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Can Science Fiction be Conservative?

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by Jim Clarke

O, weep for Adonais for he is dead! The great defender of the Western literary canon, Harold Bloom, recently passed away aged 89, after a lifetime of arguing the legitimacy of studying what he considered to be the greatest works of literary merit emanating from Western culture. Bloom was a formidable figure, ferociously learned, astonishingly well-read, and the author of some 40 books. His obituaries were perhaps coloured by this range and breadth of his knowledge even after his death, because they were tentatively scornful, much less critical than one might expect from the obituary of someone who spent a lifetime defending the concept of Western culture and a core canon therein.

Bloom’s core list would be unlikely to attract many supporters today, a mere quarter century after he created it. Indeed, he himself even disowned the appendices, often treated as an ultimate TBR list by many, because he felt they distracted from his actual intention of defining the characteristics of the Western literary tradition. Bloom’s list of worthies, the 26 writers The Western Canon focuses on, are almost all white, and mostly male. He can be regarded as an unashamed elitist, disregarding literary traditions of lowly or pulp origins, as SF might be considered.

Indeed, in the nearly 600 dense pages of 1994’s The Western Canon, there are precisely two references to science fiction in the main body of the text, both relating, somewhat bizarrely, to the estranging quality of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bloom did not appear to consider a genre with such pulp origins sufficiently high-brow to enter his sacred canon. Well, that’s not quite true. What’s more true is that he recognised quality SF without necessarily recognising it as SF.

Hidden in those discarded appendices are a wide range of texts many would regard as science fictional. Perhaps we might dismiss book 18 of the Iliad, wherein Thetis visits Hephaestus’s forge and witnesses his golden servant-robots, as too much of a stretch to be thought of as classical era SF. We might similarly consider Leonardo’s notebooks to be ill-fitting.  But more plausibly, Thomas More’s Utopia is included. And what of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe? In what he calls the Chaotic Age (what most of us call modernity), his list includes Calvino’s Invisible Cities, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Kafka’s Amerika, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, all often cited as SF texts by scholars.

The case is effectively closed when we encounter HG Wells, Capek’s RUR, and War with the Newts, Lem’s Solaris, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker on Bloom’s extended list. The elitist Yale scholar’s apparent disregard for the genre of SF did not extend to excluding excellent SF texts from his canon. Similar applies to the more commonly identified sectors considered underregarded by canonical approaches to literature. Four of his 26 featured authors are women, and his extended canon includes African, Arabic, Yiddish and Caribbean authors. It could even be argued that, despite an predominance of pale, stale males, Bloom’s purview of what Western literature warrants preservation and attention is unexpectedly broad.

What we can be sure of is that Bloom was not engaged in tokenism. As many of his obituaries noted, he railed while alive against what he called the “school of resentment” that he saw coming to prominence in literature departments of universities. This school was defined by its predeliction for identity politics over other considerations, including aesthetics, which Bloom himself cherished above all. For Bloom this was a category error. As he saw it, the resenters were engaging in progressivist activism under the mask of aesthetic analysis of literature. Indeed, he says as much in The Western Canon:

“Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender,” he writes.” You must choose, for if you believe that all value ascribed to poems or plays or novels and stories is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes? The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.”

Of course, Bloom faced significant pushback on this position. In fact, his doorstop of a recommended reading list was only one salvo in a battle which had already been going on for some time within Anglophone academia in particular. The canon wars, as they are now known, raged mightily in the late 80s and early 90s, as progressive scholars sought to diversify and ‘decolonise’ literature curricula in American schools and universities, while scholars like Harold Bloom fought back in defence of the concept of the traditional literary canon.

His namesake (but no relation) the political philosopher Allan Bloom had been motivated, as early as 1987, to publish The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that encroaching cultural relativism in education was not merely shortchanging students but actively eroding American democracy. This so-called ‘dumbing down’ argument extended far beyond an attempt to preserve literature as a bastion of dead white guys. Allan Bloom railed against cultural relativism in all forms, condemning for example the teaching of rock and pop music in the place of classical music. His provocative attempt to conserve his understanding of Western culture, and by overt extension Western civilisation, was accompanied by similar screeds by other scholars, such as ED Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987), Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991).

