Posts Tagged ‘speculative fiction’

On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

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How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

Ursula Le Guin

January 24, 2018

I knew that one morning I would wake to the news that Ursula Le Guin had died, and that did nothing to lessen the shock of this morning’s news. A woman who had been the greatest living writer of science fiction is no longer with us.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my acquaintance with SF began during my childhood; at university I moved on to adult SF, and it was then that, moving on from the rockets and intergalactic exploration, I first encountered her work. Many people have enthused about her Earthsea trilogy, which is more fantasy than SF; I did enjoy it but have never felt the need to return to it, although it is still on my shelves somewhere. It was what I call her speculative fiction that always attracted me, and in my research degrees, I spent a serious amount of time and space exploring and analysing her work.

The best literature, and the best SF, makes you think. Otherwise, what’s the point? Speculative fiction asks the ‘what if?’ questions that attract the curious, and with her anthropological background, Ursula Le Guin encourages us to think about aspects of our humanity, our gender and our sexuality. Other writers have done the same, but I think she was a pioneer in the field.

Over time, Le Guin created an entire universe – the Ekumen – populated with a number of different worlds, all homes to slightly different variants of human beings, at various different stages in their developments as societies and civilisations, perhaps all descended originally from one race, the Hainish, after whom all the stories and novels in the group are known, the Hainish cycle. Some communication and some actual contact between these worlds has become possible. This huge canvas allows Le Guin to explore a range of different issues that plague our world, such as gender and sexual differences, reproduction, political organisation, wars and violence, authority, the environment…

My two favourites have always been The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. The former explores how society and economy is and might be organised, using a planet whose society largely reflects our current capitalist world with all its oppressions and evils, and its moon, to which those who reject such a way of life have fled. We see the difficulties they encounter on a harsher world, trying to build a more equal society along anarchist lines: their way of life has always seemed challenging but more attractive to me, and to many readers. As a writer of speculative fiction, Le Guin is encouraging us to imagine, to think other ways of being and to accept that they aren’t easy or utopian, but they are possible and available to us with effort. And, unlike some writers in the broader genre, she writes well, creates vivid places and characters with which we can fall in love, with whom we can empathise.

The Left Hand of Darkness works differently: we humans cannot ever become the andogynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen who randomly assume male or female gender on a regular cycle. But we are pushed to re-think many of our attitudes and preconceptions about biological gender and social conditioning through the Earth-born character’s experiences as he visits the planet. It’s a marvellous story, a masterwork of the imagination.

And then there are all the other novels and stories, not just in the Hainish cycle. And all her essays, which I have not yet read, but which are now on my list, along with a re-read of her fiction. I have warmed to her humanity, her humane-ness if you like, I have been made to think deeply, and I have been entertained; I cannot ask any more from a writer. A day to be sad, and deeply grateful.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

November 6, 2014

9780099496953 I can’t off-hand remember how many times I’ve taught this text to sixth-formers. After a few years, I’ve come back to it, in order to write a study guide. As always, there is something new to notice, even when coming back to a text one is very familiar with.

For a novel that’s been around for thirty years or so, and can be described as ‘speculative fiction’, it’s dated remarkably little; many of the ideas that Atwood found already part of society when she was writing are still evident. Certainly it reads more convincingly that, for instance, Nineteen-Eightyfour thirty years after that novel was first published.

Offred’s story – that of a woman in the newly established Republic of Gilead, in the eastern part of the former USA, a fertile female assigned to a deserving male for breeding purposes – still has the power to shock, but, more importantly, to make the reader reflect on so many aspects of the power relationships between men and women in society. However, it was not this aspect of Atwood’s novel that spoke most strongly to me this time around.

The tone of the narrative is marvellously developed and sustained: Offred tells her story is the first person, experiencing, feeling and describing, with even her dialogue and that of others subsumed into the texture of her narrative, partly by the very simple device of not using inverted commas to demarcate any speech. This reinforces the timelessness of her story, in which most of her life is just waiting around, frittering time away, being bored, and being tormented by her memories of her past. She is intensely focused on words, language and meaning; she tunes into plays on words, definitions, shades and changes; even her illicit nighttime encounters with her Commander are filled with games of Scrabble… the time she has on her hands, this superfluity, adds an almost poetic quality to her narrative. It’s highly effective, helping draw the reader more deeply into Offred’s tortured being.

The second thing that struck me even more forcefully this time was the cleverness of Atwood’s narrative structure; the layering of the stories reminded me more than once of Shelley‘s Frankenstein. This deliberate – and oh so subtle – shifting of our perspectives and opinions nudges us in the direction of realising the complexities of the sexual-political issues Atwood is exploring via Offred’s experiences. And Atwood offers us no easy answers; it’s no strident feminist diatribe with all men as the enemy, and the deficiencies of our own society are as much under the microscope as the horrors of the Gileadean future.

In the end, for me the crux is the human desire for intimacy with another, and what becomes of that intimacy. Atwood has written a novel which will stand the test of time as well as or better than other dystopias of recent years, and which will not lose the power to make its readers think deeply about themselves as well as their world.

