30 September 2003

"Literature of Ideas" and the SF Left

Dave Truesdale stirred up a bit of trouble with his TangentOnline editorial titled "Idiocy from the SFnal Left", which caused a remarkable discussion on the Tangent newsgroup -- a discussion where some excellent ideas and conversation is crowded amidst hostility, short tempers, bruised egos, petulance, bile, apologies, misunderstanding, mis-statements, and brilliance.

The strangest result of the discussion was Truesdale's announcing that, because of it, he was ending Tangent. That would be a great disaster for the SF field, as no-one else, that I know of, works so hard to notice and review SF short fiction. I expect the discussion was the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back, since Truesdale has been under many pressures recently, and Tangent has not been easy to keep going. No matter what the cause, though, Tangent's demise would be a horribly sad one.

What I want to discuss here, though, is the editorial itself, and some of the discussion around it. Truesdale is responding to an essay by Candace Jane Dorsey in The New York Review of Science Fiction (article not online) which challenges the concept of SF being "the literature of ideas".

I'm more interested in looking at Truesdale's response to Dorsey than in her original article, mostly because I haven't yet been able to get a copy of that article, but also because I think he makes some excellent points as well as some odd, even absurd, ones, and the discussion on the newsgroup was so provocative as to move my thinking in various directions, some of them contradictory.

First, and to answer a question Truesdale repeatedly raised to the newsgroup: Do you or do you not think SF is "the literature of ideas". So that my biases will be clear, let me state quite forcefully that I do not. "A literature which is often about ideas", yes. I might even go along with the label "a literature of imagination", but even that is problematic -- after all, what literature doesn't involve some imagination? (Maybe "a literature of heightened imagination".) Mostly, I just don't care about labels and find them confining rather than liberating. Writers should write what they feel most compelled to write, and labels have more to do with marketing than writing.

However, lots of interesting ideas have come from the discussion of SF as a literature of ideas.

Let's start with this statement of Truesdale's: "A story with character, language, and literary values without its sfnal 'idea' is a mainstream story and not an sf story." Dorsey had, according to him, posited SF as a literature of "passion" -- a far more ridiculous concept than SF as a literature of "ideas", for reasons which Truesdale makes clear.

Ignoring the question of whether there's any value in distinguishing between "mainstream" and "SF" (I do think there is some, but it's not an activity I tend to find engrossing or even very often useful), let's go along with the assumption that SF and mainstream fiction are two separate realms. The challenge then becomes: What's an SF idea, and what distinguishes it from a mainstream idea? In amidst another argument, Truesdale offers one definition: "the idea of change, in all of its aspects (political, social, scientific)". He hints at his definition in another spot by quoting Humphrey Bogart's character from Casablanca: "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that." Thus, it seems that Truesdale's definition of what separates SF from mainstream literature is the idea of change on a large, rather than individual, scale.

As definitions go, that doesn't seem bad to me. It creates a filter through which you can say, "This is X and that is Y." Whether the definition holds up completely would take me a long essay to figure out, but here I will simply say that though there are exceptions and grey areas, overall it seems a relatively accurate way to describe much of what is comfortably seen as science fiction (not speculative fiction, fantasy, or fabulism) since Hugo Gernsback created the term "scientifiction" back in, I think, 1926 with the launch of Amazing Stories magazine.

Fine by me. If that's your cup of tea, you're welcome to drink it. I think a magazine or anthology which used that definition as a way of selecting stories would probably publish some wonderful work. I'd even be willing to subscribe.

But Truesdale's argument gets nutty and querelous as he tries to assign blame for SF drifting away from his definition of science fiction. He blames two primary influences for diluting and marginalizing the kind of SF he likes: "leftist" politics, and writers who don't feel bound by genre boundaries ("slipstream" writers -- for a good overview, see Jim Kelly's article on slipstream in Asimov's).

Truesdale writes, "With very few exceptions, no short story writers are challenging authority anymore, or doing anything with gender roles that wasn't done to death in the 70s (and perhaps 80s). Or if they have they have been lukewarm attempts in order to be socially acceptable in our little community. In short, SF is being PC'd to death." (He brings up the idea of gender roles in response to some of what Dorsey wrote.) This is the fault, he writes, of The Left.

We're back to our problem of definitions. There is no accepted definition of "The Left" -- it is used by conservatives to mean one thing, liberals another, self-described leftists as something else. There are, though, overlaps, and the best method of defining that I know is George Lakoff's "strict father model" for conservative thinking and "nurturant parent model" for liberal/leftist thinking.

Lakoff's ideas help explain some of what Truesdale is complaining about. Of the liberal/nurturant parent, Lakoff writes: "The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one's desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from one's community and from caring for and about others."

There we have the feelings and sensitivities which Truesdale so disdains, or at least disdains if they overcome his definition of "the SF idea". Hence, his complaint makes sense -- but only if we accept the underlying assumption that liberal writers will inevitably write stories which embody Lakoff's nurturant parent model.

