What’s wrong with science fiction?

Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”

– Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

Rockstar outta space penthouse hideaway
Fountain blue getaway King of Diamonds where I lay
Yeah, fresh wheneva we wanna play free band A.1. LBG man we global
Yay, yay yeah we selling plenty coke have a drink have
A toast nigga we don’t brag or boast so Rolls Royce
Lamborghini doors suicide open up your brains now your casket closed
Im in NASA outta here 3 carats in my ear
I can make you disappear drape like a chandelier
Astronaut when I shine racks on racks
Now Im understanding crystal clear

Future, ‘Space Cadets’ (2012)

How often do you notice the presence of irony in your life?

For as far back as I can remember, things usually happen in series of ironic ‘echoes’ for me. What this means is I’d be aware of something that hasn’t happened for quite a while, or someone who I haven’t seen for quite some time, only to – lo and behold – find myself experiencing or encountering these somethings and someones shortly thereafter.

Call it the sixth sense, or a ‘woman’s intuition’, but despite the regularity with which this pattern occurs, I’m always slightly taken aback or bemused (or freaked out – context depending) whenever it does.

Perhaps this is another testament to the numinous presence of an Invisible Hand; I sometimes suspect that life is a living creature on its own, a ferret-equivalent, maybe, or a planktonesque organism – playful and predatory in turn, but always lurking and working in shadows that elude the average human eye, or some kind of ferret-plankton hybrid.

Take that, gryphon and sphinx, I’m taking cross-fertilisation to a whole new level.

collage_ferret-v-plankton

Speaking of kooky things and ironic incidents, I’ve recently started reading a genre of books that I had previously steered clear away from. By now, regular readers of this blog (big love to all you amazing people) would know that I’m a diehard fan of realist fiction, which explains my many panegyrical shout-outs to canonical realist writers like Eliot, Hardy, Updike and Jonathan Safran Foer.

collage_realist-authors

The parthenon of Jen’s literary baes

On the flip side, I have always been stubbornly averse to sci-fi giants a la H. G. Wells, Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick, not to mention that I have still yet to read a single Dave Eggers book, despite my strange OCD habit of picking up a copy of The Circle every time I visit the Eslite bookstore (the implication being that I’d always end up putting it back down in favour of names that I’ve read and trust, even if it’s someone like Don DeLillo, who’s not exactly known for his love of realist representation).

collage_sci-fi-books

Have you read any of the above? How did you find them?

I mean, I didn’t even watch Hunger Games until two years after its release, and I didn’t really enjoy it either. (And for the last time, kids, I am not into Game of Thrones – and no, that does not make me old, you cheeky gremlins – where’s your homework?!!)

In the past two months, though, I moved away from my realist fiction baes and made a conscious foray into the realm of science fiction, which I suppose counts as ‘getting out of the comfort zone’ – apparently the new mantra to live by for all you routine-stultified white-collar cubicle babies out there.

Coincidentally, I also happen to be writing and teaching a curriculum on dystopian fiction this term (the texts are Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World), which I think adds nicely to the ‘completeness’ of my temporary shift in literary interest.

Anyway, here’s a handful of sci-fi / dystopian titles I’ve read as of late, in no order of preference:

collage_atwood-delillo-vonn

My copies of each title

(Actually, now that I look at this list, the books do show up in my order of preference. Strange how the subconscious works sometimes.)

So what’s my verdict on the genre so far?

Meh.

Not a big fat one, but just kind of meh.

I mean, am I never going to read another sci-fi novel again? No, but I’m also not in a hurry to place my next Amazon order on the latest Iain Banks or Isaac Asimov.

Despite the fact that Atwood, DeLillo and Vonnegut are some of my favourite authors, I’ve been largely unimpressed by the titles above, mostly because they try to incorporate sci-fi topics like time-travel, aliens, alternate worlds, apocalyptic pronouncements of the human race etc. but don’t go the whole hog, so what ends up is that both the sci-fi and realist dimensions of their novels come across a bit half-arsed.

Or maybe the content-heavy nature of sci-fi and the stylistic depth required of literary writing just don’t gel well? #foodforthought

Don’t get me wrong, aliens/alternate worlds/apocalypse are fascinating topics in their own right, but just not really my cuppa. So I’m not writing off sci-fi/dystopia wholesale as ‘uninteresting genres’; it’s just that I’ve now come to realise even more where my literary preferences lie.

bunker-supersonic

Call me old school or boring, but I’d much rather read a detailed, lyrical description of a squirrel nibbling on an acorn in the Yorkshirian woods, than about supersonic bunkers where Keanu Reeves-clones attend lectures on why the Earthly way of life is, like, so yesterday and that the colonisation of Jupiter is the way forward.

squirrel-in-woods

This

Over

keanu-reeves_matrix_eonline

This.

The one thing I do like about all the sci-fi books I’ve read so far, though, is that they almost always make me chuckle at some point, at times because of the sheer ludicrousness of the unreality described, other times owing to the deadpan satire and humour in language, an example of which is Vonnegut’s description of Billy Pilgrim’s office room décor in Slaughterhouse 5:

vonnegut_pendant_slaughterhouse_finalBilly had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this:

GOD GRANT ME
THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT
THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE,
COURAGE
TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN,
AND WISDOM ALWAYS
TO TELL THE
DIFFERENCE.

Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.

