A Wild Surmise About A Perk

“Talyn…STARBURST.”

That’s Farscape, Bloggers, and I’ve spoken of it before…but unfortunately the link is busted since Google wrapped up for me its poison pill. Never mind, I can fill you in on the content of that post what I once wrote, since I was (after all) there: basically what I was trying to say there is that Farscape was an amazingly good show…well, after all it was an O’Bannon joint, wasn’t it?…and that this moment in it, when the stupefyingly excellent Lani Tupu makes his final pronouncement, is so incredibly charged with feeling, so massively well-acted, that it almost makes you forget…

…That it has absolutely nothing to do with your own life.

So…

Shall we take a moment, and discuss the phenomenon called irony?

As I’ve said before, my favourite definition of irony is the one contained in Fowler’s: the utterance meant for two separate hearers, and it matters not if one of those hearers dwells secretly inside the skull of the other, but just the double-hearing however it happens is the thing. And if the Fowler Bros. had lived long enough, I’m sure they would’ve seen that this science fiction, this byblow of genre, this illegitimate inheritor of just some qualities and not others, as our most ironic literature according to their definition…indeed, as a literature almost entirely concerned with irony, and concentrating on it in such a way that has never been seen before: a truly new thing, under the sun.

But without the preexistence of the thing called genre, SF is impossible…so let’s get into genre a bit, just as preamble.

In my humble opinion genre has one goal, and one only: to create a dynamical arc to the reader’s experience of theme, that leads off into defamiliarization, and thence back into refamiliarization. And in this effort, we might do worse than to call it essentially “musical”, if by saying so we mean to point out that Mozart and Beethoven and Bach got there long before H.G. Wells did, much less Hugo Gernsback! But musicality is a big part of SF too, because music also commands the ironic…in fact in SF’s earliest days, and especially its most corrupted days, the days more Gernsback than Wells, the literary ambitions of the form were practically nonexistent: but instead its musical ambitions were paramount. Later on, in the New Wave, we get literary ambition out the wah-woh — and all those people in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and 80s!) arguing so passionately not about what makes science fiction different from fantasy but what makes it better, and insisting that a hard line must be maintained between the two…when actually in the 30s and 40s the question hardly comes up with such intensity and fervour, because SF then is just so science-y, even if the science is usually pretty questionable until the John W. Campbell crowd comes along…and even then, even then — but the passion perhaps indicates that the arguments were less about what SF might gain, than about what it might lose. For, what giant confusions were here! Henry Kuttner, supposed as a non-lyrical writer, or Harlan Ellison — HARLAN ELLISON!! — averring that it’s the science in SF that makes it a non-degraded form of literature…?

And he hated Vonnegut too, but of course it doesn’t matter what Harlan said, because Harlan’s great gift is to be almost always wrong — artfully wrong, and that’s why we mysteriously continue to love the miserable little shit! — but what Harlan meant is a bit important, I think, because…

…Somehow, in some way, at that particular time the literary ambition seemed to have gotten stacked up against the musical one. Which is kinda crazy, isn’t it? Because I take genre’s defamiliarizing/refamiliarizing power to lie in the vigour, not the rigour…and so, for my money, to imagine that what SF primarily does is create total novelty for the reader is perhaps to get things completely ass-backwards. Because, is there anything really new under the sun, except new ways to look at the stuff that’s already there? The general arc of genre is always the same, and nothing very special, but it’s the specific play with the details of the journey that enlivens (and thus transfigures) the inevitable destination, and so the accent is really what it’s all about, not the language. In the detective story, for example, the reader is taken out into a subculture at the fringes of society where moral calculations matter differently, and takes that knowledge back with him down the other side of the wheel back to Origin…but not to rule wisely, or refresh society, or indeed anything else that may have to do with thousand-faced heroes! Because all that changes is how the protagonist sees; all there is to learn, is what was already known. Thus the magic: to everyone else, the world is no different than it ever was…

Or, take the thriller; where the same thing occurs, the protagonist is changed, but changed in relation to…?

