So, that symposium, then. I thought it was, on balance, quite fun. (For a take from someone better read in sf criticism than me, see this post; and for photos, see here.) At times it struggled a little to address both of its audiences (the Gresham symposium regulars, who seemed to account for about a third of the audience, and the knowledgeable sf fans and critics, who must have been another third) equally, and the Chair was perhaps more enthusiastic than knowledgeable; but there was good stuff in there. These are brief notes, since eventually the full transcripts and possibly even audio will be available on the Gresham college website; I trust that there were enough people now reading this in attendance that we can go into more detail in the comments.
The conceit of Neal Stephenson‘s keynote address was to imagine what a xeno-ethnologist would make of our culture, and his conclusion was: it no longer makes sense to talk about “mainstream” versus “genre”. He described this split, between acceptable culture and a number of debased genres, as the “standard model”, and argued that it may have been accurate half a century or more ago, but was no longer relevant. However, he also defined his terms very carefully: not only did he specify that he was talking about speculative fiction rather than science fiction, he made it clear that he was using the widest possible definition of speculative fiction, to include, for example, “new historical fiction” like 300 (and presumably also The Baroque Cycle). He used “mundane” to describe all non-sf.
Sf, he argued, is unique among genres in that it has grown but remained separate. Westerns largely died (contemporary examples are all exceptional in some way, not part of a living genre; romance has become ubiquitous in film; crime has become a dominant narrative form on tv. Sf has become too common and too successful to be realistically described as a genre — hence his very broad definition of the term — but has not been absorbed in the way that romance and crime have. It remains a separate stream in our culture.
A xeno-ethnologist, he suggested, would see a “bifurcated culture”, with speculative on one side and mundane on the other. Evidence for this bifurcation: the redefinition of bestseller lists in, eg, the New York Times, to include only the types of books that the compilers of bestseller lists think should be on there (eg relegating Potter to YA); and the careers of actors such as Sigourney Weaver and Hugo Weaving, who have respectable success as actors but disproportionate fame among speculative audience relative to mundane audiences. He proposed that the unifying factor among actors achieving this sort of success was their ability to “project intelligence”; that intelligence (practical or intellectual or some other kind) was the key to identifying these characters. At this point it became clear that better terms for the split he was trying to describe would be between geeky and not, rather than speculative than not. His attempt to explain that split was, I thought, actually quite sophisticated. He argued that, in the everyday world, intelligence is not exceptional — though it comes in many forms — but that a lot of mundane fiction does not actually reflect this. In a complex world, the split is between art that encourages vegging out and that which encourages geeking out, and the latter is the stuff that has become the speculative stream of our culture. (Remember how broad his definition of speculative is: I strongly suspect he would attempt to claim, say, HBO shows, and certainly something like The West Wing.) The satisfaction of sf, he argued, was that its characters are not dumb, ie they act like we think real people would. (I leave you to decide how much “real people” is being defined as “people like Neal Stephenson”, although he was at pains, as I said, to point out that there are many kinds of intelligence.) He wrapped up with some rather strawman and largely unproductive attacks on academia as a factor behind this split, suggesting that the post-structuralist, post-modern principles of English teaching breed a sort of lack of confidence in writing about anything other than subjective personal experience.
Andy Sawyer‘s presentation on the overlap between science fiction and other genres was, I hope he will not be offended by me saying, more aimed at the Gresham regulars than at the fans. It was a galloping survey of the various attempts to define sf, from Aldiss to Suvin and others, with the underlying argument that sf is never a pure genre, that it is always part something else. (Citing Paul Kincaid’s family-resemblance approach from “On the Origins of Science Fiction” as part support.) Useful points made: classification is always a form of ideological argument; and “science fiction” can sometimes be considered as a verb, something that happens in texts when certain elements are introduced. He also proposed a starting point for genre of 1827 (ie a century before Gernsback) on the grounds of a novel by Jane Webb called The Mummy! which responded directly to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. He also pointed out that magazines for most other kinds of category fiction existed before Amazing, and suggested that perhaps this was a mark of the limitations of sf as a category, and that it might more usefully be thought of as a way of thinking.
