Writer in Residence · 09/28/2011

SF for MFAs

“We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.”

J.G. Ballard wrote these words in 1974, for the introduction of the French edition of what remains one of the most challenging science fictions of the present: Crash, the story of a group of people who become lost in the nexus of sex and technology embodied in the car crash—“an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation.” Ballard’s suggestion that science fiction provides the writer with the most effective toolkit for portraying the truths of modern life may have been provocative and heretical in the mid-twentieth century. Living in a 21st century dominated by imaginary space invented by science fiction writers, it seems easier to contend that modernist explorations of the nuances of human relationships are inadequate to explain the contemporary experience of the self. We need to also confront the technologies that mediate our relationships—with each other, and with ourselves.

This does not mean that we all need to incorporate square-jawed starship pilots and space squid into our work. It just means that we should not be afraid to violate generic boundaries (the literary equivalent of caste) in service of work that is more true. I doubt Cormac McCarthy woke up one day and decided he would risk his reputation on a post-apocalyptic cannibal zombie story. More likely, sitting there in the darkest years of our endless war governed by the cyborg Veep, he realized that a grey tale of the most desolate possible alienation—from each other, from nature, and from ourselves, in an existential nuclear winter—was the best possible way to convey what it really felt like to be alive in those days.

Science fiction often calls itself the “literature of ideas.” The place where context— whether technological, temporal or terrestrial, as we typically think of the genre, or just social or political—is at least as important as character. Ballard talked about using the narrative as laboratory. In a society of accelerating destabilization facilitated by technology, the writer can adopt the stance of scientist of the self, testing out hypotheses against fictional characters rather than live humans.

Undertaking this approach does not require an interest in technological extrapolation. The way my computer works is not the interesting thing to me—what’s interesting is the plethora of narratives it feeds into my head. We live in a world where screens are more important than faces, accompanied by the ubiquitous soundtracks of the mashed-up movie of our lives playing out against the inside of our foreheads. To ignore the role that all of the television and movies and games and social media narratives we have experienced since childhood play in our psychology is the ultimate fantasy fiction, set in the hermetically sealed reality bubble of MFA world.

For the same reasons, the only science fiction that really works now is sf without the future. Because network culture has pretty well obliterated the future, as eloquently presented by Bruce Sterling in his 2010 remarks on “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,” diagnosing the condition he helped create. The gathering of all accumulated human knowledge and narratives into a massive but barely organized public network, together with the migration of daily human experience and thought into the realm of that network (you’re here right now!), renders the elaborate taxonomies we have developed to conceptualize our existences untenable.

Twenty years ago Sterling wrote another short essay, about literary works that ignored the boundaries between mainstream realism and the fantastic. He called such works “slipstream,” which was more of an aspiration than a genre—a yearning for a literary culture in which writers and readers could ignore labels used for shelving in bookstores. That’s the case just across the border in Mexico, as evidenced in the forthcoming anthology of new Mexican short stories of the fantastic I co-edited. It’s also the case for many sf writers who managed to escape the future and stealthily use their tools to spelunk the present, such as Ballard, Jonathan Lethem, and William Gibson, as well as many mainstream writers unfraid of speculative extrapolation, like McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, and William Vollman.

We live in a literary culture where the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are of dubious relevance, as argued eloquently by David Shields in his 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger. Generic boundaries between categories of fiction are even less relevant. A culture where the next album you “buy” is more likely a laptop mashup of 300+ samples of everything in the library probably needs its literature to do something similar to help us confront the gothic high-tech of network culture and the scary chaos of the 21st century. We are already starting to see more geeks in the MFA programs, and more MFAs lurking around the sci-fi con at the suburban Radisson (while still avoiding the Klingons). The results produced by a generation unafraid to cross those rails will be wonderful and important—a literature, perhaps, that bites into the copper wire of mapping out possible paths of living in a thoroughly disrupted world.

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Some possible points of entry:

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence. Lethem’s new collection of nonfictions includes an excellent piece on his life as a science fiction writer before he became a MacArthur genius grant-winning darling of the establishment—without throwing out his sf tools. (This piece also is excerpted in the October 2011 issue of Harper’s.) If you prefer a novel, try Fortress of Solitude or Chronic City.