It seems to me that some liberal writers, particularly ones devoted to certain causes (think Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin) will sometimes write such stories, while others will not. A fundamental, and valuable, element of Lakoff's models is that they are fluid, and people who are liberal in one area are fully capable of being conservative in others (for instance, a person who is liberal in their social relations may not necessarily be liberal in how they raise their children). A writer who is of a liberal political tendency, then, is not necessarily going to be liberal in how they write and what they write about, and vice versa. A great writer of ideas, such as Philip K. Dick, may be mostly liberal. Another, such as Robert A. Heinlein, may be conservative. Or may choose to include their middle initial in their byline. It's not a cause-and-effect relationship, and trying to judge a writer's politics by their way of creating a story could be accurate or could not. In the case of a genius (Dostoyevsky for one, Shakespeare for another), the political and social world they create in their work may be so complex as to defy any analysis based on their (assumed or known) political orientation.

I can see where Truesdale is coming from, and I think in many cases his analysis is on target, though for me there are too many exceptions for the idea of liberal writers as writers of "liberal" fiction to be a rule.

A bigger problem I have with his argument is his slandering of slipstream (or whatever you want to call them) writers. These are the writers who got me reading SF again after I mostly stopped for about eight years. I couldn't stand reading any more stories or novels with clunky, predictable structures, pedestrian prose, cardboard characters -- stories where the only attempts at innovation or imagination were in the "ideas". When a Harlan Ellison story from the '60s (despite Ellison's many flaws) seemed more interesting on many levels than anything published in the SF magazines or anthologies, I stopped reading. (Truesdale would probably agree with me -- we just got tired of most SF for different reasons, mine being aesthetic and imaginative, his being mostly imaginative, and imaginative in a specific area ["SF ideas"].)

I barely know how to address Truesdale's statements about slipstream. He writes:
The new crop of kids writing today are led to believe that it is all the rage to write cross-genre short fiction, to "blur the boundaries." They think it's cool, and an end all and be all to do this. What they don't realize is that when the boundary between (let's say) mainstream short fiction and SF short fiction is blurred, SF is by definition diluted, and weakened. The less "idea" is incorporated into short SF at the expense of character and "relationship" in the fiction, the less it is SF. SF is not enhanced or made more powerful or compelling if it may as well be a tired mainstream story--regardless of how brilliantly the writer can turn a phrase. Or couch the character or relationship story in a thinly veiled sfnal setting, or by tacking on a sfnal element, just for the story to overtly "qualify" as SF.
The only way I know how to reply is by looking once again at definitions. What I find most exciting about the SF field as a field is its openness to imagination, and the definition of SF I love best is Samuel Delaney's -- it's not even a definition so much as a distinction -- wherein he says that any imaginable sentence could appear in an SF story, but not a mainstream ("mundane" is his term) story.

This does not fit Truesdale's definition of SF because it applies to speculative fiction in general, not science fiction. If you stick by a strict definition of science fiction, there are plenty of sentences which could not appear because they would be more fantastic or surrealistic than science fictional.

I don't accept that slipstream writers are trying to write SF -- they're trying to write what their imaginations impell them to write. They are not interested in the limitations of either science fiction or mainstream fiction, as the two are defined by purists. They are interested in being able to write any sentence they want.

This is the impulse which led to fiction in the first place, an impulse which pushed early novelists in English such as DeFoe and Swift and Sterne, an impulse which allowed such subgenres of fiction as gothic and romance to develop, and then, from them, the subsubgenre of SF (and the subsubsubgenre of scientifiction). It's the impulse I relish most.

Perhaps the only response I can offer to Truesdale is that diversity doesn't necessarily mean dilution. We still have writers following in the footsteps of DeFoe, Swift, and Sterne. We still have gothic and romance (in the traditional, not Harlequin, sense) fiction. We still have fantasy, we still have traditional science fiction. If science fiction is dull these days, it's not because some writers are interested in writing other things. Blaming slipstream writers for SF's lack of excitement is like blaming the Sundance Festival for Hollywood's boring blockbusters. Hollywood's blockbusters are boring mostly for reasons of economics and conservative, petrified studio and distribution systems. Broadway plays are boring for similar reasons. Popular music, too. Independent filmmakers have in common with Hollywood that they use some of the same technical equipment and occasionally attract the same actors, just as slipstream writers sometimes use the techniques of traditional science fiction and occasionally use the same sorts of characters. But the endeavors are different, the results incomparable. Sometimes Hollywood produces good films, many times independent filmmakers produce junk. But the goals are generally different, and blaming one group for the failures of the other is nothing more than scapegoating.

In the end, I'm quite glad Truesdale wrote his editorial. It's not nearly as incoherent as some of the discussion on the newsgroup would lead you to believe. (Though, with Jeffrey Ford, I too wish Truesdale had been willing to name some names and put some specifics to his arguments -- though that would have really gotten people's feathers ruffled!) The discussion it has provoked is a valuable one, not so much for the primary arguments as for the tangents it led people off on (as should be welcomed by a magazine so titled). The personal attacks from all sides were unfortunate, but the passion -- so there, Candace Dorsey! I'm a leftist, too! -- it provoked was magnificent. I hope the various writers and readers involved are now able to channel that passion into their writing and reading. For that, ever SF reader would be grateful.