Science Fiction Studies

#54 = Volume 18, Part 2 = July 1991

Horst Pukallus

An Interview with Darko Suvin: Science Fiction and History, Cyberpunk, Russia....

This interview took place in June 1989 and was first published, in a briefer German version, in Das Science Fiction Jahr 1990, ed. Wolfgang Jeschke (Munich: Heyne Verlag, 1990).

Horst Pukallus: Dr. Suvin, you are a professor of literature, a scholar of repute, and you were co-editor of SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES for eight years, something that some people would think of as a contradiction in terms. But surely you must have your reasons. What explanation is there for your special weakness for SF?

Darko Suvin: First of all, philosophically speaking, I am a materialist, and a materialist has to start from the material. I also did six years of science and have a degree in chemical engineering. What would that chemist be who said "I don't want to deal with this compound because it smells bad"?—which is not to admit that SF must smell bad. How come there are so many literary scholars who say, "I don't want to deal with what people really read"? SF, thrillers, and love romances are what people really read—as different from what critics have said was good for a hundred years. I'm not trying to turn such traditional judgments upside down and say that we should read only SF and forget Shakespeare. To begin with, there is a division of labor in scholarship by now; I regret that and have during my whole career refused to be fully imprisoned in it, so I've written about Shakespeare, Brecht, and Pirandello, as well as about Happenings. Nonetheless, if we are in the sorrowful situation of a society split into upper and lower social classes and therefore cultural markets, let's at least investigate everything that exists—upper, lower, middle, or mixed. And then, furthermore, what now considered high was not always such: in his time, Shakespeare appealed, in great part, to social groups of his time analogous to those that SF appeals to in our time: the Elizabethans called them the groundlings, the popular masses. So all that I'm saying is: we live in this system of elite versus mass literature, which I don't like too much; I think the whole system is un-healthy; it's just as unhealthy to focus only on the elite literature as it is to focus only on Perry Rhodan and never to read anything else. I don't understand why all professionals would want to talk only about "high literature" and why half or at least a fifth of them would not talk about the reading stuff of the generality of readers. Of course the first is important, but surely the other is also important. I think SF, thrillers, nurse romances, etc., are very important; maybe they are bad: but then we must analyze how and why they are bad. I have read a lot of SF books, as well as an awful lot of psychological or "high" fiction, and I don't think SF books are statistically worse than anything else. Maybe 95% of SF is very bad, but that is not worse than anything else: 95% of published poetry is very bad, and yet nobody refuses to analyze poetry.

Second: the basic events in my life were World War Two and the Yugoslav Revolution. They were formative events, when I was very young, 11 or so. They had consequences for my thinking: it became very easy to think of alternative time-streams, of alternative histories, because we all lived them. When I was a little boy there was still monarchist Yugoslavia; then we had the Fascist occupation, we had the partisans, the revolution, post-war Titoism. These were all alternative time-streams. It was very clear what would happen if Hitler won the war: one didn't need to read Philip K. Dick to know it. A Nazi bomb hit 50 meters from me in 1943 or '44: in a very slightly alternative world, I'd have died then, before my teens (and I've always felt, on the one hand, that every extra day was pure gravy, and on the other that I have certain responsibilities to speak for those who died that day). When Tito broke with Stalin, the alternatives were also very clear. I was on the KGB blacklist, I learned a bit later: in the somewhat more strongly alternative world where Stalin invaded Yugoslavia after 1948, there was a high chance I'd have ended up on the gallows before I'd gotten out of my teens. So you had the possibility to think of alternative histories, of "possible worlds." I learned later that this concept goes back to Leibniz, but I saw it first in practice, and then in print where Leibniz also finally found it: in utopian works, fantastic voyages, etc.