John Clute talked about Horror motifs in science fiction, via a detailed reading of the dystopian novel City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings (1919). He started from the idea that science fiction (or “the argued fantastic”) and horror are largely opposed: “rationalising horror [i.e. what sf does] is to tolerate it”. Vampires explained can be scary, but not horrific. What, then, he asked, can survive of horror in an sf setting? Another way of framing the question is to ask what genres can let us see (as long as, he said, we remember that they are tools for seeing but not the thing seen itself). Horror, he suggested, is a way of wrestling with amnesia, and in particular can be a way of wrestling with the amnesia of society: it is about forcing us to remember or to recognise. (Building on a distinction he’s talked about before.) This sort of horror can be seen in dystopias, in “Hitler Wins” stories, in apocalypse stories and — he suggested — in a lot of near-future science fiction written after 2000. Examples given: The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall; HARM by Brian Aldiss; The Luminous Depths by David Herter; Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon; The Book of Dave by Will Self; Pattern Recognition by William Gibson; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; and Super-Cannes by JG Ballard. One notable thing about this list: only two of its number have been published as genre. He also described this cluster as “cenotaph fiction” (a description, incidentally, I suspect could be applied to Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel, which I am currently reading).
Next up was Martin Willis, talking about Science fiction in the nineteenth century. I think this presentation was probably not as bad as it seemed at the time, but was not helped by the structure: the whole first half was generalities about the period and about what “the critics” say about it, which looked particularly bad coming immediately after Clute’s close reading, and such that it sounded like he was arguing against a straw man even if it wasn’t entirely. I think, actually, a lot of what he said was pushing hard at an open door. His main argument, for example, was that sf critics do not pay enough attention to nineteenth-century science fiction (it didn’t help his case that, when he did get around to talking about examples, he included Poe and Shelley; although in talking about, eg, mesmerism as a science in sf he made me think again about Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y as an heir to this tradition). Separately, he argued that critics do not pay enough attention to the way that science functions in science fiction (something I am very sympathetic to, and indeed something I liked about Joanna Russ’ reviews as collected in The Country You Have Never Seen); and he also argued that too often science in science fiction is the work of individuals, not recognised as a social enterprise, or “a vibrant set of political and social cultures” (another idea I’m sympathetic to).
Last but not least was Roger Luckhurst, talking about Modern British Science Fiction, and he very nearly got through the whole talk without mentioning a contemporary science fiction novel by a British writer. Instead he talked about three different implications of modern: modernity, meaning a philosophically and scientifically enlightened society as we have had for the past few hundred years (in theory); modernisation, meaning the technological and ecological consequences of the industrial revolution and urbanisation; and modernism, meaning the literary movement at the start of the twentieth century. Sf, he argued (and I gather here that he was paraphrasing his own book), is a literature of modernity and modernisation but has an ambivalent relationship, at best, with modernism. I have to say that I enjoy Luckhurst’s approach — he always brings in a lot of context, in the form of biographical and historical information — even when I don’t agree with it. When he did get to contemporary sf, he came back to the idea of a “post-genre fantastic” (which, weirdly, he first attributed to “a science fiction critic”, only later naming the source as Gary Wolfe), and pointed to writers such as Chabon and Lethem (not British, note) as moving between and across genres. His British exemplar text was Justina Robson’s Keeping it Real, and to be fair he made it sound wonderful, talking of the Quantum Bomb as a generic bomb, and of the way in which the story literally makes the logics of sf and fantasy and horror inseparable; if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t know that structurally it’s a complete mess, I would certainly be rushing out to buy a copy. He offered two reasons for why this increasing free-ness across genres might be happening: one, that there has been a shift in our understanding of what counts as “culture” (the very shift, in fact, that Stephenson was objecting to, although Luckhurst said he doesn’t care for the term “post-modern”); and two, our relationship to science and technology is changing; we no longer have even the illusion that science can be held separate from society.
I should also note that the symposium ended with a panel discussion, which was mostly not very edifying, although the all-male nature of the faculty was challenged (the response was to acknowledge that yes, in this day and age the panel was not a representative sample of people who research sf); and one woman asked “what it would take for there to be a strong female character in sf that men could identify with”; Farah Mendlesohn provided some data from her survey of children’s reading habits — and therefore changing audience demographics — as a partial answer, and Caroline Mullan pointed out that the answer could just be Buffy. Then there was a drinks reception, and a dinner, both of which were filled with good company and conversation; and now I have to go to work.