17 September 2005

Fandom and Fundamentalism

I promised some comments on The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, which I haven't yet supplied despite finishing the thing a week ago. I plead caffeine deprivation.

It's actually a really good introduction to the critical study of science fiction, although it wasn't entirely clear to me whether it was intended for readers versed in critical theory but ignorant of the genre, or vice versa, or neither. Of the chapter-length essays (20 of them altogether, contributed by a pleasing mix of academics and practicing S.F. authors), some spray critical jargon all about the place while others don't. Some assume complete ignorance of S.F. texts and tropes, others don't. I'm not entirely sure who the target audience is, but in a "something for everyone" way, the book probably works.

I do take issue with the central assumption of the (otherwise rather good) historical chapters -- that S.F. only really existed once it had been formulated as a genre, and that the tradition of authors not usually identified as S.F. authors (such as Shelley, Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Atwood, Niffeneger) writing books with recognisably S.F. elements has been marginal to its development at best. This seems to me to place altogether too much emphasis on issues of form (including those imposed by marketing considerations) rather than content.

It's a position that tends to be taken by readers and fans of the American school, who like to locate the genre's origins in the pulp magazines of the 1920s through to '40s... a theory which is, frankly, wrong. Those magazines formulated a particular perception of the genre, one which has been heavily influential in U.S. criticism (and has, I have to say, been immeasurably damaging to S.F.'s public image), but no more than that.

S.F. is, at root, a European and specifically a British phenomenon: as Brian Aldiss argues in Trillion Year Spree, the basic conceptualisation was present as early as Frankenstein, and the ideas and images of S.F. continued for some time to receive their fullest development in the tradition of the British intellectual novel, specifically the "scientific romance". This idea -- that we invented the class of fiction, loaned it to the Americans for a while, then claimed it back some time in the late '60s after they'd made a complete balls-up of it -- makes for a far more satisfying grand narrative, I feel.

But back to the book. Most of the essays have a number of very interesting things to say, and many of them (particularly Wendy Pierson's "Science Fiction and Queer Theory" and Joan Slonczewski and Michael Levy's "Science Fiction and the Life Sciences") succeeded in both recommending some very worthwhile-sounding texts I hadn't heard about before, and getting me thinking seriously about things I might want to do in my own S.F.

Ken Macleod is particularly interesting on "Politics and Science Fiction", and wins the award for the most humble S.F. author among the contributors for mentioning that...
Communal utopias are paradoxically, and endemically, deficient in their provision for public debate. My own [...] is no exception.
...before going on to spend half a paragraph in explaining what his Fall Revolution novels were trying to do. Prize for the contributor who succeeds in appearing the most egotistical has to go to Slonczewski, who I hadn't even heard of previously, but whose co-written chapter mentions her own S.F. no fewer than six times in eleven pages, lengthily discussing one novel in particular as a counterpart to Dune. (An honorable mention goes to Gwyneth Jones, who in "The Icons of Science Fiction" refers to S.F. published since her debut novel as "post-Divine Endurance print fiction".)

One thing I didn't appreciate was seeing John Clute -- a critic I admire greatly -- disparaging T.V. tie-in fiction in terms which betray the kind of snobbery many mainstream literary critics reserve for S.F. itself [1]. O.K., so in many cases Clute isn't wrong, but some acknowledgement that this is, in most cases, a marketing decision rather than something intrinsically and inherently true of all spin-off fiction, wouldn't have gone amiss.

There's also some evidence of slightly sloppy editing, with identical information often being mentioned twice within a few pages. (Gary K. Wolfe, for instance, probably didn't need to mention on p97 of "Science Fiction and its Editors" that the Hugo Awards are named after "editor and publisher Hugo Gernsback", as I'd already assimilated the information when he told me it on p96.)

I'm nitpicking. The book is, as I say, a great introduction to the critical study of S.F., and I enjoyed reading it. I can see why it won a Hugo of its own.

I've moved on now to reading Karen Armstrong's hefty history of fundamentalism, The Battle for God, which has been fascinating so far. She talks about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 as part of the earliest project to construct a recognisably modern state, thus laying the foundations for much of the global political map we see today... and makes the interesting point that:
The Spanish Inquisition was not an archaic attempt to preserve a bygone world; it was a modernising institution, employed by the monarchs [Ferdinand and Isabella] to create national unity.
It was, in fact, an attempt to create a monolithic state of the kind we in the 21st century would describe as totalitarian. Since Armstrong's central thesis is that fundamentalism forms a response to a faith community coming under what it perceives as persecution by modernising, secular forces, it's an interesting starting-point for the book to take.

Does all this sound too highbrow? I've been reading Doctor Who books as well, if that's any help.

[1] I was particularly amused that the language of this claim is irresistibly reminiscent of that of unrepentant T.V. tie-in author Lawrence Miles:
If any form of sf may be said to have become fatally indistinguishable from the media- and consumption-ridden world we live in, and incapable of differing from that world in any useful sense, then the spin-off is that form.
That's Clute, but it could so easily have been a quote from About Time 5. Were they separated at birth? I think we should be told.

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