I’m still thinking about Nick Hornby and Banks, and what that says. I looked back at my original post for which I’ve been chided for being naïve about the sf market. But the post isn’t really about the market. It’s about an aesthetic issue. Relationship of the artist to the audience stuff. Economics does affect that, of course. One of the things that being incomprehensible to all but a fairly small audience does—you know, writing books for 10,000 people to read—is it gives people a lot of freedom to write what they want.
Science fiction is, like all fiction, a fiction of conventions. Conventions like causality, which works a lot more strongly in narrative art than it does in real life. Conventions like the way that showing a character with a lot of books, or reading, or learning something like music or French will signal a sympathetic character. (It’s a modern day white hat.) One of the tricks of art is to work enough within the conventions that a your audience gets what you’re doing. Stephen Spielberg is really good at this. But work that is too conventional is cliché and although there will always be readers who do like cliché (particularly naïve readers) the majority probably won’t. There was an Italian actress in the nineteenth century, Elenora Duce, who was the hot actress of her day. She is considered one of the three great European actresses of the century (along with Sarah Bernhardt, no relation to Sandra, as far as I know.)
The theater repertoire of the day was heavy on melodrama, and in one play, Elenora Duce, as the young mother, stood with her young son in front of her, back against her long skirts, which her husband explained why he was abandoning them. There are lots of famous gestures from the days of melodrama, like the back of the hand against the forehead. Elenora Duce was considered a very naturalistic actress in her day, a kind of Italian Meryl Streep. A conventional melodrama gesture would be to fold her arms across her chest, hands against her shoulders. Instead, La Duce leaned down and folded the boy’s arms across his chest.
Audience members sobbed. Critics wrote about the scene. What she had done was to take the convention and re-interpret it, not so much that the audience didn’t get the information conveyed, but enough that it felt fresh to the audience. That bit of novelty seems to be a conduit for emotion.
So, I go back to Nick Hornsby. Bank’s Excession is incomprehensible to him. It’s not to me. I like Excession quite a bit. Banks is a little like La Duce in that he has taken a really old hoary set of conventions—the galaxy spanning empire, huge starships, spies, gadgets and exotic cultures—and updated the convention. But over the years, we’ve seen a lot of writers take those conventions (Star Trek used them, for God’s sake, and Star Wars, and Asimov) and do stranger and stranger things with them. Dune’s navigators had to have spice and didn’t really seem like the dashing spacemen of old. But other conventions in Dune were rigorously followed, like the hero as special (in this case, the Messiah) and a traditional political system that takes its conventions from feudal history. Dune was weird enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to follow. I mean we all get the noble Duke versus the decadent Duke.
Delany’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand gets weirder with them. The language is weird. The sexuality is weird. The audience is smaller.
I’m not crying for Banks. I’m saying this is an issue we can consider as writers. Our own expectations of the rigorously new extrapolation of conventions means that the barriers between us and the reader gets higher and higher. But science fiction doesn’t have to only be about rigorous extrapolation, no matter what John Campbell said. The stuff that is escaping the genre is often far less rigorous. And some of it is downright irritating. In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s unabashedly apocalyptic future novel, the world is populated more and more by genetically engineered animals who have escaped, like genetically engineered corn cross-pollinating into other corn fields. One of the animals she describes as having escaped and adapted to the wild is white rabbits that glow in the dark. I read about Alba, and Alba is pretty neat. But as an ecological niche for an herbivore, glowing in the dark just sucks. Not one of these critters would live to breed. But nobody but me is griping about that. People hated Oryx and Crake for other reasons—it’s anti-technology bias for example (technology and the people who make it are evil).
David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest has a science fictional element in the dead center of the plot. A film maker who has committed suicide before the novel opens has created a film that people can’t stop watching. (Neal Stephenson did a similar thing in Snow Crash.) Does he rigorously extrapolate what a future society might be like where brain control could come over your television set? Advertising? Porn in such a future? No, in one sense it’s like those old stories where there Tom Swift would invent something and off we would go. Because ‘rigorous extrapolation’ is a convention of genre. We admire it. It’s never accurate, science fiction doesn’t predict the future. We just like extrapolation that has multiple ramifications because its an accepted virtue in the genre. It’s like La Duce crossing her arms protectively across her bosom. And it’s a nice place to go, ‘Ah, isn’t that cool.’
Which makes me wonder if science fiction is an interesting place to be anymore? There are other things science fiction does, besides rigorous extrapolation. Near future sf often doesn’t extrapolate at all. Or it extrapolates just enough to comment on society, i.e. in Vonnegut-like fashion it isn’t pretending to show the future so much as blatantly pointing out the present. (All sf is about the present anyway.) Some sf is nostalgic. It consciously echoes the sf of the past. My favorite of these is Karen Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” which both responds to “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. and the White Men On Expeditions and Great Apes stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I like nostalgia quite a bit. But a little goes a long way for me. It can get gimmicky really fast.
SF has built a box. And the question more and more for me is what can I do in that box? Boxes aren’t necessarily bad, a sonnet is a box. And a wonderful little mechanism whose very structure insures that something will happen in the poem. I don’t know if the sf box allows me to do what I want. As an artist. These were some of the ideas that I was starting to grope towards when I posted about Nick Hornsby. And I'm still turning it over. I don't think I'm anywhere done thinking about this.