Science fiction (woo ooh ooh)

A couple of Booker Prizes ago Kim Stanley Robinson author of sometimes interesting books like Years of Rice and Salt (and really terrible ones like Antarctica), complained that science-fiction writers were never nominated for the Booker Prize, and then listed a slew of books that he thought were good enough to win it. It’s not really much of a mind-flip to imagine a sci-fi novel winning the Booker. After all, science-fiction writers have something of a history of craving mainstream literary recognition.

But it’s astounding, time being so fleeting, that a genre like sci-fi – potentially the most interesting of fictional forms – that has so often concerned itself with linear time and its transgressions hasn’t challenged the dominant paradigms of fiction more.

Even the most innovative science-fiction writers of the twentieth century, like Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem and John Crowley, writers who, to an extent, opened up political fractures in the sci-fi narrative, a narrative that always seemed to be about to take a jump to the left and always ended up taking a step to the right, were often very consciously literary in their endeavours. Still Le Guin’s Earthsea books, a series that deconstructed itself very satisfyingly in the fourth volume Tehanu, Lem’s Solaris and Crowley’s Little, Big were books that created their own niches and showed a few glints of light from a place where not many others followed.

The awarding of literary prizes could be a sign of a lot of things but literary worth may be the least of them. Kim Stanley Robinson’s desire for literary greatness, for institutional recognition and perhaps chunky tomes of magisterial literary critique, is all the weirder for not valuing the marginal place, the place where sci-fi was born among the pulp magazines and the science-fiction double feature. Science fiction has often been the place of weird ideas, and of perhaps the weirdest and most interesting idea of all: the idea of the alien/Other. Perhaps science-fiction fiction hasn’t learned anything from its marginal position. Perhaps it hasn’t even learned anything from Roger Corman. Or from Rocky Horror for that matter.

Has sc-fi-fi ever been weird enough? Has it ever fulfilled its promise of getting so weird that it would weird literature out? The weirdest sci-fi writer of all is probably Kilgore Trout and he doesn’t even exist. Still, a number of non-sci-fi writers have danced rather formally and sometimes very successfully with sci-fi weirdness: Peter Ackroyd (The Plato Papers), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five), Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics), Kathy Acker (Empire of the Senseless), Doris Lessing (Canopus in Argos Archives).

Mainstream literature – the literature of Booker Prizes and writers festivals and so on, that is to say Big Lit – is always very ready to appropriate the weird and normalise it, corralling it and tagging it with names like ‘magical realism’. In doing so the process of naming the weird can take the otherness out of it, and we lose our encounter with the weird and see only the normative. Big Lit, like Big Pharma or Big Oil, exists only to perpetuate itself, to expand continually. There’s no room for the marginal. You can never be too big, grow too fast, be too rich, have too much influence. You can never win too many prizes.

In March last year learning that he had made the Booker International shortlist (whatever that is), John Le Carre politely requested that he be taken off it. Of course not, said the Booker nazis, we need to celebrate and promote your greatness (thereby taking Le Carre’s work out of his own hands and appropriating it for Big Lit). Recently a clutch of British literary types, having decided to wash their hands of what they see as the plebian Booker, decided to launch their own prize called, modestly, The Literature Prize. Hilariously, the anonymous ‘board’ claimed that the objective of the Lit Prize ‘is to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence’ and decry the Booker’s apparent emphasis on ‘readability’ (whatever that is). I have to admit that I honestly thought the announcement of the Lit Prize was a joke and Dylan Moran was going to turn up carrying a bottle of wine in a paper bag, and make a deranged speech about literary critics while launching a new sit-com. But alas, no. Apparently ‘readability’ and ‘excellence’ are hot topics in the world of literary prizes and very, very important.

Like the Literature Prize and the Booker, science fiction has, for the most part, largely ignored its own political nature, as if it has been spaced out on sensation as a way of keeping itself under sedation. Science fiction could have been and still could become Big Lit’s bad dream, the weird sibling in the cellar that makes the unearthly haunting sounds that disturbs everyone upstairs, that mutters deliriously about politics, and reminds everyone about the skeletons in the walls, the transience of time, the strangeness and meaningless of the strivings of Big Lit, and speaks to us of a present or future where books are incomprehensible, or too alien or too subversive, and that constructs books like that itself.

Ursula Le Guin, perhaps thinking of her novel The Word For World Is Forest, which features an alien civilisation based on dreaming, called science fiction the ‘language of the night’, speaking of it as if it were a language of dream, a language of subversion. And when we start speaking of the language of dreams, we must inevitably start speaking of the politics of inner and outer spaces. Every dream is a political rewriting of the day’s subtexts, taking the taken-for-granted and the non-problematic and making them very problematic indeed.

