When A Datapoint Becomes A Trend

Earlier this week, John Gray wrote about sf in the New Statesman, setting out an argument about The State Of Science Fiction. He begins by praising The City & The City‘s insight into the way we live our lives, asserts that “this insight comes without any suggestion that the situation can be changed”, and takes this stance as paradigmatic of modern sf, as opposed to classic sf’s belief that humanity can and will shape the future.

Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it.
If science fiction is no longer a viable form, it is because the humanist assumptions that underpinned it are no longer credible even as fictions. The hybrid type of writing that has evolved in recent years is symptomatic. “Slipstream”, “cyberpunk” and “new weird” blend together influences as diverse as Arthur Machen and Mikhail Bulgakov, Charles Williams and William S Burroughs. What these styles of writing have in common is an absence of politics. No world-changing project features in any of them. Miéville is an active member of the Socialist Workers Party, but his brand of fantastic fiction has as much to do with his political hopes as Wells’s scientific fables did with his utopian schemes. Wells may have fantasised about a world government using science for the masses, but it was the clairvoyant dreams that appear in The Island of Dr Moreau that expressed his true vision.

During much of the 20th century, speculative fiction served an impulse of world transformation. Fantasy was understood as an exercise in which alternative worlds were imagined in order to create new possibilities of action. Today fantasy has the role of enabling us to see more clearly the elusive actualities. The question of action is left open. We debate what can be done to change the world, but no one expects an answer.

This is not an argument that comes completely out of left field. It is not the same thing as William Gibson’s future fatigue — the idea, as expressed in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, that all we have is the spinning of the given moment’s scenarios — but it’s related, I think, inasmuch as if you think you can’t realistically talk about the changes to come, you’re not talking about changes that will come. Nor is it the same thing as Gary Wolfe’s proposition of Evaporating Genres, which is much more an argument about where and how science fiction appears; except that you would expect some changes in the character of science fiction to go along with changes in where and how it’s published, and Mieville’s book is the exemplar of a crossover text.

So in some ways I agree with Cheryl Morgan that “instinctively” Gray’s point has “a certain validity”, at least that the sort of sf he describes has become a more prominent strain of sf. But there’s an awful lot to argue with. Some of the argumentation is dubious — I’m a little bit in awe of that “If science fiction is no longer a viable form”, for so unapologetically repositioning as a given what was at best an implicit proposition a few paragraphs earlier — and, most problematically, as presented Gray is extrapolating from an absolute paucity of datapoints. He probably didn’t have to do so for the sake of his argument. He would have been justified to arrogate to his cause The Road — certainly the most widely-noticed apocalyptic vision of the last decade, and distinguished by its utter refusal of Wyndham-esque rebuilding — and perhaps the advocates of Shine might say that, in part, they’re addressing the gap that Gray identifies.

But here’s the complete list of writers of sf cited in Gray’s piece, as it stands: Wells, Zamyatin, Huxley, Stapledon, Orwell, Heinlein, Wyndham, Moorcock, Harrison, Lem, Ballard, Mieville. Laurie Penny has an excellent, necessary riposte on the familiar imbalances here:

Gray’s article lists not a single woman writer, nor any writer of colour — nor, indeed, any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville. It is particularly startling that, in his digest of 20th-century dystopian fiction, he neglects to mention Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a near-future novel set in a brutal patriarchal theocracy, alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.
Women’s liberation has always been, in Gray’s words, an “impulse of world transformation”. Imagining alternative futures in order to create a potentiality of action has been particularly important for women writers and writers of colour seeking to articulate social oppression.

There’s a list of the usual counter-suspects at the end of Penny’s piece, credited to Farah Mendlesohn and (suggestively) China Mieville. A few things strike me about that list. One, it’s as American-led a list as Gray’s piece is Brit-heavy; make of that what you will. Two, someone really needs to fix “Tricia O’Sullivan”, because I wince every time I read it. Three, Sullivan’s Maul is a good example of the sort of sf that — having spent part of the weekend discussing it — jumped out at me as noticeable by its absence from Gray’s piece, that is, sf engaged with some form of posthumanity. There’s plenty of it around, and it’s exactly about imagining radically transformed human experience. Fourth, and finally, Gwyneth Jone’s Bold as Love sequence is a pretty devastatingly effective counter-example to Gray’s argument, being as Sherryl Vint puts it, precisely “a thoughtful and thorough meditation on the political options facing us in the 21st century”, clearly accepted as a major work.

