Friday, April 1, 2011

SF and the Outer World

The March 31 issue of THE NEW YORKER reviewed PAUL, which I blogged about recently. THE NEW YORKER didn't like it. They mentioned the same thing I objected to, the gratuitous raunchiness, but that was not the reviewer's main problem, which seems to be with science fiction itself. Anthony Lane (admittedly, always a hard man to please) calls SF as a whole "nothing if not mockable." He finds "science fiction so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it -- as movies like "Galaxy Quest" have done before, and Mottola does here with his blatant gestures to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." -- but to play it straight, as Spielberg managed to do. Only thus can we probe, to borrow a key verb from the aficionados, the ridiculous for the sublime: those terrors, or unlikely consolations, that lurk within."

I have several issues with this lofty denigration of an entire genre. In no particular order:

Most of SF "plays it straight," and often does so quite convincingly.

ALL art is "mockable." It's not as if parodies don't exist of HAMLET and ANNA KARENINA. Not to mention the parodies that go on in the world of modern painting.

Not all SF is "ridiculous" or needs to be "probed" for something -- anything -- of psychological value. Much hard SF, for example, exists in the borderland between the science we have today and the science we will have tomorrow. It is not ridiculous but predictive, not of a specific future but of aspects of the future we should take seriously.

My main objection to Lane's statement, however, lies in its last words. I am one of those writers who would agree that fiction is driven by character, by what "lies within." Yet that does not mean the outer world is valueless. The best SF explores large questions of how technology interacts with humanity; how political systems interact with humanity; how science shapes our thought. In short, it focuses on the outer world, while much of contemporary fiction focuses solely on small lives lived in small circumstances. Surely the larger universe -- the one outside our own lives -- has interest? Are we SF people the only fiction writers still cognizant of that? If so, then what we do is neither ridiculous nor inherently mockable.

Bad call, Mr. Lane.


A Commercial Traveller said...

I love the New Yorker, but you got this one right. In fact "small lives lived in small circumstances" describes the typical NYer short story. I think it was Mr Lane who reviewed Total Recall many years ago. Very funny review, in which he said Total Recall was so bad it made him never want to see another movie.

EA Hirsch said...

It would be remiss not to include fantasy in the umbrella of literature that addresses a larger world. I think a lot of fantasy focuses on things like you mentioned- how humanity interacts with political systems especially. And both sci-fi and fantasy address how humanity interacts with its own, dark nature, as well as its beauty.

With that out of the way, I have to say that it's such a shame that more people don't recognize the value in spec-fic. It's so often relegated to escapism lit, when I find that it is far more escapist to embroil oneself in the 'small lives' and 'small circumstances' and often inherent plotlessness of literary fiction.

Not to mention how bloody boring I find that kind of story.

Moggy said...

Pseudo-intellectuals like that derive their self-respect from despising anything that normal humans can enjoy. He probably thinks that anything that doesn't bring us closer to the joy of world communism (or some equivalent with a different name) is a waste of time; recently I read a similar author complaining that fan fiction is not "a vector for social change".

Most of what appears in The New Yorker is the same kind of tripe, which is why we shouldn't waste our time with that rag.

Anyway, Ursula LeGuin aptly answered morons like this Lane guy a while back:

TheOFloinn said...

Near as I can tell, he was reviewing sci-fi, not SF. That is, movies, not literature. But indeed, he seems to be the sort of person who would have no trouble seeing a story about a flight to Mars as being an analogy of inner growth, but would have a terrible time seeing it as a story about a flight to Mars.

I am reminded of Sung China, when Chu Hsi argued that we should seek principles in the outside realm three or four times in ten cases; otherwise, moral principles should be sought within. This proved too much for Wang Yang-ming, who criticized Chu Hsi for his "externalist" views. This outlook, shunning the outer world for the inner, is one reason why China never developed natural science.

It also smacks of bit of that ol' Manicheanism.

Bryan H. Bell said...

Thanks for standing up for science fiction, Nancy. It's always nice to hear the likes of you or Ursula LeGuin defending science fiction against literary snobbishness.

On another note, for the convenience of your blog's readers, when you make reference to an article in your postings, would you kindly include a link to it?

Here is a link to Lane's New Yorker article "Out There."

bluesman miike Lindner said...

As far as I can tell from a google search, Lane doesn't have the inclination or talent to write salable fiction.

Who care a flat-cat's buttocks what he thinks?