(p. 50, Vintage edition)

I didn’t really like the book, but you’ve just gotta hand it to Vonnegut for being so comfortable with his in-yo-face irreverence towards religiosity, and of course, for mastering his trademark comical dryness to a T.

But the main beef I have with sci-fi/dystopian fiction – and this is kind of a deal breaker for me when it comes to rating a novel – is that they seldom move me.

If we were to think of reading as a kind of workout for the soul, then I feel that sci-fi doesn’t do much to flex or activate my empathy tendons. And it’s not as if the scenarios or themes portrayed in these works aren’t universally relevant; both Atwood’s Heart Goes Last and DeLillo’s Cosmopolis are stories about deeply human concerns like betrayal, marriage, insecurity, trust etc., but for some reason, erecting and effecting all that ‘gimmicky’, futuristic scaffolding distracts me from the main business of connecting with the characters and their plight.

futuristic_scaffolding

Take Atwood’s Heart Goes Last for example. At one point, the married protagonist Stan is forced to have sex with Jocelyn, the Director Head of Positron, a dystopian prison camp-cum-ersatz Fordlandia that he works at.

The thoughts that pass through his mind while this happens are, for all its kookiness in content, incredibly poignant:

When would this be over? Why couldn’t he just skip all the role-paying crap, cut to the chase, get to the part where her eyes rolled back in her head and she screamed like ripped metal? But [Jocelyn] didn’t want the short-form. She wanted dialogue and ritual, she wanted courtship. She wanted what Charmaine [his wife] had, right there on screen, and not a syllable less. It was pitiful, once Stan stopped to think about it: as if she’d been left out, the one kid not invited to the birthday party, so she was going to have her own birthday party, all by herself.

This is such a painfully human moment of loss and desire, and yet, Atwood immediately goes on to undercut the poignancy of it all by bringing in the concept of ‘Prostibots’, which is a portmanteau for, eh, prostitute robots:

Why doesn’t she just order herself a robot? he thought. Among the guys down at the scooter depot, talk has it that full production has begun on the new and improved sexbots that are in the trial stage somewhere in the depths of Positron. Maybe it’s an urban legend or wishful thinking, but the guys swear to it: they have the inside track. It’s said to be a line of Dutch-designed prositbots, some for the domestic market, but the majority for export. The bots are supposed to be really lifelike, with body heat and touch-sensitive plastic fibre skin that actually quivers, and several different voice modes , and flushable interiors for sanity purposes, because who wants to catch a dick-rotting disease?

These bots will cut down on sex trafficking say the boosters: no more young girls smuggled over borders, beaten into submission, chained to the bed, reduced to a pulp, then thrown into sewage lagoons. No more of that: plus they’ll practically shit money.

(p. 134-135, Anchor Books edition)

robot

* * *

coercion

If this is what goes on in an emasculated male mind held at erotic ‘gunpoint’, then hats off to Atwood for channeling the bitterness in tone so well; it sounds convincing enough for me to pass as legit ‘lad chat’. I also get that this is supposed to be a moment of dry social satire, which is why it made me laugh when I first read it.

Problem is, once I’m reminded of “dick-rotting diseases” and bizarre prostibots shitting cash by the bulk, I find it hard to switch back to my empathy mode, which is what would (a) allow me to connect to Stan by way of understanding his moral predicament (Should he cave in to the director’s ‘request’ for sex to save his skin? Or should he stick to his guns because he is a married man?), and (b) empathise with Jocelyn’s deeply “pitiful” frustration of wanting, but never being given the opportunity to experience real intimacy as a woman.

Bottom line: if an author overdoes it with the outta-this-worldness of her work, then I may forget that her characters are fictional stand-ins for real people, and that the problems they face in the book could help shed light on the problems many of us deal with in real life.

So, metallic zap guns and eugenicist technologies and imaginary planets, you say? Cool stuff. But thanks but no thanks. Because when there’s still so much wonder and pain out there in the real world that we’ve yet to unearth, portray and share with the rest of humanity, I can’t help but think that sci-fi authors are either incredibly apathetic about the present or somewhat pessimistic about our future.

If they were to just look closer at their immediate surroundings for inspiration, perhaps they’d be less bored by writing about what’s real, the here and now of human living that readers from all walks of life can truly feel for and relate to.

collage_flower-v-scifi

What inspires you?

Which is why, guilty as charged, I’m back to reading Updike (I know, I know, but what can I say – I’m a creature of habit).

This time, I’ve got the best of both worlds, because the book in question is a realist satire, titled S: A Novel. For what it’s about and why it’s not just your usual realist novel, stay tuned for the blog posts to come… 🙂

s-updike

My own private Updike fan club corner.

[Photo credits: Irish Times, Interesting Literature, Quality Book Covers, Unsplash, Eonline, Unsplash, nuneatolives]
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2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with science fiction?

  1. Hi Jen, as I read through this post I found myself nodding in agreement almost constantly. I read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, probably because it fed my imagination, but then imagination is not an emotion. When you said that sci-fi/dystopian fiction novels “seldom move me”, I wanted to stand up and cheer. I can’t connect with the nature of humanoids, shape-shifters, aliens and mutants; it’s human nature that I’m still trying to unravel.

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Rich

    Like

    • Hi Rich, glad we’re on the same page! There’s only so much personified objects can do to truly touch us. But it’s ironic (again!) that I find it easier to empathise with fictional people than some of the real people around me! Thanks for reading, Jen x

      Like

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