Penny’s piece itself, however, I find myself unable to agree with entirely. I’m not sure that sf “can’t help but replicate the strategies of radical politics and identity politics”; I might be convinced by “is particularly amenable to”, but there’s an awful lot of conservative sf out there. And moreover it seems to me that it’s not hard to come up with examples of books by women that fit Gray’s agenda — he includes weird fiction, for instance, which gets him books like Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War, and he includes slipstream, which gets him books like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. Both of those are, you can argue, works that highlight “elusive actualities” rather than propose alternatives. I rather suspect Gray didn’t mention them not because sf by women, in a broad sense, is antithetical to his argument or his particular humanist sensibility, but because he’s just not familiar with it.

18 thoughts on “When A Datapoint Becomes A Trend

  1. Haven’t read the Gray article but I didn’t read TC&TC as being about accepting the actual and the impossibility of alternatives. It’s explicitly about ‘ways of seeing’ which is central to socialist/marxist tradition as in work of Walter Benjamin. So don’t see how the argument can follow …

  2. I think that given where Borlu ends up, the reading that it’s a book about living in the world rather than changing the world is there, although whether it’s the most useful reading for the book you could debate.

  3. “Gray’s article lists not […] any living writers from the 21st-century save Miéville.”

    Which might come as news to Moorcock and (M. John) Harrison.

  4. Couple of things occur to me:

    1) Gray’s contention that Cyberpunk and the New Weird share “an absence of politics” suggests a bizarrely obtuse understanding of what constitutes politics in fiction. (it also suggests a thin verging on anorexic reading knowledge of those particular genres) Then again, bizarre obtuseness is a quality I find in a lot of Gray’s writing.

    2) Gray is the epitome of a Grumpy Old Git, the high-brow equivalent, in fact, of TV’s Grumpy Old Men. Here he’s simply belabouring his favourite pair of hobby horses – There is No Such Thing as Cumulative Progress, Hah!, and Humanists are Religious in Their Faith in Human Development, Just as Religious as Religious People, So There! Coming from a guy who was a cheerleader for Thatcher in the eighties, and then for New Labour in the nineties, his wrong-side-of-bed-this-morning iconoclasm always plays to me somewhere between irritating and hilarious, and this essay is no departure from that trend. At best, it’s a shabby excuse for genuine literary criticism. At worst, it’s a rant purely ignorant of the relevant subject matter and scrabbling to cover for the fact.

  5. Gary: Oops. I really should have spotted that.

    Richard: I’ve never quite got around to picking up any of Gray’s books, though I’ve occasionally been tempted, just to get a clearer sense of what he’s on about. I get the impression that this piece came about because he read The City & The City and wanted to hang a theory on it; it would certainly read much better if reworked as a review of that book (his definition of ‘politics’ may be very odd, but at least it’s clear what he means by it), rather than trying to construct a grand narrative. (That’s true of so many attempts to construct a grand narrative, though…)

    As for “humanist”, that seems to be an impressively unstable word. Most of the conversations I’ve seen that use it eventually seem to come down to people disagreeing about what it means. (Not helped for me by the fact that the intuitive meaning — at least, the one that seems intuitive to me — seems quite radically different from what many people use it to mean.)

  6. ‘Humanist’ means two things to two different groups. For one it’s a Good Thing, is etymologically connected to ‘humane’ and genealogically connected to the Renaissance. For the other it’s a Bad Thing, means something like ‘essentialist’ (ie believing human beings have essential qualities, the way racists and sexists do), and is genealogically connected to the Enlightenment, but in a bad, Adorno-and-Horkheimer, the-Enlightenment-lead-straight-to-Auschwitz sort of way.

    Richard M. has pinned Gray expertly to the board with his comment.

  7. And in the science fiction field, “humanist” also has the specific “not cyberpunk” connotation.

  8. Yes, I think that’s part of my problem — partly because of the sf use, I tend to think its meaning should be inclusive, generous and wide-ranging. Whereas the philosophical meaning seems to be something exclusionary and generally objectionable.

  9. @ Niall – Truth is, Gray probably is worth making the effort to read – not least because his books tend to be mercifully short. He’s actually quite incisive in places (not for nothing I quoted him at the start of Black Man) and very well read. And as I get older I find it’s often more stimulating to read non-fiction by (intelligent!) writers I disagree with than it is to nod along with someone whose opinions chime closely with my own.

    That said, the broad sweep of Gray’s recent writing seems to hinge on setting up odd, happy-clappy straw man liberal progressives and then knocking them down with broadsides of erudite scorn. Which would be fine – I’m a big fan of erudite scorn, myself – except that his targets are so vague you can only really define them as “people who think we have a shot at making the future better than the past.” I mean, what does that leave you as an alternative outlook? “Let’s All Sit Down and Cry”? The politics of This Mortal Coil. (Come to think of it, Gray might well be a fan).

