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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Entrenched Opposition: A Rebuttal (Part Two)

Riadan, one of the commentators on my recent post on science fiction’s battle against an entrenched opposition had some interesting things to say. Since his or her comments were rather long and deserved significant rebuttal and discussion, I thought I would approach them via a dedicated post. So, without further adieu, here goes a (mostly) line-by-line counter argument to Riadan:
No, Science fiction does not have a near impenetrable no-mans land to cross. No, Science fiction does not have an impenetrable social barrier to destroy. Science fiction has grabbed the hearts and minds of the populace.

Who these days are not born with the concept that maybe, just maybe, the future will be awesome. Maybe, just maybe, our race will not lob deathweapons at every soul on earth. I know you are a young white male. Who of your peers are not touched by science fiction in a very personal manner? Do you have friends who are Star Trek geeks? Or Star Wars nerds, perhaps. We are fucking science fiction, and many people realize our scientific and technical world.
I think we have the problem here of science fiction style. True, science fiction has grabbed the dominant culture fairly easily in recent years, but this is through the medium of film more-so than the medium of books. Film, unfortunately, is not approached, consumed, or even perceived as the same thing as a book, and so is a separate entity. But, film, especially in film studies, has had a hard time trying to make the case for the value of science fiction film, particularly because what has been most successful in film are not those occasional films with something “valuable” to say (making a personal judgment here on “value”), but those films most recognized as flashy or indicative of what Ellison and others have angrily called “scifi” rather than “science fiction.” So, while Star Wars and Star Trek and Transformers and all those other massive franchises, and even small ones like Firefly, et al, have captured the minds and hearts of the general viewer, they have not wormed their way into the esteemed clutches of the academia at the same pace. There is, I would argue, far more work to be done in film than in literature.

That said, working back to literature, I think it is fair to say that this assumption of widespread adoption of science fiction literature is not nearly as true as you might think. We frequently see talk of science fiction literature sales dropping (with the exception of media tie-ins); if that is true, then it is hard to say that science fiction has even managed to maintain its own selective readership, let alone been properly exposed to or adopted by those outside of it.
What argument are you rallying against?
You quote Margaret Atwood without taking into account her context. She does write literary fiction, even though I sneer at her applying such a label to herself. She has never denied that she has written sci-fi novels. Her commentary to Oryx and Crake proves that (forgive me for not citing correctly).
Her commentary has never suggested that she calls herself a “science fiction writer.” Quite the contrary. In fact, she goes to great lengths to get around the fact that she does write science fiction by pulling the “furniture” argument or using terminology that was never meant to be used the way she proposes (speculative fiction began as a term to mean science fiction and has since been adopted as the umbrella term for SF and fantasy; she seems to think it’s something else). The problem with Atwood is that even when she seems to be accommodating, she is simultaneously defending her high-brow position of literary quality and other such mumbo jumbo. Take her 2005 article for the Guardian. Sure, she starts to admit, there, that she writes science fiction, but also goes to great lengths to say she does not. She’s saying “you can call it whatever you want, but I call it this, and that’s that.” The fact that Atwood actually does write science fiction, but refuses to use the label herself implies that the little bit of literary snobbery that keeps SF out of the literature party on Saturday nights is still alive and kicking.
You do not provide an adequate counter-argument for your statement. There is no pro to your anti. There is no thoughtpolice to your Winston. Instead you fawn over the achievements (and great achievements they are) of the sci-fi greats of the past (though you missed out a few. The genius of Olaf Stapledon, and the portentous paranoia of Ballard and Burgess did well to establish sci-fi as mainstream and as *ahem* winning) and while fawning you provide no counter.
What is the counter? Science fiction certainly has made great strides. There are, as I mentioned, a handful of programs dedicated to the stuff and even a research organization, and colleges have begun to include more science fiction curriculum. But that doesn’t counter the fact that science fiction isn’t there yet. It hasn’t secured its place. It has a very big leg in the door, sure, but it has yet to break through with its torso and head. The anti-SF crowd periodically slams that door against SF’s leg just to make a point.

I get that SF has come a long way, as a film genre and a literature genre, but coming a long way is not the same as making it. It’s getting there, but we shouldn’t be too secure as SF fans to think that the war is over. The entrenched opposition is waging a fierce battle.
Instead you use an "us-vs-them" mentality, which does nothing to forward the so-called "cause" of science fiction.