These writers traced the cultural relativism back to the counterculture of the Sixties, when various forms of activism and liberation, primarily identity-based, inspired educators to challenge the concept and content of established cultural canons for the first time. Driven on by French poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Althusser, who were simultaneously derided by Allan Bloom as second-rate philosophers, new faculty entering American universities began the war on Western Civilisation, which went overground in the general public’s eyes when US presidential candidate Jesse Jackson joined students at prestigious Stanford university to chant “Hey, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!”

By the time Harold Bloom entered the fray in 1994 with his lengthy treatise in favour of reading authors like Milton, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Samuel Beckett, it was almost the final sally forth for the conservative position. Bloom himself knew that the argument had to some extent been lost. A mere four years later, he acknowledged this defeat, in an article for the Boston Review.

Referencing Thucydides’ famous account of the Spartan commander Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, Bloom mischievously claimed “They have the numbers, we, the heights.” Ranked against him, like the hordes of Persians against those famous 300 Spartans, were “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists.” Bloom was of course an avid and familiar reader of the classics. He knew the lesson of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his men held out bravely against vastly larger forces. But ultimately, they lost.

I reprise these hoary old academic arguments at some length primarily because the scale of the defeat is no less total than that at Thermopylae, as Bloom foresaw. Young scholars and readers of literature nowadays, studying the humanities not only in America but across the entire world, are entirely familiar with diversity quotas in curricula, decolonised perspectives and the essential centrality of identity concerns in any scholarly attempt to analyse or examine cultural outputs. They are perhaps aware that in ye olden tymes of yore, white men sought to triage their own cultural work above all others, and to the exclusion of all others, or so they are taught. They are perhaps less aware that a mere generation ago, these issues were still a matter of hot cultural debate. Nowadays, they seem entirely settled.

And if there ever was a literary genre in which the issues were argued first and settled first, it was science fiction. Even as the canon wars were raging, scholars like Tom Moylan were proposing that not only was science fiction fundamentally utopian, but that it actually functioned as a literary arm of politically progressive activism. In the previous decade, Darko Suvin had identified Marxist estrangement as a core descriptor of the genre itself.

Practitioners of SF were hardly divorced from the interests of scholars either. The New Wave, which came to prominence alongside the 60s counterculture and can in some ways be seen as analogous to it, was overt in its aspirations to transgress not only established cultural and literary norms, but established genre traditions too. Out went Tolkienian fantasy – too Christian, inherently racist – and the space opera narratives of a previous generation were abandoned for pessimistic inner space narratives, in which psychological insight and experimentalism reigned.

But the genre that the New Wave were writing in response to had in their turn thought themselves to be at the vanguard of progressivism. The aspirations of space travel, and the ever-present technophilia of the kind of SF fostered and promoted by firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell in the US pulps was not a backward-looking endorsement of the status quo but a radical attempt to imagine into being a future-focused, technologically enhanced existence via literature.

They too had been influenced in their turn by earlier writers, most especially the utopian fictions of the late 19th century. Texts like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) were so influential over the general public that his socialist ideas for a future 21st century led people to create hundreds of Bellamy clubs to bring his ideas to fruition. For those, like me, who consider SF proper to have become fully established as a literary genre only alongside the development of professionalised science and engineering, this brings us back to the very origins of SF itself.

So has SF always been progressive? Yes, insofar that its future focus predicates it towards topics and ideas which envisage different, better existences (or warn against possible worse ones.) In this sense, it is the truest emanation of the cultural revolution that began back in the Age of Enlightenment, in its attachment to the idea that our existence, assisted by science, ratchets ever forward. But that is not the same as saying that it has always been progressive in the contemporary political understanding of the term. Far from it.

