It’s not science fiction, it’s not realism, but hovers in the unsettling zone in between. From Philip K Dick to Stephen King, Damien Walter takes a tour through transrealism, the emerging genre aiming to kill off ‘consensus reality’
A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.
“Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic.”
It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.
Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.
It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism. Apparently realistic narratives that sometimes contain fantastic elements, like the high-tech gizmos of spy thrillers, also fail as transrealism because their plots and archetypal characters are very far from real. Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic, for a very specific purpose, that seems to have become tremendously relevant for contemporary readers.
The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.
This proliferation of the fantastic in contemporary fiction has at times been described as the “mainstreaming of science fiction”. But sci-fi continues on much as it ever has, producing various escapist fantasies for readers who want time out from reality. And of course there’s no shortage of purely realist novels populating Booker prize lists and elsewhere. Both sci-fi and realism provide a measure of comfort – one by showing us the escape hatch from mundane reality, the other by reassuring us the reality we really upon is fixed, stable and unchanging. Transrealism is meant to be uncomfortable, by telling us that our reality is at best constructed, at worst non-existent, and allowing us no escape from that realisation.
“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.” Rucker’s formulation of transrealism as revolutionary becomes especially meaningful when compared to the uses transrealism is put to by the best of its practitioners. Atwood, Pynchon and Foster-Wallace all employed transrealist techniques to challenge the ways that “consensus reality” defined who was normal and who was not, from the political oppression of women to the spiritual death inflicted on us all by modern consumerism.
Today transrealism underpins much of the most radical and challenging work in contemporary literature. Colson Whitehead’s intelligent dissection of the underpinnings of racism in The Intuitionist and his New York Times transrealist twist on the zombie-apocalypse novel, Zone One. Monica Byrne’s hallucinatory road-trip across the future of the developing world and the lives of women caught between poverty and high-speed technological change in The Girl in the Road. Matt Haig’s compulsive young adult novel The Humans, which invites the reader to see human life through alien eyes. Transrealism has 30 years of history behind it, but it’s in the next 30 years that it may well define literature as we come to know it.
While I can only speculate on the identity of the cult erotica author, I suspect Chuck Tingle is the future of publishing.
Hours after the announcement of the 2016 Hugo Award shortlists, one of the nominated authors published a book to express his feelings on the matter. Slammed In The Butt By My Hugo Award Nomination is the story of successful gay sci-fi erotica writer Tuck Bingle, whose quiet life is thrown into chaos when he receives an email telling him he has been nominated for SFs most prestigious award, an email actually addressed to successful gay sci-fi erotica writer Chuck Tingle.
Chuck Tingle is the author of successful gay sci-fi erotica nominated for the 2016 Hugo awards, for his successful gay sci-fi erotica story Space Raptor Butt Invasion. Wordplay is integral to Chuck Tingle’s success. Slammed In The Butt By My Hugo Award Nomination is an affectionate nod to Tingle’s classic, Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt, and its sequel, Pounded In The Butt By My Book Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt. In a sign of it’s commitment to quality, all Tingle’s books are exclusive to Amazon Kindle.
But how did a relative newcomer gay sci-fi erotica writer, however successful, come to be nominated for a Hugo, the sci-fi fields highest award? Don’t ask. Just remember that Chuck Tingle is a success. Every day Chuck Tingle sells dozens, maybe even scores of books on Amazon Kindle, making tens and perhaps even a hundred dollars on a good day. Do people read Chuck Tingle? Who cares! They gasp and chortle at his butt pounding book titles, share them on Twitter, and sometimes buy a copy for the lulz. For the people who voted Chuck Tingle onto the the Hugo award ballot, that is success. And good luck to them. If only all writers could set their ambitions so low, the literary world would be a better and more friendly place.
Who is Chuck Tingle? Any English author would of course have titled it Pounded In The Bottom By My Own Bottom, so I guess we’ll have to rule out the redoubtable Adam Roberts, who otherwise was my top guess. Could it be John Scalzi, target of so many Hugo award hi-jinx in recent years? Unlikely. If I know John Scalzi at all, any book he wrote about being pounded in the butt by his own butt would have his own name proudly on the cover. Maybe Theodore Beale, chief Rabid Puppy, is the real Chuck Tingle? But anyone who has read Beale knows that no amount of work could ever raise his writing up to the level of a Tingle.
