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Sunday, December 27, 2009

A New SF Manifesto of Bologna: Jetse de Vries and the Literature of Change (Part Two)

I started this series of posts the other day and will now continue. You can read part one here and part three here.

Point ThreeSF is WASP-ish

By that, de Vries means that SF allows for the perpetuation of white-privilege, which is true on some level, but also somewhat ignorant of what WASP actually stands for (historically speaking). He uses this to point at the problem of international SF to get any play in the Western market, which is also true on a lot of levels, but once again misses a very important problem: translations. First off, the Western world speaks English (mostly), and, thus, only reads in that language. You can’t expect writers from China to have much hold on the Western market without their work being in English.

What's wrong with that? There isn’t much of a market for translations in most of the literary markets to begin with. While there are translations that do quite well, there are also lots of translations that don’t, and expecting publishers to take on the burden of translating work that will likely lose them income is like expecting football players to try to be as graceful as ballerinas on the field while simultaneously making big plays. You find a way to make the market (i.e. the consumers) interested in translated fiction, and you’ll have solved this problem entirely. Right now, that hasn’t happened.

However, de Vries is correct that SF probably should be more inclusive of non-standard (i.e. white) characters and themes, but that is also true of a lot of genres (most literary forms should be multicultural, not necessarily universally, but certainly more frequently).

For the record: I actually wish more works were translated into English, particularly from China, because I’m curious about what is being written out there, but I also understand that I am a minority in the market. The people who control what gets produced by publishers are the people who put books on the bestseller’s list, generally speaking (yes, I know this is not true of everything).

Point FourSF is commercially dead

This is where I think the most tired arguments are being presented. Perhaps the funniest part of de Vries’ discussion of the commercial death of SF is that he uses as an example a book written over twenty years ago and associated (or started, rather) with a genre that has, for the most part, actually experienced commercial death (it didn’t truly die, but it certainly ceased to be a major player and has since been consumed by other forms of SF). So, his example of “risk-taking SF” is a book that represents a genre that is already dead, and this is what SF should become? (He’s talking about Neuromancer, in case you didn’t read his post.)

Let me rephrase: de Vries thinks that SF doesn’t take enough risks (it does, but nobody buys the books that take a risk, apparently, and consumers seem far more interested in re-hashes of the stuff that sells in the theaters, which is true), and so his solution is to follow the lead of other seemingly dead-end subgenres in order to make SF wonderful and vibrant again. Brilliant idea. Let’s kill SF while its still standing and feign shock when it stops breathing.

For the record, William Gibson actually thought taking on the label “cyberpunk” was a horrible idea. He said as much in an book signing in Santa Cruz some time back. See, Gibson is not a moron; he knew that cyberpunk would be short-lived, and it was. The result? Gibson survived because he refused to take on the title and continued writing in and outside of that genre, and the vast majority of the other “cyberpunks” disappeared entirely (with the exception to a handful of authors who managed to get a hold in other subgenres).

The thing is, SF is taking risks. Many writers of non-tie-in SF are doing exactly what de Vries wants the genre to do and they either sell very well (Robert J. Sawyer) or not. Some have tried to revitalize some of the old gosh-wow elements of golden age SF (John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell) and a lot are simply going with what works: tie-in fiction and space opera.

SF, contrary to what de Vries seems to think, is also tackling the modern world in a future context. Kim Stanley Robinson and many others have written on climate change and there are authors today tackling everything from the potential ramifications of a Chinese superpower to the rise of a radical religious movement here in the States and elsewhere. I don’t know where de Vries has been living, but he’s certainly not on the up-and-up in the SF genre (I’m not even on the up-and-up and I seem to have a clearer picture of what is going on).

The problem? He expects the genre to tackle real-world dystopic situations with puppies and flowers. Screw realism. Screw what might actually happen to a world struck by rapid, unstoppable climate change. No, we should paint it all pretty and make it a giant masturbatory scientific orgy in which the conflict is little more than “how do we fix it / oh, let’s do that / but it’s hard / it’s okay, we’ll manage / yippee.” Well, if that’s the kind of SF de Vries wants, you can count me out.

In fact, what SF should probably be doing is splitting in two, with the “serious” side pulling out all the stops and coming up with the nifty ideas, the harsh realities, and the hardcore SF we’ve come to love, and the more flashy side exploding Star Wars style with as much escapist fantasy as humanly possible. He (de Vries) thinks the second part is a bad thing, and you have to wonder why. What could possibly be bad about SF doing exactly what all literature should: entertain. Consumers want this; publishers are giving it to them (kind of). Get over it.

The only thing that actually makes sense in all of this is that maybe SF should be marketing itself more adequately to the large female reading population. But, again, there are no solutions. Just more doom and gloom from Mr. de Vries (SF is failing cause it’s not doing X, but I won’t tell you how to fix it).

Part three will be coming soon. For now, I'd like to hear from you. Let me know what you think (whether you agree or disagree) in the comments.

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  1. Nice piece. I wanted to deconstruct but just didn't have the time or energy this time around.

    The question preying on my mind right now is - what's the motivation behind all of this negativity?

  2. Honestly, I think if someone is going to make an argument for SF to change or die, then they should at least do so with a clear understanding of the actual genre. de Vries makes it a little to easy to pick apart his argument (particularly using the cyberpunk example).

    I don't see it as negativity so much as necessary debate. It just happens that the debate isn't a happy one.

  3. Anonymous8:26 PM

    Great post! I really think Jetse might've been better off posting several different entries for each section of ideas, because putting the bad in with the good/interesting has made it seem like his post is a failure, when, in fact, compartmentalized parts of it are quite interesting.


  4. Jeff: I agree. He makes several good points, but collected together it's really flawed.