Hey: this is music, really.

Because it’s only the listener who is changed, by hearing the symphony…

…Right?

So what I’m saying is what I’ve already said I’m saying: SF is our most ironical literature. But, what I’m really saying is…

It didn’t get that way by accident.

“Talyn…STARBURST. It’s a good example of a phrase essentially meaningless, gibberish, utterly unconnected to real life, such as one finds all the time in SF…or, for that matter, fantasy. Even the situation and the actions it contains don’t so easily find a correspondent — your relationship with your boss? Your home life? We rarely come across examples of such a particular sort of sacrifice, and indeed if we did the whole thing would be overcast with implications that made it morally-dubious. No Criminal Minds episode can feature such a sacrifice, if we’re going into mass media escapism in a realistic or quasi-realistic vein…no sports match can offer such a psychological breakthrough in its various otherwise-quite-subtle sublimations. Because the situations are NOT REAL, and not even partly or immediately-analogically real…because they’re of the species of dream, and therefore primarily efficacious when it comes to seeing how the same motives and impulses and imperatives play out in an environment where all the features and feedbacks are different from our own…and yet, paralogically, still recognizable…if one only can see one’s way to realizing it. Just the other day, David Golding nailed this effect down for me as “theoretical processes, unchained from the world-that-is-the-case”, and I think it’s a very neat description…because Western, detective story, space-opera, high fantasy, or superhero comic, they all have tropes, but genre isn’t in the tropes but in how they twist: twist to, eventually, show their underwear on the outside. SF is fundamentally ironical, in a pointed way, because it sails itself right up alongside “realistic” settings and portrayals…only they are only realistic because they are imaginable as allowable possibilities — anxious possibilities, one might say — I’m trying very hard to choose my words carefully, can you tell? Is it making it all sound really weird? — that reflect with great accuracy the current state of affairs in “real life” chiefly by the device of attaching our real-life emotions to objects that real life strenuously disincludes, or at best mediates the hell out of. And, so…fantasy is great, but one doesn’t see this device working nearly so hard nearly so much in it, because fantasy doesn’t have to lean so heavily on irony as this: feminism in Camelot (for example) may be salutary, but it’s by no means necessary, because the virtue of realism and external plausibility is something you’ve already left at the door when you walked in. Fantasy has nothing in it that real life strenuously disincludes, because nothing, so to speak, creates the strain — real life doesn’t exactly have to work hard to restrain the theoretical processes of elvish magic, because the world-that-is-the-case doesn’t contain these anyway, therefore to have them at all means the unchaining’s already happened, and it unchained something different anyhow. Likewise, in the Western we might expect to see the present’s mirror in the past looking an awful lot like something genuinely historic, and thus with a freedom to eschew irony that I’d say makes it tremendously more convincing than SF, more convincing just by standing there…as the commentary on the present that historical fiction includes can stand perfectly tall on virtually the same ground as history itself. Thus the ability of historical fiction, biography not unincluded, to prosyletize and propagandize is something SF can only envy…

And often, as a consequence: seek to copy, as just another sort of winking verisimilitude. The “future history” proves nothing, not even as much as Leviathan or The Social Contract, but rather it imagines them differently…not only using the template of historical conjecture, but also explicitly and consciously referencing its craziness as part of a weird atemporal leela. So any past history is more respectable than any future history — economics in SF, for example, is so much tidier than real economics that most of it isn’t even there — but even your most stubbornly mediocre future history has an element of wit in its ludic untethering of effect from cause…not supplying imaginary causes to real effects in an effort to reverse-engineer contingent explanations, but instead creating imaginary effects from real causes via contingent explanations, and then having the nerve to say it all, somehow, “happened”. And it isn’t hard to tell that SF understands this most critical value, of the inherent worthlessness of the future history…I mean, why else would it populate its future spaces with such absurd in-jokes and mugging reflections? In the end, I think it inarguable that history is where we find the best other planets and the best aliens, not just the ones that look exactly like us but with lobster-tails on our foreheads but the ones that are stranger in their core…the Romans, the Indians, the Incans, the Zimbabweans, more opaque than any Star Trek analogue of modern nation-state dwellers…yet far more deeply and sensitively connected to us as well, than if there were a planet of TV junkies or a planet of basketball players, or a planet of Nazis or a planet of Marxist-Leninists. Because the tale of an analogous present need not be utterly superficial (as any decent novel will show), but could be as deeply complex as our own present really is…

