Saturday, May 8, 2010

Is the Medium the Message?

By Helen Marshall

Speculative fiction is an in-between genre, or even an in-between set of genres.  Samuel R. Delaney in his paper at the MLA entitled "Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction" drew attention to this when he tackled the question: "Does science fiction work in the same way asother literary categories of writing?" His reply?  "Science fiction works differently from other written categories, particularly those categories traditionally called literary. It works the same way only in that, like all categories of writing, it has its specific conventions, unique focuses, areas of interest and excellence, as well as its own particular ways of making sense out of language. To ignore any of these constitutes a major misreading—an obliviousness to the play of meanings that makes up the SF text."

 I take his point to be not that speculative fiction (broadened out from science fiction) is definitely different from the literary, but rather that it exists as its own subset of literature with the weight of history behind it, the establishment of a canon, the recognition of tropes and protocols as well as the development of an associated language and logic. But how do we come to a definition of speculative fiction?  The all-knowing, all-erring website Wikipedia, claims speculative fiction as a "a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history."  The definitions are hazier in other cases. 

 Wikipedia reminds us too that speculative fiction is itself a term with its own history and politics. Popularized in the 1960s and early 1970s by Judith Merril and others involved in the field, it was deployed as a rejection of pulp science fiction, often regarded as stodgy, irrelevant, cliched and unambitious.  It can be connected with the New Wave movement whose predecessors included Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Algis Budrys, and Alfred Beste.  New Wave writing was characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, coupled with a "literary" or artistic sensibility.  

 Today, speculative fiction is used increasingly as a way to escape being pigeonholed as a genre writer.  Harlan Ellison, for example, used it to signal the literary and modernist direction of his work.  Peter Watts, in his essay for OnSpec responds to what he sees as a Hierarchy of Contempt that if defined according to the light spectrum ranges between "sullen infrared" and "high-strung ultraviolet": "Down in the red-light district, science fiction's own subspectrum runs from "soft" to "hard", and it's generally acknowledged that the soft stuff at least leaves the door open for something approaching Art—Lessing, Le Guin, the New Wave stylists of the late sixties—while the hardcore types are too caught up in chrome and circuitry to bother with character development or actual literary technique."

 His essay, as vigorous as it is polemical, places authors such as Margaret Atwood at the root of the problem: "Atwood claims to write something entirely different: speculative fiction, she calls it, the difference being that it is based in rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future (as opposed to that escapist nonsense about fictitious things like chemicals and rockets, presumably)."  It is useful to remember that The Handmaid's Tale received the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year, in 1987. It was also nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, and the 1987 Prometheus Award, both science fiction awards.  Atwood, however, insisted to The Guardian that her works were speculative fiction, not science fiction: "Science fiction has monsters as spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen."  Since then, Atwood has elaborated her position to The Guardian: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth", and said that science fictional narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot."

 I don't seek to find a new kind of opponent in Margaret Atwood.  It is useful to recognize that genre writing incorporates a wide range of traditions and trends.  Some authors seek to be literary, to offer social critiques, to use literature as a vehicle of exploration.  Not all do.  To return to Delaney's metaphor that science fiction is a "language," we must remember that a language is merely a system that can be employed to communicate.  As a famous Canadian, Marshall McLuhan claimed: "The medium is the message."  It falls to practitioners of genre writing--authors, editors, publisher--to determine to some extent what the medium, that language, might be and what it might do for its readers.

 With that in mind, I turn to Atwood's article in The Guardian because it does identify precisely what speculative stories might do:

· They can explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways, by showing them as fully operational. We've always been good at letting cats out of bags and genies out of bottles, we just haven't been very good at putting them back in again. These stories in their darker modes are all versions of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: the apprentice finds out how to make the magic salt-grinder produce salt, but he can't turn it off.

· They can explore the nature and limits of what it means to be human in graphic ways, by pushing the envelope as far as it will go.

· They can explore the relationship of man to the universe, an exploration that often takes us in the direction of religion and can meld easily with mythology - an exploration that can happen within the conventions of realism only through conversations and soliloquies.

· They can explore proposed changes in social organisation, by showing what they might actually be like for those living within them. Thus, the utopia and the dystopia, which have proved over and over again that we have a better idea about how to make hell on earth than we do about how to make heaven. The history of the 20th century, where a couple of societies took a crack at utopia on a large scale and ended up with the inferno, would bear this out. Think of Cambodia under Pol Pot.

· They can explore the realms of the imagination by taking us boldly where no man has gone before. Thus the space ship, thus the inner space of the hilarious film Fantastic Voyage, the one where Raquel Welch gets miniaturised and shot through the blood stream in a submarine. Thus also the cyberspace trips of William Gibson; and thus The Matrix, Part 1 - this last, by the way, an adventure romance with strong overtones of Christian allegory, and therefore more closely related to The Pilgrim's Progress than to Pride and Prejudice.

Helen Marshall spends the majority of her time pursuing a Ph. D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto where she gets to travel across England to examine fourteenth-century manuscripts. Her poetry has been published in a variety of magazines and print sources. She currently works as an editor of dark fiction for ChiZine Publications.

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