Science Fiction Studies

#74 = Volume 25, Part 1 = March 1998

Michael Kandel

Is Something New Happening In Science Fiction?

Science fiction. I read it as a kid and young adult and no-longer-young adult. I read it voraciously at first, then selectively, then rarely. For one period, I looked down on it, thought of it as a way to junk out at the end of a day of work, perhaps with beer. It was a step above television, but just a step. Nevertheless, now and then a book of science fiction or fantasy would enthrall me—Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark, Ursula Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven. Like other people I know, I sometimes hated the genre and sometimes loved it.

For about ten years now I've edited science-fiction novels for Harcourt Brace—but in an occasional way, not full-time: two books a year. Although some of my authors have done surprisingly well, as beginners, in the heartless arena of fame and fortune—Patricia Anthony and Jonathan Lethem, for example—my science-fiction editing has been and remains a side activity.

I've learned a few things about the publishing process but am far from an authority on it—for the reason that most of my experience is not with marketing people, publicists, sales reps, and booksellers. I'd estimate that ninety-five percent of my time in publishing is spent alone and quietly: sitting at a desk with a manuscript, sharpening a red or green pencil, wondering about the best place for a comma or the best choice of a word.

As a science-fiction author, I've had four novels published, plus a short story here and there in an anthology or magazine. As both editor and author I've made the acquaintance of various people in the field, and I've listened with interest while experts on the field held forth. (The word “experts” is meant descriptively, not ironically.) I've attended my share of cons and have heard many a panel—and sometimes a writer, editor, or critic in a bar or at a banquet table—analyze the situation.

Finally, I've been a translator of science fiction—of the novels and stories of Stanislaw Lem. But since Lem is so patently a separate case in science fiction (and in general), I never considered that my Lem connection gave me any special insight into the subject or the right to speak on it.

This personal preamble, I hope, will make it clear that the following remarks are not delivered from a position of privileged knowledge.

For a full lifetime now, people in the genre have been asking the question, What is science fiction? (often really asking: What should it be?). They have been obsessed with their identity in the larger world of letters—probably in the way that is typical for members of marginal (and despised) groups.

There's been a great deal of discussion about sf versus mainstream and sf crossing the boundaries of genre, and about where sf fits (or doesn't) in the split between literary fiction and bestseller fiction, and about the shelf space a first novel in hardcover can't hope to obtain among the established ranks of sf merchandise called Star Trek novels, Star Wars novels, shared world series, and role-playing stuff.  

One lament goes: If science fiction introduces ideas of importance to society—technological, social, moral, philosophical ideas—verbalizing them before anyone else does, because of science fiction's uniquely forward vision or superior vantage point—why, then, aren't its writers taken more seriously?

It seems to me that in the past ten years or so, as changes have been taking place in the world of books, the writers are indeed being taken more seriously. And also that they aren't. The sf genre-ghetto is filled with paradox.

I was always puzzled when I saw that certain science-fiction writers were writing books that weren't science fiction at all, and yet those books were being published by science-fiction publishers, reviewed by science-fiction reviewers, and purchased by science-fiction readers. And autographed at cons, without a blink. In some cases an author's first book—or fifth book—was science fiction—and somehow that was enough to justify the label and make it permanent, like a branding iron: Now you are one of us. Conversely, I saw that occasionally a mainstream author would write a book of science fiction (by every definition) but that the book might not even be mentioned in the pages of Locus (lately that's happening less).

This phenomenon of paradoxical identification has been around a while. In the meantime, certain people in the science-fiction community have become respectable. I remember seeing, with amazement, Le Guin's fiction in The New Yorker. I remember seeing, mirabile dictu, Philip K. Dick's novels reviewed in a reverent New York Times Book Review retrospective. Media icon William (the-man-who-gave-us-cyberpunk) Gibson is now mentioned everywhere. And last year, Chip Delany gave a reading at an MLA convention.

I remember walking into a Walden's in a mall and seeing science-fiction and fantasy titles shelved with the new hardcovers, right near the entrance, with the real books.