EXCEPT!

SF always knows what kind of rock it’s skipping, and over what kind of abyssal plain of fact, so it mostly avoids the really really high ambition of making up any truly new world. It does happen on occasion! But in unsubtle hands, it’s all too apparent that to fully embrace novel creation is to actually move away from the “realistic”, and toward the “merely” fantastic. Indeed, the grip of the future history’s imaginary justification is so tight that many SF authors find themselves defending it in the real world, as part of the real world! Walking around in public spaces like a kind of TED talk come to hideous life, aggressively believing impossible things not in evidence, imagining that theoretical processes are really all there ever was, and that they’ve never been chained in the first place. But for SF writers who have not gone completely around the bend, the clever consciousness of where they came from and what they can mine it for is still maintained. The Western, for example, always lies behind SF in conception…because SF is never unconscious of the historical game of the Western, never unheeding of the tropey raw material it offers. For what’s been twisted once, may be twisted again! And why on earth would you pass up that chance? It’s just the same with the detective story: as Isaac Asimov merely gives us Poirot plus Newton, to create a kind of anti-Father Brown, but it sets the stage for a million later performances of more ambitious kind…and so is indeed laudable as a ludic innovation. Well, so are they all, all ludically-laudable innovations! But note that when it comes to the real Celts and the real Carthaginians, these most brilliant of raw materials are reserved for SF’s time-travels and not its First Contacts…because

Because they’re too complex to be abstracted. To fake them, yes…that’s fine, and better than fine! But to have them as themselves, you need some historical scaffolding around them, to bear the weight of their complexity. People often say that SF isn’t about the future but the present, and that’s true…it’s true because the scaffolding of the present is all around us at every moment, and we can’t make ourselves unaware of, nor uninfluenced by, its web of contingency. So the scaffolding supports much, indeed much we aren’t even aware of it supporting, and therefore all the aliens we meet are wonderfully ourselves, as Jung says all the figures in a dream are…

As the other people that we meet are…well, Other.

At least, if they’re people then they’re Other.

This will all, in Harlan’s words, come together like spit on a griddle. It really will. But just at the moment, I find myself wanting to zoom off in another direction…to zoom off in another direction, and talk about…

Sports.

Yes, sports, and the need for something actually important: is this the real root of escapism, is this what we escape to, and from? The escape from freedom and responsibility is something that is very easy to have in the real world, though I don’t say no one seeks to escape from it in genre fiction either…nor that some short-sighted or unscrupulous author might not seek to make a tidy genre home out of it for stressed-out and sometimes even desperate people…but, you can have it in the real world, with no great effort. But how much harder is it, to satisfyingly lay one’s hands on its opposite? There’s a paradox here that sports comprehends: sometimes importance and freedom and responsibility are themselves their own opposites, and ironic traducers of the state of moral tedium known popularly as “evil” — which, as we all know, is characterized with such frictionless ease by its banality. So genre is very interesting, really…a tool for de- and then re-familiarization, and the twisting of tropes into sympathy or self-recognition or even social insight…but also at the same time, a tool for twisting things the other way. Much as sports themselves: promoting tribalism, jingoism, xenophobia on the one hand with inarguable efficacy…yet on the other, also capable of producing a soul less anaesthetized and more stirred, less conformist and more thoughtful. Not for nothing is sports fandom rife with debate and controversy! And not just of the “who was the greatest General” type, either; but sometimes of the “was Cyprus really preparing to attack” type, too. Of course, much cleverer people than I have examined spectator sports and found nothing but a rage-pump designed to distract the masses, an instrument of social control…but then again, even food (and food imagery) can be an instrument of social control. And between these two things lies the why, or more accurately the how, of social control: like fiction, at its core it always trades on something real. So, anthropologically, food is linked to family, and thence to group belonging…and your basic spectator sport is linked to the hunt, thence to war. However, such powerful associations will always cut more than one way: food is also a repository of culture, a kind of record of, perhaps even recipe for, associations that work against the aims of state or corporate social control…and the hunt produces leaders, sources of informal authority, that are not necessary beholden to political or economic power structures. Well, in fact they logically precede them, even if chronologically they come after. Which is perhaps why you don’t find a lot of pop music superstars or legendary sports heroes in, say, China.

