Archive for rant

Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part Two

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

I know this may not be the most popular opinion, but I don’t really see the necessity of the term “speculative fiction,” at least not as an alternative to science fiction. When I type “SF,” I mean science fiction. It’s not that the speculative fiction moniker is offensive, but it seems to arise from the sort of skeevishness about a term that has negative or limiting connotations that drives Atwood’s quackery. Science, in Atwood’s view, is about “impossible” aliens (I’m not sure where she got the idea that scientific consensus finds alien life impossible or even improbable), while speculation is about feats of practical engineering. This strikes me as totally backwards.

Atwood says that “…”what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”” I wonder if Atwood knows that Le Guin shares her definition with others – lots of others. Her definition is the one that’s based in something reasonable. At best, Atwood’s differentiation is arbitrary. At worst, it’s downright scientifically ignorant. To her credit, Atwood does acknowledge that War of the Worlds might have been considered plausible in its day. But that doesn’t seem to cause her to reevaluate her position; instead, she launches into a summary of “slipstream,” an even more pointless non-classification.

The building of an air-balloon or submarine involves real, applicable science – that’s how those things were eventually made real. But Verne was still speculating at the time, just as Wells was. SETI was a scientific venture; does the fact that we haven’t found aliens yet make them silly and fantastical? Does silliness somehow connote science? Might not Wells’ time machine be, like the submarine was when it was conceived by Verne, something which will one day exist through the practical application of science?

Look, it’s not that hard. If a story features, as a significant aspect of its basis, a plausible situation that is based on or best understood through scientific thought of one kind or another, it’s SF.*If a story has a basis in things which were written without the intent of plausibility, featuring things known, more or less, to be impossible, it’s fantasy. Got it? If the author wants to quibble, she is certainly free to, but she’s wasting her time. Old writers may spend a lot of time talking about how meaningless genre terms are, but that neglects a sociological and anthropological truth- that art and its identity is a cultural process, and an important one. And neglecting sociological and anthropological truths is irresponsibly unscientific.

Science isn’t “truth,” or “being right.” It’s not what is, it’s our process of trying to understand what is, and what could be, using the most objective criteria available to us. Dividing out speculation about alien life, reducing science to engineering alone, quibbling about the involvement of the social sciences simply because they are less often able to utilize the mathematically quantitative (and less often benefit from it), is simple-minded. Science is not math, or engineering, or proven facts alone. Science is the pursuit of truth and understanding in all literal things, a process that involves a good deal of informed speculation and which is never complete. There’s room for aliens, anthropologists, and hot air balloons alike.

 *

* This is a whole other thing, but the only grey area here is “psychology.” In some sense, all fiction involves the understanding of a character with respect to their psychology. That’s not necessarily scientific, though; we’re all sort of folk psychologists simply by virtue of our membership in a social species. Use of actual, technical psychology in writing or understanding a character or culture, however, crosses the line into SF.

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Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part One

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2011 by theclockworm

There’s an essay by Margaret Atwood over at io9 right now. It’s from her new collection of essays about SF which, judging from this grump-fest, promises to be a real hoot. Atwood, who is shaping up to be the sort of anti-LeGuin, tries to take not-anti Le Guin to task for, well, taking her to task for running from the warm hug of SF like it has cooties. She fails. Atwood goes on to argue defensively and unconvincingly her own private definitions of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. It boils down to this: science fiction comes from Wells, and involves ray-guns and aliens (because that’s science, I guess), and speculative fiction from Verne, which is characterized by realistic things that simply haven’t happened yet, like submarines.

It’s actually a fairly interesting idea, and I’m sure there’s a great essay in it: SF as the parallel but overlapping threads originating with Verne and Wells. The problem is that Atwood, with an eye-roll-inducing air of presumption, talks as if this is the criterion for genre distinction by anyone else in the world. She also lumps Star Trek in with Star Wars under “fantasy.” For all her literary pretense, I think perhaps her true bifurcation is aesthetic. Sure, various technologies in Star Trek may seem unlikely. But that doesn’t make it fantasy. SF doesn’t have to be provably possible. It just can’t be demonstrably based on known “impossibilities,” a word I use with some reservation. The federation may be lightly utopian, but it’s a relatively rational extrapolation. There are aliens, but there’s no magic. The force is magic. Magic is fantasy. Ethics-and-exploration-based multi-planetary unions facing the unknown is not magic.

