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Monday, December 28, 2009

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

Now for the final post in my response to Jetse de Vries' post. You can read the previous two parts by clicking the following links: part one; part two.

Here goes:

Point FiveSF dismisses actual science

This one is easy to deal with: what consumers want is what they get. You want more SF that deals realistically with all aspects of science (even the aspects that most readers don’t know about anyway)? Well, then you have to change the public. Good luck with that. If scientists knew how to change the public’s view of science enough to make them want to change how we teach science in school (and thus affect change on science literacy), then they’d probably have done it already. Consumers don’t know the vast majority of the actual rules of science; SF writers tend to know this. Some of them want accurate science; some of them don’t. You tell me which way works best.

Now, we can moan and groan about how this is terrible and oh so sad, but that’s not something consumers give a flying fig about. Why? Because they don’t read SF to be educated about physics or chemistry or what have you. They read SF to be entertained. The ones who read SF for accuracy are a minority. That’s not to say that accurate SF can’t work, just that consumers generally can’t tell the difference between what is right and what is not. Don’t believe me? Take a camera and a microphone to the streets of any major city and start asking people either whether they care if the science is accurate or whether or not they know the basics of science. I guarantee you that most people (i.e. most consumers) will not have a clue.

It is not SF's job to educate people.

Point SixSF isn’t relevant (enough)

Never mind that de Vries contradicts himself on this point (earlier he says that SF doesn’t really deal with present worldly concerns, but then here he says that it does; maybe he should make up his mind). What is important here is the whole point of the optimistic anthology he’s been working on: SF is so depressing and doom and gloom and sad and boohoo. SF has no solutions. It’s just about how things go from bad to worse. My question is: does de Vries actually read books, or does he just make this stuff up as he goes?

Of course things go from bad to worse. That’s what makes a novel tick. You can’t have a story that goes from good to gooderer and expect anyone to pay attention. That’s the kind of crap that keeps five-year-olds entertained during the day while their parents are cleaning the house. That’s what makes Barney, the Teletubbies, and Blue's Clues work for kids and not for adults. The only way literature for older kids and adults works is if it goes from good to bad to worse to better. That’s how it works.

The whole doom and gloom proclamation, however, is remarkably narrow-minded. Maybe if all you ever read are SF novels about doomsday futures you’d get a bit bothered, but this all reads to me as a desperate need on the part of de Vries to actually get out there and do some more reading. Either he has been incredibly isolated where he lives or he’s just never picked up the right books, because all this talk about how most SF is about how the future is all bad (and not good) is like saying that all football games are about hitting other people for the fun of it. Hardly.

There are plenty of science fiction writers who are imagining futures that have problems that get resolved. They don’t always get fully resolved (after all, a lot of SF deals with planet- or multisystem-wide problems), but there is usually a significant leap in the happy direction at the end (the world is saved, the characters we’ve rooted for finish a mission, or bring down and evil dictator, or whatever—the examples are endless). The doom and gloom stuff is a particular brand. We call them dystopias, and they’ve been around for quite a long time.

And it is here again that de Vries demonstrates his complete ignorance of the real world. SF is supposed to “get off its arse” and “be totally open to outside influences and other cultures, and get involved with proactive thinking, proudly using science, about the near future.” Just before that little quote, however, de Vries points to something said by Athena Andreadis about the fall of science within the mainstream (political and social) in the U.S. Somewhere in there de Vries has a little disconnect. This is what he is saying:
SF should further ostracize itself by becoming more and more about real world science, despite the fact that the general public (i.e. consumers) is scientifically illiterate and that such illiteracy is unlikely to change any time soon.
Yeah. Smart. Let’s make SF more and more about stuff that the general public clearly doesn’t give a crap about. Don’t get me wrong; I agree. I’d like my SF to be more accurate at times, but to assume that this is going to help SF in any way is absurd. People do not give a shit. If they did, scientists would be revered for being totally awesome and we’d all be living in a world that reminds us, surprisingly, of an episode of Sliders (you know, the one where Quinn’s twin in another dimension is both a science wiz and on a Wheaties box, and everyone seems to get off on the whole science thing, with Einstein being the equivalent of Elvis). Boy would that be one heck of a fantasy world.

That’s all I have to say on that. As much as I’d like to get on board with all this, I feel like it’s doing nothing but proposing a lot of ideas that sound good, but in practice could literally destroy the SF genre. This whole “optimistic SF” thing is not necessarily a new idea (“optimistic SF” has been around for a while), but certainly new in the sense of a collected entity. And it’s untested. We don’t know how well the general public will take this, or whether it will do SF any good at all. If de Vries honestly thinks his little movement is going to bring the readers in by the thousands, then he’s living in a magical place I wish we all could live in (it feels a little like Brave New World, to be honest, with all that happy injected right into the bloodstream).

There are good ideas in here, but even a good idea can be devastating when combined with a lot of bad ones. Whether or not the de Vries’ Shine anthology will be any good is yet to be seen. Maybe it will come and go just like the whole Mundane SF movement and we’ll be back to square one, with lots of talk about the death of SF (which, let’s face it, is having one of the longest deaths of anything, considering that every month holds a new funeral) and no useful solutions.

P.S.: Brokeback Mountain is not a Western. It’s a movie set in the West, but it is not a Western. If you’re going to use something as an example that makes SF look silly, at least get your example right. A Western is a story set in the western United States during the period of expansion and exploration (i.e. set in the Old West). It’s not gay cowboys on a Ranch in the 60s (or whatever year that movie was set in). For the record, Brokeback Mountain was a fantastic movie, but it’s not a Western. Also, there are writers in SF who are dealing with LGBT issues. A lot of them. There's a whole award geared towards recognizing such works. So, again, SF is dealing with real world issues and not at all as irrelevant as de Vries would have us think. Nice try, though.

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