Science Fiction Studies

#82 = Volume 27, Part 3 = November 2000

Gregory Benford

The South and Science Fiction

The South has played a strong role in American fantasy, but not so in science fiction. Southern settings seem, in the mind’s eye, to have an almost automatically fantastic glaze. We readily call up images of brooding purple ruins, green corpses, melancholy figures shrouding a dread secret that reeks of musty shadows. Edgar Allan Poe, the first great Southern writer, started it all—along with the detective story and, indeed, the short story itself.                

This dominance of fantasy is a bit curious, considering that one of the distinctive inventions of twentieth-century American literature has been modern science fiction, a jury-rigged genre put together in the same era when the South was undergoing its own great cultural renaissance. Between 1930 and 1967, the era marking science fiction’s rise, the South had twenty-one Pulitzer Prize winners, eight of the twenty-four New York Drama Critics’ Circle winners, nine of thirty-two National Book Award winners in poetry and fiction, and of course William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize.                

But sf got nothing from the Southern Renaissance. That genre was and is dominated by what my grandmother termed Nawth’n Cult’ral Imperialism.                

It’s easy to see a deep reason for this, stemming from that four-year “moment” when the South was a distinct nation, the Confederate States of America. The war itself did not change Southern culture very much—people were too busy fighting and dying—but, in a profound irony, the South thereafter was more powerfully influenced by the Lost Cause mythology than by dimly remembered Confederate realities. The region’s response to battle, defeat, and shaky Reconstruction spawned a myth-history that ennobled the great catastrophe.                

Somehow, in the minds of millions, the Southern cause was not only undefiled by defeat, but the colossal bloodbath actually sanctified the values and ideals of the Old South. And all this was done by the people themselves, not by Nawth’n meddling or falsified history. Scratch a Southerner and you’ll find a history buff, a military history buff. We peer backward, almost reflexively. Look away, Dixie land.

I am a son of Alabama and thus steeped in that swampy culture. I feel it a dozen times a day, but I can’t explain it. It’s in the blood. Long a resident of California, I find that I can now only dimly fathom the intricacies of Southern manners and indirection. (I love the tones and sliding graces of the language still, south of what we call the Mason-Diction Line.) But I remain a Southerner.                

How odd, then, that I became a part-time writer of science fiction, a genre devoted to technology and tomorrow? The Southerner’s identity rests firmly on events now shrouded by more than a century of misty recollection and outright fabrication.                

Science fiction is about the future, mostly. Frequently it has been molded by a Heinleinian fascination with the winners, the doers. Much of the best Southern literature is fixated on the long recessional from that ringing defeat.                

The frontier looms large in sf as a place to be confronted, pushed against, defeated, expanded. The South was definitely not a frontier. Instead, from early on, it was a wilderness already enclosed by the still-expanding nation. When I was a boy growing up in rural southern Alabama, the South was a great piney reserve holding unfathomed mysteries and a sense of a stretching past. Much of twentieth-century literature can be seen as a conversation between the Southern sense of the wilderness and the Nawth’n image of frontier. Such subconscious elements have a deep influence on all the arts, often without our realizing.                

To its loss, sf has learned little from Southern concerns and literature, a deep facet of American culture. We Americans are embedded in a rich and fruitful past, none more deeply than Southerners; but the genre keeps its beady gaze firmly fixed on the plastic futures we authors so glibly devise. Yet much of history is dominated by inertia, not by the swift kinetics of technology.                

The United States has been profoundly lucky. Bismarck, the great German foreign minister of the nineteenth century, remarked that his study of history had taught him that God helped three groups:  women and children, and the United States of America. There’s a lot of truth in that aphorism. We took on foreign antagonists in the best possible circumstances and prevailed, often with little damage—two wars each against the British, against the remnants of the Spanish empire, then against the Germans and allies. Now we have destroyed the Soviet Empire by containing it and waiting.                

Our greatest casualties, though, came from our war against ourselves—a point any futurist should remember. That distant war also left the deepest wounds; despite all the talk of the New South, the region has not yet fully recovered.                

Yet even in that catastrophe we were rather lucky. After all, the South came quite close to winning; only timidity made the Confederates not immediately follow up on the northern disaster at the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run). The South outfought the North for years; indeed, it is still something of an embar-rassment to historians to explain why a nation outnumbering the South by better than two to one and possessing far greater resources took four years to win.                

But the United States has been lucky in a more profound way, too, as Bismarck noted. We were able to take on the European powers one at a time in our wars, and to fight our own War of Southern Succession without significant meddling from Europe’s vying factions.                