As Jeanette Ng’s acceptance speech for John W. Campbell award for the Best New Writer at this year’s Worldcon in Dublin indicates, the progressivism of the past is far from sufficiently enlightened for many readers and writers of SF today. Condemning the genre-definer after whom her award was named, she slammed the history of SF as “Stale. Sterile. Male. White.” This is an intriguing set of critiques worth examining, especially in light of its mostly enthusiastic reception.

Stale is a legitimate value judgement, though one Harold Bloom would no doubt resist. Every cultural product is of its time and may go stale eventually. Sterile is much less easy to justify. Ng writes in the genre that Campbell helped to bring into being. She is ultimately, like it or no, his cultural offspring in that sense. Male and white are identity descriptors, teetering on the brink of discriminatory judgement. The audience that enthusiastically cheered Ng’s speech was, by odd curiosity, also largely male and white, as SF audiences often tend to be.

With Campbell denounced as a “fucking fascist” from the podium, it was perhaps inevitable that the award was almost instantly renamed. If he was a fascist, and by contemporary standards he certainly held unsavoury views about women and Jewish people in particular, then he was far from alone in his generation. Modernist scholars are well aware of this particular minefield of judging past luminaries through current political perspectives. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsen and a host of other highly regarded writers all harboured fascist sympathies in that time.

So extensive were those views among the literati of the 1930s that critics like Mark Antcliff have questioned whether Modernism and Fascism might even be considered somewhat synonymous. Is it then truly impossible to disentangle John Campbell, the revolutionary author and editor of SF, from John Campbell, the man with the unsavoury views on Jews and women? Is it not possible to hold two simultaneous perspectives that each have validity? This is the kind of unnuanced judgement Jeanette Ng proffered, and the kind of ideological argument that our current culture wars force us into.

Harold Bloom’s warning from The Western Canon now becomes salutory. We do not right the wrongs of the past by consciously overdetermining race, class or gender. And the best way to serve exploited classes is indeed to serve them without mediation, rather than via some spurious ‘decolonising’ of an entity which by definition was never colonised in the first place. But that is beside the point.

Only an utterly blinkered individual would refuse, on grounds of race or gender, to read the scintillating SF emerging from writers like Cixin Liu or NK Jemisin, or movements like Afrofuturism or Ricepunk. Ng is perfectly correct to note that SF has evolved into a much broader and different space in our contemporary globalised world, with new audiences and authors from far beyond the genre’s Anglo-American origins.

Which brings me back to my rhetorical question – can SF be conservative? This is a term no less loaded than its mirror image, progressive. SF has never sought to conserve anything. It has always aimed to radically envisage different realities and new futures. And as scientific discovery unveils new technologies and understandings of how our world and universe work, so does it render older SF defunct. Where are the Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Philip K Dick? We now know they never were and never could be.

Yearning for the SF of the past therefore runs the risk of becoming somewhat hauntological, to use Derrida’s term. We become haunted by nostalgia for futures that never came to pass. Such things are impossible to conserve, because they never were. But if we accept the argument that SF should aim to accommodate wide-ranging perspectives in order to inspire readers from global cultures, then we must also accept that some among the predominantly white male fandom attending Worldcon may also require authors representing them too. Directing them to authors of the past is simply hauntological.

There is room in the vast halls of SF, to paraphrase what HG Wells once wrote to James Joyce, for us all to be wrong. Despite the astonishingly prescient writings of authors like Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard, most SF will not prove to be predictive of the future, and indeed nor does it aim to be. The divisive votes for, inter alia, Donald Trump as US President and Brexit in Britain indicate that we live in increasingly polarised societies with world views that often radically clash within the same societies. SF will inevitably emerge from all of these perspectives, and it is only the ideologues among us who view SF as adjunct to political activism who will refuse to engage with writing from alternative viewpoints.

SF may not seek to conserve, but in some ways it has always been conservative. It is, as I have argued in my recent book Science Fiction and Catholicism, deeply anti-Catholic as a genre and always has been. This is by definition a reactionary position. Similarly, the political arguments that can be derived from authors like Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle are notably militaristic and imperialist.