Science fiction was born (as we know it. Fiction magazines of the thirties etc) as a product of the popular.
Science Fiction is a Popular Movement. "We" won with the printing of the first paperback sci-fi novel. We won when the first person read that novel on the train.
The distinction between science fiction and "regular" fiction is blurry at best, as is the distinction between "literary" fiction and science fiction.
Hell, what's to stop a detective novel being a fictive literary work? Detective fiction has been regarded as trash just as long as sci-fi has, and just as unfairly. This does not mean that detective fiction has lost its battle against the Plebes, or the Masses, or the Workers, or whatever the fuck you envision the Other to be.'
This would imply that there was never a battle to be had, which would be true if all we were dealing with were popular culture. But, since what I’m focused on here is not popular culture so much as what would be considered the “dominant” culture (though not by numbers), it seems irrelevant to claim victory through existence. If that’s all science fiction wants to achieve, then it’s not the field I should be studying. Science fiction, to me, desires more. As much as it is always looking toward the future, so too much it always look at the present and the future of its own existence.
Every single person with access to Western mass-media has access to science fiction. Everyone has seen Starship Troopers. Everyone has seen Alien.
Both films have been reviewed as high art. Both films are considered to be exemplary specimens of their work, and both have been analysed as being more than their constituent parts, one being a commentary on Fascism in the military and one being a deconstruction of rape. (bonus points if you can tell which one is which. Not as easy as you'd think.)
I think it’s unfair to assume that everyone has seen Starship Troopers or Alien (you're flirting with hyperbole here). Clearly not everyone has seen it or the ticket and DVD sales for those two movies would be astronomical. But, again, we’re talking film, not literature. I wasn’t talking about films, to be honest. I see science fiction film as wholly separate from science fiction literature. It has to be, in my opinion, because what makes film work is not necessarily true of literature. Also, only some consider them to be works of “high art.” There are even those in film studies who would argue vehemently against such a notion. Such folks do live in little magic boxes of obscure French films and other such things.
As to academia? Real learning has never been by rote, taking down notes in a class taught by someone with the appropriate credentials.
Real learning has been the experience. If you write a PHD thesis, and it's accepted by your university of study, you can probably make your own class. When you start teaching your own beliefs on science fiction, much like those at Liverpool, VUW, MIT and fucking Oxford, that's when science fiction will have won. Science fiction is, and has been a legitimate field of study since the moment someone thought that there might be more to writing than words on a page. Without that mindset, we wouldn't have theology, ethics or philosophy.
Technically this is true. Yes, the second someone said “hey, there’s more to this than meets the eye” it gained some measure of victory. The problem isn’t that SF has won in one sense, but that it has yet to win in all senses. I liken this to the racism problem. As much as we might want to say that we’ve won the fight against the most insidious forms of racism, we still have yet to defeat racism itself. That is a battle that will probably last for as long as our species exists. The same is probably true of science fiction, but there are battles we can win that need to be fought now and not set aside simply because readers and fans are secure.
And with that, /rant. I'd love to have a real time conversation with yez, bra.
Perhaps some day. I’m actually going to be presenting a paper at the University of Florida on Kage Baker’s The House of the Stag soon. That would be a perfect time.

And that’s that. I have more thoughts on all of this stuff, but that will come in a new post. Any thoughts for now?

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  1. Few thoughts, reading this back-and-forth between the two sides:

    1) I think it's a bit much to say that the first sci-fi paperback was a populist or even popular event. Most early sci-fi and fantasy were done for magazines and printed in novella/novel form under the impressions that the market was exceedingly limited. Author Michael Moorcock even went so far as to reminisce that he and all his writing buddies thought they were only writing these things for themselves to enjoy, and a small, inclusive minority fan base. I think this is much closer to the true origins of sci-fi - it's always looked BACK upon approvingly, but generally dismissed during its time.

    2) Expanding on the idea that sci-fi films and sci-fi books are different beasts - I think that, when considering sci-fi's contemporary success or lack thereof, the other elements of the work have to be considered. For instance, a new Star Wars flick, or let's say Star Trek. It's sci-fi, but it's also a $100 million summer blockbuster. Are the majority going to see it because it's "sci-fi"? Or because it's the latter? One thing the popular culture has discovered, is that "sci-fi" doesn't ruin an already popular thing, and often draws not only the usual crowd, but additionally the sci-fi crowd that may or may not have been interested before. When Margaret Atwood writes sci-fi, then it receives the attention of Atwood's fans AND sci-fi fans. The sci-fi fans approve of Atwood toughing out the rough terrain of speculative fiction. Atwood's fans approve of her daring to "use the furniture" of a pariahed sub-genre. Has sci-fi benefited from this? Not a jot. It's hard to argue that this HURTS it any further, but it's status is not generally raised.

    3) The fact that pop culture is labored over these days in the annals of the critic and essayist, is in such infant stages that it only truly effects pop culture on the whole and not any particular genre. For instance, my gf just started graduate school for film studies, and in her classes (a class, there is one outspoken girl who's fervent goal is to bring what she calls "fan culture" to critical film analysis. Now, by "fan culture" she means (because she only ever mentions) Joss Whedon and Straczynski (sp?) things. LOST and TRANSFORMERS and WATCHMEN. Anything that isn't a hugely popular, hype-generating machine? These are never mentioned. Even in the world of film, there are sci-fi movies galore that could use further critical discussion and consideration. Movies like THB, TRON, THEY LIVE, STRANGE DAYS, hell I'd even toss EVENT HORIZON in there. But these are rarely ever mentioned. Because they're not already considered worth scrutiny, and they're not widely popular, though all are well known (some more than others). 2001 will be discussed forever, because it's Kubrick, not because it's 2001. FIREFLY will have its day because it's Whedon, not because it's FIREFLY.

    And I think that's it. Might have been more, but that took too long to write, got distracted. :) --Dave B.

  2. Also I would like to apologise for the copious use of profanity in my rant. That embarasses me and weakens my position. I should have given my short essay a read through and edit before posting, but y'know, we can't have everything, right?

  3. Dave,
    1) I agree. SF clearly did not win as far as general approval, though I think Riadan was trying to argue more for the idea that having published a real book was evidence enough of SF's approval by a fan base. I, of course, am talking less about fans and more about a more critical group.

    2) SF has been far more successful in films than it has been in literature (both on the popular end and the critical end).

    Riadan: Don't worry about it. The cursing wasn't so bad.