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The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction

by Jonathan Lethem


In 1973 Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was awarded the Nebula, the highest honor available in the field once known as "science fiction" - a term now mostly forgotten.

Sorry, just dreaming. In our world Bruce is dead, while Bob Hope lurches on. And though Gravity's Rainbow really was nominated for the 1973 Nebula, it was passed over for Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama, which commentator Carter Scholz rightly deemed "less a novel than a schematic diagram in prose." Pynchon's nomination now stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream.

That hope was born in the hearts of writers who, without any particular encouragement from the larger literary world, for a little while dragged the genre to the brink of respectability. The new-wave SF of the '60s and '70s was often word-drunk, applying modernist techniques willy-nilly to the old genre motifs, adding compensatory dollops of alienation and sexuality to characters who'd barely shed their slide rules. But the new wave also made possible books like Samuel Delany's Dhalgren Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch's 334 - work to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s, labels, categories, and genres aside. In a seizure of ambition, SF even flirted with renaming itself "speculative fabulation," a lit-crit term both pretentiously silly and dead right.

For what makes SF wonderful and complicated is that mix of speculation and the fabulous: SF is both think-fiction and dream-fiction. For the first 60-odd years of the century American fiction was deficient in exactly those qualities SF offered in abundance, however inelegantly. While fabulists like Borges, Abe, Cortazar, and Calvino flourished abroad, a strain of literary puritanism quarantined imaginative and surreal writing from respectability here. Another typical reflex, that anti-intellectualism which dictates that novelists shouldn't pontificate, extrapolate, or theorize, only show and feel, meant the novel of ideas was for many years pretty much the exclusive domain of, um, Norman Mailer. What's more, a reluctance in the humanities to acknowledge the technocratic impulse that was transforming contemporary culture left certain themes untouched. For decades SF filled the gap, and during those decades its writers added characterization, ambiguity, and reflexivity, helping it evolve toward something like a literary maturity, or at least the ability to throw up an occasional masterpiece.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. In the '60s, just as SF's best writers began to beg the question of whether SF might be literature, American literary fiction began to open to the modes it had excluded. Writers like Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Coover restored the place of the imaginative and surreal, while others like Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy began to contend with the emergent technoculture. William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon did a little of both. The result was that the need to recognize SF's accomplishments dwindled away. Why seek in those gaudy paperbacks what was readily available in reputable packages? So what followed was mostly critical rejection, or indifference.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the genre-ghetto walls, a retrenchment was underway. Though the stakes aren't nearly as crucial, it's hard not to see SF's attempt at self-liberation as typical of other equality movements that peaked in political strength around the same time, then retreated into identity politics. Fearing the loss of a distinctive oppositional identity, and bitter over a lack of access to the ivory tower, SF took a step backward, away from its broadest literary aspirations. Not that SF of brilliance wasn't written in the years following, but with a few key exceptions it was overwhelmed on the shelves (and award ballots) by a reactionary SF as artistically dire as it was comfortingly familiar.

In the '80s, cyberpunk was taken as a sign of hope, for its verve, its polish, its sensory alertness to the way our conceptions of the future had changed. But even cyberpunk's best writers mostly peddled surprisingly macho and regressive fantasies of rebellion as transcendence, and verve and polish were thin meat for those who recalled the mature depths of the best of the new wave. Anyway, cyberpunk's best were quickly swamped themselves by gelled and pierced photocopies of adolescent power fantasies that were already very, very old.

Which brings us to today. Where, against all odds, SF deserving of greater attention from a literary readership is still written. Its relevance, though, since the collapse of the notion that SF should and would converge with literature, is unclear at best. SF's literary writers exist now in a twilight world, neither respectable nor commercially viable. Their work drowns in a sea of garbage in bookstores, while much of SF's promise is realized elsewhere by writers too savvy or oblivious to bother with its stigmatized identity. SF's failure to present its own best face, to win proper respect, was never so tragic as now, when its strengths are so routinely preempted. In a literary culture where Pynchon, DeLillo, Barthelme, Coover, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, and Steve Erickson are ascendant powers, isn't the division meaningless?

But the literary traditions reinforcing that division are only part of the story. Among the factors arrayed against acceptance of SF as serious writing, none is more plain to outsiders than this: the books are so fucking ugly. Worse, they're all ugly in the same way, so you can't distinguish those meant for grown-ups from those meant for 12-year-olds. Sadly enough, that confusion is intentional, and the explanation brings us back again to the mid '70s.

It's now a commonplace in film criticism that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together brought to a crashing halt the most progressive and interesting decade in American film since the '30s. What's eerie is that the same duo are the villains in SF's tragedy as well, though you might want to add a third name, J. R. R. Tolkien. The vast popular success of the imagery and archetypes purveyed by those three savants of children's literature expanded the market for "sci-fi", a cartoonified, castrated, and deeply nostalgic version of the budding literature, a thousandfold. What had been a negligible, eccentric publishing niche, permitted to go its own harmless way, was now a potential cash cow. (Remember when Star Trek was resurrected overnight, a moribund TV cult suddenly at the center of popular culture?) As stakes rose, marketers encamped on the territory, for a handy comparison, recall the cloning of grunge rock after Nirvana. Books were produced to meet this vast, superficial new appetite - rotten books, millions of them - and fine books were repackaged to fit the paradigm. Out with the hippie-surrealist book jackets of the '60s, with their promise of grown-up abstractions and ambiguities. In with that leaden and literal style so perfectly abhorrent to the literary book buyer. The golden mean of an SF jacket since 1976 looks, well, exactly like the original poster for Star Wars. Men of the future were once again thinking with their swords - excuse me, light sabers. This passive sellout would make more sense if the typical writer of literary SF had actually made any money out of it. Instead, the act is still too often rewarded with wages resembling those of a poet, an untenured poet, that is.

