Tuesday, March 27, 2012

An Optimistic Turn in Science Fiction

As the Hunger Games makes its splash, a lot of posts have been making the rounds about the high proportion of dystopias being churned out in science fiction recently. Utopias can be hard to write because it's harder to find conflict, although one strategy is to look outside the utopia as in Banks's Culture series. In the other corner, dystopias are incoherent, disjointed messes - they're easy, and the worse they are, the more boring they tend to be. Sometimes they frankly seem to be a kind of porn (see Paul Auster's Country of Last Things). Consequently I'm thrilled to see the recent calls-to-arms and manifestos by Annalee Newitz, Neal Stephenson,
and Sarah Hoyt. (As an aside, you might think it a little precious that the writer of Snowcrash, which depics an unpleasant post-rational kind of world, would complain about dystopias - much like the creator of Beavis and Butthead complaining in the excellent Idiocracy about the dumbing-down of America - but Snowcrash was a criticism of a genre more than a culture.)

Old-school techno-optimism. I was into this before it was cool.

In his pointer to Hoyt's article, Marshall Maresca recognizes that her manifesto is a list of thou-shalts rather than thou-shalt-nots (though this makes them no less effective as criticisms), and one of the shalts applies more broadly to fiction in general: if you're too opaque, and if feels too much like a chore to read it, you're doing it wrong.

A lot of the "darkness" in SF films was inspired by Blade Runner which admittedly is one of my favorite movies ever. In part, it was supposed to be SF film noir, which wasn't dystopian, it just had a certain cinematic tone. In truth, Blade Runner's 2019 Los Angeles isn't actually that terrible. Okay, it's densely populated, and dark and rainy all the time, and there's a lot of Asian people and culture and technology everywhere, so there must have been some strange shift that turned L.A. all year into San Francisco in February. ZING! Note that they still have flying cars!

Hence, the increasing unapologetic irritation with the more attention-needy members of the litfic canon like Faulkner (sorry, the Sound and the Fury is just damn annoying) and especially Joyce. Gene Wolfe sometimes spends too much time at the incomprehensibility frontier although he clearly wants you to get it; Joyce himself admitted that this wasn't true for him.


Anonymous said...

Inspiration. It's an amazing, civilization-changing force. Charles Dickens purposefully tried to inspire 19th-century newly-urban dwellers to be more charitable to non-family members & adapt to their uprooted, less tribal lives. If Neal Stephenson can inspire new generations to "get big things done" then his literary ambitions are big, admirable, & not without precedent.

Michael Caton said...

I left this angle off but was thinking about it. When you write fiction, you're either having an effect on people, or not. Why not have a positive one? I'd rather see positive stories that inspire people to new solutions exactly as you suggest.