One particular text I have found intriguing in the context of considering the possibility of conservative SF, amid the welter of dystopian SF warnings about the possibility of future theocratic rule, is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Wilson’s vision is of a future theocratic America ruled by an imperium, the kind of territory familiar to us from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In his novel, a new emperor comes to power with a radical yet antiquated vision. Like the Emperor Julian of antiquity, he seeks conservatively to turn back the clock and reinstate a previous mode of governance and thinking. For the classical Julian this was an attempt to displace Christianity with the old Gods of ancient Rome. For Wilson’s hero, it is an attempt to rehabilitate the technology and liberal polity of the 20th century, which has been disowned and lost in his future theocracy, itself a throwback to the 19th century.

The tools of radicalism, liberalism and progressivism in other words may be used to propagate a profoundly conservative world, Wilson argues. He also argues the contrast, that it is possible to seek to conserve radical and progressive world views. Julian Comstock’s reign fails ultimately because he spends too much of his time haunted by the forbidden archives of the banned 20th century. For those who view SF as an adjunct to progressive activism, this can be read as a call to arms, when in fact it is a warning. As John Campbell begins to be memory-holed out of SF history, it is worth recalling that in such divided societies as we now live in, those tactics may operate in two directions.

Harold Bloom’s Western Canon was condemned as an attempt to preserve a narrow and antiquated view of culture, when in fact it had hidden within it a broad range of texts from all sorts of eras, authors, cultures and perspectives, including SF. We dismiss the past at our peril, but fetishizing it is in itself a hauntological danger. SF needs to be both progressive and conservative all at once. Perhaps in doing so, it can also help to dream of futures which could lead our wider polities out of their current destructive polarisation.

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Bibliography:

Antcliff, Mark, “Fascism, Modernism and Modernity”, The Art Bulletin Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 148-169.

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1986.

Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888.

Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon, 1994.

Bloom Harold, “They Have The Numbers, We, The Heights”, Boston Review, April 1st 1998.

Clarke, Jim, Science Fiction and Catholicism, 2019.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, 1993.

Moylan, Tom, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, 1986.

Ng, Jeanette, “Acceptance Speech”, Worldcon, Dublin, August 18th, 2019.

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979.

Wilson, Robert Charles, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, 2009.

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Bio

Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: www.ponyingtheslovos.wordpress.com/

Fictions of Non-Fiction: An Overview of Scientific Discursive Genres in ‘Science Fiction’

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

‘Science fiction’ is, obviously, composed of two substantial elements: ‘science’ and ‘fiction.’ In literature, fiction is constituted by any text that generates a possible world where imaginary events take place or imaginary objects exist; it operates as a construct of an artistic nature not expected to be factually true. Fictional worlds are created through language, and often through pre-existing rhetorical macro-devices, or formal genres such as the novel or drama, which are prevalent vehicles for literary fiction today. Fiction can also be expressed, however, through non-novelistic, and even non-narrative devices. There are fictional works entirely written using diverse prescriptive discourses, from legal codes to directions, as well as texts written as mock advertising. In both cases, they may posit alternate or futuristic imaginary worlds, thus taking on the conventions of sf and/or speculative texts and fulfilling the above semantic criterion for fiction.

