Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Only Real

In her perceptive review of Paulo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife, Sherryl Vint observes that 'As many critics have noted in a variety of contexts, as the 21st century unfolds, science fiction increasingly comes to seem like a realist rather than a speculative genre, documenting the pervasiveness of technology in daily life and conveying the affective experience of living through end times.' Like any inhabitant of the 21st century attuned to the hoofbeats of various kinds of war, the global increase in inequality, the sixth extinction, the slow-motion hydra-headed disaster of climate change, and all the other horsemen of the apocalypse, I get the implied irony. How bad are things? So bad they not only look a lot like science fiction. So terrible that reading science fiction is actually a useful prep for how to survive the darkness at the end of the tunnel.

But as a science fiction writer, I can't help thinking that the conflation of the actual 21st century with science fiction is not only something of a back-handed compliment, it's also a gross simplification of the kind of things science fiction can do. For one thing, it suggests that science fiction is increasingly defined by the dystopian mode, and that anything other than that is no more than a thought experiment. But while there are a good number of recent and notable examples of dystopias, especially in young adult fiction and by authors outwith the genre, the vast variety of science fiction hasn't yet collapsed into the singularity of day-after-tomorrow apocalyptic fiction. It's still possible to imagine near futures without road warriors, hypercapitalism, bird flu, or zombies. Futures which are as complicatedly and variously good and bad as the present, and futures that may not be likely or even probable, yet contain their own internal logic and also have something to say about the way we live now.

Science fiction has always been a speculative literature. Any realism it possesses isn't merely about precise and accurate representations of the world as it is, but also concerns the logical consistency of the other worlds it creates, whether or not they're directly spun from the present. Sherryl Vint qualifies 'realist' with 'realistic', but I think the quality of verisimilitude is more important.  Unlike literary realism, but somewhat like romanticism, science fiction attempts to present believable versions of the world as it might be, not as it actually is.

While Vint expertly anatomises the sources of The Water Knife's near future scenario, Bacigalupi points out in an interview quoted in the review, the speculative process that illustrates what we might be heading towards involves 'going two or three steps down the road beyond what you can actually report.' Realism in science fiction isn't an inherent quality. It's a tool.


Anonymous Andi Chapple said...

hi - if I'd just been presented with the Sherryl Vint sentence you quote at the beginning, I'd've nodded the head, stroked the chin and thought , mmm yes that sounds true. thanks for pointing out what you did and upsetting what I thought. claims of 'realism' can be constructions of a reality as well as recognitions of one. best, Andi

June 26, 2015 10:37 pm  
Blogger taiwan77 said...

So while WATER is not sci fi, and should be called ''cli fi'' -- see The Cli Fi Report at for background on rise of cli fi in UK too -- by Professor Vint, there ARE some SF elements in the novel to please SF fans:
1. Plastic bags that filter potable water from urine, 2. advanced electric cars with
filtration systems capable of purifying the air of pathogens, 3. trucks with
toilets on board that circuit a city to collect waste for methane
generation. But 123 do not a SF novel make, Professor Vint. it's cli fi Professor CLI FI. even Paolo agrees its not sci fi anymore.

June 27, 2015 6:38 am  
Blogger taiwan77 said...

PAul one more note and rsvp if time or inclination i am not anti SF and am big fan of Sf all my life, but WATER is not sci fi novel and PAolo is not writiong SF now see my pov. and email danbloom At gmail DOT com -- MY TAKE: A powerful genre-dissolving
'cli-fi' novel that is not 'sci-fi'' anymore, this book is a genre-busting
dystopiana. I loved it. In a recent blog post at the New Yorker magazine, staff
writer Dana Goodyear surveys the current drought impacting California and
writes: “It’s hard to escape the feeling we are living a cli-fi novel’s Chapter
Publishers Weekly, the book industry trade magazine, introduces Paolo
Bacigalupi's new novel titled "The Water Knife" without ever once mentioning the
sci-fi term, opting instead to praise him as delivering ''an ambitious,
genre-dissolving thriller and a timely cautionary tale.'' That's exactly how I
feel about this path-breaking novel. Bacigalupi has moved on and left sci fi
behind, and taken on, not all by his lonesome but together with a growing
contigent of cli fi novelists, the new genre of cli fi. Bravo and well done,
Knopf, for bringing this on!

One might call "The Water Knife" a
"thriller" in the Lee Child or Stephen King sense. And while the novel is not
really SF in the traditional sense of the genre term, it does nevertheless
display some ''science fictiony'' elements that will certainly please SF fans:
Plastic bags that filter potable water from urine, advanced electric cars with
filtration systems capable of purifying the air of pathogens, trucks with
toilets on board that circuit a city to collect waste for methane

All in all, in one explosive novel, Bacigalupi has busted out
of genres entirely and created his own unique place in American

June 27, 2015 6:42 am  
Anonymous Keith Kenny said...

"The Water Knife" aside, SF does seem to have become obsessed with dystopian futures—with 21st C. issues of climate, race, capitalism, sex, etc. hard wired into our future.

Technology changes things so quickly. No one seemed to bat an eye when the green revolution turned world hunger problems into world-wide obesity or when poverty in Western culture began being defined as having a smaller TV or out-of-fashion sneakers.

When optimistic views of technology are dismissed as childish—or worse, anti-Progressive, now there's irony for you—fun, creative science fiction can be hard pressed. Abandon all hope ... The current debate in the US led by 'Sad Puppies' addresses some of this.

June 28, 2015 1:37 pm  

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