So I got very interested in such books. After the War (for my generation, those born in the 1930s, there is only one War), I read Verne, Wells, and Thomas More, and then I went on to SF. I think my first article about SF— published in Yugoslavia in 1957, if I remember correctly—was a kind of survey of the genre, which lead to a book in the '60s. This possibility of catching a great number of wave-lengths appealed to me very much, and I think that was the result of the historical epoch I lived through. Then, at some point, I started to translate. As well as some short stories I translated John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids and James Blish's The Seedling Stars, for example, into the Serbo-Croatian language. I started working in the field as a hobby; my professional specialty is modern drama. The book I published in Yugoslavia at the beginning of the '60s was a historical introduction, a general view of the genre, commencing with Lucian of Samosata and leading to modern SF, to Heinlein, Gérard Klein, and the Strugatsky Brothers. I also wrote on SF and a number of SF writers (Asimov, Heinlein, etc.; I still have a gracious letter of thanks from Ray Bradbury) for a Yugoslav encyclopedia. And then, when I came to teach in the US (having been by diverse, basically political, manoeuvers deprived of the possibility of university teaching in my own country) it was '67, a time of student revolt. The students wanted a great number of things, from power in the university to Science Fiction courses. The power in the university they didn't get (I remember a breakfast discussion with Marcuse where I vainly tried to understand how society would radically change even if they did get it), but the SF courses they did get. Suddenly I was very marketable. I was hired to teach drama and SF at the McGill University in '68. Student interest collapsed around '73/'74. It collapsed, in my opinion, together with good SF; the last significant book of that last major SF wave was Le Guin's The Dispossessed. There followed a long period of disinterest, during which I have not been teaching SF regularly. But interest (not just mine) seems to be increasing again now; I did a new course on SF last year. However, I can earn my livelihood very well without SF, so that I can speak objectively. Most academics—Germanists, Anglicists, literary scholars in general—couldn't care less about SF. But there is no such thing as a naked eye, there's always a brain behind the eye; even behind the photographic lens there is the eye and brain of the photographer. In consequence, whenever you talk about SF, you are speaking theoretically. But if you aren't conscious that you have a theory, you can't control it, you can't criticize yourself, you don't have the even the possibility of feed-back for self-examination. Therefore, it's better to have an explicit than an implicit theory: your chances of being halfway intelligent are better. But of course 90 percent of all criticism of SF is not much good either.

HP: I would like to talk a little about cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is celebrated as the hard SF of today, as the integration of high-tech and sub-culture, and a claim is—not for the first time—put forward by SF authors that they are taking over the role of mainstream literature. But I would think it has some significance when Garcia Marquez gets the Nobel Prize and Bruce Sterling does not. What can you say about the literary qualities of cyberpunk?

DS: I have some doubts that the label of cyberpunk is more than an invention to help sell texts. I really don't know what is the common denominator among Greg Bear, Lucius Shepard, Norman Spinrad, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling. Norman Spinrad has always been one of the most talented SF people around, and he may just may have written the best cyberpunk novel—outside cyberpunk but rejuvenated by it, so to speak. I think Shepard is a critical writer (that's a positive judgment in my mouth), I think Gibson is a very good writer (though unfortunately writing worse and worse in my opinion; I'm very disappointed at the rehash in Mona Lisa Overdrive). Neuromancer was, I think, a splendid book; half of the stories in the collection Burning Chrome were splendid; Count Zero is halfway okay, but there Gibson already begins going downhill. Perhaps there is a poetically just, though very high, price to be paid for writing Hollywood scenarios (maybe in proportion to the price received for those scenarios?)....I have just read Bruce Sterling's latest book, Islands in the Net, which is his best book though I have some reservations about it; the rest I found pretty bad, including Schismatrix as well as the well-nigh terrible Involution Ocean. That's a pity, because Sterling is an intelligent and articulate person with a wealth of ideas shooting off at undisciplined tangents. (I analyze Gibson and Sterling at length in an essay in Foundation #46.) So I would be very dubious about calling cyberpunk a real movement or school; it's more a group of friends praising each other. The best people—Gibson, for instance—do have something new to say; and it's the first new thing that's interested me (except for some women writing SF) since The Dispossessed.