It matters not who Chuck Tingle is. What matters is who Chuck Tingle could be. Which is the future of publishing. Writers and the people who publish them are still hanging onto the legacy concept of quality. Chuck Tingle is here to show us that disruptive tech start-ups like Amazon have made quality a thing of the past. Modern publishing is all about viral marketing. A book is just a LOLCATS gif that people will pay money for. A novel is just a Buzzfeed listicle with more pages. Who is Chuck Tingle? Nobody knows, that’s the appeal. Who is Chuck Tingle? You could be, if you can come up with a meme infectious enough. Who is Chuck Tingle? He’s the future of publishing, that’s who.
Heroes are an interesting character type. Not every protagonist is a hero, far from it. Most stories are about relatively ordinary people going on journeys and overcoming challenges. But there is no challenge too great for the hero. Need a dragon slain, an innocent rescued, a Death Star explodeyed? The hero is your man. Or woman. Or non-gender binaried person.
Anyone who tries writing the archetypal hero eventually hits the the Hard Question of all epic narratives. Why is this human, among all these other humans, the hero? What makes them special? From whence do their powers come? And buried inside this Hard Question is an even harder one…why should we the audience care? We know heroes are never what they seem, so why should we for the timespan of this story believe that this one hero is?
This little essay is going to get to Rey, the young hero of The Force Awakens, soon enough. But in preparation lets just acknowledge that Rey is, without argument, the most perfect hero of 21st century storytelling to date. Throw some other names in the comments if you wish, you won’t find one that beats Rey for absolute raw heroic brilliance. We’ll get to why.
There have, in the history of epic storytelling, been a few answers to the “why” of heroism. The most common, by far, is fatherhood. And it is always through a father that the heroes heroic lineage is established. Epic heroes from Rama to Arthur have been defined by being the son of a king or lord of some kind. In Star Wars Luke Skywalker is of course the son of Anakin Skywalker, that bloodline being the source of his strength with The Force.
“Contrast that with Kylo Ren, whose upbringing has given him, to say the least, crippling daddy issues.”
How many sons of rich fathers do you know who are heroic? How many powerful men can you name who are heroic? Even if we accept that occasionally some spoilt trust-fund kid MIGHT be heroic, experience suggests it’s despite their bloodline, not because of it. Snowboarding holidays in Aspen, yes. Sacrificing all for a noble lost cause? Not so much. Even though we continue to repeat it endlessly, the patriarchal inheritance myth doesn’t really hold water today, if it ever did.
God. Or gods, are the other source of heroic powers. Like many classical heroes, Theseus is said to be the son of the god Poseidon, which in turn gives him strength to rescue the city of Athens. Many heroes of Indian myth were avatars of the gods Shiva or Vishnu (an interestingly modern idea, the avatar, in our era of virtual realities). George Lucas roled out the Christian version of this one by making Anakin Skywalker a “virgin birth”. I probably don’t need to work too hard to dispel the credibility of divinely sourced heroism. Few now believe in gods of this kid, or in heroes as their children.
The Chosen One is the modern, secular equivalent of these outdated origin stories. Neo (Or Neil as I call him) in the Matrix isn’t the hero for any reason other than he just is, alright? He’s been chosen by…someone…to save everybody. The problem with The Chosen One trope is, it doesn’t actually answer the question. Why has THIS random dude been chosen? What is it about them that means they can triumph against the odds? This trope is used in wish fulfilment narratives like the recent, utterly awful Armada by Ernest Cline, where the only point of the hero is to stand in for the reader and let them fantasise about effortless success and glory without sacrifice.
Rey’s heroism is built on a very different foundation, that has two main pillars.