MP Shiel: The Purple Cloud

August 16, 2014

51hdkCo4xVL._AA160_A very late Gothic tale (1901) over-written in the purple(!) and breathless prose of Frankenstein and other novels of that ilk, it’s another tale of apocalypse: disaster this time is linked to the first (sacrilegious) attempt to reach the North Pole: a purple cloud of cyanide gas swirls around the planet annihilating all living beings, save our narrator (and his later-to-be-discovered female counterpart…). It’s unclear how, exactly he survives, but he then proceeds to do what we would probably all do in similar circumstances: he searches and explores everywhere, randomly, looking for survivors, indulges all his whims, embarks on an orgy of destruction, drifts in and out of insanity…

Eventually he comes across a female survivor who has lived in an airtight underground vault all her life; he is drawn to her, as you would expect, but also repelled, as he cannot face the prospect of being party to starting the whole human calamity off all over again, and spend the latter stages of the novel wresting with his and her feelings until the inevitable resolution.

I’ve probably made it seem rather daft, and not worth the eyeball time; it is a historical curiosity in many ways, and the initial premise is far less credible that Ronald Wright‘s (see my last post); as a novel about an apocalypse it’s not as good as The Last Man or After London, but it’s still worth a read for any afficionados of the genre. Shiel does raise real questions: how would an individual cope with being the sole survivor of the species? What about the moral issues involved in being the last couple: is there a duty to continue the species, or would the planet be happier without homo sapiens? Is there any guarantee against the species making the same mistakes all over again?

Ronald Wright: A Scientific Romance

August 14, 2014

51769EB1CML._AA160_My post on dystopias (24 July) sent me back to apocalyptic fiction, as I thought it would, and firstly to another re-read of Wright’s splendid A Scientific Romance.

Writers’ fascination with HG Wells is easy to understand: his two novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are early masterpieces of speculative fiction. Christopher Priest wove the two plots together marvellously in his tribute The Space Machine, which I also thoroughly recommend. Wright’s take is different: Wells’ machine is scheduled to re-appear at the end of 1999 and does so, and is taken possession of by another traveller who ventures five centuries into the future…

The novel was written in 1998; the threat of BSE and CJD as well as HIV (don’t medics and scientists love acronyms!) inform Wright’s future, as well as the effects of climate change; civilisation apparently collapsed in the mid 2040s; after a melancholy exploration of the remains of the land, he comes across a small group of survivors clustered together, clinging on to the remains of civilisation on the shores of Loch Ness…

One could, uncharitably, argue that there’s nothing original here: he’s lifted the concept from Wells, and imitated 19th century apocalypses like Mary Shelley‘s The Last Man and Richard JefferiesAfter London, or MP Shiel‘s The Purple Cloud (and re-visiting this one is next on my list), and Wright acknowledges these in his notes. And yet, it’s a stunningly good novel – first novel – which won awards when first published.

It’s framed well, by an expired love triangle remembered with fondness by one of the members addressing the others; it’s erudite, abounding in references to texts from the past as he writes about our vanished present which has become a lost past in the year 2501; it’s for our times not the 1820s or 1880s or 1900s: it gains n some of its power from the aspects of our very own lives that we can see becoming our nemesis in the near future. For a genre that often leaves characterisation very thin, Wright does well: his central characters do come to life and haunt us. I think in my league table he comes pretty close to A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Science Fiction

January 23, 2014

It occurred to me that the reason I find myself reading far less science fiction than I used to, is because I have rather less of the future to look forward to, in the sense of growing older; when I was much younger, I had the sense that my future might be radically different… and, yes, daily life has changed enormously over my lifetime. Nothing digital in my childhood. Enough said.

I’ve always been picky in terms of what SF I read. I hate the term ‘sci-fi’, am not interested in space opera or fantasy and hobbits, which narrows down the field somewhat. It’s also the only genre (apart from Sherlock Holmes, of course!) where I’ve actually enjoyed reading short stories.

Speculative fiction is what I’ve always really enjoyed; the ‘what ifs’, the alternative futures, the utopias and dystopias through the ages. Some of these can verge on the didactic, and when I was studying, writing about and reviewing SF in the 1970s and 1980s quite bit of it did. I wrote a dissertation for my MA on speculative fiction, focusing on Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Ursula LeGuin, who, for my money, remain some of the best writers in the genre, although I know I have gone out of touch with what has been written more recently. And then I researched an entire MPhil thesis on Feminist science fiction. That’s reminded me of the stunning resource that is the Science Fiction Foundation, with their amazing library of literature and journals, the only one in the UK as far as I’m aware, currently based at the University of Liverpool. When I was using its resources more than thirty years ago, it was based in Dagenham at the former North East London Polytechnic.

Novels are created as entertainment, certainly, but I have always enjoyed being made to think as well, and the kind of SF I’ve described above has made me reflect on myself, on what it means to be a sentient being of the human type, on the future of the world, humanity and the universe. I suppose such writing may politicise readers, but it’s hardly likely to bring about social change or revolution, as novels are a creation of the bourgeois period and are for individual consumption. If a good novel takes me out of myself, allows me to escape who I am for a few hours, then SF takes me further away, makes me aware of my smallness in the scale of the universe, gives me a different sense of perspective. That’s why, for instance, the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime is a man walking on the moon,  why I’m really excited at the thought of a space probe landing on a comet in a few months time, and why the thought that a space probe has left the solar system and is on its way to the stars at some time in the unimaginable future blows my mind completely.

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