The main way in which fiction writing masquerades as non-fiction is related, however, to the first element of the sf linguistic formula: science. This is not the place to discuss what science is, or which sciences are, indeed, ‘scientific.’ However, both the human, or ‘soft’ sciences (such as Historiography, Ethnology or Philology), and the experimental and highly mathematized ‘hard’ sciences (such as Physics or Chemistry), are commonly associated with scientific and academic status in our society. More importantly for us here, their textual expression has been well-established from the 19th century onwards, and it is readily recognizable by any reader exposed to the discursive features used to communicate knowledge to the public. Although the manner in which findings, theories and facts are presented in books and journals devoted to science is not fully uniform, a purely expository kind of discourse is now prevalent in most disciplines, even though the argumentative discourse, as well as a greater degree of rhetorical variety and stylistic ornamentation, may also be important in the so-called human sciences. In all of them, however, the scientific text must be seen as devoid of any subjectivity, as well as of any literary self-referentiality, ideally being only a transparent linguistic vehicle for a description of pure factuality. Indeed, drawings, graphs and formulae abound in modern scientific texts, as well as the footnotes and bibliographical information more prevalent in traditional human sciences, in order to enhance the objective tone required, as well as to suggest the objective and extra-textual nature of the phenomena described. These textual devices underline that the reported facts do not result from any form of personal fancy and invention, but are based on documentation and true evidence – this is to say, that they have a scientific basis and, therefore, that the text portrays and expresses ‘science.’ Even when the facts are false, the text which reports them does so in such a discursive way that the reader is invited to see them as ‘factually’ sound, as well as ‘scientific.’ Their textual discourse supposes their ‘factuality,’ or, in other terms, ‘non-fictionality.’ In short, when reading a novel, its fictionality is taken for granted, whereas when reading a scientific report, we assume its factuality.

This reading effect caused by factuality, however, can be used for fictional purposes. We would have then a particular kind of ‘fictional non-fiction’ that could be named ‘scientific fictional non-fiction.’ This encompasses all works where a fantastical content is infused into a text that methodically and consistently presents, in its entirety, as a formally independent written work, the standard rhetorical features of scientific discourses usual in real-world scientific practice. This fantastic content can be of a science-fictional nature (it can include Suvinian nova), and a great number of fictional texts which use factual discourses actually feature contents that can safely be labelled ‘sf.’ The content is, however, of little relevance for a taxonomy of scientific fictional non-fiction. The main criterion to define the genre and its major subgenres is, actually, formal. In all of them, literariness is achieved mostly through the fictionalisation of their contents, while their language imitates the highly formalised, uniform, descriptive, seemingly objective, and un-literary tone commonly used in current natural, formal or social sciences. Each science, however, has its own jargon which in turn generates various discursive subgenres.

Fiction in the natural sciences has brought about a whole genre, the spoof paper, of which examples abound. Many of them are often intended as humorous hoaxes or practical jokes by actual scientists. Others have appeared, however, in literary venues, and they should be studied as literary fiction. Since both the natural and the formal sciences employ a highly formalized prose, fictional non-fiction of this kind leaves little room for rhetorical embellishment. Their literary interest is to be found elsewhere, in the altered views on science and society brought about by their confrontation within the text. A strict adherence to the dry styles of Mathematics or Linguistics can highlight the potential inhumanity of scientific objectivity; for example, George Orwell’s semiotically independent appendix on “The Principles of Newspeak” tacitly suppresses all suffering from the terrible events just narrated in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Also in the natural sciences, the coldness of ‘hard’ scientific discourse can be adroitly imitated to undermine it, as it happens in the two papers collectively entitled “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline” (1948-1952; collected in Only a Trillion, 1957) by Isaac Asimov. These not only demonstrate the linguistic and rhetorical skill of the author, but also allow for readings deconstructing the way in which truth presents itself as absolute, as well as instrumental, at least through the linguistic expression common in the natural sciences. Regarding ‘softer’ sciences, such as Biology, the descriptions of imaginary beings and of their habitats are usually devoid of the irony pervasive in the fictional use of ‘hard’ scientific discourse, often implying attempts at renovating, through the biological discourse as well as through the pure invention of the animals and plants described, the traditional genre of the bestiary, for example, in J. K. Rowling’s textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001).

