09 June 2014

The Church of Science Fiction

Back in January, having imbibed too many book reviews and flame wars, I spouted on Twitter: "Most critical writing could be summed up as, 'My god is an awesome god! Your god sucks.'" That especially seems to be the case with so much writing about science fiction, which is less rigorously analytical than it is theological.

Let's look at two examples.

Adam Roberts's new Guardian essay on science fiction and politics reminded me of a provocative essay in the current issue of Science Fiction Studies, "Fascism and Science Fiction" (JSTOR) by Aaron Santesso.

Here, I'm not going to wrestle with their arguments so much as speculate (perhaps irresponsibly, erroneously, ridiculously) on what itch such arguments scratch, because though I am skeptical of the overall thrust of both pieces, I don't find either to be especially bothersome. As I read each, I realized that I didn't understand the desires and assumptions that motivated them, because they are the desires and assumptions of a religious denomination I don't adhere to. I've explored and dabbled with various sects of the church of science fiction since childhood, and a part of me still very much wants to be a believer, but I just can't make the proper leaps of faith. Call me Doubting Matthew.

To show the theological import of the two essays, we'll have to look first (briefly, inadequately) at how they argue their cases. Let's start with Roberts. A key sentence:
Asking whether SF is "intrinsically" leftwing or rightwing is dumb, since literatures are not "intrinsically" anything. But I'm tempted to thump the tub nonetheless.
"This is dumb, but I will do it." I admire the honesty. This is a leap of faith admitted boldly and in the open.

And so Roberts leaps and thumps:
Conservatism is defined by its respect for the past. The left has always been more interested in the future – specifically, in a better future. Myriad militaristic SF books and films suggest the most interesting thing to do with the alien is style it as an invading monster and empty thousands of rounds of ammunition into it. But the best SF understands that there are more interesting things to do with the alien than that. How we treat the other is the great ethical question of our age, and SF, at its best, is the best way to explore that question.
This is a straightforward version of dogma offered by more abstruse, monkish scholars such as Darko Suvin, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman (the holy trinity of Marxist SF critics). Against these ideas, Santesso addresses the tendency to see SF as inherently progressive, or to define "good SF" as SF that agrees with the (Marxist) reader's ideology:
So the critical argument, as it stands, is that the “generic tendency” of sf is progressive, that its themes are naturally progressive, that its structures are naturally progressive. I suggest, in response, that the claims one can make about the inclinations of a genre if one concentrates on certain strands and tendencies of the tradition are limited only by the strands and tendencies chosen. Over the remainder of this essay, I will argue that certain other strands of sf—since sf as a whole (encompassing everything from cyberpunk to military science fiction, at the very least) is indeed hardly politically unified—can be recognized as anything but “naturally” progressive, instead being more strongly allied with fascist politics. Furthermore, certain foundational tropes and traditions of the genre carry the DNA of fascism, as it were, to the extent that even liberal, progressive authors working within the genre’s more refined strains often (inadvertently) employ fascistic tropes and strategies. These tropes and strategies interrupt and disappoint certain ideological expectations advertised as, or assumed to be, native to the genre.
Both writers explicitly recognize that this search for one, true SF is a fool's errand, but both play the fool — Roberts admittedly, Santesso more circumspectly, but just as strongly. They are defenders of the faith.

Santesso's essay does a good job of delineating fascist tendencies within particular stories and types of stories. His essay seems to me to be a useful beginning, a sketch of analytical possibilities that would benefit from being expanded, and Santesso's careful definition of the term "fascism" certainly allows readers to expand the ideas themselves. (A good companion to Santesso's work is Barton Paul Levenson's "The Ideology of Robert A. Heinlein" in NYRSF 118, April 1998, which similarly applies a relatively precise definition of fascism to specific texts.)