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. Ballard died in 2010 as an icon of the English literary establishment, after years of confinement to the genre ghetto and controversy that included the pulping of his 1970 “condensed novel” The Atrocity Exhibition on the personal orders of Nelson Doubleday, Jr., who apparently was worried that the then-governor of California would not appreciate the experimental short “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” Ballard is best known now for his closely observed dystopian novels of the present, and his fictionalized autobiography Empire of the Sun recalling his childhood as a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was even more prolific and powerful as a short story writer—indeed, many of his novels are really conceptual pieces that would have been as or more powerful as shorts, but were written as novels, likely for commercial reasons. Ballard’s science fictions of bored rich people sculpting clouds and playing with poetry machines, astronauts fallen to earth, and estranged lovers hanging out amid the ruins of Cape Canaveral have a memetic potency that burrows in deep.

Judith Merril, England Swings SF. This is one of the best anthologies collecting exemplars of science fiction’s “New Wave” of the 1960s and early 1970s, with an American editor (and great writer) documenting a largely English movement. A time capsule of literary experiment that holds up extremely well. It’s also one of the easiest of these out-of-print collections to find in a used bookshop.

William Gibson, Neuromancer. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” This is one of the most famous opening lines in science fiction, the launch code of network culture. The book that created cyberspace was written on a manual typewriter and released into the wild in the same year as the original Apple Macintosh computers. Part of an internal rebellion within science fiction against narratives of technology under institutional control, Neuromancer remains a stylistic wonder chock full of “eyeball kicks” and celebration of the appropriation of power by alienated outsiders.

Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren. This 1975 opus is one of the confounding masterpieces produced by the New Wave, a gay African-American writer’s elusive tale of a young man roaming the ruins of an American city and the metatextual labyrinth of the narrative. Rich, beautifully melancholy, and infinite. Precociously atemporal, Dhalgren is, in the words of a retrospective introduction from William Gibson, “[a] riddle that was never meant to be solved.”

Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire. Bruce Sterling is widely credited, with Gibson, of being one of the co-founders of cyberpunk. He’s the guy whose picture they put on the first issue of Wired, a writer who is equally adept at journalism and other nonfiction depicting the ways in which (to quote Gibson) “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” Sterling has several outstanding short story collections and almost a dozen novels in print. This may be the best of the novels, a mature powerhouse of near-future speculation, in which an elderly technocrat in a gerontocratic late-21st century undergoes next generation anti-aging treatments that send her on an adolescent beatnik wanderjahr across near-future Europe and into new iterations of the idea of adulthood. The last few pages are among the most subtly powerful in postwar science fiction, futurism employed to reveal really important truths about how we must live.

James Tiptree, Jr., Her Smoke Rose up Forever. James Tiptree, Jr. was Alice Sheldon, whose day jobs included tenure as an analyst at the CIA. Tiptree/Sheldon’s work confounded expectations of gender identity as well as what a science fiction story should feel like. This book collects her most highly-regarded short work, and is the only one currently in print. See also Julie Phillips’ amazing biography of Tiptree.

Kelly Link, Pretty Monsters. Kelly Link is one of the best examples of a writer equally grounded in sf and the literary mainstream—an MFA who also went to Clarion (the preeminent training ground for new sf writers). Her short stories show it, beautifully characterized works of magic realism for the cathode ray generation. This is her most recent collection, but any of them would be an equally good starting point.

Paul Di Filippo, Lost Pages. Paul Di Filippo is one of science fiction’s prodigious polymaths, a reader/writer who consumes all things in his path and turns them into something more. Lost Pages is a great example of the fannish mashup practiced as high art—a collection of stories that represent a kind of alternative literary history in which high art and low are brilliantly intertwined. Franz Kafka ends up in New York and becomes a Batman-style masked vigilante. Antoine St. Exupery (accompanied by Beryl Markham and a kid stowaway J.G. Ballard) implements the utopian ideas of H.G. Wells in a post-plague English colony. Anne Frank escapes Europe before the Nazis, and ends up playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Di Filippo spins extreme remixes that work, finding new energy, relevance and humor in our collective memes, somehow without undermining the emotive power of the canonical precedents.

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Chris N. Brown (aka Chris Nakashima-Brown) writes fiction and criticism from his home in Austin. A complete bibliography of his work can be found online at www.nakashima-brown.net. He is the co-editor, with Eduardo Jimenez Mayo, of Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic, forthcoming in December 2011 from Small Beer Press.

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posted by Jess Stoner