I can’t remember who said it…maybe you Bloggers could help me out…it was a while ago, and it was about China, and it was by a famous writer, and the line went…

“Where do they hide their sexuality?”

Speaking of the Maoist culture of the Chinese, and hmm, damn if I can find it in me to recapture that perhaps-racist point of view…that asks where, when the answer to “where” is quite obvious: they hide it where it won’t be observed, that’s all. Yet in another way they hide it in plain sight: for in Maoist China a safe refuge for intelligence was found precisely in Fowler’s irony, a safe refuge for libido was found precisely in Revolutionary “brightness”: the game of evading an enforced conformity by playing up to it. Mao was a cheap sort of Confucius, a Confucius with power…Plato with a death ray…so in either case not too bright, not as bright as a farmer’s daughter or a fisherman’s son, and so even though so many MANY died, those that were left sometimes learned a strange lingo that enabled them to survive, and feel joy privately, and sometimes even show it openly…but for fuck’s sake, “where do they hide their sexuality”, well they hide it in sublimation, right in front of your gwai loh face, obviously!

That you don’t notice it, means it’s fucking working properly!

But anyway. Where was I?

“Talyn…STARBURST.” Every person, every society, in Farscape is a well-trodden SF cliche: that’s what Farscape is about, the subversion of cliches, so it has to have them in there. It has to make the old present seem like a new present. Defamiliarization, then refamiliarization. Music. As I said once before, so long ago now: this show’s about the music. There are nifty ideas in it too, to be sure…but…

Though this kind of SF is for sure not the only kind of SF there is, still what it accomplishes is what even the new-idea SF aims at: the thoroughly-defamiliarized heart, the go-to-hell principled stances that make no sense, the relationships that though they’re based on our own, are not recognizable as our own,

And so a sacrifice that really means nothing to us, in language that just sounds silly to us, in an arbitrary setting on an arbitrary day, in an arbitrary solar system for an arbitrary reason…

Well, it doesn’t matter. The acting is what sells it. Such an unbelievable situation! Such a moronically-trite collection of syllables!

None of it should make us care at all!

Except, you see…we hear it twice.

We’re lucky, we genre-folk. And especially we SF folk. Our whole lives, we grow up hearing doubled, layered statements, essentially because the listener is an actor too, and cannot turn that action off. When we’re young, perhaps we don’t understand this ironical hearing — maybe it confuses us, or even frightens us. Maybe, even, we are seized with a profound sense of not knowing what to do, that paralyzes us. Paralysis is really the worst, isn’t it?

But when we get older, this same thing gives us access to a truly wonderful world. A world that actually looks just like this one, though superficial forms might deceive…a world in which there are thoughts to think, and actions to take, and even sacrifices to make, that one is ordinarily supposed to experience only in the concert hall. And maybe if we were of a different age, we would always feel some lack in that way…the inability to bring our transcendent experiences down into everyday life. But! Being born at the right time, when genre literature has existed…a debasement of high ideals, a mere entertainment without any soul, a ghetto for the mind…

…Eventually it puts forth, as a sub-issue, SF. Which actually gets a lot of things said about the world, which would be otherwise impossible to say.