The first is adversity. Director JJ Abrams spins a red herring narrative to make us all ask who Rey’s father is, but the answer is, it doesn’t matter. The Rey who kicks ass isn’t the child of that father, they are the child of almost twenty years spent alone as a scavenger on Jakku. That adversity has shaped Rey’s spirit into a strong form. Contrast that with Kylo Ren, whose upbringing has given him, to say the least, crippling daddy issues. It’s never in doubt that Rey will kick Kylo’s pampered butt when they finally get to it, because she has had to live the life of a badass, while Kylo knows deep down that he’s only a pretender.
The second is choice.
Both Rey and Finn become heroes because they choose, again and again, to throw off power. And it’s the choice that is key here. They aren’t born to this, it isn’t a matter of fate. Finn, in particular, has been conditioned from birth to comply to power, but CHOOSES not to. Every choice Rey and Fin make takes them a step further on the heroes journey, and every step is freely chosen. The outcome is a story of a young woman and a black man beating the hell out of patriarchal power structures, a truly contemporary heroic tale if ever there was one.
It’s not surprising then that some people haven’t reacted all that well to Finn and Rey. People who’ve been brought up to believe that being a rich white male will automatically make them the hero of the story face a rude awakening in a world where it’s the adversity we overcome, and the choices we make on the path, that truly define our heroic value. There’s still plenty of stories about indolent princes with god complexes for those spoilt boys to enjoy, Star Wars just isn’t one of them any more.
The rest of us can find new hope in Star Wars. We can’t change the circumstances of our birth, and we certainly can’t claim to be children of gods. We aren’t the chosen one, because there’s nobody in the real world with the power to choose. But we all face adversity, and we all have the power of our own choices. The reason our hearts sing when Rey finally takes up the lightsaber in The Force Awakens, is because the heroic part inside us all wakes up to watch. That’s why we need heroic tales, because once the hero inside is awakened, they can never truly sleep again.
Hope you enjoyed this little essay on heroism. Come follow me on twitter! @damiengwalter
An excellent guest post today from Jared Hill, a blogger living in Chicago who reads science fiction avidly, and who is also keen on sports and film. Godzilla is among the most iconic film characters of the last century. But the big lizard’s meaning was radically altered by his move from Tokyo to Hollywood. In this post Jared explains how Hollywood deleted that political message. Follow Jared on Twitter @JaredHill341
In 1954, audiences were floored with the phenomenon of Godzilla, a radioactive lizard who destroyed civilian communities in the midst of its enormous feet and ferocious roar. Since the initial introduction, Godzilla has appeared in numerous films, all in the same vein.
When the original Gojira film was produced in 1954 by Toho, Godzilla carried the symbolic weight of the Japanese political climate. As a radioactive lizard “awakened” by a bomb, Godzilla served as an allegory for nuclear warfare and the destruction of civilian communities. The images of full hospitals, communities in flames, and utter destruction forced Japanese moviegoers to relive the trauma from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
The film has been remade or received sequels an astounding thirty times, offering alternative projections of Godzilla and even alternative plot lines. Some of these include the edited, English version of Gojira, known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1956, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (alternatively known as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, 1966) and Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974). Each remake brought audiences a new twist on the original city-devastating lizard that we have welcomed so warmly into our hearts, offering a scaley science fiction revolution.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters included some significant cuts to the original, removing aspects of the movie that were less familiar to Western moviegoers such as the anti-nuclear themes as they related to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Allusions to American testing and the dangers of radioactivity were amongst the cuts. Other alterations of the movie to make it more palatable include integrating an American newscaster into the otherwise Japanese cast, Raymond Burr, who focused on the destruction from the kaiju (monster). These changes erased the intended political purpose from Gojira, instead turning the movie into one solely about a destructive lizard. From there, Godzilla became a character for all ages to enjoy and began making appearances in various programs, including The Simpsons (on at least three different occasions) and Hellsing, where it is incorporated into the soundtrack as well as appears in several scenes. Undeterred by the Western re-culturalization of Godzilla, the original two films still have a sizable international following. Even after sixty years, regular matinees and marathons hosted on niche TV networks carried by cable providers, such as El Rey (which is available via DirecTV or Comcast and is showing the films through January), have helped to keep the fanbase not only alive, but thriving.