You see, I confess that I just can't read most of what has been published in the last 15 years. I pick it up and try, from time to time, but mostly I can't; so I have my favourite authors by now of whom I read every book, say C.J. Cherryh, but I cannot follow the genre any longer (when I realized that, I resigned from editorship of SFS). This may partly be a judgment on an aging critic: but I think I have a great deal of curiosity left in me still, and I think it is mainly a judgment on the genre. What's been happening in SF is a terrible contamination with Fantasy. If you like Fantasy, it's okay (I myself like some of it, from Kafka and Calvino to Tanith Lee or some Japanese). But I don't think Fantasy is at all the same as SF; and having it half this, half that—what James Blish once called Science Fantasy—is really horrible. Fantasy should not be published in the same way and as if it were SF. This SF-Fantasy opposition isn't at all the same as the one between hard SF vs. soft SF. What I think is interesting in cyberpunk is exactly the breakdown of the distinction between hard and soft SF—that your brain becomes the software of the new hardware, if you wish to speak this scientific language (which, I think, is not too important). If you wish to speak about it on a deeper level—important for writers and critics—I do think that Gibson's books and perhaps a few of books by other '80s authors too, have renewed the language of SF: they have integrated the computer-hacker lingo into it. The claims of and for that social group may be vastly overblown: I don't think their way of life is representative of the whole world today; it's not even representative of all the young generation of Western Europe or the US. These semi-yuppies are in fact economically the upper class of the largely unemployed youth of today. But it is representative of a very important little group: the media people, electronic mixers, computer freaks—the social bearers of this cyberpunk structure of feeling. There is something new here: there is a basically new technology and a new social position of the group that has access to this technology, and that I find interesting. There is the fact, for example, that Gibson's extrapolated future—supposedly extrapolated, because I don't believe SF is extrapolation, though it is, of course, very important that it simulates extrapolation—is a Japanese, not a North American future. This is important not because of the nation, but because Japanese capitalism is a corporative capitalism—a kind of neo-feudal capitalism, if you wish—different from the US variant/variety; and therefore Gibson's is a hypothesis about the future of capitalism: that it's going to become more and more Japanese or corporativistic. I hope Gibson and Sterling are wrong, but I rationally believe they are most probably right. At any rate, the fact that they focus on this variant means something; it means they have realized they are living in the 1980s.

HP: I've read cyberpunk books and have to say they are well-written adventure stories. But not, I think, more than that. I was disappointed by their characterization, in part by their style too, but mainly by their curious notion that the world has become too difficult to understand, so that the only principle to follow is everyone for himself (or herself). Why can't people who think of themselves as top writers see any possibility of explaining the multiplicity of thinking, of life-styles, of processes around the world?

DS: If we believe, as I believe, that any piece of writing is determined by its implied reader—modern literary theory maintains there is an ideal reader inscribed between the lines, an ideal addressee—it's not difficult to find the ideal reader of cyberpunk: computer hackers, media mixers, technicians of TV and radio stations, mobile young professionals, free-lancers, jet-setters who don't care whether they work in Tokyo, London, Düsseldorf, or Los Angeles—they just want to have their machines, they want to be part of a global network. The ideal cyberpunk reader should be someone like Bob Geldof, a kind of global media expert. Their position is very strange. They despise the bureaucracy, they don't want to be mass people or peons (proletarians: that's a recurring nightmare in Gibson), they want fun, they want sex, they want to travel around the world. And yet they live off the despised bureaucracy. They live on the basis of multinational capitalist prosperity. They are against it, but they are inside the system; and the system doesn't allow you to see its workings (at best you can murmur something about mysterious AIs). In a way I think of cyberpunk as the beginning of post-modernism in SF. I don't like post-modernism; but it can't be denied that the previous era—the Leninist era, or Picasso era, or Brecht era, or whatever you want to call it, one in which the best people were propagating the marriage between the political and the æsthetic avantgarde—has collapsed. It collapsed partially several times, in the '30s and the late '40s and '50s; but it has collapsed finally today, I think: there are no global alternative theories any more. So cyberpunk is a pretty direct reflection of the social position, not of our whole society, but of a particular group, which is very interesting and important, but which also has its strong limitations: it's certainly not the point of view of the whole world.

