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Tag Archives: discourse conventions

Science fiction is often thought of as being a “predictive” or prophetic genre. H.G. Wells is hailed as a prophet for the many predictions he made, and Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is remarkably accurate in some of its predictions. Gibson’s Neuromancer is seen by some as being a prophetic imagining of the Internet, and when 2001 came and went, 2001: A Space Odyssey was retroactively criticized by some for failing to be accurate. A common trope among stand-up comics is, “It’s the 21st Century… where’s my flying car?”

Both the lionizing of Gibson, Verne, and Wells as visionaries and the criticism of our lack of airborne automobiles is inappropriate. It is not only unfair, but these investigations of SF miss the point. SF is often not about predicting the future. It is instead about understanding the present moment, and doing so in such a way that allows us to step outside of politics and social restrictions. Neuromancer, for example, was less about predicting the future than it was exploring the changes that technology was bringing to the historical moment in which it was written. The book engages a very mid-1980s concern with the rise of Japan as an economic power, for example: Neuromancer opens on an expatriate community in Japan, and explores the fractured multiculturalism of the global economy. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was less about predicting a future drug that would cause split personalities to emerge than it was examining the emerging rhetoric of a “drug war” and the impact that was having on society; those issues were very pressing to a post-Nixon, “War On Drugs” America. And Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is very rooted in immediate, real-world concerns about peak oil and the dead dinosaur energy economy as well as the emergence of bioterrorism, private armies, and economic warfare in a way that creates a neocolonial atmosphere.

In fact, I would argue that the “predictive power” of SF is, at best, a happy accident. And at its worst, the heavy-handed attempt at prophecy is an annoying distraction from the story being told. If I want prophecy, I will read Ray Kurzweil, Peter Newman, or Peter Schwartz. It isn’t that SF writers should be forbidden from trying to predict events. But rather, we as the audience must understand that SF writers are presenting a vision. It might play out, and it might not, but in many cases that predictive vision is not relevant to the story that they are telling us! Because authors are located in their historical moment, they cannot help but comment in some way upon their immediate historical context. And it is that comment that is more important. Gibson’s work was concerned with the intersections consumerism, technology, and everyday culture; Dick’s work was concerned with identity, surveillance, and freedom; Heinlein’s work was concerned with how advances in technology make new cultural modes of organization necessary. For all of them, discussion of “the future” was always meant to cast our thoughts back to the present. They were prophets not in the predictive sense, but in the sense it occurs in the Abrahamic religious traditions. In that sense, a “prophet” is a person who carries a message for people to listen to. It might be a warning of future events, but it might be a message that is meant to guide people here-and-now.

Prophets are in a dangerous line of work. Authors write the stories that speak to people, and prophets often fail to speak to people. When prophets are wrong, we call them fools and cast them aside. When prophets are right a few times too many, we start to get suspicious. No one listens to Cassandra, and professional writers want an audience. SF authors aren’t in the business of making predictions as much as they are capturing the ever-present “now” in ways that guide us toward the future while simultaneously illuminating our current condition. But they are on the very leading edge of that “now,” and they are pulling the rest of us along with them. If SF is prophetic, it is so in the sense that life as it is right now is not how it could be. SF authors are not predicting the future; they are reminding us that the present is not living up to the promises of the past.

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On my nearest bookshelf, I have some excellent Science Fiction anthologies. At just a quick glance, I see the ParaSpheres anthology; Feeling Very Strange, the “slipstream” anthology; two anthologies on cyberpunk (Mirrorshades and Storming the Reality Studio); two anthologies devoted to “new wave fabulism” (whatever that actually is); Rewired, the post-cyberpunk anthology; two anthologies of steampunk; and two anthologies of “the new weird.” Each anthology contains some excellent pieces, some that I could live without, and some that I will never read again.

A good number of the texts could fit within a broad definition of SF, sure. But some of them could also fit in a broad definition of Fantasy. And a few of the texts seem a bit out of place in SF anthologies at all, unless we really stretch the definition. For example, the anthology Storming the Reality Studio includes a brief excerpt from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. DeLillo’s work is excellent, and certainly expresses the fractured nature of technocratic Modernity. It fit in well with the “fifteen minutes into the future” idea that the anthology seemed to be reaching for. But is it really Science Fiction? DeLillo is SF (and cyberpunk) only if you want to argue that we are living today, this very moment, in a SF world. (I think that argument could be made, but it is outside of my larger point.) To call DeLillo a “Science Fiction” writer is to really stretch the term to a breaking point. On the other hand, I have little problem with Gibson’s Zero History, Sterling’s The Zenith Angle, Stephenson’s Reamde, or Doctorow’s Little Brother being placed in the Science Fiction section of my local library, despite the fact that none of them ever involve alien technology, time travel, cybernetics, or any other common trope of SF. So why does DeLillo not belong?

