February 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

All in the Family

There is a fascinating essay by Gabriel Josipovici in the TLS (20 November 2007) on what he calls the “Crisis of Modernism,” which takes a line from Samuel Beckett as its title: “Fail Again, Fail Better.” In a passing remark during the course of this he says: "A genre is a bit like a family: you do not have to explain who you are each time you enter the room, you are taken for granted. But families can seem constricting as well as enabling."

He is talking about genre not as we commonly use the term nowadays, but in an older, broader, perhaps more correct sense that refers to "epic," "comedy," "pastoral elegy" and so forth. Nevertheless, his comment applies as well to science fiction and horror and crime and romance. And that encapsulates a lot of what I am trying to write about in these columns: I relish the familial comfort of science fiction, but I rage against its constrictions.

It is, I know, a contradictory response. I am engaged in an argument with myself about sf-old and sf-yet-to-be and that awkward fence-sitting corollary, sf-now. It is, of course, an argument I can never win.

The key is something suggested by Josipovici in the sentence that immediately preceeds the passage I have quoted: "For the novel is not a genre but precisely that which emerges when genres no longer seem viable." And in the smaller sense of genre that we use, I wonder if we are not also reaching such a moment. Whether the old, pure science fiction is still viable, or is rather running out of steam and hence turning into something else. And in those circumstances I am caught on the cusp, looking back with regret to the familial embrace of sf as I remember it, looking forward with relish to an escape from the constrictions, but an escape that isn’t exactly science fiction, that isn’t exactly family.

We do not go gently into that good night, of course. However much we welcome and encourage change, change is always hard and cruel and difficult to come to terms with. It always necessitates the loss of something we would rather not lose. It always resolves into a shape that takes some time for us to recognise, and that we may never like. So if science fiction is changing, as I sense it is, what is it that we are losing? And what discomforting new shape are we going to have to come to terms with?

Of course, change is not inevitable. One of the things I am trying to come to terms with through the medium of these columns is the basic question: is the genre changing? Not how, but whether. But I can’t help feeling that what does not change does not live, and even if we don’t like the result perhaps we should welcome the process. Yet there are always attempts to retain the true quill, just as there are always attempts to claim as sf that which no longer is. I have probably been guilty of both. But I find myself more and more hesitant about claiming anything as the true quill; and more and more hesitant about saying of anything that it is clearly and unequivocally science fiction.

It goes back to my very first column here: I don’t think that any of us know what science fiction is any more. Or rather, I suspect we all have our own private science fictions, our own private set of criteria by which we decide: this falls within the bounds, that doesn’t. Some of those criteria are very tightly drawn, some (my own included) are very loose, but all these private worlds are drifting apart and there is consequently less cross-over. You might say X is sf and I would say no it is fantasy; you might say X is horror and I would say no it is sf; you might say X is mainstream and I would say no it is sf. And so it goes.

In these circumstances, you would anticipate that the biggest battles for the soul of sf would occur on the borders where we are used to one genre fading into another. But over the last few years I’ve come to see that the real life-or-death struggle is being fought out right in the heartlands of the genre, where you would expect the least disagreement that so-and-so is sf.

Here, for example, we have seen the new hard sf and, more recently, the new space opera. If genre is a family, then hard sf and space opera are surely the old duffers who turn up at every gathering. You may be embarrassed by them whenever you meet someone from outside the family, but secretly you’re really rather fond of them. And above all you never question that they belong, their place within the complex warp and weft of family relationships is assured.

But now someone has given them a make-over. They are wearing the spangly clothes of a different generation, they are talking a language they never used before, they are no longer familiar. In The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, for instance, they are dressed in the glitz of post-cyberpunk post-humanity; they talk of different realities and probabilities; some of them, for heaven’s sake, are almost entirely planetbound. These are not the characteristics of space opera we recall from Edmond Hamilton or E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith or A. E. Van Vogt. They are certainly the characteristics of sf, every story in the anthology is undoubtedly science fiction, some indeed are very good science fiction, but with a couple of exceptions they are not space opera, new old or anywhere in between.

Much the same thing happened a little while ago with new hard sf, though this followed on from a revisionist take on the sub-genre in The Ascent of Wonder, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, which tried to appropriate as hard sf all sorts of stories (Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne? Prima Belladonna by J.G. Ballard?) which no one had previously thought came within a hundred miles of hard sf. In other words, there seems to be an uncertainty about what constitutes the very core of the genre. If a work is science fiction, then it has to be claimed for the heartland because otherwise it might drift away in the on-going boundary changes and be lost forever. We cannot be content that Rappaccini’s Daughter is science fiction, it has to be hard sf or it might cease to be family; we cannot be certain that a story set below the ice of Europa is science fiction unless we re-address it as space opera.

Maybe, we seem to be saying, those embarrassing old duffers are the only family we have. And all those in-laws and third-cousins-twice-removed who have been accumulated into the extended family of science fiction aren’t really family at all. Things fall apart, as Yeats said, the centre cannot hold. And our growing uncertainties about what science fiction is, and how it is changing, and what it might become, are opening up visions of anarchy unless we retrench and redefine and pull in to all we know for sure is family.

And part of me is saying yes, of course, that is what science fiction always was and always will be, and part of me is saying no, the genre is expansive and about change so we must embrace the very uncertainty of genre. If families are where we have our fiercest arguments, our most spectacular break-ups, then I am fighting on both sides of the fence at once. Certainly I’ll be continuing this argument with myself in this column next month, and probably in future months as well.