HP: Is it not the task of a writer to speak for the people who have no voice and to explain the things these people have no means to understand on their own?

DS: Indeed, I think, all the great writers—Shakespeare, Balzac, Tolstoy, even Joyce, I would say—have always spoken for large social groups. Workers and farmers are usually not represented in "high literature." SF as a whole, in my opinion, has always been written for the "middle" classes. All the statistics we have, which are very few, say that the main age for reading SF is 13 to 25. So it's a kind of medium for a specific social group of its own which has not quite differentiated into upper class and lower class (a present-day student is neither/nor). The greatest writer of SF up to the present probably is still H.G. Wells (we could debate this, but from the standpoint of international recognition it's certainly Wells); and about him there is a great amount of evidence by now—biographies, documentations, critical literature—elucidating which social groups he was writing about. And he gave his voice not to the workers (the workers were the Morlocks) and not to the upper class (they were the Eloi), but to the observer in between, the Time Traveller. It's very difficult for an SF writer, I think, to write about the people, if you mean by that the great majority of the working classes—I don't mean industrial workers, but those whom the Japanese capitalists so nicely call the "salarymen" (and women). The working classes have never been represented in SF in my opinion: and I'm not sure they could be. I think SF is a literature of the in-between classes. Which are very important, because who these classes go with determines who wins: if they go with the upper class, the upper class wins, if they go with the workers, then the workers win.

However, it's extremely difficult to answer your question. We would have to analyze who Dick lends his voice to, who Le Guin gives her voice to (they're the most important SF writers in the US of the '60s). Who do the Strugatsky Brothers give voice to? Clearly the Russian intelligentsia, not the workers and peasants. That's okay; I have nothing against it. One shouldn't expect too much. Your question is a populist question. I would dearly like to answer, "Yes, wonderful." (By the way, as a populist, you shouldn't use this quintessentially elitist, politicized, and conservative Nobel Prize—which was given to a Kissinger, for heaven's sake!—as an argument for quality of writing.) But to do so, first of all you have to have writers who understand the experiences of the workers and peasants, and secondly a reading public for whom you can write—at least some nuclei such as existed in the Weimar Republic, when the workers went to their singing clubs, their associations, and trade unions, and even to some theaters (there was some theatre for workers). At that point you can have a Brecht. You can't have a Brecht today: the workers are looking at television. If we are really materialists, we have to believe that the material circumstances give you certain possibilities and enforce certain limitations; so it's no good to tell the writer, "Why don't you write for the people?" Which people? The people who are looking at television? But you could say, one can write intelligently for a critical intelligentsia or middle class, maybe; and that's the best we can expect, I think, realistically. That's the way I read the ideological situation today.

HP: My concept of a writer is that of a person who takes a life-time to unfold what s/he believes s/he has to say and to improve her or his ways of saying it. I've the impression that the so-called cyberpunk movement is just a bunch of talented writers who are too unsure of themselves, too impatient to think of a message, to allow themselves time to develop their own style and literary uniqueness. Or would you regard this as much too hard a position?

