DECEMBER 1, 2013
“SCIENCE FICTION” is in crisis.
The sign “science fiction” is now referent to two related yet distinct signifieds, and the crisis only inheres in one of them. Sf as a literary mode, as a rhetoric, has always staunchly resisted any attempt at precise functional definition, but is easy enough to locate (albeit approximately, as one might locate a fogbank, or a region of civil unrest) in the contemporary cultural landscape. As a way of exploring the relationships between people and their technologies (and the worlds constructed by those relationships), Sf is in rude health, and busily metastasizing its way into cinema, television, music, art, theory, policy strategy, and more; as Gary K. Wolfe puts it, the genre has evaporated, diffusing into other media, other generic forms. It is an increasingly active fraction of the global cultural atmosphere; modal science fiction has conquered by transcending its original materiality.
“Science fiction”, then – the science fiction that is in crisis – is the residue left behind by that evaporative process. That residue comprises the generic-ness from which the label genre stems: in this case, the outdated stylistic tics and aesthetics of a marginal pulp-modernist medium, the clichés, the well-worn assumptions and comfortable call-backs, and the outdated institutional values in which they were nurtured and framed. The withering of the short fiction markets – which were generic sf’s proving ground and home turf – has accelerated the distillation process. To quote Wolfe, many writers started “developing strategies to write science fiction without writing in the genre of science fiction”; they emigrated outward from the genre ghetto, and found their skills in demand once they dropped its vernacular stylings and clichés. Those who chose to remain behind have, in a dialectical kind of way, responded to their sense of marginalization by doubling down still further into that generic identity, to the point that even the suggestion of reform or progress is anathema, and a certain willful flirtation with reactionary identity politics becomes an expression of resistance.
Say that science fiction is in crisis publicly on the internet, and someone will tell you in exasperated tones that science fiction has always been in crisis, actually, and look-look-look, it’s still here! Then perhaps someone else will top it with Brian Aldiss’s observation that science fiction being in crisis is “as it should be”, harking back to that old and unattributable chestnut about science fiction being a scene “in perpetual dialogue with itself” or sf being a discourse as much as a genre. To the casual observer, however, there is little dialogue evident in science fiction right now; if anything, it looks like a metonymy for the widening generational chasm in Western cultural politics.
Paul Di Filippo’s new short fiction collection Wikiworld is about as canonical an example of this residual genre as one could wish to assay.
To be both clear and fair, Di Filippo has an instantly recognizable style of his own. He’s verbose, prolix, and enamored of wordplay both high-brow and low; his characters tend to speak in their own voices, and their colorful idiom is agreeably at odds with genre science fiction’s tendency to po-faced seriousness and lengthy chin-stroking expository passages. What you never get with Di Filippo is the wooden story-of-ideas that characterized the era of Asimov and other Golden-Age stalwarts. He shares a high-octane psychedelic Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic with Rudy Rucker (who introduces this collection in typically effusive and avuncular style): both write the sort of story that feels like it should be illustrated by padlocking R. Crumb into a small Californian beach-hut, unfurnished but for a suite of modern animation software and a large fresh lump of peyote.
This style is akin to the “eyeball kicks” so enamored of the cyberpunks, among whom Di Filippo is sometimes taxonomized by association. But cyberpunk’s eyeball kicks were intended as the colorful gelatin capsule around a payload of cognitive dissonance, a Trojan horse concealing mind-expanding new ideas about human relationships as mediated by information technology; in Di Filippo, by contrast, the dazzling cascades of technical nomenclature perform a superficially contemporary science-fictionality that fails to disguise the unexamined narrative clichés of the Golden Age that lie beneath. The cyberpunks – whether successfully or not – set out to subvert and undermine (and ultimately replace) their predecessors, but Di Filippo simply dresses the plot-shapes of older men in trendier clothes. Imagine Bob Heinlein wearing a box-fresh leather jacket at a smart-drinks concession, speed-reading Wired from behind a pair of dime-store mirrorshades, and you’re in the right neck of the woods.