A interest and resurgence of monster movies has once again sparked over the past several years. Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, when triple reactor core meltdowns and exploding containment buildings in Japan forced 15,000 to flee, Google reported a surge of interest in Godzilla and the nuclear allegories attached to it. In response, Pacific Rim, a film about monsters emerging from the sea and fighting man-made robots, was released in 2013. Although Pacific Rim featured characteristics that Western civilizations enjoyed about Godzilla – invasion by monsters from the sea, battles, and human triumph – it lacked the nuclear political echo that made Godzilla desirable. 2014 then brought Godzilla by Warner Brothers, which also lacked the nuclear warfare allegory, caving instead to cookie-cutter characters and an over dependence on visual effects.
Now, due to popular demand, Toho announced last month that they have decided to make one final Godzilla movie, Godzilla: Final Wars, expected to be released in 2016. “The time has come for Japan to make a film that will not lose to Hollywood,” Veteran producer Taichi Ueda for Toho told reporters – and I think most audiences would agree.
Astronaut Jack Schmitt released the shutter on the 70 millimeter Hasselblad camera at 5:39 AM on 7th December 1972. The Apollo 17 mission to the moon was 45,000 kilometers from Earth. The image that it captured was not the first of its kind. Other photos of Earth had been recorded by previous space missions, but none so clear and potent as this one.
“The Blue Marble”, as it would later be nicknamed, shows a fully illuminated Earth of white clouds, blue oceans and the continental landmasses of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the south polar ice cap. For hundreds of thousands of years, humankind lived on Earth’s surface. Now we could look back and see Earth as a whole, like a child’s marble, shining against the darkness of the cosmos.
In the same decade the Apollo missions were taking a handful of men into space, the rest of humankind were boldly going where no man had gone before. Not on rockets, but in stories. Star Trek was just one in a wave of television shows, movies, comics and books that took readers on journeys of imagination into the unknown reaches of space. Science fiction stories had been around for decades, but the space race between America and the Soviet Union gave them a new energy and importance. When Jules Verne penned From The Earth to the Moon in 1865, its description of a manned mission to an Earth satellite seemed like a flight of fantasy. As the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface just over a century later, Verne’s words read like a startlingly accurate vision of the future unfolding before us.
It’s not outrageous to think that science fiction inspires science. Captain James T Kirk’s five year journey on the starship Enterprise inspired both the name of the first space shuttle, and some of the mobile phones we carry today were modeled on Star Trek communicators. In the 1980’s the “cyberpunk” stories of William Gibson were an intrinsic part of the emergence of “cyberspace” and virtual worlds. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge is limited to what we know, while imagination reaches into the unknown. As science radically expanded what was known through the 20th century, we needed ever more powerful feats of imagination to guide its development and shape its outcomes. And among the most important products of the 20th century imagination was science fiction.
The scientific revolution that allowed us to send rockets into space was also transforming our understanding of the world we were leaving behind. Centuries of cartographic surveying had outlined and detailed the world’s continents. A revolution in transport meant that the journey around the planet described in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days could be completed in eighty hours or less. Just one year before the “Blue Marble” photo was taken, the Intel Corporation produced the first commercial microprocessor chip. The information technology this new computing power allowed would, by the early 1990s, see the advent of the Internet. “The Global Village” – a counter culture concept coined by media theorist Marshall McLuhan – was becoming a reality. Millions of humans flocked to join the emergent Internet, through which they could communicate as easily with peers on the other side of the world as with strangers who lived next door.
The 7.12 billion people living on Earth today are arguably the first cohort of humankind to understand our world from a truly planetary perspective. On the physical plane we have mapped every square meter of the planet’s surface, modelled the tectonic movements of its core and can predict the atmospheric patterns that shape its weather. In the social sphere, we are ever more adept at understanding the tremendously complex, interrelated behaviours of the seven billion people who populate the globe. From economic forecasting to the immense power of “big data”, used to exploit the hidden patterns in human behaviour, we have unprecedented insight into the operations of our society. Cognitively, we can look in to the grey matter of the brain to understand its functions, and employ a century or more of psychological learning to understand our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. And on the grandest scale of the cosmos itself, we can place the blue marble of our world in a dynamic galaxy, itself a mere speck in a universe that grows ever more infinite as we probe its depths.