DS: Let's talk about Gibson. The trajectory of Gibson seems to me very interesting. He's not exactly a Vietnam War deserter; but he came to Canada at the same time they did (albeit at a very young age), and it's very interesting and important that he lived first in Toronto and then in Vancouver. He was getting out of the US; and the experiences in/behind Neuromancer are the experiences at the US from the outside, to some extent, in an alienated "Japanese-y" way. Now he's in Hollywood. writing scenarios doe sequels to Alien. For that there is a price to pay, as I said earlier (Heinlein's TANSTAAFL). He's famous, well-paid; but his novels get worse and worse; he's started writing about voodoo as an explanation of the world situation as he sees it....But let me say something in defense of cyberpunk. What you are asking its practitioners to do is to be better than history, to transcend history. In other words, to be heroes. Very few people are heroes. Joyce was a hero: he went into exile and wrote his thing, never mind what happened. That's a stance very few people can maintain, and it's unfair to ask them. It's unfair to ask somebody to be a Proust, a Joyce, or a Brecht. Market circulation is getting faster and faster today; fashions change more and more quickly. What you say is quite correct: these authors are impatient; they don't leave themselves time. But that's because they are exactly suited to the times. I don't mean that they sit down and say: What is it the market wants from us? Many do, but I think the best do not. I think they catch—very indirectly—the spirit of the age. They are aware of the pace of events; they know the world whirls around ever more rapidly, so to speak. As Balzac said, writers are only secretaries of the society: whatever society dictates to me, I write down. One out of a thousand can be a hero and say, "I only listen to the Muse." Balzac killed himself by writing so much; but most of us want rather to live, and have to live from something. Thought I think you have a good point, I would defend the cyberpunk authors at least to this extent: I think we get the SF we deserve. (No, on second thought, I think that's not quite true: most SF is worse than we deserve.)

HP: William Gibson spoke of cyberpunk being in the tradition of William Burroughs. I know the work of Burroughs well and find this hard to believe. Burroughs is at least a kind of rebel; he calls for a breakthrough into reality —to see its true face and to understand it—while cyberpunk seems to me a form of capitulation and a flight into a new, electronic type of inner space. Do you see any connection between Burroughs and cyberpunk?

DS: If you analyze the plot in the major works of Gibson, it is what I call (in my Foundation essay, "On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF") "Romeo and Juliet in Chiba City." There is a love story between two little people, not between the owners, the big people: the big people are horrible; those up there in the orbit are monsters, are freaks. These little people, the computer cowboy and the street samurai, try but can't maintain a love affair, just as Romeo and Juliet's love affair was chopped up. The stars are against them, in this case not the Elizabethan astrologers' stars but the little shuriken of that sleazy corporate world. So I think there is a real rebellion in the best of Gibson; there is sympathy for the little people; there is a very clear, cynical view of the power struggles. In that sense, I think, the cyberpunk writers have half a dozen forefathers: one is Bester, another is Pynchon, maybe; and certainly Burroughs, too. So they are at the interface of SF and what is called mainstream literature, although of course they stay inside SF. And Burroughs is the one who showed us that the hallucinatory operators are real; in other words, a world where drugs are normal, where killing is an everyday occurrence—the world of high capitalism—is real. Let's say the best of cyberpunk can be read—with many impurities—as a kind of Rousseauist rebellion. I would defend, for example, Neuromancer very strongly. I think it is certainly politically much better informed than the New York Times or 99 percent of the North American population. Of course Gibson is exceptional. Even in Shepard's book Life During Wartime a global war is going on for years and years because two Panamanian families somewhere behind the scenes are fighting each other! That's politically illiterate. Sterling's novel Islands in the Net is not bad, but it's politically illiterate, too. I'm sorry, but that's the way people get educated today.

HP: Let's switch to the other side of the world, to the USSR. Do you think the perestroika policy has consequences for Soviet SF?