Technophobia and a lingering nostalgia for the analog are sure-fire generational tell-tales in contemporary generic sf, and Wikiworld opens with a classic example. In “Providence”, we meet one of a number of artificially-intelligent megamachines who haunt a world winding down after the humans wiped themselves out; their lives are lives of ruthless and hardscrabble salvage, an endless competition for the dwindling stock of man-made materials required to keep them operational. Among the human relics they unearth are occasional troves of vinyl records, and each individual song has a one-shot drug-like effect on the AIs who scan them: the incredible granularity of analog recording delivers an experience to their digital consciousnesses that no digital reproduction can touch, but once they’ve scanned it, it can never shock or thrill them the same way again. The first cut is the deepest, you might say.
The machines don’t call them “records” or “vinyl”, of course, but refer to them as “spiral” – a euphemistic reveal which would have packed a little more punch had Rucker not given it away in his introduction. Stripped of that spark of conceptual breakthrough, the story that remains is a bleak and sad thing on many levels; its core theme is the aging audiophile’s nostalgia for the cultural technologies of their own youth (and the implicit corollary of contemporary/digital culture’s inferiority and superficiality), and its lead character is a sullen and one-dimensional robot junkie.
Technophobia, analog nostalgia and digital dualism crop up a few more times in this collection – the jeremiad about gadget-lust which is “Omniplus Ultra!”, for instance, which conveniently ignores the complex capitalist constructions of consumer desire and the technological next-big-thing. Likewise is the case of “Argus Blinked”, a brisk little hand-wring over the narcissistic risks of lifelogging whose rhetorical snap is badly undermined by recent revelations regarding the panoptic NSA.
These anti-tech tales balance awkwardly against a fuzzy enthusiasm for that technohippie libertarianism we’ve recently come to know as “the Californian ideology”. In “The End of the Great Continuity”, for instance, Di Filippo tilts at the creaking windmill of the very same straw-person socialism that the GOP’s hopefuls were wheeling out during the run-up to the 2012 US elections. In a world where everyone’s lot in life is determined by aptitude tests and emotional profiling, a bold individual declines the role provided them by the state, which refuses to let her take over her late husband’s incredibly successful business; in the course of attempting to explain and demonstrate the state’s justifications, an arbiter of the system ends up blackmailing the woman to suicide and, bitterly repentant, subsequently blows open the archive of surveillance materials upon which the state’s character assessments are based, revealing to the citizenry the shame of their oppression, and ending the evil empire.
And what could be wrong with a story that echos the triumphant storming of the Stasi’s headquarters after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Well, the problem is that the organizations currently compiling exactly these sort of tick-box and radio-button profiles of the citizenry are not cartoonishly totalitarian socialist states, but the freewheeling venture-capital kiddies of Silicon Valley; their motivation isn’t a woolly mis-parsing of Marx and Engels, but the zeal of a guy with a shiny new hammer who’s been promised a few cents for every nail he hits. There’s a certain ironic charm in an allegory that mistakes favored right-libertarian business models for the Great Enemy of socialism, but not very much; the novelty has rather worn off in the last few years, at least to British readers. But in Di Filippo’s worlds, there’s a profitable technological solution to almost every problem; the on-the-run technologists in the Di Filippo-Rucker collaboration “Fjaerland”, for instance, trying to keep their newly-invented semiotic universal translator gadget out of the hands of the G-men and regulatory bodies, decide that the best way to combat the media F.U.D. being spread about them is to create memetically viral counter-advertisements: “[w]e’ll make ads they can’t resist!” This lapse in logic can perhaps be attributed to their recent foursome with a buxom Norwegian girl and some sort of fjord-dwelling eel deity; the latter, at least, would presumably have little experience with the notion of fighting fire with fire.
There’s a lot of sex in Di Filippo stories, as it happens – not all of it with members of the animal kingdom – but in exactly the same way that there’s a lot of sex in Bond movies: very little actually happens on camera, but the main character or characters are defined at least in part by their libidos, and the frequent quenching thereof. The end result has an oddly hybrid feel, like boy’s-own YA plot-shapes larded with peep-show titillation and garnished with the male gaze, as if remixed en masse by a text-engine whose emotional range slider has been permanently jammed at “Horny Adolescent”. But the strongest thematic thread in the collection is, regrettably, the unlikeable, selfish male lead character who wins the day (and, almost invariably, beds the pneumatically-proportioned female lead) with minimal friction and even less effort.
