This article by Jonathan Freedland about the failure of the arts to capture the current crisis in the middle classes caught my eye in the Guardian today. It made me think how a lot of the contemporary SF I’ve been reading over the last few years has the same kind of problem. Maybe root causes are different, and you can draw different conclusions but I feel that the issue he identifies of focusing on the extremes is present in SF as well.
At the one end of the scale you have a focus on disempowered voices in movements like world SF or feminist SF and melodramatic dystopia that illuminates the abuse suffered by some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. At the other end, you have angsty super-heroes – like those in Richard Morgan novels or the current crop of critically favoured grimdark fantasy stories – or the the setting equivalent of our contemporary elites – good-hearted politicians, hugely popular artists or performers, super-groovy alpha technocrats or post-human godlings.
These are separate issues, of course. The superheroes and action plots feel a little fake to me if considered in the context of serious fiction. I don’t mind those sorts of stories – I’m a big fan of trad superhero comics – but I don’t feel they have they have the moral force of fiction that places humanity on a realistic level, whether that story includes fantastic elements of not.
Addressing extremes of prejudice and abuse, on the other, a just a question of focus. These stories can have extraordinary moral force and are clearly a Good Thing in every regard. No one with even a shred of decency could argue that the we shouldn’t give neglected voices extra encouragement or that we should expose the problems faced by the poorest, not even a curmudgeon like me.
The problem here is not the presence of these stories, but that it is only one sort of seriousness. Too often in its rush to appear relevant, the critical opinion favours these over quieter voices. Dystopia, in particular, is an extremely powerful technique, but its rhetoric is easily mistaken for genuine moral outrage.
It also offers readers a comforting call to action: something must be done! In response they can sign a petition against fracking, or the Homeland Security Act or wiki-leaks or whatever it is that’s working it’s way through the digerati at present. It leaves the reader uplifted and confident by offering a solution, perhaps not in the text, as such, but by drawing attention and inspiring – political engagement.
Again, this type of propagandist fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing (when it’s in the hands of the angels) but it’s another type of escape. For while these temporal problems fill our days, in the night we’re plagued by the deeper questions of how to live. Busy-ness can keep our minds off the subject, but when we stop the real questions arise: who am I? What should I do? What should mypriorities in life be?
One thing I’ve concluded from reading so much classic SF this year is that the best stories are about the ordinary working joes, rather than the heroic or the heroically oppressed. These characters have ordinary problems that appeal on a more fundamental level than stories that hinge on some crazy element of super-scientific ability or other super-human dimension.
Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope is perhaps the purest example – the characters are sailors lost at sea the sorts of people doing a workaday job that we can recognise. You can see it in believably the bureaucratic world of science in The Fires Within, the jobbing spacers in conflict in Hands Off! and Specialist, the day-to-day agony of the office romance in A Game of Rat and Dragon, and many others.
Much of the best SF and fantasy I’ve read over the last few years also addresses this world of the everyday: The Red Men, The Dervish House and Moxyland. Philip K Dick’s best novels all revolve around unglamorous everyday jobs: even Deckard is a married, middle-aged cop in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? rather than the romantic private eye of Blade Runner. (I’d also like to mention Some Kind of Fairy Tale in this regard, but it was a fantasy.)
Even as these books and writers do the jobs that SF specialises in – world building, futurism, speculation – they don’t lose sight of the deep mission of fiction: how to describe and illuminate the mysterious and often distressing business of being alive.