Perhaps because the high formalism of written expression in the natural and formal sciences imposes a rhetorical discipline that many writers are unwilling or unable to adopt, spoof scientific papers constitute only a small part of scientific fictional non-fiction, at least if compared to the high number of imitations of human/social sciences discourse. Among them, historiography has provided the discourse most extensively used in the formal macro-genre of fictional non-fiction, from the 19th century onwards. Imaginary history written in the historiographic style has three main varieties, according to the chosen time frame: past, present or future. If set in the past, the historiographic narrative may describe events that had occurred in an imaginary country or civilization, such as the ancient Eurasia described by Robert E. Howard in “The Hyborian Age” (1938). Alternate history initially employed a true historiographical form, in Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon et la conquête du monde. 1812 à 1832. Histoire de la monarchie universelle [Napoléon and the Conquest of the World, 1812-1832: A Fictional History] (1836), before being replaced more recently by alternate history in the form of mostly novelistic ‘stories.’ What could be called ‘anticipated history’ is a narrative usually by a future historian which uses the verbal past tenses of past events to present readers with future events that we know to be imaginary. Among fictional historiographical works of anticipation, some are classics of scientific romance, such as Gabriel Tarde’s Fragment d’histoire future (1896), whose English translation appeared in 1905 as Underground Man with a preface by H. G. Wells; to this we may add Olaf Stapledon’s history of the successor species to humankind along many millennia, Last and First Men (1930), and Wells’ socio-political history of The Shape of Things to Come (1933). Anticipatory history, which is the kind of fictional historiography closer to sf proper, has been relatively popular among speculative writers for both intellectual and formal reasons. Imagining future history as if it were past has allowed them to directly show, with the persuasive power of the factual ‘true’ discourse, the evolution of human societies had any particular trend prevailed, from the ‘yellow peril’ in Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910; collected in The Strength of the Strong, 1911) to technocracy in Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). Moreover, although its narrative is of a descriptive nature, historiography also tells a story, which can be expanded in time and detail until it reaches novelistic proportions. The same applies to mythopoeias such as Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegāna (1905).

Both the discourses of narrative historiography and of mythography are, therefore, less alien to the usual patterns of the readers’ novelistic consumption than other subgenres of fictional non-fiction based on plain descriptive social sciences, such as Geography and its sibling discipline Ethnography. These are often combined in fictional works on the conditions and customs of imaginary peoples – in the present, on Earth or otherwise, or in the past, when the borrowed scientific discourse is that of Archaeology, such as Andrew Lang’s “The Great Gladstone Myth” (1886; collected in the same year in the volume In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories). True geographic/ethnographic accounts have offered a rhetorical model for world-building in the descriptive mode such as the famous tongue-in-cheek study on reverse anthropology entitled “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” (1956) by Horace Mitchell Miner, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the workings of social groups in “La secta de los treinta” [The Sect of the Thirty] (collected in El libro de arena [The Book of Sand], 1975). This latter ‘fiction’ could also be considered an example of fictional Philology, since it is presented as the translation of an ancient text with a short introductory note. Philology is, unsurprisingly, an academic discipline also quite popular among literary writers. As readers at least, many of them must be familiar with the presentation features of critical editions of classics, and some have imitated them in reviews and studies on imaginary works, such as “A prophetic account of a grand national epic poem, to be entitled The Wellingtoniad, and to be published A.D. 2824” (1824) by historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the “History of the Necronomicon” (1938) by H.P. Lovecraft. The latter has inspired a number of alternative, but equally philologically-oriented histories of that mythic grimoire.

A superbly representative example of science fictional non-fiction is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” (1974; collected in The Compass Rose, 1982). This work conflates the concepts and rhetoric of the three main groups of sciences (formal, natural and social) into the framework of a model scientific paper, endowed with all the intellectual and rhetorical features that make this genre culturally and literarily significant. Divided in three parts, the first one offers a version of a text written by an ant, the second explores languages written by groups in moving media, and the third speculates about the possibilities of plant languages and literatures. Le Guin’s fictional science ‘Therolinguistics’ combines linguistics, literary criticism and biology in order to invite readers to consider the almost infinite possibilities of both nature and culture beyond any limiting human-centred perspective. As scientific fictional non-fiction usually does, this fully academic text shows how fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities, thus increasing our awareness of the literary potential of any kind of written discourse, including the scientific one through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents – this is to say, science and fiction: ‘science fiction.’