Other obstacles to acceptance remain hidden in the culture of SF, ambushes on a road no one's taking. Along with being a literary genre or mode, SF is also an ideological site. Anyone who's visited is familiar with the home truths: that the colonization of space is desirable; that rationalism will prevail over superstition; that cyberspace has the potential to transform individual and collective consciousness. Tangling with this inheritance has resulted in work of genius - Barry Malzberg tarnishing the allure of astronautics, J. G. Ballard gleefully unraveling the presumption that technology extends from rationalism, James Tiptree Jr. (nee Alice Sheldon) replacing the body and its instincts in an all too disembodied discourse. But the pressure against heresy can be surprisingly strong, reflecting the emotional hunger for solidarity in marginalized groups. For SF can also function as a clubhouse, where members share the resentments of the excluded and a defensive fondness for stories which thrived in 12-year-old imaginations but shrivel on first contact with adult brains. In its unqualified love for its own junk stratum, SF may be as postmodern as Frederic Jameson's dreams, but it's also as sentimental about itself as an Elks lodge or a family.

Marginality, it should be said, isn't always the worst thing for artists. Silence, exile, and cunning remain a writer's allies, and despised genres have been a plentiful source of exile for generations of iconoclastic American fictioneers. And sure, hipster audiences always resent seeing their favorite cult item grow too popular. But an outsider art courts precious self-referentiality if it too strongly resists incorporation. The remnants of the jazz which refused the bebop transformation are those guys in pinstriped suits playing Dixieland, and the separate-but-unequal post-'70s SF field, preening over its lineage and fetishizing its rejection, sometimes sounds an awful lot like Dixieland - as refined, as calcified, as sweetly irrelevant.

If good writing is neglected because of genre boundaries, so it goes - good writing goes unread for lots of reasons. The shame is in what's left unwritten, in artists internalizing prejudice as crippling self-doubt. Great art mostly occurs when creators are encouraged to entertain the possibility of their relevance. Might a Phil Dick have learned to revise his first drafts instead of flinging them despairingly into the marketplace if The Man in the High Castle had been recognized by the literary critics of 1964? Might another five or 10 fledgling Phil Dicks have appeared shortly thereafter? We'll never know. And there are artistic costs on the other side of the breach as well. Consider Kurt Vonnegut, who in dodging the indignities of the SF label apparently renounced the iconographic fuel that fed his best work.

What would a less prejudiced model of SF's relation to the larger enterprise look like? Well, nobody likes to be labeled an experimental writer, yet experimental writing flourishes in quiet pockets of the literary landscape - and, however little read, is granted its place. When claims are made for the wider importance of this or that experimental writer - Dennis Cooper, say, or Mark Leyner - those claims aren't rebuffed on grounds that are, quite literally, categorical.

SF could ask this much: that its more hermetic or hardcore writers be respected for pleasing their small audience of devotees, that its rising stars be given a fair chance on the main stage. What's missing, too, is a Great Books theory of post-1970 SF: one which asserts a shelf of Disch, Ballard, Dick, LeGuin, Samuel Delany, Russell Hoban, Joanna Russ, Geoff Ryman, Christopher Priest, David Foster Wallace - plus books like Pamela Zoline's The Heat Death of the Universe, Walter Tevis's Mockingbird, D. G. Compton's The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, Lawrence Shainberg's Memories of Amnesia, Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Thomas Palmer's Dream Science, as the standard. Such a theory would also have to push a lot of the genre's self-enshrined but archaic "classics" onto the junk heap.

Tomorrow's readers, born in dystopian cities, educated on computers, and steeped in media recursions of SF iconography, won't notice if the novels they read are set in the future or the present. Savvy themselves, they won't care if certain characters babble technojargon and others don't. Some of those readers, though, will graduate from a craving for fictions that flatter and indulge their fantasies to that appetite for fictions that provoke, disturb, and complicate through a manipulation of those same narrative cravings. They'll learn to appreciate the difference, say, between Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, between Tom Robbins and Thomas Pynchon, between Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany - distinctions forever too elusive to be made in publishers' categories, or on booksellers' shelves.

Of course, short of a utopian reconfiguration of the publishing, bookselling, and reviewing apparatus, the barrier - though increasingly contested and absurd - will remain. Still, we can dream. The 1973 Nebula Award should have gone to Gravity's Rainbow, the 1977 award to DeLillo's Ratner's Star. Soon after, the notion of science fiction ought to have been gently and lovingly dismantled, and the writers dispersed: children's fantasists here, hardware-fetish thriller writers here, novelizers of films both real and imaginary here. Most important, a ragged handful of heroically enduring and ambitious speculative fabulators should have embarked for the rocky realms of midlist, out-of-category fiction. And there - don't wake me now, I'm fond of this one - they should have been welcomed.

http://www.verysilly.org/lethem/lethems_vision.html
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