This was enormously helpful. It framed the issues clearly, without intruding nationalisms of varying stripes. It was a fair fight and we got to slug it out alone. (Of course, the great Constitutional issue of whether a state may leave the Union was not settled, and will, I predict, come back to bite us again. An organization you can join readily enough but never leave resembles a prison.)                

Bosnia is merely the most awful recent example of what can happen when outside interests stir the red pot of hatred and anger. With a few rather minor changes, our Civil War (as it is known in the Nawth) might well have settled nothing and devastated much more. Science fiction usually assumes that issues get decided and one moves on, and progress is possible. Southerners know better.

Realizing this takes some imagination. That is where sf author Harry Turtledove excels, exploring the delicacy of history. Of all alternative historical themes, it is remarkable that variant outcomes of the Civil War are only slightly less numerous than variations on World War II. Turtledove shows why: it is a fruitful fulcrum for history’s blunt forces.                

Few historians have ever written speculative fiction. There seems a natural contradiction between the precise inspection of the past and the colorful, evocative envisioning of the future. There are notable exceptions, of course: the entire subgenre of alternative history flows forward from the early nineteenth century. This method of inspecting the currents of history has produced such masterworks as L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1941) and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953), an artful vision of another outcome of Gettysburg. To tinker with history and test one’s ideas is enticing, endlessly attractive.                

But most practitioners of alternative history are earnest amateurs, like me. Harry Turtledove is the real thing, with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. Indeed, I believe him to be the first historian to become a professional practitioner of the organized imagination known as speculative fiction. He took up a fantastic alternative outcome to our Civil War in The Guns of the South (1993). His How Few Remain (1997) begins with a less fantastic possibility, however, one touching upon a perpetually debated point of military history: why did Lee perform so badly in the Gettysburg campaign? Even without the error invoked and corrected by Turtledove in his very first scene, Lee’s failure of imagination and even of conventional military craft in his most important campaign is an enduring mystery.                

The fact that such historical details can still animate a dinner-table conversation seems odd, in the glare of sf’s future-fascination. Yet perhaps we can learn from such basic emotional facts.                

Even though looking backward—and looking away, Dixie land—is common in recent speculative fiction, particularly in alternative history, why do we seldom recall that Richard Meredith’s We All Died at Breakaway Station (1969) was a striking tale of dying for a cause written by a Southerner in 1969? that Daniel Galouye in Dark Universe (1961) wrote a major novel about conceptual breakthrough from blindness to sight, a Southern metaphor one sees similarly in Faulkner (think Light in August [1932])?                

And that though my own Against Infinity (1983) is still in print after nearly two decades, few view it as a Southern novel, even though it is clearly written in the storytelling cadences I learned from my grandfather, in the voice of Faulkneri­an faded grandeur?                

Perhaps because of Poe’s vast influence, the rise of modern prelapsarian fantasy—Tolkien’s European nostalgia for a better past grafted onto the American wilderness, in uneasy genetic marriage—we arrive at the sensibility of the US fantasy culture, with its unending trilogies. To my taste, these novels reek of a past imagined by comfortable suburbanites who have never hoed a row, ridden a work horse, tilled a dusty field, or done any of the grunt labor that filled the true human past. They don’t feel like earned experience. The Tolkien world was one of magically easy life, of comfy leafy greenery where nobody much toted and lifted: the ground without the grunt. Most modern fantasy seems phony precisely because it is ignorant of what science and technology have meant in modern times—liberation for the great masses from numbing work.                

Yet in our comfy time we yearn for meaning beyond ease—for context. Science gives a large frame, but for most, not a personal one. For that we must return to our deepest connections.

Perhaps we miss this salient point because we believe that Southern fiction generally should merely concern the eternal return, a cyclic view of life immersed in that great Southern preoccupation: family. Fair enough, but not enough. No one wishes to return to slavery, yet we must revisit it to fathom how it still acts in our time. That war isn’t really over, after all.   

I believe that Southern speculative fiction embraces several aspects: concern with continuity and thus history; landscape as a shaping force; and voice embodying moral authority. And we must never forget that eternal return does not imply no progress: nothing is more alien to the spirit of science fiction than that other hallmark of our history, slavery.                

Yet even here we moderns forget hard facts. The entire US had legal slavery when it began, barely a half century before the Civil War. There are slaves in Africa still. The past isn’t over; as Faulkner famously remarked, it isn’t even past. Sf can learn from that. We have made progress, but part of us still lives back there.                