The fact is, we don’t know much about this thing called “possibility.” We don’t even know if it exists in the physical universe. Scientifically, we can’t – we haven’t seen even a shred of evidence than anything exists other than, well, what exists. So until we stumble into an alternate timeline or some such oddity, all fiction remains speculative. We can quibble about what’s more likely, what’s more realistic, but that works on a spectrum like most things. Is alien life “possible?” Certainly, as far as we know. It falls into the realm of accepted scientific possibility, whatever that means. Would they likely resemble Wells’ invaders? I don’t know. Probably not. But what are the odds of Atwood’s dystopias coming to pass? Limited extrapolation is far less likely than a singularity like an alien invasion for which we are wholly unprepared. Not that the world isn’t going straight to hell, but that’s not the question. The question, for Atwood, is “will it look like this when it happens?” And with most settings offered by SF, the answer is “who the fuck knows?”

Another important thing to remember is that it’s about intent. A responsible SF author, on the whole, should try to work within the framework of the possible. But that is a negative pool, a field that is narrowed down gradually from a starting point, at one time in human understanding, of nearly everything, to a slightly more restricted field. As scientific innovation and discovery continue, that field becomes even more narrow (and sometimes, as a nice surprise, a little less) all the time. If science proves the basis of my central conceit very unlikely tomorrow, that doesn’t suddenly render the work fantasy. Writers of fantasy know they’re writing fantasy, They intend to. That’s the point. And they have it easy – fantasy is the inverse of plausibility, and so it grows larger all the time. There is never a time when a work penned as fantasy could become confused for SF. Again, to make the point: Star Trek may not be the most rigorous application of plausibility at every point, but it never deals with what is accepted as impossible.

Whether the first word is “science” or “speculative,” let us not forget that the second word is always “fiction.” The conversation about genre delineations has gotten so bull-headed and grandfatherly! SF needs a core of believability, but that doesn’t mean its readers should be freed from the burden that all readers of fiction are faced with – the suspension of disbelief. The point of SF is not that it is possible; that’s simply the undercarriage. SF has as much right to be narrowly-focused on a particular issue as any other work of fiction. SF is allowed to be pastiche, allegory, caricature, remix; it is uniquely able to function as meta-literature, as the entire field is a sort of open-source dialogue. The obsession with a kind of imaginary and impossible rigor with respect to the “scientific” has simply gone too far.

EDIT: Someone on that io9 thread posted this, which is less wordy and emotionally-driven than my tome of a rant, and also uses the word cooties in the exact same context. Really weird, but I guess the image is just that clear.

True Names

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by theclockworm

Look: Gnosticism is not whatever very particular thing you think it is. No matter what you think it is. It includes, as primary facets, cosmology, cosmogony, and something basic I think I will call “Adversarial Orientation;” that is, a notion about the absoluteness of roles, an orientation about whether our enemies are evil or simply other, whether we are holy or simply closer to truth, whether the world is malign or benign or something less myopic. It could also be called “Philosophical Maturity,” and I don’t see most “Gnostics” demonstrating the kind of nuanced meta-thinking I see so clearly in many of the Nag Hammadi documents, as well as in the writings of Philip K. Dick, whose life-changing exegetical explorations have, especially of late, been pointing some people toward a sort of religious stance that is both a little frightening and a little silly. At least one part of this stance is anchored to the idea of Dick as a Christian.

The problem is ontological and semantic possessiveness. People become attached to a particular aspect of meaning, and then seek to disjoin all shades or aspects which do not satisfy the primacy of their pet meaning. It’s a struggle, in some places more than others, to talk about non-Christian Gnosticism, let alone non-religious Gnosticism. Some people are so absolutely certain about the gestalt implications of “their” beliefs that they become pig-headed and idiotic.

To me, calling PKD “Christian” with a straight face is just silly. It comes through so strongly to me that this was a sort of platform he returned to in order to feel a kind of inner security of belief that his wildly speculative nature usually didn’t allow him. He spouts ‘heresies’ left and right – a heretic amongst heretics – and bounces back to Jesus, but this seems to be edited out in favor of some notion of a Christian whole. I think it’s self-serving to choose one freeze-frame in a wild dance of ideas and say, “This is the dance.” But I also realize that I’m doing the same thing I find so distasteful: I’m trying to minimize something which was obviously very important, for whatever reasons, something central to his ideas, however varied they were. In the end, it’s simply fruitless to get into a debate about the religious affiliation of anyone, especially someone who is dead.  I’m just taken aback when I see such certainty expressed (in this and other things) by the same people who claim to value his commitment to the full range of possibilities.