The “Blue Marble” showed us an Earth both more beautiful and more fragile than we had imagined. The image became symbolic of a burgeoning environmental consciousness. Our planet was no longer a boundless wilderness to be conquered, but a finite resource to be conserved. And science was showing us the many systems that made up the planet and governed life upon it; systems that, once thrown out of balance, might never be brought back under control.
As we look ever deeper int the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of our world, we are lead to ask a simple but profoundly important question: Can we build a better word? Can we apply the systematic understanding of the world science has given us to improve these systems? And like the most complex of mathematical problems, can we find a solution that will bring balance to the world.
In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy. Science has given us such a detailed insight into the systems of our world that not one of us can hope to hold more than an infinitesimal fragment of it in our heads at any one time. Isaac Newton, the natural philosopher who contributed much to the emergence of modern science, was still able to range widely across the emerging fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Today, to understand just a single specialization in the vast sea of human knowledge seems the task of a lifetime.
In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy.
Equally problematic is the conflict between science, religion and the arts. In defining its pre-eminence in the world, science rejected many of the ways of seeing that preceded it. Today any attempt to bring religious or spiritual teachings into the public debate becomes immediately divisive. And science also suffers from its own fundamentalism; a materialist philosophy that rejects all internal experience as invalid, meaning that art of all kinds is also devalued and pushed aside.
Solving a problem as complex as building a better world is going to need unusual tools. We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us. And because at the heart of our problem are seven billion emotional, erratic and unreasonable human beings, we’re to need tools that look deep inside the human experience. Tools that are every bit as much art as science, and as open to the products of imagination as of reason.
We’re going to need the tools of science fiction.
Science fiction was shaped in the pages of pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s, when stories of alien life, machine intelligence and galactic civilizations became mass entertainment. Critics have dated the emergence of science fiction to the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the late 19th century, or the publication of Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818. As a form of modern mythology, science fiction continues in the tradition of fantastic story-telling reaching back to the roots of human civilisation.
In his essay “Fantastika and the World Storm”, author and critic John Clute outlines a history of science fiction that begins in 1750, at the dawn of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that would shape the modern era. Science fiction, in Clute’s schema, emerged as a “planetary literature”, one which could consider the ideas emerging from science and envision the vast changes, both good and bad, they would unleash upon the world.
Science fiction is defined by the storyteller’s craft of world building. The world at the heart of a work of science fiction might be our own planet Earth, in some near future or alternative history. Or an alien planet in orbit of a distant star. But the worlds of science fiction aren’t limited to rocky spheres floating in space. The world of a science fiction novel can be a galactic empire, an alternative dimension, an imaginary kingdom, a political state or any of thousands of distinct worlds. Every element of the story – its characters, setting, plot lines and events – are integral to that world and its future. The hero is not just the center of the story. They are the center of the world.
We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us.
Issac Asimov’s Foundation series charts the fall, and eventual rise, of the Galactic Empire, a human civilisation spanning the Milky Way galaxy – the world the story encompasses. Hari Seldon, the story’s hero, is a mathematician who specializes in “psychohistory”, a scientific discipline that allows him to predict two possible futures: one where a thirty-thousand year dark age overcomes the Galactic Empire, and another where after only one thousand years a new, utopian society arises. By establishing two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy, Hari Seldon attempts to ensure the second of these futures.
Frank Herbet’s Dune centers on the young Paul Atreides, heir to the doomed House Atreides, who will become the Emperor of the Known Universe. The desert world of Arrakis is the centre of that universe and the source of the spice Melange, the only substance that allows galactic travel. He who controls the spice, controls the universe, and through a process of mystical enlightenment and open warfare, Paul Atreides learns the secret of the spice.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven depicts a near future Earth, a global society ravaged by poverty and resource wars. At the center of this world is George Orr, a man whose dreams can change the nature of reality, and William Haber, the psychiatrist who tries to shape Orr’s dreams to make a better world. Together they seek to solve racism and overpopulation to bring about world peace, all with unfortunate and counter-productive effects.
