SF and (Bits of) the Postmodern

The contents of this post were originally written as part of my post on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, but I felt that they deserved to be developed into a separate, individual post, which is why this is here.

Conjure Wife and my understanding of how one could read that text critically brought to my mind a comment I wrote on an essay my friend Myoung Jae was working on lately, which touched upon the subject of postmodernist literary techniques, and the notion that it was through these techniques that a writer can express best the claims and values and criticisms of postmodernist thought — whatever all of that means. At this point in my life, I think the work of Derrida has next to no value as far as I can puzzle it out (I’m no expert, but the English translations are maddeningly obsquare), while the work of Foucault has a great deal of value. “Postmodernism” as a monolith is a silliness, but there are elements of thought within what the movement claims to include which are downright genius, and others which, still better, are commonsense, but of a kind one must admit one has never quite managed to put into words oneself.

But for all that, I do not believe that “postmodernist” techniques are the way to go when burning this kind of new consciousness into the mind of a reader. In fact, a lot of writing which overuses such techniques ends up being unreadable, a kind of painful wordsalad. Not all of it, mind, but a lot of what I’ve encountered. This is because people seem to mix up ideas with techniques or stylistic conventions. (And anyway, some very postmodernist-seeming techniques occur in very early novels, most notably, I’m told, in a book I’m eager to read but have not yet gotten to — Tristram Shandy.)

I could name right now several SF novels which, far more than any PoMo novel I’ve read, throw into question the old notions and assumptions against which Postmodernism has led the assault, for example: Distress, by Greg Egan, for example, has characters that voluntarily undergo sexual neutering, and become “asexual” beings — they do not have sex organs, nor an urge to mate or reproduce, but they do of course retain the mammalian need for close human contact and proximity. The fascinating uncertainty that a relationship with one of these asx people is filled with for a male or a female human is a powerful expression not only of how sex and sexuality impact on our relationships in general, but also how constructed the entailed behaviours are, or can be.

In their own way, books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (by Philip K. Dick) and Sirius (by Olaf Stapledon) question the kinds of constructions that fill up our conceptions of personhood and humanity — they shatter our current conceptions so forcefully that all we can be left with is uncertainty, or an awareness of a range of possible answers to the question, “What is human?” or even, in Dick’s case, “What is real?” Dick, especially, is constantly shattering the real and holding up in its place not an alternate real — such has been done for ages, at least since the publication of Utopia — but rather, a set of shifting uncertainties and potential, possible, and baffling impossible-but-seemingly-realities.

There are stories like Olaf Stapledon‘s Star Maker and Bruce Sterling‘s Schismatrix, which slowly but relentless expand the frame of their narrative to the point where one cannot seriously consider humans limited by what humans normally take for granted as their normal limits — nor can they accept any of the quaint myths they have formulated about themselves.

Consider even a story as simple as Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations: the tale amounts to more than a nasty, brutish bit of math and physics shaped into a conundrum with no kind answer (in my opinion, though not in everyone’s). It amounts to much more than that: it is an all-out frontal assault not only on romanticism, or gentility, but also on the way we construct and tell stories, on what is — postmodernists would certainly content — a learned set of instincts for narrative reception on our part.

And for politics, there is the question raised by people like Iain Banks and China Miéville, which is, how is someone who sees sense in Marx’s critique of capital and the power than it engendered in capital, to proceed in a post-Soviet-collapse era? Surely no sensible person in our era would disagree that the Soviets and most other “communist” states made a hash of things during the 20th century. (Sadly, the capitalist societies of the West are more reluctant to admit the hash they, too, have made of things, even though the mess is deepening by the year as relative and even absolute poverty is growing and our environment lumbers toward collapse.) In their imaginings of other socialisms, of worlds either in the throes of collective uprisings of a socialist nature (in the case of Miéville) or worlds bereft of the distractions of a moneyed society and all of its evils and inequalities (as in the socialist space-operas of Banks), radical alternativity awakens something very important in readers: the sense that things can, could, or even someday might be radically different than they are now. Banks’ Culture universe is the one SF fans most routinely claim they would like to live in, were it possible to visit any fictional universe. How can this not encourage at least some of them to seek out ways to make such a future more likely to come to pass in reality? Miéville has even built a list of 50 SF/F novels socialists ought to read.

Othernesses, too, illustrate the holes in our imagination. By the force of historical lesson, we believe that technological advance of the kind that has transformed our world came out of the West. Even knowing that the Arabs led the world in science and technology, even knowing that China led before them, even knowing that all humanity carries within it the ability to see the world through mathematics and rational theory, we also see history as the solid thing it is: the industrial revolution happened in Europe. But even as historians put the assumptions that often quickly, covertly proceed from this acknowledgement to the test, I find the most powerful statement I’ve ever read against this kind of Eurocentrism to be Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history that imagines Europe wiped out by a plague many years earlier than the plague in fact arrived; an industrial revolution in India; an expansive Imperial effort going much further in (and around) China than it did in history, including a Chinese discovery of the New World: in effect, a world history with technology, exploration, complex politics, history, philosophy, and even historiography… but a history of the world without Europe.

Another otherness that I find enlightening is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a novel of such amazing imagination, set in a post-WWII America where the Allies lost, where Africa was wiped out by Nazi experiments, where North America is ruled by the Third Reich and Japan, and where characters read a spooky alternate-history novel titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, about an alternate history where the Axis lost WWII and the Soviets colonied the whole world. If anything helps you see past the propaganda surrounding the aftereffects of the winning and losing of wars, the notion of providence playing any role in any of this, it’s hammered home much more clearly by the image of people in another America obliviously thanking their lucky stars the Nazis won, else the Soviets would have overrun and enslaved them all long ago.

And I haven’t even gone near the writers who make public their interest in postmodernist thinking, like Samuel Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin, writers who constantly muse at the power of language, the kinds of constructions that not only fill but also often control and inhibit our beliefs and behaviours. Works like The Left Hand of Darkness, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, and others all drive home a powerful interest in areas like gender construction, the power of words and meanings to shape reality, and the importance of language in thought and in shaping and especially delimiting lives.

What’s striking is that none of the books I’ve mentioned here actually use anything like postmodernist writing techniques: not a one! (Egan, in his novel Teranesia, even displays very clear hostility to a certain brand of postmodernist humanities academic.) Yet they hammer into the mind of the reader almost everything that I find worthwhile in the postmodernist project. Perhaps we ought to recognize that a lot of what postmodernists are saying so laboriously is, in fact, for the enlightened-minded among us, rather simple and straightforward common sense; and meanwhile that much of what is tacked onto it is dramatic overstatement and exaggeration.

That, or perhaps it is just that SF is the place where is already being achieved what I think the greatest work lies for humanities academics of the 21st century — the overcoming of the gut-instinct reaction against scientifically-disguised authoritarianism, and the cessation of this throwing out of the baby (the usefulness of scientific method and its uniqueness, partly, but not exclusively, because of its marked effectiveness as a form of knowledge-production) with the bathwater (the unsavory side of science as corporatized, authoritarian, conservative, and so on). It seems to me that a lot of the useful “insights” of Postmodernism are absolutely already clear to people steeped in SF, and that at the same time, people steeped in SF are quite good at picking out the nonsense from PoMo and discarding it. Perhaps it is as some essayist claimed, and SF is the most naturally postmodernistic literature. (More on that subject here, here, and here.)

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