Science fiction: fragmentation, definitions and perspective

Okay, so why did I feel the need to post up details of my own personal history with science fiction stories, beyond the self-gratification factor? Because I think it shines a light on the way I define what science fiction is – the corollary of which is that everyone else’s definition is a product of their own experiences and preferences, too.

Now, that probably sounds like stating the obvious, so let me qualify. The recent debate on how the genre might ‘rescue itself’, and hence re-emerge into its previous eminence as a unit-shifting powerhouse of popular literature, seems to me to be largely split across generational lines. The old school veterans see the soul of sf as residing in the picaresque adventures of the ‘Golden Age’, while the younger blood see it as being in the bold exploration of not only new ideas but new methods and styles of writing.

(That’s a gross over-simplification, but I think its good enough for the point I’m trying to make.)

What clarified this for me was the introduction to the story ‘Code’ in Bruce Sterling’s recent anthology Visionary in Residence. Sterling writes:

“This is a mainstream story; it’s a tad mannered and quirky, but at the heart it is a simple, contemporary boy-meets-girl fiction. In 1975, though, most every plot twist, character trait, and even the setting in this story would have been science fictional. In 1950, this piece would have been blatantly mind-boggling, so far-out that the simplest details would have taken pages of exposition. So look what the passage of time can do to the nature of genre. That should inspire a sense of wonder, shouldn’t it?” [Sterling, ‘Visionary in Residence’, page 85]

Leaving aside what you may think of Sterling’s credentials as a writer of science fiction (as I have the impression he is not universally appreciated), he makes what is, to my mind at least, a very important point. Namely, that the definition of science fiction is dependent on the perspective that a piece of work is viewed from.

What would have been viewed as seriously ‘hard’ sf fifty years ago is indeed almost indistinguishable from mainstream literary fiction; take Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, for example. But these definitions are not merely made in relation to reality, but in relation to the body of literature that has preceded the item in question. We may not have had orbital habitats, space elevators or pitched battles with alien species as of yet, but there have been stories about them for decades.

The tropes of space opera have become thoroughly assimilated into the body of popular culture, as a brief glance at television schedules makes plain. Their omnipresence has given them an air of the commonplace, especially to generations who grew up with films like Star Wars or television shows like Star Trek being not only readily-available household names, but also already acknowledged as no longer being the cutting edge. “Imperialism and exploration in space? Old news, mister.”

Of course, the same applies to fantasy, even if its assimilation has been somewhat more recent – as mentioned before, I personally see sf and fantasy as two sides of the same coin, rather than seeing one as a subdivision of the other (as per Scott at SF Signal), but that’s a whole separate debate.

But it also goes far beyond genre literature – there is in progress a general fragmentation of culture as a whole, made possible by the increased speed of idea interchange (e.g. this debate would have taken years to play out in the letters pages of small press mags), the persistence of content (digital is forever, baby) and the power of search technology to create and sustain viable small niche markets (the ‘Long Tail’ economic model and other magical functions of the intarwebs). These phenomena are accelerating the postmodern collapse of cultural consensus, discrediting ideas and narratives seen as outdated, irrelevant, politically incorrect, or simply “not your scene, man.”

But as consensus reality itself becomes weirder, the borders between fiction that deals with the ‘true’ reality and that which explores more ‘speculative’ realities becomes more permeable and ill-defined by the month. These interstitial regions are increasingly populated by those writers who wish to genuflect to no single flag or lord. And it is here, as Paul Kincaid has suggested, that the really exciting and truly ‘novel’ sf writing is being done (e.g. Edelman’s Infoquake, Ryman’s Air), as well as the writing that seems to be capturing the eyes of ‘non-genre’ readers by throwing genre tropes into mainstream ‘literature’ (Time-traveller’s Wife, etc). Science fiction isn’t just a bunch of tropes, a set of ideas, a toolkit of novums. It’s a way of looking at the world – it’s not the image, but the lens.

Why does the personal history someone has with genre writing matter? Because the way we think about the world is greatly influenced by the way it was when we first started really looking at it in an analytical way. Science fiction feeds us ideas that we can hold up and compare to our reality – if the idea fits badly with our worldview, we tend to lay it aside. Hence the older writers and fen have different tastes in sf to the younger ones – the same applies to music, television and so on.

That’s not to say either party is more ‘right’ than the other – it’s a subjective quality, there are no absolute answers. Using myself as an example, reading a swashbuckling heroic space opera classic causes serious cognitive dissonance unless there’s a hefty dose of irony involved – for better or for worse, I’ve been culturally indoctrinated to question such narratives and their motives. (This, incidentally, is why I’ve never really got on with Heinlein’s work – I can’t deny his incredible skill at writing, but the characterisation and personal politics in his stories make me grind my teeth.)

So, we have a fragmentation of a once-unified genre scene – a fragmentation that has been happening for a long time (since the New Wave, perhaps, maybe before), and that will continue to accelerate as life-spans lengthen and people remain active members of the scene for greater periods of time. I don’t personally see this fragmentation as a bad thing – it seems to me to be very similar to what has happened to rock music, as I have mentioned before, and rock music as a scene certainly hasn’t died off. It may not have the unity of character that it once had, but there’s plenty of action, with enough different flavours to suit everyone. And one thing is for certain: when someone who doesn’t like rock music hears a song from one of these little fragmentary scenes, they know exactly what to call it, and ‘post-electronic emo-core’ isn’t it. From the outside looking in, science fiction is science fiction is science fiction.

I truly believe that the diversity and fragmentation of sf as a genre will actually keep it alive rather than destroy it. OK, so the international corpus of fandom may suffer from occasional schisms and aesthetic clashes, but what art-form hasn’t done that over the years? Some have argued that the fragmentation will make the genre economically unviable, but that is precisely why I have said that science fiction should (and most likely will) lead the field of literature in adopting print-on-demand publication and e-book technologies.

Each and every story and novel is unique, and our definitions of them (as science fiction or otherwise) are essentially arbitrary, and definitely subjective (if that’s not an oxymoron). Science fiction is in the eye of the beholder, defined by each of us according to our prior exposures, biased by our personal preferences. Discussion is a wonderful thing, and I happen to think that it is a sign of great health in a scene. But markets are Darwinian, and there’s never been more choice available, nor more easy ways of getting hold of an obscure title; the best way to ‘defend’ your personal vision of what science fiction is, is to keep on buying and reading (and writing or publishing) it.

One thought on “Science fiction: fragmentation, definitions and perspective”

  1. Excellent piece. One midling little comment. Digital may be forever but how often do you see someone reference a Usenet thread or web page from the early 90s. The material might still be out there somewhere but it’s pretty much out of sight, out of mind for all practical purposes.

    Personaly I’m not too bothered about the root trigger to this thread. A one percent shift in SF’s market share of the book market may be signifigant on some level but you can easily read too much into that.

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