A vast array of concepts collide in the stories of Asimov, Hebert and Le Guin. The ability of economics to both predict and shape social change. The politics of empire, colonialism and the long span of history. The emerging ecological awareness and new age spirituality of the counter culture. Resource scarcity, and the fates of worlds in conflict for finite sources of energy. Post-modern philosophy and the conflict between objective reality and subjective experience. It is this melding of disparate ideas into coherent narratives has become the hallmark of science fiction.
These imagined stories – like thousands of other science fiction tales told in the 20th century – were presented to audiences as popular entertainment and escapism. But there was a greater purpose implicit in the emerging literature of science fiction. For most of human history stories had embraced both reason and the imagination. From the earliest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Biblical stories recorded in Genesis and other religious texts. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome, the fairy and folk tales of Medieval Europe and the courtly masques of Shakespearean theatre, for most of human history stories were shaped from both the real and the imagined.
But as we embraced the age of science and reason ushered in by the Enlightenment, a tradition of purely realistic storytelling emerged that set aside the products of imagination. The modern novel, shaped by generations of writers – Honore de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, George Elliot, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Virgina Woolf, Jack Kerouac and thousands upon thousands more, became the natural home of realism. By the late 19th and early 20th century the realist tradition dominated contemporary culture. Stories that grew from the imagination of the writer, and those resembling the older stories of myth and legend, were thought fit only for children. The imagination was sidelined as a source of mere escapist entertainment and the stories that came from it were seen as pure fantasy.
The Inklings were a group of writers who – between the two world wars in the university town of Oxford, England – were drawn together by the idea of creating stories which recaptured the imagination. Among them were C. S. Lewis, whose “Narnia” novels would enchant a generation of children, and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Middle Earth would become arguably the most famous story of the 20th century. As a child, Tolkien had seen the world transformed by the Industrial Revolution. As a young man he had survived the brutalities of the Great War, the first conflict to engulf the whole world. And from these twin experiences, Tolkien would create what he considered to be a new mythology for the modern world.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings chronicles the twilight of the Third Age of Middle Earth, and the battle to defeat the dark lord Sauron by destroying the One Ring, a quest which can only be fulfilled by the hobbit Frodo Baggins, a hero defined by the purity of his spirit rather than his physical strength. Should he fail, the pastoral world of Middle Earth would be overrun by evil, and turned from green fields in to smoke belching factories.
George Orwell was only a decade younger than Tolkien, a product of the same culture and upbringing. Nineteen-Eighty Four- Orwell’s masterpiece of totalitarian horror – is at least cosmetically a very different book to Lord of the Rings. It encompasses the world of Oceania, an all-powerful, totalitarian state. The story follows Winston Smith, a low ranking bureaucrat attempting to find personal liberation and space to love Julia, a young woman also trapped within the state. But unlike the heroes of myth, Winston Smith’s attempt to overcome the oppressive regime of Big Brother ends is absolute failure. He is tortured in room 101, forced to betray his lover, and left a broken man. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows us a world utterly crushed beneath the jackboot of totalitarianism, with no hope for redemption.
As different as they may appear, the stories of Orwell and Tolkien are both products of imaginations trained by similar cultural experiences. They both encompass worlds, and the fates of those worlds and in doing so, they reveal aspects of our own world. The oppressive power of Big Brother in Nineteen-Eighty Four and of the dark lord Sauron in Lord of the Rings are both reflections of the very real oppressive powers that challenge the wholeness of our world in reality. And like thousands of great science fiction stories, from those of Asimov and Le Guin to the masters of the form today, they use the imagination to show us our world as we could never otherwise see it.
The Re-emergence of Imagination
Science fiction has grown from its origins on the printed page. In films, television, comics and other narrative media, science fiction stories are a cornerstone of popular entertainment. Star Wars. The Terminator. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Matrix, too, is often dismissed as simple escapist entertainment, but the success of science fiction and fantasy stories represents the re-emergence of the imagination in our world of reason. Through the mass media science fiction is now reaching global audiences, and helping us to understand our world from the planetary perspective.