Santesso's final paragraph is dense, but it's worth working through:
Given his influence on progressive sf criticism, we may give the last word to Jameson, and in particular his celebration of the Brechtian notion of plumpes Denken (“crude thinking”), which he defines as the postulate that even the most subtle, academic, or experimental “neo-Marxist” works must contain a core element of “crude” or “vulgar” Marxism in order to qualify as “Marxist” at all. Jameson alludes to plumpes Denken in order to make a point about science fiction: “Something like this may have its equivalent in SF, and I would be tempted to suggest that even within the most devoted reader of ‘soft’ SF—of sociological SF, ‘new wave’ aestheticism, the ‘contemporaries’ from Dick to the present—there has to persist some ultimate ‘hard-core’ commitment to old-fashioned ‘scientific’ SF for the object to preserve its identity and not to dissolve back into Literature, Fantasy, or whatever” (Jameson 245). Might it also be the case that the fascist energies and ideas of pulp sf are precisely the kind of identity-confirming “core” or definitional element that makes it possible to speak of “science fiction,” even when discussing literary, progressive sf? It is understandable that progressive critics would wish to distance themselves from both the aesthetics and the politics that accrued to a generation of stories featuring scenarios of the Golden Races vs. the Scaly Ones variety. But to deny that politics altogether, to claim that it belongs only to the past, is to evade a serious investigation of what makes the genre work, what gives it its identity and indeed its appeal. It is, ultimately, a denial of “science fiction” itself as a genre worthy of discussion, for surely the point of genre criticism is to identify and trace the various constitutional energies, themes, and plots that animate a form and in doing so account for all its variant strains and trends, not just the ones that accord well with a narrow set of critical pieties. To speak of “science fiction” at all is to admit to certain links and ideological ties that go beyond subject and setting, leading readers and critics into unexpected places and opening up unexpected connections. One cannot simply disown unwanted relatives or pretend not to recognize their features when they pop up in later generations. It is, indeed, precisely those ancestral presences—sometimes odd, sometimes eccentric, sometimes distasteful—that give science fiction its remarkable diversity and continuing vitality.
I'm not entirely convinced by many of the premises here*, but I'm fascinated by the continuing appeal of the desire not simply to define science fiction, but to define it toward a particular ideology, even when the writer knows and admits that this is a simplification or just "dumb".

The assertion that "good" science fiction is, in the view of Roberts et al., "progressive", is a statement that serves to set up criteria for true faith and for apostasy. (It's analogous to the use of the term "literature" to mean "that writing which I value and consider worth study".) Such a desire is similar to the one that propels people to claim that science fiction began with Mary Shelley or Newton or Lucian or Gilgamesh or the Big Bang, all of which are also ideological claims to an origin story that suits the storyteller's self-conception (or, if not outright self-conception, then at least the theological denomination they have chosen to associate with).

The stories told of science fiction are stories that reflect well on the storyteller. If the storyteller is an avid reader of science fiction, then the story is one that justifies that reading. Often, it's the fannish story of SF being somehow at the heart of literature, and therefore worthy of respect and study and love (as opposed to the "mundane" literature of a false church). Sometimes, it's a story of SF being the superior denomination. (My god is an awesome god!) One is not just a reader of science fiction, but a proud reader.

Adam Roberts's Guardian piece is perhaps best described as an example of faith-based writing. Lots of people of faith have written brilliantly, have done great things in the world, etc., so I don't mean this as a condemnation, and Roberts is particularly clear-eyed about his faith. He may be proselytizing, but he's perfectly aware that that's what he's doing. He's like a Campus Crusade for Christ guy standing out in front of the library, randomly accosting people with, "Hey, do you have a minute for Jesus? Jesus is cool!"

Aaron Santesso's essay is a useful corrective to the faith-based initiatives of the One True Church of SF missionaries (for instance, it would be interesting to read Santesso's approach to Iain Banks alongside Roberts's), but Santesso ends up giving in to the theological impulse himself by offering a story of original sin. Perhaps we could call it a Calvinist approach to SF dogma. He gives us an Old Testament sort of god, all grumpy and authoritarian and given to genocides, while Roberts sees science fiction more as a hippie Jesus. This unites the two essays, for Santesso has faith that science fiction can achieve its own new testament, and Roberts seems to think it already has.

As I said, I'm not separate from all this myself, even if I don't understand the fundamentalists and evangelicals. In many ways, I admire and even envy them their leaps and faiths. Perhaps their dogma is more honest than my anti-dogma, which is little more than the habitual uttering of, "Yes, but—" I have my own gods, my own idols and rituals and sacred texts. In that way, perhaps personal taste is always religious, always faith-based. Despite all attempts to figure out the empirical (or ideological) engines of taste, the explanations remain inadequate against the mysteries. Perhaps our passions are not only best expressed but best maintained through expressions of ecstasy. Perhaps faith is the best way to organize our desires, to give meaning to our pleasures and displeasures.

I'm a doubter, and so always and forever chained to maybe and perhaps...

Perhaps your god is an awesome god. Or, perhaps life is richer and more coherent if we believe in a god (or pantheon) that is an awesome god, regardless of whether such a belief itself is rationally justifiable. Maybe we need more tub thumping dumbness, more leaps of faith. Maybe...

Or maybe it's your god that sucks.

My own proclivity is to view SF as a set of discourses sustained and propagated by a network of discourse communities, all of which can and should be historicized — a position certainly not opposed to Jameson or Santesso, but oblique to them.