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Fables of the Deconstruction

I’ve recently been reading a new science fiction anthology for review for Interzone and this, coupled with David Hebblethwaite’s remarks on science fiction awards here and Nina Allan’s comments here, has brought into focus some elements of my increasing dissatisfaction with the genre and its resistance to progress. Especially hard science fiction.

David complains about the lack of experimentation in form in sf, but I think there’s also a lack of experimentation in settings and narratives in hard sf. It’s all very well using cutting-edge science, the latest descriptions of exoplanets or the moons of Jupiter… But it always remains outside, outside the reader’s viewpoint on the plot, outside the characters’ psychology, their motivations or perceptions or worldview. While it’s true human beings need a specific environment to survive, and will take their society and transplant it wherever they may find themselves, irrespective of that external environment… their new surroundings will affect them, will change them. Not only must they make accommodations with their location, but their society will likely change as a result. But it rarely seems to in science fiction stories. Writers simply transplant a society little different to the writer’s present to their new environment, and add some technological bells and whistles to justify its presence. Even worse, they often model their society on an older one, such as the Wild West, with all its lawlessness and amorality, and stick it on, say, Io. How progressive is that? It’s not, of course. For all the story’s gimmickry and ideas, it still posits the sort of individualistic and brutal human (male, usually) that hasn’t characterised human society for centuries and is certainly unlikely to do so in the future.

To me, hard science fiction’s inability to reflect its settings in the psychology of its protagonists is a failure of the imagination. A good non-genre example would be Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, comprising The Jewel In The Crown, The Day Of The Scorpion, The Towers Of Silence and A Division Of The Spoils. It covers the years leading up to, and during, the independence of India, but much of the story is set among British expatriates in the country. While the British in India built communities that were models of those back home in the UK, they could not help but evolve into something different through contact with the country’s population. And the people living in those countries changed too – so much so that they often suffered culture-shock on their return to Britain.

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If you look further afield in sf, particularly in the short fiction market, there’s plainly a twenty-first century strain of the genre, one which freely borrows imagery and tropes from fantasy and New Weird. It also displays a greater spread of settings, societies and protagonists. Personally, I think the focus on imagery is mostly surface and usually hides a lack of sfnal progress – that’s progress in terms of how science fiction works, of course; the elements which go together to create science fictions and so differentiate them from other works of literature. The other areas in which sf is progressing – diversity, non-binary gender, etc – I think are excellent and long past due.

All this makes hard sf’s insistence on sticking to old story patterns all the more puzzling. I once defended hard sf from an accusation of being inherently right-wing. I still think it’s not right-wing, though I recognise many of its proponents write from a right-wing perspective. But certainly the subgenre is reactionary and conservative (with a small “c”, note). It doesn’t have to be. The laws of physics may be immutable, but there’s nothing that says human societies always tend to the Competent Man (usually a white Westerner) lording it over others by virtue of his competence, wits and willingness to commit violence. In fact, that’s a pretty offensive characterisation of human society. It’s sadly also widely prevalent in hard sf (and in sf too, in a wider sense).

Nina Allan, in her post, writes that sf no longer seems to comment on political and social issues, nor displays “evocative and original use of language”. She also makes a very useful distinction – between authors who write from within science fiction and authors who “draw their influences from science fiction”. Both her and David’s comments are addressed to the former – as are mine.

I think Nina makes some interesting points, but her comment about language seems to me to forget that science fiction is chiefly a genre of commercial fiction, with much of its DNA provided by pulp fiction. The current economic climate (well, actually, the global economy the neoliberals and neocons have gifted us over the past thirty years) means publishers prize commercial science fiction more than they do literary science fiction. The small presses – and self-published authors, to some extent – have picked up the latter baton, but they are still small fry in a large profit-driven ocean. When writing commercial fiction in any genre, there’s a tendency to stick to tried and tested – and familiar and lucrative – patterns. So it doesn’t really surprise me that prose in sf novels is blanding out, or even that ideas and the presentation of those ideas is tending to more… comfortable forms. I can rue this, I can compare it unfavourably with the situation thirty or forty years ago… but there are too many things that need to change, many of which the publishing industry has no control over, before it can be resolved. Plus, there are other issues which need to be addressed first – notably the lack of diversity, and the preponderance of sexism and racism – and it’s good that the sf conversation keeps on talking about these topics and is making progress at combatting them.

But. Science fiction. The stuff that makes these stories what they are. Nina uses this year’s Clarke Award shortlist as a barometer of the state of the genre. Which is not necessarily a fair argument. It has never been part of the award’s remit, and the jury are, as she acknowledges, all too human – in fact, I suspected one of the judges of championing the Mann but when I asked they said they hadn’t… which only shows the danger of making such assumptions. And speaking of Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise, for all the book’s faults, it can’t be accused of not being experimental in form. True, its structure is hardly original – a story-within-a-story, with “author” interpolations, plus ancillary material presented as appendices – but neither is it the far more common straightforward linear narrative, or indeed the relatively common dual narrative, past versus present, of the eventual winner, Ancillary Justice.

The point I’m trying to make, which unfortunately I keep on ruining by drifting from the point, is that the science-fictionalness, to coin a phrase, of a text, particularly hard sf, has not appreciably progressed for decades. I don’t doubt that the bulk of sf authors in years past never really bothered to interrogate or deconstruct the tropes they used – although some did, Samuel R Delany certainly did – and likewise very little present-day science fiction makes a serious attempt at examining the science-fictional assumptions, the tropes and genre furniture, of which it makes use. Nor do they explore the psychology of their protagonists. These, I think, are not only a missed opportunities, but also make sf, for me, a less interesting genre than it could be in the twenty-first century.

So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring? Which is why the hard sf anthology I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post proved so disappointing a read – and also seemed to be so emblematic of much that I feel in sf isn’t working for me. The anthology’s contents certainly met its theme, and they definitely qualified as “hard science fiction”… but there were so many unaddressed assumptions implicit in the stories, and so little examination of what makes a story hard sf rather than simply sf, that I couldn’t understand why the editors had even bothered to put it together.

Science fiction is by definition fecund terrain for stories. Hard sf may add some restrictions, but that should in no way limit how it tells its stories. Why can’t sf writers dig a little deeper into the tropes they use so blithely? Why can’t they take science fiction apart, examine it from all angles, and then put it back together in interesting ways? I’d not only like to see that happen to a much greater extent than it does presently, I’d like to see it as the default mode for writing science fiction – especially hard science fiction.

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