Contemporary science fiction weaves ever more sophisticated visions of our planetary future. Charles Stross’ Accelerando follows three generations of one family into the future as Earth is transformed by the “technological singularity”, the point at which change driven by technology outstrips the human ability to comprehend it. A point, some might argue, we have already reached. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes explores an alternative future Johannesberg where an underclass of criminals are stigmatized by being “animaled”, magically bonded to an animal familiar. Beuke’s planetary vision is distinctive for escaping the assumptions of the technologically developed first world, and extrapolating instead a future through the lens of the world’s emerging economies. The baroque fantastical visions of China Mieville in books such as Perdido Street Station, The City and The City and Embassytown reform many of science fiction’s earlier visions, from the fantasy world building of J.R.R. Tolkien to the space opera stories of Issac Asimov. Mieville’s planetary visions undermine those which have come before, challenging us to ask if we can ever understand the reality in which we find ourselves.
The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention. Today our relationship with imagination is increasingly complex. We value the products and innovations that drive every aspect of modern society, even while we continue to underestimate the imagination as the source of those things. We remain in the Enlightenment paradigm, alienated from our imagination, treating it as little more than an avenue for idle entertainment and desperate escapism.
But for generations our stories have called us back to the imagination as a source of insight and understanding. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Issac Asimov, George Orwell, Lauren Beukes, China Mieville and thousands of other creators of science fiction offer us powerful and potent visions drawn from the imagination. If there is one single message we should take from science fiction, it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world. We can analyze the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of the world in the finest detail. But it is only through the imagination that we can begin to synthesize that knowledge back into a whole. And from that informed imagination comes the planetary visions of science fiction. If we wish to solve shape our “Blue Marble” planet in to a better world, we may do well to pay attention to them.
Isaac Asimov – Foundation
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City
John Clute – “Fantastika and the World Storm”
Frank Herbert – Dune
Ursula K. LeGuin – The Lathe of Heaven
China Mieville – Embassytown, Perdido Street Station, The City and The City
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus
Charles Stross – Accelerando
J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings
Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon
(I should add that the Golden Age isn’t the origin of science fiction any more than McDonalds was the origin of the burger. It’s just the moment it got reduced in to a commodity.)
I’m a far more severe critic of the genre than Mr Powell. If the twitching body of the SF genre was in the boot of my Cadillac begging for one more chance at life, I’d put it out of its misery and give it an unmarked grave in the desert. Most of what was most interesting about science fiction happened before the term was coined, and most of what was most of interesting since has been desperately trying to escape the choke hold the label has over imaginative literature.
But fantasy is no better. Fantasy is one of the most basic functions of human psychology. The debate about the the value of fantasy, or the lack of value, has raged across philosophy and literature. The novel, beginning with Don Quixote and running to the present day, is a form implicitly concerned with the interrelation of fantasy and reality. And from this the fantasy genre has coagulated as a faux medieval setting and a pulp adventure quest story. Or a way of writing historical fiction that doesn’t require researching history.
Horror may be the worst of all. I enjoy reading some horror novels and there’s a renaissance of interesting writing in the genre coming up this year. But none of it is remotely horrific. Much of it is off putting, some of it repugnant. But mostly for the wrong reasons. I don’t find unexpected interruptions of reality by the weird at all scary. In fact, I kind of enjoy them. I’d love to find a coven of occultists in my home town. Those are the kind of people I’d like to go for a drink with.
The three central genres of imaginative fiction are broken. They’re an albatross around the neck of writers naturally drawn to the imagination who find themselves shoved in to one or other of these outmoded marketing categories. Let’s be shot of them, and find better ways to shape the wonders of the imagination for today’s generation of readers.
I’ve been outlandishly busy in recent weeks. So much so that I haven’t been able to post anything personal here on my blog. One of the costs of having more freelance writing than you can do is that it squeezes out the personal projects that you love. So here’s a round-up on some of what I’ve been doing recently.