You might argue: America has gained respect for science fiction because America has always respected money, and science fiction is clearly bringing in bucks now that it has become part of the furniture in blockbuster movies. Science fiction is not a stranger even to sitcoms (the true heartland of America). But the old system of genre apartheid seems still in place. Michael Bishop has said of James Morrow—I'm not sure the quote is exact—“He is not a great science-fiction writer, he's a great American writer.” I endorse Bishop's statement, but to my ear it has the tone of rebellion against an unloved authority. Morrow's unique (and delightful) blend of fantasy, Christian allegory, social satire, and masterful prose waits patiently for mainstream nobilization.

What, then, is different? The work of some writers has made me think that maybe a new period in science fiction is around the corner if not already making an entrance. The change is visceral: not thought out, not deliberate, not an act of will. The change is not the sort of thing you would find in any literary manifesto or letter to the editor. It has to do with the kind of assumptions that are so fundamental to us, they are invisible, like the air we breathe. The change has to do with what is going on in the blood, not in the head.

To give an analogy from recent history: a generation in Eastern Europe agonizes over how to live in a Communist world without losing their souls or at least their dignity; but for the next generation this issue doesn't exist, because there is no Communism. Communism for the young people is a thing as distant and dusty as Etruscans.

I cite three Harcourt books—they're at hand, because I happened to have edited them; I could have chosen other writers—and the story by a new science-fiction writer who has a powerful talent but the misfortune to write in untranslated Polish. (There is one novella by Huberath in English—“The Greater Punishment”—but the English is rather clumsy.)

Lethem's second novel, Amnesia Moon, appeared a few years ago. It portrays a world fractured into different realities after some unnamed cataclysm. Each local reality, we learn, is shaped by that region's effective dreamer (an idea from Le Guin's Lathe). The hero, Chaos, can't remember how this situation came about or much of his past. His odyssey from Hatfork, Wyoming, to San Francisco to get answers—and to find the woman he thinks he loves (he's not sure)—is part Wizard of Oz and part road movie.

The book deals with American myths (that we all live by) and also is invested with a poignant sense of not belonging (which many of us suffer), and there are entertaining, imaginative scenes of satiric absurdity along the way. Lethem is using the tropes of science fiction, but he's using other tropes as well—from fiction and from other media. After a while you get the sense that Lethem is picking tropes from a menu—doing what he wants to do, what interests or amuses him—and is not concerned in the least about which part of the bookstore this book will end up in when it's printed.

In a scene that follows the final showdown, where the hero has used his godlike power (making changes by dreaming them) to defeat the villain and win the woman and set everything right, Lethem sidesteps this narrative cliché with a touch of human truth, and does it so effortlessly, you suspect that he's not sidestepping at all; rather, he's walking through the cliché, because to him it is no longer there. (In this passage, Everett aka “Chaos” is the hero, Edie the woman and mother to Ray and Dave, and Melinda functions as Everett's daughter.)

It was morning. Edie and Dave were out of the car, sitting by a small fire. Everett could hear Melinda and Ray arguing in the middle seat, but when Everett hoisted himself up, they fell silent.
                        Edie wasn't small anymore. And Dave's tail was gone.
                        Everett cantilevered his body out of the car.
“Chaos,” said Edie. She came to him. “Your dream, last night. It was about us. And now look. The dream made us change back."
He didn't say anything. His head was muddled with sleep.
                        “Do you want some breakfast?” she asked.
He nodded. She took his arm. Melinda and Ray came out of the car. Ray was back to normal size, and Melinda didn't have fur anymore.
                        “Hey,” said Melinda. “You're still fat."
“I guess you forgot about yourself,” suggested Edie. She smiled at him shyly. “It doesn't matter."
                        “Well, I want my fur back,” said Melinda. “That does matter."
                        “Sorry,” said Everett.
                        “You jerk, you should have asked first,” said Melinda.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“I'll work on it,” he said. “There'll be plenty of dreams. I'll get you your fur back."
                        “Tonight,” said Melinda.
“Here,” said Edie. She gave him some toast with jelly and a plastic mug of tea.
                        “And I want my tail back,” said Dave in a small voice.
“You don't want a tail,” said Edie. “You just want to be like Melinda."
“No, really. I really want it back. Really.”
“He liked his tail,” said Melinda. (245-46)

