12 September 2005

The End of Sontag & Kael: Lost in Space

Strange Horizons has posted my column about Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, and Craig Seligman's book about them, so I can now stop trying to find blog-sized bits of their wisdom (or idiocy) to present to you as the weblog equivalent of the sort of extras you might find on one of those DVDs in the remainders-of-the-remainders bin at the back of the store.

I'm sure there will be plenty of Strange Horizons readers who now think the magazine has pushed the limits of genre-boundaries as far as possible, now that I'm writing columns that have apparently nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy. (Blame me, not the editors. They told me I could write about whatever I felt like.) Perhaps, then, it's appropriate to end with some amusing, insightful, odd, incomplete, generalized, perplexing, and provocative comments they made about science fiction:

Pauline Kael on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (collected in When the Lights Go Down and For Keeps):
There are, of course, limitations to science-fiction movies. People used to love to be frightened by ghost stories -- those evil portents of a world beyond death, with their intimations of haunted, macabre sex. Those stories belonged to an age when people lived in fear of their own impulses, and in dread of punishment. And movies were able to bring out the stories' primitive-sophisticated power -- their suggestiveness. Science fiction, the modern successor to tales of the supernatural, lacks those psychological dimensions, it doesn't have the whole nighttime apparatus of guilt and superstition clinging to it. The attraction of science fiction is that it's an escape into an almost abstract unknown. Those who are frightened of, despairing about, or bored with this world like to turn their hopes to other worlds in space, but they're not much interested in people. Imagination and idealism are expressed in simplified, allegorical terms. Generally speaking, when a speculative fantasy deals with human conflicts in any depth, it ceases to be called science fiction. The persistent fault of sci-fi movies has been the split between the splendor of their special effects and the stilted mediocrity of their characters, situations, and dialogue. There has probably never been a first-rate characterization in an American science-fiction movie -- how could there be, since the stories don't depend on character? (That's why science fiction used to be considered a pulp genre.) It's difficult to think even of one well-written role. Kubrick's 2001 was no exception: its only character who made any impression was Hal, the voice of the computer. In Star Wars audiences fell in love with R2D2 and C3PO; people had the same reaction to Robby, the robot in Forbidden Planet, and to the drones in Silent Running (which was directed by Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special photographic effects in Close Encounters). In sci-fi movies, the robots have personalities, the actors usually don't. 2001 wasn't a pop escapist fantasy, like Star Wars; it was an attempt at a more serious view of the future, which was seen as an extension of now, a super-ordinary world. In Kubrick's conception, there was no richness, no texture -- it was all blandness. He might as well have been saying, "I have seen the future and it put me to sleep." Spielberg's movie is set right now, and it has none of that ponderousness -- but it's the same bland now that sci-fi enthusiasts seem to think we live in. The banality is really in their view of human life.
Here's Susan Sontag, in an interview with Salmagundi in 1975 (collected in A Susan Sontag Reader), after having discussed her essay "The Pornographic Imagination", responding to a question about one of her earliest essays, "The Imagination of Disaster" and what she thinks of "the idea of intelligence in Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End". The interviewer wonders if Sontag can "make a connection between 'the imagination of disaster' and 'the pornographic imagination'" and then connect it all to her ideas about fascism (from "Fascinating Fascism"). Sontag, never one to turn down such a request, replies:
Science fiction -- about which I hope to write a better essay someday -- is full of authoritarian ideas, ideas that have much in common with those developed in other contemporary contexts (like pornography), illustrating typical forms of the authoritarian imagination. Clarke's fable is one of the abler examples of science fiction's characteristic polemic on behalf of an authoritarian ideal of intelligence. The romantic protest against the assassin mind, a leading theme of art and thought since the early nineteenth century, gradually became a self-fulfilling prophecy as, in the twentieth century, technocratic, purely instrumental ideas of the mind took over, which made intelligence seem hopelessly inadequate to a social and psychological disorder experienced as more menacing than ever. Science fiction promotes the idea of a superior or "higher" intelligence that will impose order on human affairs and messy emotions and, thereby, end childhood -- that is, history. Pornography, like the fascist mass spectacle, looks to the abolition of mind (in an ideal choreography of bodies, of dominators and the dominated).

We live in a culture in which intelligence is denied relevance altogether, in a search for radical innocence, or is defended as an instrument of authority and repression. In my view, the only intelligence worth defending is critical, dialectical, skeptical, desimplifying. An intelligence which aims at the definitive resolution (that is, suppression) of conflict, which justifies manipulation -- always, of course, for other people's good, as in the argument brilliantly made by Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, which haunts the main tradition of science fiction -- is not my normative idea of intelligence. Not surprisingly, contempt for intelligence goes with the contempt for history. And history is, yes, tragic. But I'm not able to support any idea of intelligence which aims at bringing history to an end -- substituting for the tragedy that makes civilization at least possible the nightmare or the Good Dream of eternal barbarism.

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