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Against Fat Literature

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Obesity has become a pandemic of worldwide proportions. Apart from a limited percentage of congenital propensity, bad eating habits, lack of physical exercise and a general want of self-discipline seem to be the main causes, while medical warnings are paid little heed. Similarly few seem to be concerned by the parallel pandemic of excessive fat in contemporary literary fiction. Shelves at bookshops are on the verge of collapsing under the weight of huge volumes, each containing thousands of pages, many of them part of series composed of equally ponderous bricks of print. It could be argued that these displays of written thickness are nothing new. In the 19th century, three-deckers were usual in Victorian Britain, and they were avidly read, not only bought to sit pretty on shelves as current best-sellers often are. But the three-deckers of yore tended to be leaner than the hefty best-sellers of today, as their considerable body was composed of muscle rather than fat. They offered a highly diverse and controlled prose combining detailed, atmospheric descriptions, relevant reflections, a slow but fully functional narrative and, above all, meaningful dialogue. What do we find in best-sellers today, for example, in Stephen King’s brick-like books, as well as in most commercial speculative fiction? Mountains of literary fat around a thin narrative backbone hardly able to sustain all that heavy weight.

Readers are forced to swallow page after page of banal conversations adding virtually nothing to the plot or to the sense of the story, narrative utterances enlightening us about actions devoid of any interest, cushioned in lengthy and plain functional novelistic prose entirely lacking the rhetorical devices that have graced literary texts from the dawn of written history. It often seems that computers have eased the physical task of writing so much that these creators of pot-bellied fiction feel that writing is just endlessly putting one word after another in order to outdo each other regarding textual length, without considering that the most useful key on a computer is the ‘delete’ one. Even short stories published in magazines, be it off- or online, suffer from this disease of literary obesity, since the utter banality of best-seller writing has spread to every corner of conventional narrative fiction. One may even come across one-page ‘flash’ stories composed in the gossipy vernacular of discussions by the water-cooler, as if authors were unwilling to appreciate that the art of fiction, as a branch of literature, requires the weighing of each word in such a way that readers intuitively realise that not a single virgula could be altered without changing the meaning and the effect of the whole. One can try this exercise on Ursula K. Le Guin’s or Ted Chiang’s best short stories. The truly literary nature of their language will then become obvious. If we submit George R. R. Martin’s notorious ongoing fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire to the same treatment, we might find that perhaps hundreds of pages of text could be replaced with no stylistic loss; directly suppressing them could constitute a sort of slimming cure that readers keen on the wordsmith’s craft would probably appreciate.

            Who is to blame for this literary pandemic? Publishers would point the finger at readers (or rather, buyers of books). Many of the latter seem, indeed, to acquire books for their weight. They do not see them as works of art, but as merchandises to be valued by the quantity-price ratio, as if they were apples or steaks. Still, relatively short novels were much into fashion from the Edwardian age through the 1950s; for example, the thin early scientific romances by H.G. Wells certainly increased his (and his publisher’s) bank account balance. Popular taste in literature can be changed if big publishing corporations with the power to define the book market decide to do so. Literary magazines, online or otherwise, can also shape the taste of readers by proposing valuable texts created free from undue financial considerations. As television shows such as the refreshingly lean A Game of Thrones (based on the above-mention door-stopper) demonstrate, there is a large public able to appreciate high art in fiction when they are offered it. Why then do so few writers, at least in supposedly commercial genres such as science fiction and fantasy, go ahead and try it? I am afraid that many of them produce fat literature because they choose the path of conventional bliss over the rigour required to build literary muscle: authors who attend workshops on writing formulaic best-sellers, who do not read any other language than their own and are thus unable to understand how their own mother tongue works by comparison, who begin producing works without any direct knowledge of literary classics, including in the particular genre they try their hands on, and above all, who want to write for a living, instead of having the freedom to write only when they feel the inner need to do so. They force themselves onto a perfunctory and mercenary trajectory to pay for their bills, following publishers’ directions instead of their own heart and literary conscience. It is not to be denied that some professional writers, especially in the past, were able to produce apt literary works on command. However, reading anthologies for which authors have been asked to write on a particular topic indicates that it is rarely the case nowadays. The same applies to texts where each word is paid for: it is all too human to fill up the page with as many as possible, even if unnecessary, in order to receive a few more cents. Under these conditions, literary fat is unavoidable.