Ian R. MacLeod's first novel, The Great Wheel, was published very recently, September 1997. It tells the story of a priest in a future Third World (Northern Africa). Father John is wrestling with his lack of faith and is also haunted by feelings of guilt toward his brother, Hal. As a boy, John idolized Hal, but Hal is now a vegetable: kept alive by sophisticated machines upstairs in a bedroom of his parents' house. The novel contains a medical mystery, a love affair, and politics. But its true hero is not John or any other character, and not the plot or the science fiction and sociological ideas that this future is founded on; the hero is mood and setting. The orchestrated combining of detail, emotion, and atmosphere. This mode of writing makes for a slow pace—but that is the whole point: it is the immediate moment of the narrative travel, not the destination, that matters.

MacLeod employs, scrupulously, impeccably, and thoroughly, the vocabulary of science fiction. The science and technology, whether behind a robot physician or a space station, is solid, and the author is a master at introducing it all unobtrusively, seamlessly, into the story. Which makes his future quite convincing—and also explains, I think, why science fiction writers (like Michael Swanwick) and critics (like John Clute) have felt that MacLeod belongs to the twenty-first century. But, curiously, MacLeod's science and technology are perceived with a sensibility that has nothing to do with science or technology. The observing narrator ultimately is a poet, not a techie. A good example is a ride in an old truck, whose transmission—what could be more nuts and bolts than that?—uses biological components (gray matter):

They trundled on.... The tiny driver leaped up in his seat to peer over the rusty plain of the truck's hood, pulling down screens on knotted ribbons. He hardly seemed in control. John could see where an access panel had flipped open on the seat between them, and could smell the semeny smell of hot nerve tissue.
The long fuselage creaked and snapped as they veered west, where mudflats and the Breathless Ocean shone, mirroring the clouds, and they headed downhill, picking up speed. The tiny man stroked the nerve tissue, grinning at John, and gave it a sexual squeeze. The sound of the engines, John was almost sure, grew more agonized, louder. Glittering ribbons and screens scythed pendulum arcs, and on the far side of the cab Felipe began to recede like a tunnel in a dream. The whole long body of the truck seemed to rise and buck as the little man's thin hands dug deeper and harder into a nerve's mucus-thick sheaf.... (297-98)

Is some genre rule being broken here? Or is it simply that the question of genre, the very existence of genre, has become irrelevant?

Kage Baker's first novel, In the Garden of Iden, will appear about the same time as this essay, February 1988. She is even more a newcomer than MacLeod, though a couple of short stories in Asimov's have already introduced her to science-fiction readers. Her work is a time-travel-cum-cyborg visiting of Renaissance England; it is full of correct history, snappy humor, troubling cruelty, and the point—made many times before—that a lot of human misery can be laid at the door of religious fervor. Baker is Shavian in more ways than one.   

Interestingly, her science-fiction adventure, while very much a science- fiction adventure, is also a hot love story. It combines both sentiment and hormones in the same female body, a noteworthy accomplishment in any genre. The British (Hodder) are publishing Baker's novel with a romance jacket and romance flap copy. Naturally, they hope for a steamy sequel. The author is writing not just one sequel but many—there is in fact a series of novels set in the same world, and these books are quickly passing from drawing board to manuscript. Series set in the same world are certainly popular in science fiction. But Baker's agenda has more than cyborg technology and Harlequin heat; it has, for example, the question, What is it like to live in a world with people when you yourself are not and cannot be a person?   

At a Christmas party, the heroine, Mendoza, experiences an unexpected out-of-body vision.

