Saturday, 1 February 2014

Shall I Tell You The Problem With Dystopian Novels?

On Such a Full Sea

Noted science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin begins her article by first nailing her colours firmly to the mast. An authority on the genre of science fiction and fantasy, if not the sub-genre of dystopian novels, she is quick to suggest that literary authors* have no place on the ship.

Authors, of literary background such as Chang-rae Lee, who have neither sensitivity or importantly, sufficient respect, for the seriousness of genre, are not up to the task. Le Guin is concerned, about where the coffee comes from, and the petrol. How the details of a fully imaginary world fall into place in all their minutiae is top on her list - or second, after noting his credentials as a literary author.

Lee's story, in her estimation, comes up wanting in this respect - despite, what seems to be praise for his "suave and canny" prose, flowing story, and vivid description. Never mind those "pleasant contemplative moments" what matters here is a seeming betrayal of "literal, rational questions" in a work of fantasy - sorry, "social science fiction." This is, no light matter, because social science fiction, Le Guin reminds us, is granted no such license for frivolity.

A less charitable interpretation of this short review would be of an well established, iconic even, author of genre shouting from what she views as if not her front porch, then a neighboring property, for invaders from the Lit-o-Sphere to get off her patch. All hands to the social science fiction laser turrets!

She begins this broadside by pointing out that the dystopian novel is done and dusted. Wiser and importantly, more genre genuflecting authors who have come before, have Already Done It Better. This may or may not be true, because dystopia is a funny thing. You can hardly separate it from its mirror (literary) image, the utopia which has even more august antecedents. Whether it is Cloud cuckoo land of Aristophanes or the Eldorado of Voltaire or for that matter, the eponymous Utopia of Thomas More, the boundaries between utopia and dystopia are never a certain thing. Defusing the implausibility but also the horror of such fully fictional kingdoms were they to be made actual places, it is not a long road to travel to reach the more classically delineated spaces of Huxley, Orwell, and indeed, McCarthy.

But of these, McCarthy, who had remained in the literary camp despite his waverings, is judged the less serious, more superficial author. A rather weak claim coming from Le Guin who despite her excellent work in fiction, has never written a novel half as brilliant or as uncompromising as Blood Meridian. The latter a book which despite being a "historical" novel, is not a whit less fantastical or dystopian as the best that the SFF genre has to offer.

"But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction."

Ah, but then writers like McCarthy, are just day trippers then. Le Guin seems to suggest, that the True Blue genre-ist, lives there. Perhaps in a nice cozy caravan if not a castle. But again, there is little support for this if we actually look at the books which have been written on both sides of the supposed lit-genre divide.

There is no note of Margaret Attwood who has in the past been at pains to point out she "doesn't write science fiction." But she certainly writes dystopian novels. Both The Handmaid's Tale, as well as The Flood (and under the same broad tent, its prequel, Oryx and Crake) sit comfortably within the world of the dystopian and social science fiction novel. Of the two, the one with the least respect shown for conscientious world building of the sort that Le Guins suggests real social science fiction demands, is the former: The Handmaid's Tale. And of the two, it is by far the better work for it.

No mention of johnny-come-lately and literary author Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Nor, of that prince-jestor of fantasy and science fiction, M. John Harrison, who with deadly seriousness has taken the piss out of both with his Viriconium series and Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In Harrison's case, both of these are startling bodies of work which inhabit a space that has at best, haphazard social science fiction elements but deliver a one-two punch to genre with more than a touch of dystopian trappings and a refusal to be pinned down by the traditional limitations of either.

To say that any of these authors are less serious than Le Guin or for that matter, EM Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and others, is absolute rubbish.

And what is wrong, even if this charge by Le Guin had any basis in reality, in a lack of seriousness in fiction? Deconstructing, irrelevance, and breaking with tradition, are all fine elements of good writing. Science fiction and to a lesser extent, fantasy, are often resistant to this, however. Over sensitive perhaps to anything which defamiliarizes the unfamiliar as the very smart, very irreverent author Lavie Tidhar points out in his article on science fiction author, Adam Roberts:

Genre fiction doesn't need genuflection, of course, as much as it needs a list of others things. High among them, mischievous renovation. If outsiders to genre wish to make use of the - here Le Guin and I can agree - rather tired tropes of traditional science fiction - good for them. If they can take them more lightly and with less heavy handed pomposity, all the better. Genre, for all its strengths, its use of realism is not actually one of them. For realism comes in many forms, not all of them the micro economics of imaginary places. But emotion, character, plot, and shall we say it? literary authenticity. All of these, Le Guin admits, Lee has.

So why then is she unable to vouchsafe On Such a Full Sea as a true dystopia? Mostly, it seems to come down to the credentials of the author as a less serious (?) non-genre author slumming it in the section of town where she lives, and Lee's "use (of) essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially."

Some commentators have been quick to agree. Where are the edible fungi? asks one, in McCarthy's novel The Road. I can't say this was a stumbling point for me personally in this powerful, moving, emotionally realistic exploration of a son and father's harrowing dystopian road trip through a dying world whose singular strength is perhaps the utter incomprehensible nature of the disaster which has upended the world. What matters is not the DNA sequence of some fictional plague, the specifics of a made up science fictional weapon, the colour of an alien sun, but the interactions of its principals.

The sad fact is genre needs to move on. And genre fans and authors, many of them at least, need to stop trying to stem the fluidity of genre's always porous boundaries. They also are not helped shouting like angry geese whenever a self-identified literary author strays onto the property.

It just reveals the facade like nature and low self esteem of a wide spectrum of literature that need not wall its totally imaginary and invented worlds behind invented social or science fictional realism.

Here's hoping for better literary and science fictional worlds in the future.

*While some may wish to argue that EM Forster, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Aldous Huxley are all literary authors who Le Guin shows to have Gotten It Right, only Forester can be said to be untainted by clear association with Science Fiction. Zamyatin's biography almost always has science fiction before any mention of his role as a satirist, and Huxley has long been canonized by SF. The fact is, not one current literary author who crosses that the divide, is praised by Le Guin in their handling of SF tropes. A point, I think, salient to the discussion at hand.


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