in the understanding as ideas of the ideas in science fiction as the literature of ideas. To the extent that this is true, it comports uneasily with the recognition that there is something fetishistic in the constitution of all facts. A critique of the hardness of "hard sf" as fetishistic writes itself, for example.

Though I have been fiercely indoctrinated to resist the propagandistic subversion of the aesthetic, I can't help but think there is something intellectually emancipatory in refusing to worry about that so much, in refusing to worry that even transparently educational, agitational, organizational work might not get called "art" by all the right people. There is good reason to think, after all, that the continuing critical marginalization of science fiction is connected in part with the association of science fiction with working class culture anyway. That science fiction has been so long associated with white-racism and patriarchy was and remains another reason, of course, but so much of the best, most exciting, most popular science fiction is now written by women of color I hope -- and even better, I think -- that is changing.

Of course, what may be most lethal to science fiction is the mis-identification of its focus as one on "The Future." What could be worse for literature, let alone a literature of ideas, than to be judged according to its track record for making accurate predictions of "The Future"? At its bleakest, this standard reduces literary sf to the futurological scenario of corporate-military think-tanks and white-papers -- that site of the most hackneyed sfnal conceits, but bereft of even the rudiments of craft, situated characters, dramatic plotting, or the like.

The Future of the futurologists has always had quite a lot to do with the future of market futures, just as the method of the futurologists has always had quite a lot to do with the pseudo-scientific con-artistry of experts who promise profitable predictions of market futures. Although it is conventional to describe speculative literature as the enumeration of such predictions, and then to describe the result as prophetic, it is crucial to grasp that prophesy's address is to the present, to the hearing of those at hand from whom we know without knowing how or who next-presents are being made.

Like all literature, science fiction as literature stands in an indicative and evocative and ideally a critical relation to the present. Futurity is a word I use to describe the openness inhering in the present, resulting from the ineradicable diversity of situated stakeholders sharing and making the present in its presence, resonating with presents past and emerging onto next-presents. "The Future" tends to be a projection from a parochial position within the present, a willful destining of that parochialism to prevail over the next-present, and hence a foreclosing of open futurity by dis-identifying with its diversity the better to identify instead with "a people" with "a destiny."

Art at its best offers openings onto the futurity in the present, opening us up to imagining and empathizing otherwise, and even the most presumably progressive propagandistic artwork lends itself to a "The Future" over futurity and so too readily becomes reactionary. But I wonder whether an experimentalism about speculation, a pragmatic play on possibilities, a parodic take on present projections, can take on the coloration of the programmatic in ways that may lead to a misconstrual of some science fiction as more reductively propagandistic than it really is. I would also propose that in an epoch for which public discourse is utterly suffused with the deceptive and hyperbolic norms and forms of public relations, (self-)promotion and advertizing -- with all their seductive promises and predictions of smooth sexy skin and next quarter profits -- that even the aestheticization of prediction can function as a critique of the predictive instead of/alongside the performance of predicting.

All this matters not least because I would insist that what we properly mean by ideas depends indispensably on the shared space-time of open futurity -- the calculations, provocations, contestations, collaborations endlessly presented by plural presence in the present -- and that there is something destructive to thought in the de-politicizing disavowal of diversity demanded by the imagination of "The Future." In the final, summarizing sentence of Futurological Discourse and Posthuman Terrains I propose  "a distinction, where thinking is concerned, between  investment and speculation, between having thoughts and making bets." The moralizing pan-movements of totalitarianism are always anti-politics as well as reactionary politics, just so the predictive projections of futurology are also anti-thoughts as well as pseudo-science. To the extent that futurology is the anti-intellectual reduction of thought to marketing -- and at once the quintessential discourse of neoliberal/neoconservative market non-thought -- is science fiction the literature of ideas because it is futurological enough to perform the anti-thought that now passes for thought or because it takes its pleasures in the subversion and critiques of that reduction, and right in the belly of the beast?


bahlstrom said...

It is interesting that when I have asked friends for SF recommendations, I am often told that writers like Dick or Heinlein (both of whom I have not yet read) "aren't very good writers, but their ideas are good."

I'm also interested to hear how you would differentiate propaganda and art, thinking specifically of the Orwell line "All art is propaganda."

Dale Carrico said...

It's funny, I think Heinlein is a better writer than thinker (I prefer his later comedies of manners to his juveniles, not that I can forgive the sexism suffusing most of his work, from beginning to end), and I happen to think Dick is overrated both as a writer and a thinker. But that's a matter of taste, and I've enjoyed movies adapted from his works like everybody else, after all.

My sense of the relation of art and propaganda is influenced by the early twentieth century debate between Lukacs and Bloch. Lukacs valued as "realistic" art that informed audiences of their circumstances according to orthodox Marxist historical analysis, Bloch (and to a certain extent both Brecht and Benjamin on Bloch's side) defended expressionist and other avant garde aesthetic movements that intervened in norms in ways that sometimes but not always align with Marxist orthodoxy and which were dismissed by Lukacs in consequence as nihilist and irrationalist and reactionary. His charges eerily mirrored Nazi criticisms of expressionism, by the way, even as he assimilated expressionism to fascism in his critique.

Anyway, an easy way to get at the problem with Lukacs is that he insisted only art that was legible as orthodox Marxist propaganda was politically progressive -- a reductive analysis that repeatedly lead him to misconstrue as reactionary anti-militarist anti-consumerist aesthetics.