How do we define Science Fiction? When we define a genre, we include some things and exclude others; who we include and exclude can, on a first glance, seem nonsensical. For example, look at the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. In Jurassic Park, genetically recreated dinosaurs go on a rampage. The dinosaurs are created through scientific means that are semi-scientifically possible, and there is some narrative hand-waving to misdirect us from the bits that are impossible. It examines science in a semi-plausible way, but also manages to make science, scientists, and theory interesting. It is SF. Why is this book never stocked as such in the few brick-and-mortar stores that remain?

Cryptonomicon, on the other hand, dealt with the world as it was when it was written, with two other storylines that took us back to WWII. There was no significant hand-waving, and (from what I remember) nothing that was scientifically impossible in the year it was written. (Full disclosure: I am not a scientist, nor am I a computer guru. I am relying on those who are to confirm that everything in Cryptonomicon was, at least in theory, possible with no hand-waving. Other than Enoch Root being, possibly, the same Enoch Root who appears in The Baroque Cycle.) In fact, Cryptonomicon had more in common with a techno-thriller written by Tom Clancy than with SF.  So why is Jurassic Park stocked in “Fiction” and Cryptonomicon stocked in “Science Fiction” in my local bookstore? And, more to the point, why do I have a gut-feeling that, at the end of the day, these classifications are all right?

I don’t have a good answer to the question of shelving practices and genres. But the question returns to SF. How do we define it? What is it? I’m not going to touch that question directly, at least not here. SF is too deeply contested a genre for me to want to step on that particular land mine. Instead, for the purposes of this problem, I think it comes down to the issue of discourse conventions. Interpretive communities use not only language but also style in ways that mark them as being “insiders” in a group; SF, fantasy, NASCAR, and MMA fighting all have their own discourse conventions. (I do understand that the term “discourse convention” more properly belongs in academic discussion, but it is also relevant to issues of mass culture.) These conventions are often so internalized that they become invisible, and we think of them as “natural.” Of course, they are anything but natural. The discourse conventions come over time and with practice. But writers do participate in discourse communities that tend to reinforce their own styles.

By reading many SF writers, SF fans build up a set of tools for understanding how Science Fiction is “supposed” to read and feel. A good reader will have several different discourse conventions in which he or she feels comfortable operating, and sometimes readers will see something in a “non-canon” work that speaks to their own genre. I think that is what the editors of Storming the Reality Studio saw in DeLillo: someone who was not SF, but whose aesthetic project was, in some way, allied with their own. The same thing has happened with Thomas Pynchon: many SF geeks have claimed Gravity’s Rainbow as a text that is SF-ish. Pynchon is not SF, but his aesthetic project seems to have something in common with that of SF.

Even the best writers have styles in which they feel most comfortable and discourse communities within which they tend to participate. These styles will be the ones to which they return, even when they explore new creative avenues. Gibson’s work, fiction and non-fiction, just “feels” SF, even when it deals with the hyper-present “now” and not some kind of jacked-in, implanted techno-future. I think this is why, even though I would never call DeLillo a SF writer, his inclusion in the Storming the Reality Studio anthology made sense. White Noise was not SF, but it did participate in some of the discourse conventions that SF explores. (This isn’t an academic paper, so I will avoid long sections of analysis that compare DeLillo and Gibson in terms of their discourse conventions. But I do know what my next conference paper will be about.)

Originally, when I started planning this blog, it was going to be about the “identity crisis” that Science Fiction is in. I no longer think of that as a problem. Instead, when we ask ourselves these questions about who, or what, SF really is, we ask our beloved genre to engage more deeply with the lived experience of the community. If anything, I now think that this proliferation of styles that are “sort-of-kind-of-maybe SF” (styles like Nowpunk, Dieselpunk, Slipstream, and the New Weird) is liberating. But it does demonstrate that being a Science Fiction writer is probably harder now than it was thirty years ago. If nearly everything can make an argument to be SF, then that means that Science Fiction is everywhere. We are saturated with it (like Palmolive… “You’re soaking in it!”). At the risk of seeming like a fawning fanboy, I am going to point us toward Gibson again. He hit on this cultural saturation of SF when he said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

This immediate presence of the future in the everyday makes Science Fiction more intellectually potent and more culturally relevant than it has ever been before. But it also makes SF so ubiquitous that it risks fading into the background. I think that this might explain the turn toward “Nowpunk,” as well as the rise of so many other “—punk” sub-genres. It gives their communities a way to force their view of SF, their own discourse conventions, onto the discussion of culture. It forces a genre that is often seen as monolithic to accept collaborative voices.

Hmm. I guess I’ve come around.