HOWEVER.

We’re also subtly unlucky, to be born into this time. Remember what I said up there about how an analogous SF present could be as complexly-constructed as our own, but usually isn’t? The scaffolding of the present is all around us, easing the weight of how much complexity is required to make up an unchained scenario that reflects our present time…yet simultaneously that scaffolding is rather less supportive than it seems, just because it is a scaffold of the present, a scaffold by for and of the present, and it strenuously disincludes genuine historical context in the way (again) any decent mainstream novel doesn’t. And, I admit that to a degree I am just playing with words here — what’s the scaffold of meaning in the present-day, well obviously the past is what renders our present context, there’s nothing very eye-opening about me saying that — but I’m not only playing with words, because I do have a point to make that precedes the wordplay, and the point is that we also have this alternative structure, this, er, call it present-ist structure, that replaces real historical context with mere contemporary texture. All that passes in our world, we are familiar with and can recognize! But though we can understand its workings well enough, we’re not so good at comprehending its reasons. Which is just a matter of being habituated, as we all are, to momentary pressing needs, but it perhaps explains the weird streak of conservatism that frequently is found running through SF…that one encounters even among SF people who are not all bonkers and TED-talky, as they seem incapable of perceiving, shall we call them, the real odds of things happening…or the real fuzzy and indeterminate state of affairs that among sensible people precludes definite pronouncements about things being this way or that way or some other way but just those three ways, yes it definitely has to be one of them and can be no other. But in the alternative and present-ist scaffolding that’s all true, you see…!

Ohhhh, this is not coming together like spit on a griddle at all, is it? My apologies, Bloggers. And Harlan. Wait, let me just try again…where was I…

See, the thing is…the way that theoretical processes are restrained also restrains us, and though in practical terms that’s a Very Good Thing most of the time (not to mention: the essence of science), in emotional terms it tends to present problems that desperately need solving. Historical fiction, and the historical perspective, is good at describing the problems but doesn’t always render those solutions…but SF, which more often than not is shitty at describing the problems, nonetheless has the wondrous power to provide solutions that are of a far higher quality than its problem-descriptions. I mean, the descriptions really should be better, and in fact I’m tempted to say I judge SF mostly by how assiduously it sets up the problems it will later attempt to solve…but sometimes the solutions are excellent despite that shortfall, and I think that highly unusual state of affairs comes about for a particular, and rather interesting, reason.

Because of the irony. To find a solution to a pressing problem in a fiction full of largely-irrelevant situations is in itself a neat little ironic exercise for the reader, and this actually happens all the time with all kinds of fiction, but SF goes a layer deeper into self-referentiality by giving its characters that very same experience of finding “unreal” solutions to their problems…the stardrive, the time machine, the self-aware computer, the mechanical man, all of these are really answers, but they’re answers of a very specific kind: answers that reconstruct the problem and re-pose the question, at another layer within the philosophical onion of the story. And this is SF’s great economy of method, the perk it delivers to its readership for their forbearance with its excessively fiddly approach to its otherwise-quite-ordinary goals — that the realism isn’t really “realism” at all, but just a kind of self-conscious play with realism, a nesting of material issues one inside the other, until once you reach the centre there is an eversion that pops you out at the surface of the shell again. You never really left the present! You never really left any of its assumptions. But, somehow…

…They seem now to assume different things.

So the surface manages to teach us something about the depths after all. As improbable as that may seem.

But of course…once you’ve eliminated the impossible…

Then what, for heaven’s sake, is left?

If not this.

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2 responses to “A Wild Surmise About A Perk

  1. My apologies, all…this was going to be SHORTER, and be posted sooner…but it didn’t quite work out that way…

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