Saturday, November 8, 2014

What IS science fiction, who the bleep are we, and where are we going?

Paul Kincaid reviews The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction in the Los Angeles Review of Books. What emerges is a report of a various, heterogeneous rhizomatic phenomenon hung on that two word phrase, science fiction:
For myself, I see science fiction as a web of overlapping and interweaving strands of story that split apart and reconvene in ever new combinations without ever quite becoming one recognizable whole. None of these definitions of science fiction is entirely satisfactory, just as none of these accounts of its origins and history is entirely satisfactory.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that science fiction as a unity — a genre, a mode, a field — does not exist. There are many science fictions, they offer different ways of imaginatively approaching our world, or rather, of approaching those things that seem implicit within our world but that are not actual. Therefore, they are not all the same, and science fiction is not singular but plural. This has not stopped a host of commentators discussing science fiction (in the singular) as if they were all using the same words in the same way, usually as if science fiction is a genre.
And so:
One consequence of this recognition of the diversity of science fiction, the fact that it cannot be pinned down, is that the 44 essays that make up the book contradict each other, start from radically different positions, pursue different agendas, work within different academic or definitional constraints. Do not read this book expecting to discover a coherent account of what science fiction is; on the contrary, we end up with an impression that science fiction may affect every aspect of our lives, but has precious little to do with science or even with fiction. This is both a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength in that it makes us reassess science fiction, and see it in forms and in places that we might never have expected; a weakness because we can never be entirely sure what it is that we are seeing, we might discover science fiction in one place, but by the next chapter we will have been told that what we just saw could not possibly be science fiction at all.

The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction is divided, perhaps too neatly, into four sections of 11 chapters each. The first section, “Science Fiction as Genre”, looks at the characteristics of what we most readily recognize as science fiction; section two, “Science Fiction as Medium”, considers the different ways, other than as literature, that science fiction presents itself to us; section three, “Science Fiction as Culture”, examines the cultural phenomenon of science fiction and the various ways it affects our everyday lives; and finally section four, “Science Fiction as Worldview”, assesses the ideological impact of science fiction. Three quarters of the book, therefore, take us outside the familiar territory of science fiction as literature, and half the book takes us outside the notion of science fiction as fiction.
That is to say, welcome to the REAL world, son. See:
Regardless of whether we accept the notion of “SF as a genre”, we have to conclude that a science fiction that emerged from the secularism of the Enlightenment is necessarily very different from one that emerged from the arcane notions of the Gothic, or again from the radical scientific reimagining of the world that was the Theory of Evolution.
So, whoops!
In other words, whatever we mean by science in science fiction is not stable...the relationship between science fiction and science is far more complex, more open to question, than might be thought...[Brian Attebery] is effectively saying that there is no difference between SF and fantasy, that the two have always intermingled inextricably….to put it another way, there is no aesthetic distinction between science fiction and the mainstream.
All this puts me in mind of the Lernaean Hydra, cut off one head and two appear to replace it. Or perhaps whack-a-mole.
We begin to discover how full of science fiction our world is. It is there in video games where, as Pawel Frelik shows, SF has no negative connotations, because the generic differences are between first person shooter, role playing or puzzle solving games, not between SF, crime, war or so on. It is there in our architecture (discussed by Nic Clear), in theme parks (Leonie Cooper), and body modification, where Ross Farnell tells us “The culture of body modification is simply one arena in which science fiction is materialized as a form of social practice.” But as we move away from the familiar territories of literature and film, so the sense of dis-ease about what constitutes science fiction increases... In his chapter on “Music”, John Cline says: “In practical terms, ‘SF music’ does not exist”, then goes on to discuss music that is identified as science fictional because of its means of production (the theremin) or by association (theme music for science fiction films)... Moreover, it seems to me that the performances detailed here ... inserting microchips, transforming the body surgically, employing cyborg prosthetics, are attempts to actualize some of the imagery of science fiction, or indeed to make concrete some of the pronouncements of SF theorists, but that does not make them science fiction. They are necessarily tied to the here and now, use contemporary technologies; the contradiction is that while this might imply that we are living in a science fiction universe, at the same time it removes it from science fiction. If everything about it is current, existing, understandable, where is the science fiction?
And now things get interesting:
More and more the book focuses on science fiction materialized as social practice, in Farnell’s phrase, an insistence on science fiction not as an exercise of the imagination, an aspect of the fantastic, a form of art, but as a real world development, something unexceptional that we encounter in our daily lives.
All of which has me wondering – in the context of last evening, when I saw Interstellar, which I thought confused as f**k, but then I probably missed something when I dozed off, and which had a preview for Chappie, about a robot growing into himself in the future, first robot evah! – whether or not science fiction has been morphing into a generalized vehicle for rank shift.
And now we get the 99% vs. the 1%:
In another of the best chapters in the book, “Colonialism and Postcolonialism,” John Rieder takes on something that is intrinsic to SF, as he says: “At no point in the history of SF is colonialism not yet or no longer relevant.” This relationship between the powerful and the powerless, between those who have a say in their government and those who do not, between those with natural resources and those with economic resources, has in recent years become one of the most powerful lenses through which to view science fiction...One thing that ideas of colonialism and postcolonialism do is put science fiction in a global context; and science fiction is indeed a global artefact. Its origins, however we may argue about them, lie variously in Turkey and Greece, in England and France, in America and Russia; its practice today is to be found in Africa and South America, in Australia and Canada, in India and China and the Middle East.
And so it ends:
This is science fiction as thought experiment, science fiction as political ideology, science fiction as a radical oppositional stance, science fiction as the way we change our bodies and engage in sexual relations and listen to music. Science fiction, as presented here, has become everything in the world. Which means, of course, that it is no longer science, and no longer fiction.
H/t Adam Roberts:

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