For some reason in a recent issue of Overland, I received an Overland bookmark which I was very excited about. I like bookmarks. They allow me to pretend I am reading more books than I actually am. On the bookmark’s verso was a somewhat perplexing quote about trains from the science-fiction writer China Mieville. I had no idea what he was talking about so I scribbled over his quote with a permanent marker substituting one by Kathy Acker from Empire of the Senseless; ‘Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.’ It might not be a quote you want to whip out a party (as, depending on the kind of parties you go to, those attending might think your incipient madness had at last taken its toll). But Acker’s words give me a way of rethinking the ambit claims of ‘literature’, especially when I’m confronted by advocates of Big Lit babbling about excellence and prizes and readability.

The real reason that most Big Lit writers have historically stayed away from science fiction is purely and simply because they don’t know how to write about spaceships, deathrays, dragons, steampunk robots and other cool stuff. It probably takes a strange state of mind to confront the otherness of the world in this way, and an engaged and lively unconsciousness that is full of more weird and dimly perceived creatures than the sewage pit in the Death Star that traps Luke, Han and Leia.

I think that my reading of science fiction has always been predicated on the hope that I would find myself falling into the weirdest of narratives, where the strangeness of the world would be revealed, as if the stars in the night sky were to be suddenly replaced with the heads of insects. As weird as my life has been, it has never really seemed weird enough, and I think that reading books was always a way of seeing if my life also existed elsewhere, spoken to by someone else.

There are never enough weird books in the world. Sometimes I wonder if the first line of In Search of Lost Time would have excited me even more than it did, if it had read ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early, during the journey to the Cyborg Planet.’ But perhaps it’s too late now, too late to seek the unutterable otherness of others in literature, to find there reflections of the strangeness in myself. Perhaps I have always been looking in the wrong place.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. Trouble is when one science fiction writer writes about death rays, it’s weird. Then when all the others take up the idea of death rays and imitate it, the weird is neutralised. The way the genre has grown in the past century is perhaps disappointing – it has bifurcated into a series of sub-genres, each based around a separate weirdness: alternative history, alien encounters (benevolent), alien encounters (non-benevolent), robots, time travel, etc.

    • I think that’s a fair summary. I often find myself gravitating to the sci-fi shelves, and I am a sucker for sci-fi movies, but I think ‘disappointment’ is a good description of my history with the genre. As I’ve tried to show, it’s been a great idea that has lived in the shadow of Big Lit.

  2. I was quite taken by this description of Enid Blyton as a SF writer:

    No matter how rumpty-tum her diction, nothing can domesticate the freakish Land of Topsy-Turvy, dilute the glacial awe of the Land of Ice and Snow, or still the fear invoked by the fucking Land of Smack—an entire world whose quiddity is pain. The weirdness of these settings makes Blyton indelibly part of the speculative-fiction tradition, and it’s through them that you’ll first start to realize that writers aren’t in full control of their creations.

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/06/04/120604fa_fact_mieville#ixzz1x5H6MQFE

  3. I guess one should not too to the recently deceased Ray Bradbury, a self-professed sci-fi nerd, whose works are the equal of big lit.

  4. Indeed. Spooky. I wrote a piece on sci-fi and Ray Bradbury died. How sci-fi is that?

    • The roots of coincidence, for sure. I should have added too (before this Stephen Wright planet hots up too) that I got off sci-fi after reading David Lindsay’s, Voyage to Arcturus. For some strange reason I couldn’t live or breathe within the artifices of Sci-fi, a feeling I’ve never been able to explain or rationalise. One of the best essays on the subject, although dated now, must be Robert Scholes’ Structural Fabulation.

  5. Ta for the Scholes link Dennis. I’m up for anything that deconstructs or politicises sci-fi. And also any interesting way-out sci-fi too.
    I took Kim Stanley R at his word and went thru his recommendations for sci-fi Bookers, and really had a hard time. I just love the idea of sci-fi, but the practice makes me want to weep sometimes. I remember finally getting round to China Mieville and getting about three sentences in and thinking ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’
    But I love Tarkovsky’s movies based on Lem’s books.
    Though tomorrow I’ll go and see Prometheus, even though I know it’ll suck.

    • Great song isn’t it? It’s the limit of my vocal range too (“caught in a celluloid jam..!”)
      Easter egg; I tried to fit as many of the lyrics of ‘Time Warp’ into the text of this post as I could…

      • yes, I noticed! Perhaps you could model your next post around Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar (as I know all the lyrics to those too).

  6. OMG I can hear a cybersingalong coming on: I know all words to Rocky Horror, JCS, Hair and Evita. (And loved your RH refs above Stephen.)

    • Excellent. And we can finish up with L’internationale. Bt very important that in ‘Science-Fiction’ you and Jacinda do the ‘woo-ooh-ooh’s. I never have anybody to do the ‘woo-ooh-ooh’s.

  7. Stephen, how much is your final sentence a rhetorical turn, and how much it is your actual conclusion of the state of things, ie “Perhaps I have always been looking in the wrong place [for the unutterable otherness of others – in literature] .”

    Does anyone / any text do this for you?
    Many of your posts add up to a litany of who can’t get weird enough. But I recall immediately your post on the comic film about the frenchman’s holiday.