            Describing an evil is always easier than devising ways to fight it. Textual obesity is so pervasive today that it is hard to escape it. Nevertheless, some familiarity with literary history can yield hints for possible solutions. Firstly: greater length does not necessarily imply greater literary value, and sometimes brevity achieves the best impact. A couple of examples might suffice. Augusto Monterroso’s “The dinosaur” is a masterpiece of fantastic/speculative fiction thanks to its generating, through just one line of text, several distinct imaginary worlds, depending on the perspective and the context to be imagined by the reader: “Upon awakening, the dinosaur was still there” (my translation). In its mere seven surviving lines of verse, the Old Armenian song of Vahagn can boast of a literary intensity rarely seen in longer epic/mythological poems from anywhere in the world. Certainly, shortness is not a guarantee of value either, but at least less of the readers’ time is wasted.

            Another radical measure would be to submit fiction writing to a discursive discipline akin to the one to be found in non-fictional reports by transposing to fiction the diverse rhetoric of non-fictional genres, from prescriptive texts such as Mark Twain’s “Etiquette for the Afterlife: Advice to Paine” to fictional documents written using the style of natural (e.g. Isaac Asimov’s “The Marvellous Properties of Thiotimoline”) or formal sciences (e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics”), as well as of social sciences such as historiography (e.g. Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age”), mythography (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Ainulindalë”), philology (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The History of the Necronomicon”) or anthropology (e.g. Horace Mitchell Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”). Being highly formalised, the ‘factual’ writing of fiction imposes a linguistic discipline preventing the risk of imprecision and arbitrariness all too common in current novelistic writing. Particularly in science fiction, what can convey the idea of science better than ‘scientific writing’? Through the fusion of scientific discourse and fictional contents, this is to say, science and fiction, fictionalising science can be used to expand both our minds and our literary sensibilities. Thus we may grow to appreciate the literary potential of a variety of written discourses, without the inherent limitations of the incorrect, but nowadays commonly held belief that ‘fiction equals novel’, especially the fat kind. It is high time to let readers find tastier fiction off the well-trodden paths, just as they can find tastier food if they make the effort to look beyond the hamburger, pizza and soda diet with which multinationals are fattening us to premature death. Fat literature does not kill our body, but it threatens our taste and spirit. Literary obesity is an affliction worth combatting, and Sci Phi Journal is pleased to re-join the fight.

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Of infinity, literature and math

Magazine reader Gene pointed everyone in the Facebook discussion to this interesting article on Infinities in literature and mathematics by Jorge Alejandro Laris Pardo. I’ve always found the idea of the infinite interesting, but i’m a theist so the question comes up a bit when thinking about things like omnipotence and eternity.

During this past month, I was having a conversation with a couple of friends who study Latin-American Literature, and I noticed that they were having a hard time understanding how a literary work can have infinite critical interpretations, while at the same time not all its interpretations are critical. Apparently they found this to be contradictory.
I was shocked by their confusion, because to me the idea in question is almost self-evident. But later I came to acknowledge the fact that my friends, who are schooled in the humanities, have little if any notion of the mathematical idea of the infinite. For that reason, I suggest in this essay that the humanities can learn something from the concept of infinities in mathematics.
The problem with Romanticism’s concept of the Infinite
According to Alain Badiou, the history of Western philosophy can be divided into two great periods. First, the era before and including Kant, when mathematical reasoning was considered a singular way of thinking that interrupted the predominance of opinion — or, to put it in philosophical jargon, of Doxa — in philosophical reasoning. And second, the post-Kant era, which gave birth to Romanticism, which was consummated by Hegel, whose philosophical system is powered at its core by the schism between math and philosophy. Following Badiou [1], this schism also lies at the core of 19th century positivism and modern radical empiricism — because arguments put forth by these movements just flip to the other side of the same coin without really solving the problem — and has greatly impacted contemporary thinking, especially in the humanities.

Read the rest.