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.