Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Borderline Anxiety (2)

Whenever mainstream or literary fiction dares to trespass on territory that science fiction considers its own, reaction from within the field ranges from the kind of hooting animosity displayed by apemen contesting ownership of a waterhole in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, through serene indifference, to the craven capitulation of The Simpsons' news anchor, Kent Brockman: ‘I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords . . .’

Paul Kincaid’s recent column in Bookslut is, unfortunately, a pretty good example of Brockmanism. After discussing use of a medical procedure as a plot device in Graham Swift’s novel Tomorrow, Kincaid, previously the administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, goes on to imply that literary fiction may be doing a better job of portraying real science and real scientists than science fiction. While science was once ‘one of the things that cut science fiction off from the rest of literature,’ he says, now it’s ‘ordinary and about something.’ Further, now that ‘the transcendence, the wonder that were handy terms when talking about big concept sf have been taken seriously and science fiction has become almost an ecstatic experience . . . perhaps it’s a good thing that the mainstream has discovered the scientist -- because science fiction seems to have lost him.’

The insect overlords have taken up SF’s most treasured theme! Surrender at once! Round up the usual suspects and set them to work in the underground sugar caves of our new masters!

Well, it’s certainly true that literary fiction is paying more attention to science these days. And the idea that, as science becomes normalised and incorporated into the tropes of literary fiction, so SF has retreated into a kind of mystic ecstasy, is an interesting one. Unfortunately, it’s completely false. And Kincaid’s attempts to justify it don’t hold water for a second.

In discussing literary novels that feature scientists, Kincaid ranges over the past sixty-fifty years (it should be noted that he mistakenly attributes authorship of his earliest example, The Small Back Room (1942), to Nevil Shute; in fact, it was written by Nigel Balchin, and Balchin’s scientist hero was no boffin or administrator, remote from ordinary human experience, but a genuinely tortured soul). Yet after claiming that ‘we seem to be seeing fewer and fewer scientists in science fiction’, and telling us that SF is disappearing up its own transcendental fundament, Kincaid gives only one supposed example of this trend, M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams (2006). I confess that I haven’t yet read it. But I have Googled it. It’s a fantasy novella. It’s clearly labelled as a fantasy novella, and is published in a small press collection of fantasy stories. Its time-travel may well be achieved through what Kincaid describes as ‘a mixture of amateurism and mysticism’, but it can’t typify his claim that SF is retreating from realism for the simple reason that it isn’t SF.

And even if Rickert’s novella was SF, it doesn’t take much thought to come up with a hefty list of SF novels from the past decade, much less the past sixty-five years, that have dealt with science and scientists in a serious, realistic, and sympathetic manner. Here are a few, more or less off the top of my head: Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed; Greg Bear’s Vitals; Gregory Benford’s Cosm, Eater, and The Martian Race; Greg Egan’s Teranesia and Schild’s Ladder; Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, and his climate change trilogy; Bruce Sterling’s Distraction. As I have no shame, I’ll also mention my own The Secret Of Life and White Devils. I’m sure that you can think of many more, but I hope this little list is enough to convince you that SF has neither ‘lost’ the scientist, nor its interest in rigorous, serious, and thrillingly speculative explorations of the outer reaches of science and technology. Of course, some SF does have a problem with keeping abreast of science’s rapidly advancing cutting edge, but I think I’ll reserve that topic for another time.


Blogger Ted said...

Minor correction: Bruce Sterling's novel was titled Distraction; Distress was one of Egan's novels.

September 22, 2007 1:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! I should know better than to trust the top of my head.

September 23, 2007 11:53 pm  

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