20 February 2005

Sontag on Science Fiction

Just before her death, Susan Sontag wrote an introduction to a new translation of Halldor Laxness's novel Under the Glacier. The NY Times just published the introduction, and it's fascinating, partly because it's about a writer I'd never heard of (despite his 1955 Nobel Prize), partly because Sontag makes some weird generalizations about science fiction.

I'm a fan of weird generalizations, not because they're correct (what generalization ever is?), but because they're more interesting than banal generalizations, so if you're inclined to generalize, it's nice if you can at least be weird about it. Also, I think Sontag has in mind SF from the 19th century and earlier, since the most of the books and writers she mentions specifically are pre-20th century. Some examples:
  • Science fiction proposes two essential challenges to conventional ideas of time and place. One is that time may be abridged, or become ''unreal.'' The other is that there are special places in the universe where familiar laws that govern identity and morality are violated. In more strenuous forms of science fiction, these are places where good and evil contend. In benign versions of this geographical exceptionalism, these are places where wisdom accumulates.

  • As a species of storytelling, science fiction is a modern variant of the literature of allegorical quest. It often takes the form of a perilous or mysterious journey, recounted by a venturesome but ignorant traveler who braves the obstacles to confront another reality that is charged with revelations. He -- for it is always a he -- stands for humanity as apprenticeship, since women are not thought to be representative of human beings in general but only of women. A woman can represent Women. Only a man can stand for Man or Mankind -- everybody. Of course, a female protagonist can represent The Child -- as in ''Alice in Wonderland'' -- but not The Adult.

  • [B]oth science fiction and philosophical novels need principal characters who are skeptical, recalcitrant, astonished, ready to marvel. The science fiction novel usually begins with the proposal of a journey. The philosophical novel may dispense with the journey -- thinking is a sedentary occupation -- but not with the classical male pair: the master who asks and the servant who is certain, the one who is puzzled and the one who thinks he has the answers.
Sontag makes Under the Glacier sound utterly remarkable and breathtaking, and I look forward to (eventually) reading it. The best part of her essay, though -- the part that truly deserves to be shouted out over the rooftops -- is the beginning, which does not offer an original idea, but rather an idea that deserves endless repetition, and which Sontag finds good words for:
The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose options and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultraliterary or bizarre. I am thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic; novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection; novels with characters who have supernatural options, like shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary geography. It seems odd to describe ''Gulliver's Travels'' or ''Candide'' or ''Tristram Shandy'' or ''Jacques the Fatalist and His Master'' or ''Alice in Wonderland'' or Gershenzon and Ivanov's ''Correspondence From Two Corners'' or Kafka's ''The Castle'' or Hesse's ''Steppenwolf'' or Woolf's ''The Waves'' or Olaf Stapledon's ''Odd John'' or Gombrowicz's ''Ferdydurke'' or Calvino's ''Invisible Cities'' or, for that matter, porno narratives, simply as novels. To make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel's main tradition, special labels are invoked.

Science fiction.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Philosophical novel.
Dream novel.
Visionary novel.
Literature of fantasy.
Wisdom lit.
Spoof.
Sexual turn-on.

Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries' perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these categories.
I love how Sontag says it feels odd to describe all those marvelous books "simply as novels", as if the Victorian template of writing about "ordinary, so-called real life" is just too narrow to accomodate a wild imagination, despite the great lengths gone to by Dickens and Trollope and Balzac and Zola (all of whom, of course, have their good pages. And even someone as staunchly mired in social mores as Trollope can serve as inspiration for a novel about dragons.) Convention dictates the categories, and many of the lasting literary achievements of the past are not what we normally think of as novels, but are, in fact, something much more than that.

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