Saturday, December 11, 2010


'A man in court dress cannot walk the streets of London without being pelted by the mob . . . the Londoners hoot the king and the royal family when they appear in public.'
Casanova, 1746 (quoted in Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography).

Thursday, December 09, 2010


Earth from the cupola of the ISS.

Earth from the Moon

Earth and the Moon, acquired by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter while in orbit around Mars, at a distance of 142 million kilometres.

Earth from the surface of Mars, acquired by the Spirit rover.

Earth from Saturn, acquired by the Cassini orbiter, at a distance of more than one billion kilometres.

Earth from the edge of the Solar System, acquired by Voyager 1, at a distance of more than 6000 million kilometres.

'That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. ' Carl Sagan

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Something Just Happened

'How nice,' Peter Handke remarks, in an interview with Die Zeit, 'literature would be without all of these journalistic, family and society novels . . . Eruptions are needed, a controlled letting go, not this prescription-like writing.' And in a limpid essay in The New York Times, Haruki Murakami suggests that neorealistic literature - the novelist as chronicler of the age, providing a tidy, humanised view of a big picture his readers can all agree on - has had its day. Things have changed, hinging on two events. One hopeful: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the swift crumbling of the Soviet empire. One dreadful: the fall of the two towers on September 11 2001.
These two acts of destruction, which played out on either side of the millennial turning point with such vastly different momentum in each case, appear to have combined into a single pair that greatly transformed our mentality . . .

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?

Asking how novelists should respond to this - as they must, or else fall silent or become irrelevant - Murakami observes that his kind of fiction, the kind once called (amongst other things) magical realism, the kind which doesn't always faithfully follow the tramlines of known reality, is now no longer an -ism. It isn't off to the side. It's part of the main event.

As a science-fiction writer, I find Murakami's ideas incredibly interesting. And hopeful. Or rather, potentially hopeful. For something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn't it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. Meanwhile, they grumble, 'mainstream' writers are grabbing ideas from the genre and doing terrible things to them without acknowledging the source. As if permission could be somehow given, or withheld.

I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we're in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit - the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present's different air, that's exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

SF v. the Reality Lords

From Fredric Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future, a footnote that nails the dichotomy between 'mainstream' literature and SF:
The conventional high-culture repudiation of SF - its stigmatization of the purely formulaic (which reflects the original sin of the form in its origin in the pulps), complaints about the absence of complex and psychologically "interesting" characters (a position which does not seem to have kept pace with the postcontemporary crisis of the "centred subject"), a yearning for original literary styles which ignores the stylistic variations of modern SF (as Philip K. Dick's defamiliarization of spoken American) - is probably not a matter of personal taste, nor is it to be addressed by way of purely aesthetic arguments, such as the attempt to assimilate selected SF works to the canon as such. We must here identify a kind of generic revulsion, in which this form and narrative discourse is the object of psychic resistance as a whole and the target of a kind of literary "reality principle". For such readers, in other words, the Bourdieu-style rationalizations which rescue high literary forms from the guilty associations on unproductiveness and sheer diversion and which endow them with socially acknowledged justification, are here absent.
In other words, attempts to appeal to the gatekeepers of the high literary citadel by pointing out that SF is firmly rooted in the present, that it extrapolates and amplifies current nightmares and obsessions, or that it explores alternate social structure through utopian or dystopian constructions, are, even though valid, pointless. Not only because there's no chance of success, but also because who wants the career arc of archetypal neorealists like Ian McEwan (from supple postmodern fabulist to shuttered reactionary self-crucified by the iron nails of didactic social realism and (again, from Jameson) "the great empiricist maxim, nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses")? Better to turn away from that and address the great luminous question that SF should make its own: what do you mean by reality, anyway?
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