    Personally, I’d love to put Gray in a bare-knuckle ring with Matt Ridley, and see how much damage they can do to each other. Relentless grumpy pessimism vs relentless shiny optimism, to the death!

    Incidentally, I also think Gray has utterly misread TC&TC because, with his characteristic obtuseness, he’s made zero allowance for trope and convention. Borlu’s literary antecedents are guys like Arkady Renko in Gorky Park or Bernie Gunther in The March Violets (and in fact the great original, Chandler’s Marlowe as well); detectives who can solve the crime, but are powerless to do anything about the greater enormity of social injustice and the human condition. A Borlu who brought about some sweeping change for the better in the way Beszel and Ul Qoma operated would have utterly shattered the genre requirements for the kind of book Mieville so very clearly wanted to write.

  10. yes, Borlu has those antecedents and comes from that tradition but I think he moves beyond that – rather than collapsing into world weariness (as humanists/optimists are wont) he actually gains a new relationship to life. And that is the positive change. Mieville is writing from a revolutionary perspective not a reformist one. That, of course, touches on another problem with humanism – the system we live in is not one that can be made better by goodwill: it is fundamentally flawed and only a complete change of values is going to make any difference. It really is a question of socialism or barbarism. Watch the liberal humanists in the new government prove that … unless we can stop them

  11. @ Nick – hmm, think I’d have to disagree with you there. I don’t see a revolutionary perspective in TC&TC at all; I think China was very much subordinating any personal political inclination he might have to the specific narrative demands of the tale. Borlu ends up working for the enforcers, drawn in by the inevitable logic of his revolt, rather like the protagonist at the end of Orson Scott Card’s Unaccompanied Sonata. Meanwhile, the system and its endemic brutalism remain intact.

    I don’t get any sense that Borlu plans any kind of insurrectionary stand against that system, despite his changed vision. Sure, he gains some new freedoms as a result of his new status, but only in the same way you gain new freedoms if you step up and become a particularly good thug in your Italian-American uncle’s import/export and waste management concerns. I’d say there’s as deep a level of bleakness at the end of TC&TC as there is at the end of The Big Sleep, The March Violets or Gorky Park – in fact, I’d say Gorky Park actually comes out ahead in the optimism stakes; Irina’s freedom is Renko’s tiny (but successful) personal rebellion against the repressive state. Borlu’s own personal internal change of vision is of no practical use to anyone except himself (and possibly not even to him).

    I’d also have to disagree with you about liberal humanism vs revolutionary socialism – but that’s a whole other can of really enormous worms.

    Would be interesting to see if we could get China’s comments on how he sees Borlu’s journey – though from seeing him speak at the SFX weekender earlier this year, I get the sense he’s not interested in taking part in post-publication dissection of his own work.

  12. Richard, I’m not disagreeing about the bleakness – the kind of revolutionary (in the widest sense of the word) insight I’m talking about is pretty bleak, bitter sweet at best. Nor, am i arguing Borlu is going to lead an insurrection. Partly because I don’t read the book as though he becomes one of the enforcers because I don’t see them as enforcers (or the mafia). The point of the novel to me is that Breach turns out to be something different than we originally think and while I will allow it is ambiguous, ambiguity is the possibility of change. Therefore, the novel does not accept the status quo.

    But no doubt there will be a lot of commentary on it in coming years. I think the position you describe sounds more like that of your own books – but they also leave a (different but nonetheless present) space of possibility in the same way that Marlowe/Hammett do. I think Mieville’s recent argument that sf is not about ‘cognitive estrangement’ or utopia but’ along with fantasy, is really about alterity is one way of thinking about this ‘difference’ and its potential. The fact that both of you blend sf and fantasy is significant in this respect. Certainly two of my must read authors at moment – and no doubt (though I’m trying to resist adding more academese to the world) something I’ll end up trying to write about.

  13. That’s very kind of you to say, sir. Thank you.

    For what it’s worth, I think the major difference between China and myself is that I’m irredeemably bourgeois in my outlook, whereas China is fighting tooth and nail not to become so (but ultimately is far too smart to succumb to the doctrinal faith that offers the only feasible refuge). There’s an intrinsic human wisdom in Hammett and Chandler’s world-weariness (possibly this is why the detective genre has taken the modern world so much by storm) but we all come to it on different paths and at different speeds.

  14. @ Gary Couzens, June 18–
    I was surprised at first. Then I realised that as far as Laurie Penny is concerned I’m history anyway. Like the inhabitants of The City & the City she’s looking away as an aid to world-formation. To celebrate my new condition I loaded Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead on my iPod & went running.
    –Mike H

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