  8. Anonymous,
    It’s partly both. I think that those of us who think of ourselves as literate put a lot of faith in literature, to do a whole lot of things. I think a lot of that faith has been misplaced. When literature starts seeking public recognition (prizes etc) it has become another marketed commodity, another unit of economic exchange. It has ceased to be an act of dissent, or of symbolic disruption.
    This is the case with Robinson’s conception of SF, though it is not unique to SF. SF just epitomises the abandonment of the politics and literature of the margins for the literature and the politics of the marketplace.
    Of course there are writers who mean a lot to me; WG Sebald, Eliot Weinberger, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Adam Phillips. They are very odd writers, writers who while they may be or have been successful, that success is more of an accident of history.

  9. And I forgot to say, that is why I like Overland. While it is a well-established journal, it is still very marginal and no-one interested in power and the market really gives a fuck about it. Which means that all kinds of interesting things are possible and can be both spoken and heard.

  10. Anonymous was me! (forgot to add my details). I would definitely like some more from you on your gang of oddities.

    Overland: a journal for over there.

    And now a zoomed out question. There’s a large-scale narrative here that TimT gets at, and I think perhaps you imply as well Stephen. Which is this: the shift from weird stuff to re-appropriated generic stuff to commodified stuff.

    (TimT said ” Then when all the others take up the idea of death rays and imitate it, the weird is neutralised. The way the genre has grown in the past century is perhaps disappointing – it has bifurcated into a series of sub-genres, each based around a separate weirdness”).

    In short, something happens at the margins, and some of it gets picked up, adopted, adapted, appropriated, made mainstream and diffused etc. This narrative is pretty much homologous with both the socio-cultural and techno-scientific accounts of innovation, change and tradition. Raymond Williams has his emergent-dominant-residual. The innovation discourse has it’s much lambasted yet still structural relevant innovation trajectory of new esoteric ideas > applied ideas > diffused ideas (and then superseded ideas). One historian of music I remember painted American minimalism (La Monte Young, Riley, Reich and Glass etc) as first a aesthetic (way of being / general approach which was quite marginal at first) then style (by the time we get to mid-career Reich/Glass and post-minimalists like John Adams) and finally technique (a soundworld to patch into any music someone might be creating).

    All of this suggests that the weird/marginal gets absorbed into dominant ways of being. Even those operating at the margins are part of this, in that brining something new into being is to be with the other in some meaningful way – and thus resolved to existing, more-dominant modes.

    This would suggest that the marginal/weird is only something that some pople and some occasions might approach, but that structurally there will ALWAYS be a mainstream, a dominant, a diffusion into norms. If this is the case, Debord rightly diagnoses the continually absorption of the alternative/critical into the spectacle, but he shouldn’t be complaining about it (because that’s the way it is!).

    Or yet, Stephen, and here’s the question, is this that way things are, structurally? Or could there be an approach to the weird that is more fully (less marginally, less temporarily) realisable by more of us more of the time?

    In other words, to use some of your words, is the statement that “there are never enough weird books in the world” a structural condition of any/all human existence (thus a condition to embrace somehow) or only a condition of our current human existence (thus a problem that’s perhaps solvable)?

  11. I think you have to have your wits about you to keep inhabiting the margins. Struggling toward the centre of power takes us nowhere. Two million people march against the Iraq War and no-one really gives a stuff. A few people camp in tents outside St Pauls and ask some questions and everyone goes nuts.
    Graffiti is a good example of working in the margins. It’s found in tunnels and the backs of warehouses and so on. No matter how much surveillance is targeted on eliminating it, it still keeps appearing.
    Adam Phillips says somewhere in an interview that now is a great time to be a poet, precisely because you can’t make money out of it and it’s regarded as irrelevant.
    Whereas every novelist dreams of producing a bestseller.

  12. Interesting observation about marching millions versus camping dozens.

    Talk of “margins” keeps the centre in play. So doesn’t that confirm the narrative of weird-to-normal (margin-to-centre) that I scoped above.

    Do is there a way to get beyond, or in some other reality to, margins-and-thus-centres. I ask because I don’t think we can complain about centres/norms/cliches of genres etc if our world view logically implicates and sustains the centres etc.

    Ie, stephen, you haven’t question answered my question (despite interesting leads in your response)!

  13. Oh, Ok. I thought I did.
    If the marginal always gets absorbed into the mainstream, then one needs to be very alert to what is mainstream and what it takes to be outside the mainstream, to remain marginal.
    I think that culturally we have centres that don’t tolerate margins. That’s an absurd concept, a centre without edges, but that’s where fascism starts, with a belief that there can be a complete self-determining project. Things marginal get absorbed in case they are a threat, so to go mainstream can sometimes be a way of voluntarily becoming subject to the centre. I imagine there have been cultures where there have been centres of constituted practice and identities but where marginality takes up a function as part of but also outside that identity.

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