Now, this isn’t exactly news; Di Filippo is nothing if not prolific, and anyone who reads around the sf short fiction circuit is sure to encounter a piece of his somewhere, sooner or later. In isolation, a single white male hero’s cakewalk sort of story is easily shrugged off as an ill-considered stylistic blunder on the author’s part, or even a case of politicized overreading on the part of the reader. Up until about two thirds through Wikiworld, a generous reader might still be willing to concede that, while Di Filippo’s characterization of non-white non-males is clearly problematic, it might not be deliberately so; there is, after all, little evidence of deep engagement with either narrative dynamics or the social implications of each story’s novum – and as good little critics, obedient to our now predominantly economic role, we’re not supposed to indulge the intentional fallacy. So perhaps Di Filippo simply borrows well-worn characters and plot shapes from sf’s Golden Age without considering the cultural baggage they carry with them; perhaps he’s not trolling the identity-politics lobby so much as he’s simply tone-deaf to identity politics?
This theory is stretched to snapping-point by “Return to the 20th Century”, which attempts in a much smaller space to do for feminism what that briefly-infamous Save the Pearls novel attempted to do for race relations. It is one thing to write a story that accidentally annoys feminists; it is quite another to compile a story, whether accidentally or otherwise, from what might as well be a bingo-card of stereotypes calculated to enrage them. The plot, in a nutshell: in an alternate and radically technologized 1960s (which somehow reads more like the Victorian era, thanks to the the steampunk verbiage and Verneian motifs) where the sexes live and work as complete equals, evil Cat Women who live on the moon are trying to seduce the minds of Earth women into believing that they are in fact oppressed by the patriarchy; cue the arrival of a lithe female Alan-Quatermaine-with-boobs adventurer type who once tamed and ruled the cannibal tribes of Africa (yes, all of them), who encourages the great and the good of Earth to build a bridge to the moon in order that she might fight the Cat Women; in the meantime, the president’s wife is close to succumbing to the Cat Women’s brainwashing and running amok, but thankfully her resolve (like that of all women) can be strengthened by engaging in frequent threesomes with her husband and the white cannibal queen; after conquering the chief Cat Woman and saving the day, our bold adventurer decides to stay on the Moon to explore, and possibly to bang the other Cat Women if they’re up for it. Honestly, I wish I was making this up.
The most generous parsing possible of “Return to the 20th Century” is one where it’s a well-intentioned joke on the feminism, or lack thereof, in genre science fiction.
In tune with the principle of readerly charity you might ask, “what about his Strong Female Characters?” Di Filippo’s women are attractive and successful. They’ve got it all; they have relationships and adventures! They’re confident, assertive women with a firm grip on their own sexualities, and you’re just jealous of them.
Which leaves us wrestling with the intentional fallacy once again. But in the increasingly public sphere of publishing, wherein writers are exposed to and in dialogue with each other and their audiences, the intentional fallacy will only get you so far – especially when you read outrageous genre science fiction like “Return to the 20th Century” with a skeptical eye. The defense of irony demands that expectations be subverted. If there is irony or subversion at play here, it is so subtle and normative as to be invisible. Self-referentiality is perfectly healthy when not taken to extremes, but here it presents as problematic, a celebration of a carefully-curated and largely mythical past so hermetically complete that nothing unkosher can penetrate it. “Murder in Geektopia” is paradigmatic in this regard: its vestigial gumshoe plot serves only as a framework upon which to hang a dense succession of in-clique references and shibboleths, a laundry-list compiled from the classic “geek canon” of schlock horror monsters, Hollywood cheesecake, funnybook superheroes and dime-store skiffy props. Story is a secondary consideration, an afterthought; it’s getting the clubhouse furnishings right that matters.
It takes a similarly introverted attitude to so systematically exclude the Other from the context of futurity, but that’s the relentless and utterly unreflexive paleofuturism of generic sf in action: it longs for the manly white future that Campbell promised, not because the genre is inherently racist or sexist, but because its imagination, with only its own past glories to feed upon, has become too malnourished to imagine anything else, too insular to set sail on stranger seas of thought.
And maybe that shouldn’t matter; maybe genre science fiction does not bespeak any significant cultural leverage these days. After all, who is this fiction harming, other than the genre’s always-already tarnished reputation? But it seems a shame that, in a world where modal sf is doing so much interesting and challenging work, a casual reader might pick up a generic collection like Wikiworld and presume it to be exemplary of the entirety of the genre.
What say we rinse the petri dish, and start afresh?