DS: I think it's too early to tell. To judge from what I know today, June 1989, I don't think it's had great visible consequences yet in the published SF. In a sense this is paradoxical: there are two complementary and opposed reasons for this. First, Stalinism (Zhdanovism, Brezhnevism, what they so nicely call over there "stagnation") has still a stranglehold on SF publishing. Second, what used to be visible only in SF is visible in the Soviet Parliament and in Pravda now. What used to be visible in the works of the Strugatsky Brothers could only be published in their Aesopic, coded language. I think that in the long run, i.e. if perestroika goes on, publishing will get unshackled.* But then this second aspect will be the deeper one, and a good thing for Soviet SF: it will become a normal genre, no longer responsible for the fate of the Russian intelligentsia (which is a very heavy load for a literary genre). That has traditionally been the role of the Russian literature. Under Czarism you had the government and you had Tolstoy, and Tolstoy really was the voice of the people, the voice of the peasants. I expect there will be fewer problems with censorship. SF, including that of the Strugatsky Brothers, had terrible problems with censorship in the USSR. We must assume that many of the best things not only didn't get published, but never got written, because the writers knew they would have such problems. This, I think, is now becoming a thing of the past. It depends. The most important SF publishing house is not so much in the government's hands as in nationalist or right-wing hands, and SF is really more of the Sakharov or Medvedev line of thinking, what is in our newspapers called "liberal" (which is, I think a stupid adjective in this context). So SF authors may get to have that type of problem now—that they are "not sufficiently Russian," not sufficiently nationalist—instead of problems with censorship; but probably it will be a smaller problem. My main feeling about Russian SF since the fall of Khrushchev (or, say, since '68) was that it was forced into a very unfortunate symbiosis—quite parallel with the symbiosis between SF and Fantasy in the US, except that in the Russian tradition it's not with horror and other Fantasy but with the folktale. You can see this already in the Strugatskys' Monday Begins on Saturday; and a lot of other authors, among them the best ones, have been forced into this symbiosis. Not "forced" in the sense that the police told them, "You must write fairy tales"; rather, the symbiosis was one way to write something that had an æsthetic form. And the national tradition is very strong in the Russia: people were still telling folktales in the villages one or two generations ago. I personally feel that this tradition has some strengths, especially when used ironically, as the Strugatskys used it. But its also very dangerous because the folktale is an older genre, and if you want to write fairy tales you're not going to write SF. So this main trend in good Soviet SF since 1968 is not one that I like: I think it renders SF harmless. By good SF, I mean Bilenkin, Gor, Varshavsky, the Strugatskys, Shefner, Larionova, Bulychov, and others. The trend was to keep it what I would call non-cognitive. I should also add that there has been a lot of awfully bad SF published in the USSR for ideological reasons, because a committee liked its hacks. I think that can stop now. I don't know, but I hope so. They will then have to contend with a lot of bad market SF: the market will find its hacks too, no doubt (often the same who wrote for the committees, that breed is durable).

HP: Vladimir Gakov talks about a new generation of Russian SF writers —Yevgeny Lubin, Vitali Babenko, Leonid Passanenko, for instance—and says their target is a conformist and consumer mentality. Is this a promising new tendency?

DS: Well, maybe, but that's nothing new. This has been the language of the Russian critics of the Strugatskys in the '60s. For example, Tale of the Troika was interpreted as critical of a combination of bureaucratic and consumer mentality. But to criticize consumerism is a very ambiguous thing. What does it mean, as a slogan? Back to hunger? What kind of consumption, which type of consumer? This has to be made much more precise for me before I start saluting it as a big and interesting new development. On the other hand, I think Gakov is correct: there are a lot of new names. These authors may get better possibilities to publish, and I think they will be liberated from a double pressure: the pressure of censorship and the pressure of being in one of the very few places where you could have the alternatives to the official, government line voiced publicly. For a short time Soviet SF will be, perhaps, not so popular—and not so controversial, maybe —because it no longer has only the choice between being ideological and political opposition or being trash. Finally, since the Russians are a highly talented people, I wouldn't be surprised if Russian SF—which should not be called Soviet any longer then—becomes qualitatively equal to any other SF in the world, including British and US.

*By 1989, unbeknownst to me, the monopoly of the State Publishing Houses was broken and a new Press Law was coming into effect. The net result was (as I expected) a full unshackling of publishing, so that by now everything is being published, from the most heretic Strugatskys to the worst SF porn and kitsch. (DS, 1990)

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