A smart person would have no problem identifying the non-religious aspects of Gnosticism, admitting they were inherent to Gnosticism, and discussing them without the religious aspects. Shall I abandon all connections, valid though they may be, because “all” I feel compelled to believe about Gnosticism is related to those traits which are arguably most distinct to its nature? Dick explored the cosmological aspects of Gnosticism with and without religious ideas, or Christian ideas, or alien ideas. In some ways, it almost feels like religion was just another SF trope to Dick; the caveat is that, somewhere in his heart of hearts, he took all those ideas seriously: every alien invasion or telepathic villain seemed to ring with the same resonance as the rest of humankind’s epic history. When they landed, Wagner would play, and it would be just as terrifying and mythic as the rapture.

I’ve gone through quite a few stages of personal understanding about this stuff. I used to make big bones about the importance of disambiguating language – that it’s not philosophically responsible to say “Oh, I’m sure we’re talking about the same thing” when it’s obvious you’re not. I still do feel this way to some degree. I feel that, even if you think you know better, the words you use will influence the way you think about the subject. If I start saying “god,” using religious language, when what I’m talking about, though certainly transcendent, is distinct from the common-denominator ideation of deity, I will end up doing it a disservice (“It is not right to think of it as a God or as like God. It is more than just God. Nothing is above it. Nothing rules it. Since everything exists within it, it does not exist within anything.” – Secret John).  This reflects a slightly-modernized adaptation of the most basic tenet of magical thought: that words have real, physical effects. That true names contain power. This isn’t magic; it’s semantic reality. Or maybe the correct statement is: this isn’t semantics, it’s magic.

At the same time, in a world where very few are willing to have a conversation unless the vocabulary is the same (and even then), one runs the risk of doing the subject the greatest disservice: neglecting it completely in favor of bickering about the subtleties of meaning.

I don’t have any interest in being part of any Gnostic community, group, church, or forum I’ve yet encountered. To me, the Christianization of Gnostic concepts seems like a deviation from the more central ideas, and even the religiousness seems to overwhelm the core. There seems very little room for new ideas, despite protestations to the contrary. Not only that, though: I don’t have any particular desire to be part of a Gnostic community in theory.  So I don’t even really know who I’m writing this for, other than myself.  I guess it’s just that simple.  But that doesn’t mean I’ll be keeping my ideas to myself; it doesn’t mean I won’t be applying them in my writing (perhaps the most venerable Gnostic tradition of all); and it doesn’t mean I’m going to let myself be bullied out of using a term that (let’s be honest), everybody knows doesn’t belong to anyone and never has.

What’s the problem with Christian Gnosticism? It’s the worshipfulness. It’s the lack of differentiation between itself and orthodoxy. It’s the fact that, unfortunately, it’s not as unrelated as it should be. It’s the slip from veneration of one man’s teachings to deification of him as some two-dimensional hero figure, again selling short the philosophical maturity of Gnosticism for the overblown simplicity of Christianity proper. It’s the way that slip translated into a cobbled-together syncretism, a grafted-on collection of original ideas and concessions to the spirit of the age (“Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.” – The Gospel of Thomas). It’s the defensiveness, the unwillingness to accept pre-Christian roots because it offends the sensibilities, despite the truth of the matter. It’s the fact that there is simply too huge a semantic incongruity between ‘teacher’ and ‘savior.’

If anything, I’d like to see an attempt made at uniting some Gnostic concepts with Judaism. People who aren’t busy kissing their own asses are probably aware of the roots of Gnostic thought in Judaism via exposure to Hellenistic philosophy. People who don’t accept this, aside from a poor understanding of how historicity is determined in scholarship, it seems to me must not be very familiar with Judaism; it’s really a very obvious fit.

But that’s simply a fanciful aside. My closing point: I don’t care that much if you call it god and I think that’s wrong-headed.  But I do wish there was more discussion focused on the cosmological facets of Gnosticism. Even if you can ignore all the issues with rectifying early Gnostic thought with the salvific Jesus, there’s simply so much more of interest  in the trove of ideas and codices available to us.