Perhaps a way to creep up on the weight of the past is to consider the manner of telling—long a crucial element in Southern fiction. Style is crucial because land and past must speak in their own tones and idioms. Heinlein’s importance came in part because he found a combo style of Hemingway terseness and cracker-barrel folksy, which rather weirdly appealed to the cross-section of American readers: midwestern sf. His cultural savvy seldom gets remarked upon, but was crucial. He spoke for a technocratic worldview, one far from the mainstream, one needing its own bard. His readers felt that immediately, in the gut. Even I did, a Southern boy. I shared another element seldom noted in the sf community: the military culture. My father went from a high school teacher to a combat officer in World War II, then on to Korea with his family in tow. I bought my first Heinlein novel (in hardcover, at age ten) in the Tokyo Post Exchange. Studies have shown that sf readers often stem from military families—in part, I suspect, because you’re shuffled from post to post every two or three years, losing friends, seeking solace in reading ... a newcomer again and again, yes.                

So here is a further commonality between sf and the South: we’re outsiders. Though the South has dominated conventional culture to an impressive extent, and sf is the champion American genre (still alive in the magazines, and ruling Hollywood), they profit from taking an exterior angle. For a Southerner this is automatic. I remember clearly when my father, a career Army officer, was on General McArthur’s staff in Tokyo during the Korean War, and I watched half a million Japanese riot through the streets, shouting “Yankee Go Home!” A boy standing only a few feet away, scared, I felt relief; after all, I wasn’t a Yankee.                

That feeling of perspective born of remove is essential to sf, and more visceral to a Southerner. Though the first men on the moon left from the South, and the civil rights movement was invented in the South (winning us a Nobel for Peace), the South is fundamentally not about innovation and technology.                

So of course it may seem odd that I am a Southern sf writer, because I am usually described as a hard sf type, and everybody knows that such writers are relentlessly pitched forward on the cutting edge of the new. True—but the South remembers that a lot of the new is just fancied-up old.                

That is why I set Against Infinity on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, where a crucially Southern distinction comes into play. Again, the South historically was born into a wilderness. Most northern sf is about pushing back the unknown, building galactic empires (such as Asimov’s, thinly covering its anxieties about America, with Rome still looming large in memory), and subduing. I wrote about humanity recapitulating an old mode: going out from their settlements to hunt the Aleph, a thing out of prehistory, alien and unstoppable and still coming, despite all human efforts to either kill it or understand it—clearly, it didn’t matter which.                

But the Aleph cannot be killed forever. It returns in the last pages of the novel, whose last phrase is “...and he knew he would remember.” That’s what makes it a Southern novel, amid all the high-tech trimmings. The past isn’t over.                

Another way to think of sf in our time is to echo that sensibility through a cultural take on Newton’s second law: F = MA. Force drives Masses to Accelerate. Sf is big on F, the hammering march of progress through science to technology to jarring social change.                  

To get that heady acceleration, A, that mainstream readers find jarring (never mind the science, too!), sf minimizes the mass, M—that is, social inertia. We dream of a Singularity coming soon to a theater of the mind near you—Vernor Vinge’s Northerner fantasy of the moment when mind-computer linkage takes some of us off into utterly incomprehensible mental realms. This image of freedom from both history (conceptual breakthroughs!) and from our bodies (uploading!) is quintessentially Northern. A=F/M; let’s go! (Note that even the cerebral Arthur Clarke’s love of intellect and desire to shuck our skins, from Childhood’s End [1953] onward, does not also abandon history; he uses analogies and references to the deep past, from Babylon and Olduvai Gorge.)                

What’s Southern sf? Writing with an appreciation for the magnitude of M. In this sense Southern sf is not regional, though its approach often stresses landscape. It can be seen in some British sf, from J.G. Ballard’s acceptance of inevitability in his early disaster novels (1962-66) to Brian Aldiss’s sense of the ponderable weight of time in his HELLICONIA TRILOGY (1982-85). It is there in novels that trace the failure of hubris to overcome, such as Tom Disch’s CampConcentration (1968) and Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966). Novels with a great weight of landscape give this sense, as in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) and George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949)—a Southern title indeed.    

That is the sense the South can give to speculative fiction, no matter how broad and distant its technological ramparts. The rise of alternative history as a subgenre may express a growing perception in our American culture that F is too big and we need more M, because we don’t like the A we’re experiencing. If this is reactionary, make the most of it. It is the place of genres to lead, and if they like, to secede.

If so, there will be more Southern spice and flavor in our future literary cuisine. I wouldn’t mind that at all.

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