You may have noticed (unless you are reading this in the Andromeda galaxy) that Neil Gaiman has a new book coming out. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkable story, that I was lucky enough to receive a very special edition of some time ago. My review is over on Medium, where I’ve been posting occasional things because I like their platform so much. I feel like Ocean is the start of a new phase in Neil’s fiction writing, and I’m excited about where it’s going to take him next.
Today Neil has been guest editing the Guardian books section, for which I write. He also edited SFX magazine, to which I am a regular contributor. Which kind of means Neil Gaiman has been my boss for the last few weeks. So what’s it like being bossed around by Neil Gaiman?
And I got to interview Harlan Ellison. I have been reading Harlan’s fiction since I was a teenager, and I think All The Lies That Are My Life is possibly the only great meditation on being and SF writer ever written. It was an intense interview. You’ll have to go read it to find out what happened.
On Monday I’m heading to the Royal Society of Literature event ‘Magic, Memory and Survival’ where Mr.Gaiman is talking and copies of the new book are being sold. Super-excited about this, and will be live-tweeting the whole event at @damiengwalter
In and around all this I’m continuing work on my book, and also a couple of side projects. And teaching my course in creative writing at University of Leicester. And tweeting too much! It’s a pure joy making my living from writing and teaching writing at the moment, and getting to spend so much time around writers I admire. Happy days.
If SF is grounded in hard scientific fact, and science is killing God, then what place does that leave for divine intervention in the pages of SF literature? When I tweeted this question, @MirabilisDave gave Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum a twist, quipping that “Any sufficiently advanced technocrat will be indistinguishable from God.”
News of secret courts being introduced in the world’s oldest democracy should scare any rational human. The right to a public trial has survived feudalism, Henry VIII and the industrial revolution, but couldn’t stand up to the forces of global capitalism. Secret courts could be an idea from Alan Moore’s polemic on Thatcher’s Britain, V for Vendetta (today enjoying a second life inspiring Occupy protestors and the Anonymous hacker group) or from Homeland, the latest novel from science-fiction author Cory Doctorow.
Doctorow’s 2007 young adult novel Little Brother introduced teenage readers to the writer’s outspoken ideas on technology and personal freedom. The novel’s title is of course a play on Big Brother, from the granddaddy of all dystopian SF, George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s devastating vision of totalitarian state rule remains chilling, but it has dated with the advance of technology. Orwell was writing at a time when governments, whether the totalitarian dictatorships of Russia and China, or the democracies of western Europe and America, ruled with near absolute power. Today national governments seem increasingly impotent in the face of global economic forces and technological change they cannot begin to keep pace with.
2012 has been a year of transition for science fiction and fantasy literature. SF’s reputation as home of the Bearded White Male hides a more interesting story. SF is the literature of geeks, and today, geeks run the world. Geek culture isn’t infiltrating the mainstream: it is the mainstream. And geeks come in all ages, genders and backgrounds. This year, the Hugo and Nebula award shortlists demonstrated SF’s growing diversity, even as the decision of the editorial team at Weird Tales magazine to publish racist screed Save the Pearls demonstrated many of its ongoing challenges.
Even in the age of the ebook, word-of-mouth is still what makes a breakout hit, and many of the books to watch in 2013 have been building excitement through 2012. Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty is the outstanding hard-SF novel of the year and deserves to feature in many award ballots in 2013. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce has brought the veteran English novelist and World Fantasy award winner to the attention of a growing audience, as have film adaptations in the pipeline for this and his previous novel, The Silent Land. And G Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen stands out as among the most original and challenging books of 2012, and my personal pick for at least one major award in 2013.
“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”
There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.
Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.
I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.
Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.
SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?
SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.
The Kitschies are among my favourite speculative fiction awards for the simple reason that they give awards to very good books. Last year I nailed A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as the winner. So this year I’m going to take a wild stab at predicting the whole shortlist (!) How will I do?
Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
Railsea by China Mieville
Among Others by Jo Walton (An outlier as one of the judges keeps saying how much they hate it…)
The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon
If I get 3 right I will be quite happy. 5 and I will start to wonder if there is something up!
Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.