January 2009

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Historicize Me Now

I am, as Adam Roberts would delight in pointing out to me, an amateur of science fiction. That is, in terms of this criticism lark, I am not an academic. This does, however, have its advantages. It means, for example, that I do not have to accept the various shades of critical theory as monolithic belief systems. I can, rather, take them as toolboxes into which I might dip as the fancy takes me to find whichever device happens to work in terms of any particular text. Now I know that this mix and match approach would have Leavis and Frye and Derrida spinning in their graves, but it can bring some interesting results.

One of the theoretical toolboxes that seems, perhaps surprisingly, to be quite productive when applied to science fiction is New Historicism, or at least that part of it that involves contextualising a text within its particular milieu. This is not by any means a new approach to the genre. It is implicit in J.G. Ballard’s remark, back in the 1960s, that science fiction is the only way to write about the present. It is explicit in the argument John Clute has been propounding since at least the 1980s that any science fiction novel has three dates: the date it was written, the date it is set, and the date it is about. I tend to illustrate this argument by referring to Philip K. Dick: whenever his novels are ostensibly set, they are almost invariably about California in the 1950s.

One of the most obvious ways that science fiction novels tend to reflect the mores of their age is in their depiction of war. Novels written in the aftermath of the Second World War tend to show war as a straightforward conflict between the forces of good and evil, monumental armies clashing upon resonant battlefields. The Cold War, and particularly the nuclear dread associated with it, changed all that. Now one mighty battle was unlikely to provide a conclusion (if it happened at all), but rather there was a weary sense of endless conflict; and the concentration was more likely to be on civilian casualties than brave warriors. There was an episode from the first series of Star Trek, "A Taste of Armageddon," in which a seemingly eternal war between two planets is fought by computer simulation with the "victims" submitting themselves for euthanasia, that perfectly captures this Cold War sense of helplessness. Stories written in the shadow of the Vietnam War gave another cast to the war story. Now the concentration was again on the soldiers, but these were not heroes or villains but victims, and what we saw was the psychological damage of a war whose shape could never be entirely grasped, and alienation from what they had left behind. We see this in stories as varied as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard. Shepard’s famously tart exchange with George Turner arose from the fact that these two old soldiers had a very different experience of war, and hence a very different understanding of the fiction of war.

We are just now beginning to get a war fiction born from the aftermath of the Iraq War. It takes a while for these things to make their way through the system, for the writer to absorb what is going on, shape that into fiction, and see that fiction work its way through the slow and convoluted publishing process. But we certainly seem to be getting it now: I recently read two novels back to back that were both clearly inspired by the Iraq War.

Of Wind and Sand by Sylvie Bérard is a fairly simplistic take which does little more than shift the whole sorry affair to a distant desert world where human invaders enter into a pointless and endless war with the lizard inhabitants. The Quiet War by Paul McAuley is a much more subtle work which recounts the gathering conflict between a future Earth recovering from ecological disaster and its young colonies out among the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Why do I see the Iraq War in such disparate novels? For a start, both spend far more time examining the peace movement, which is presented as radical and anti-authoritarian, than they do the conflict. As those of us old enough to recall the countless anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam Era, that war did spawn a peace movement, but it hardly ever resonates in the fiction that arose from the war. The peace movement that arose before the Iraq War even began, and that continues to have an effect on international politics, particularly in the shapes and arguments of elections, to this day, is of a different order to that ragged cry of outrage against the Vietnam War. How the call for peace can lead to such intense questioning of the moral integrity of one’s own government seems to be an especially telling effect of the Iraq War, and it is one of the driving forces of both these novels.

The only characters who take on a distinctive individuality in Bérard’s book are those, both lizard and human, who reach out for some understanding with the other side. For McAuley, most of the characters who engage our interest, and most of the incidents that drive the plot, revolve around questioning the need for war, trying to find some way to avoid war, or in the end some way to bring about a peaceful resolution. Though the motives of the characters are never as one-sided as they are in Bérard’s novel, this is a war novel about peace.

But it is not just the underlying political understanding that shapes these two as post-Iraq War works. One of the features of earlier wars, even to some extent Vietnam, was the sense that we could identify ourselves with the good guys, so war novels also had an element of the good guys versus the bad guys. Not so with Iraq. Atrocities committed in the name of the West, at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and countless other places, administrations that have shamelessly lied to promote the cause of  war, and so many other instances have made it hard for us to feel that we are on the right side in this conflict. Yet suicide bombings, the televised slaughter of hostages, and so forth make it equally hard to think that the other side might be in the right. In some way the gut-wrenching immorality of acts on both sides have made it easy to detach the Iraq War from the question of sides and make it an issue of the rightness or wrongness of war in isolation rather than the rightness or wrongness of any individual side. This slight but significant moral shift in the way we might write about war is there very simplistically in Of Wind and Sand, in which all the characters who behave with any measure of moral rectitude work for the cause of peace, and all the characters who work for war behave in a brutal and unfeeling manner. The Quiet War makes the same point, but in a much more subtle way: here both sides are in the right, the Earth party are heroic in their devotion to ecology and the battles they have fought to repair the damaged planet, the colonists around Jupiter are heroic in the life they have wrought and in their commitment to the future. It is easy to do bad deeds in a bad cause, but McAuley’s characters do bad deeds in a good cause; and that moral dislocation is, I think, one of the key social effects of the Iraq War as reflected in both these novels.

I could go on; there are numerous other instances, both large and small, that seem to tie both these novels in to the particular moral milieu of the moment. But what is interesting is how looking at them through the lens of their historical moment adds to our appreciation of the fiction and, perhaps, to our understanding of the moment.