I rested my chin on my palm and watched the mortals gossip, or doze, or stuff themselves. Then they began to go out, the mortals. Not to leave the room, you understand, but to go out, like lamps. They were flickering out all around me and becoming transparent; one and then another vanished into the silence of the torchlight. Pop, here went a little lady in a great starched ruff, in the very act of talking behind her hand to her neighbor. Pop, there went both Master and Mistress Preeves, between one snore and the next. Before long there were no people at all, only tables, and then they too were gone. The fire burned down dim and cold, and the room itself changed, grew small and dark, the timbers blackening and warping. All the gilding and bright decoration went away.

Whoosh, the fire went out. I was alone in a cold blue light that streamed in through the windows. I looked at the windows, and they were distorted, for the leading had sagged and thrown the bright diamond panes out of true. But they faded and were gone, lingering for a moment as thin gray lines crossing the face of the moon. I looked back into the room, but it had gone too; I was alone in an expanse of snow mounded over ruins, and there was no house, no garden, only moonlight and dark trees in the distance . . .
I jerked upright in the midst of chattering mortal folk having their Christmas. I grabbed for a cup of wine. My teeth chattered against the rim. (231-32)

The moment passes, and the scene of merriment resumes, and the action resumes, full of plots, both human and cyborg. But the vision of mortality, seen from the outside, stays with us—and it is central to Baker.

“Trzy kobiety Dona” (Don's Three Women), written in Polish, is a short story by Marek Huberath. Set in a Europe undergoing another ice age, it is a detailed, uncompromisingly realistic account of a family—one man and three women—trying to make their way through the mountains to safety in Egypt. The world is a bitterly cold, dying place, and there is little humanity left in it. In the story's events, we see the impulse to love and protect pitted against the instinct for survival. In this contest between the bestial and the human, played out in the most extreme circumstances, the bestial wins—there is an inevitability of doom in Huberath's work—yet even in the face of certain doom, a transcendent, luminous nobility shows in the efforts people make to preserve their humanity. This nobility survives death. Don is finally killed by his wives because they decide that his health is failing and they will need a stronger protector (their plan is to send out a call for help by radio). But the scene of his burial contains an image of love:

By flashlight Sheila and Marsha dug a hole for Don's body. They didn't want to bury him in the toilet. They took turns digging. The shovel made a sharp noise, as it had before. This time it was metal. They uncovered a car. The people in it hadn't been able to go far . . . On the front seat were the corpses of a woman and a man. Sheila and Marsha removed their coats, their fur. It wasn't easy, because the bodies were stiff as rock. The man's arm broke but wouldn't come off. In the backseat was the corpse of a small girl holding in her arms a rime-covered cat. The little animal had its mouth open, and its little teeth gleamed like needles.

They put Don in the backseat of the car next to the girl, positioning him so that his head wouldn't fall to one side. (75)

Huberath uses a stock science-fiction situation to develop an idea that of course does not belong to any one genre. He does this naturally: that is, there is no line the reader can draw between what is science fiction in the story and what isn't. Not because the author has concealed that line but because the line does not exist.   

Every good writer is different in one way or another and cannot be put into the straitjacket of any genre. What strikes me about Lethem, MacLeod, Baker, and Huberath is not that they are, each in his or her own way, different but that in a wholly unrebellious and perhaps even unconscious way they are making come to pass what a previous generation of science-fiction writers dreamed and talked and fretted about so much—and could not make come to pass.

It is not that these writers are breaking out of the sf ghetto. They are perfectly happy to use sf; they enjoy the genre. It is simply that the ghetto walls do not exist for them and never did.

Baker, Kage. In the Garden of Iden: A Novel of the Company. NY: Harcourt, 1988.
Huberath, Marek S. “The Greater Punishment.” The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy. Ed. and trans. Wiesiek Powaga. NY: Hippocrene, 1996. 35-96.
─────. “Trzy kobiety Dona” (Don's Three Women). Ostatni, którzy wyszli z raju (The Last to Leave Paradise). Poznań: Zysk i S-ka, 1996. 39-88.
Lethem, Jonathan. Amnesia Moon. NY: Harcourt, 1995.
MacLeod, Ian R. The Great Wheel. NY: Harcourt, 1997.

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