A tale of science fiction and decomposition

fig. 1. Robert Rauschenberg or Richard Powers?

Over at science fiction and other suspect ruminations, Joachim Boaz has written about the excellent Walter M. Miller Jr short story, Death of a Spaceman (1954, aka Momento Homo). James Harris has also been inspired to blog about the same story at Classics of Science Fiction.

Joachim plants his flag firmly in the camp of recursive sf:

‘I am far more interested in the way “Death of the Spaceman” interacts with pulp science fiction— i.e. “drivel written in the old days” about the “romance” of space (16). Donny negatively contrasts his own experience with the stories that are told about the stars and adventure.

‘Miller doesn’t set about smashing it all with a bludgeon  (like Malzberg would at the end of the next decade), but rather presents future experiences as prone to the same moments of painful self-reflection as life comes to its end. He charts the emotional roller coaster that waffles between moments of calm and the growing tension/anger/helplessness…. and after Donny tells all his “rotten messes” to the priest (20), he comes to the realization that we make who we are, sins and failure and sadness and all.’

This is the key to Anglo-American sf in the 1950s and 60s.

I like the idea that Malzberg’s bludgeon is seen as the continuation and maybe even culmination of Miller’s more self-consciously literary crafting of pulp SF themes. Guy Debord spoke about the decomposition of the arts as their trajectory under the solvent pressure of capitalism and commodity relations. “From Miller to Malzberg” could be the title of a book dealing with the high period of the decomposition of Anglo-American sf: 1950-1970. Surely a timing to generate scholarly disputes by…

I am intrigued by the idea that SF recapitulates a trajectory followed by European poetry, painting and literature in and around avant-garde circles through the 19th and early 20th centuries—and find it suitably weird too, as if I am reading a science fiction account of a future history. I often like to imagine alternative versions, science fictional anticipations of the decomposition of SF, a vision of a bizarre and cracked future 21st century written in the 1950s. One of my favourites is Walter Miller’s story of a robotic theatre in the early 21st century. The Darfsteller is a peek foreseen of the society of the spectacle in diesel punk attire. See some of my related comments on the science fiction spectacle here.

Incidentally, I continue get a kick out of the fact that in The Darfsteller, Miller even got the timing of the emergent collapse of the old Soviet Empire right: the late 1980s!

fig. 2. Death of a Spaceman–illustration accompanying Miller’s short story of the same name, Amazing Stories, March 1954.

SF as decomposition.

In the early 1960s the Situationist International hailed the arrival of self-conscious decomposition in modern cinema (for more on the situationist notion of decomposition, see here). In passing they noted that the so-called nouvelle vague, Truffaut, Godard, et al, were not the source of this. By the situationists lights this cinema ‘new wave’ was more of a marketing strategy of mutual aid rather than an avant-garde project unified around a program (like the surrealists and dadas). Unlike contemporaries such as Godard’s mannered and derivative À bout de souffle, and Truffaut’s riff on Zéro de conduite, the situationists saw in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras a film of real import. Here was ‘the appearance in “commercial” cinema of the self-destruction that dominates all modern art’.

The situationists continued:

‘The film’s admirers do their best to find admirable little details wherever they can. Everyone ends up going on about Faulkner and his sense of timing […]. In fact, the reason they insist on the fragmented rhythm of Resnais’ film is so that they don’t have to see any of its destructive aspects. In the same way, they talk of Faulkner as a specialist — an accidental specialist — of the dissipation of time, accidentally encountered by Resnais, so that they can forget the time that has already passed, and more generally the literary works of Proust and Joyce. The timing — the confusion — of Hiroshima is not the annexation of cinema by literature: it is the continuation in cinema of the movement of all writing, and first of all poetry, toward its own dissolution’. (Cinema after Alain Resnais, Internationale Situationniste no. 3, December 1959)

I suspect that much of what passed for the ‘new wave’ in SF in the 1960s was akin to the corporate avant-garde of French cinema’s nouvelle vague. Like Godard and his band apart, the newness of the SF avant-garde was asserted more than signifying something truly new in the way dada and surrealism were new in 1916 and 1924. Nonetheless, one wonders what are the Hiroshima Mon Amour’s of SF, in which the ‘self-destruction that dominates all modern art’ appeared in ‘commercial’ form—but then, isn’t all pulp commercial? Here, ‘commercial’ is better translated as mainstream. I would argue that the Hiroshima’s of the sf new wave were books like Stand on Zanzibar (Zanzibar my love…), Dick’s Ubik or A Scanner Darkly, or Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (to name only a few of the better known and hopefully uncontroversial instances of what I term the decomposition of science fiction). Stories like Miller’s Death of a Spaceman, or Cyril Kornbluth’s Altar At Midnight can be re-conceived as akin to avant-garde steps in the emergence of more self-conscious expressions of decomposition and self-destruction in science fiction (albeit often more self-consciously literary, in the practice of particular authors who aspired to make of SF a realm of artistic dignity and renown, such as Kornbluth). Any number of Philip K. Dick short stories and novels in the 1950s and 60s can be conceived thus, or works of other, lesser known writers (Wyman Guin and Kris Neville come to mind).

Where does this get us? And what the hell am I talking about anyway!? Decomposition? Avant-gardes? Science fiction? Are you kidding me!?

Dystopia as consumer will and science fictional representation.

By comparing the progression of Anglo-American SF in the 1950s and 60s to that of the avant-garde arts of 19th and 20th century, I equally want to draw attention to the way Debord and others conceived of this progress as in fact a limit or impasse rather than merely the expression of an experimental flourishing—even if it is also the latter. Indeed, the experimental nature of the SF new wave has often been overstated—mostly by its hucksters—considering that their experiments were in truth the application of a preexisting (anti) tradition of formal experimentation already thoroughly practiced throughout the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Science fiction, born of capitalism and industrialism, is at best a herald of the coming future, no matter whether it is disaster or eutopia. Ultimately, SF has no place in the future it conjures. Like all literature and the arts, it shares in the estrangement and creation of the everyday. Unlike them, it foregrounds this estrangement, makes the true bizarrerie of the present explicit by drawing attention to its essential conditions and making them its materia prima: change and ephemerality.

To the extent that we still have SF—and it is an even larger part of contemporary culture than it was 60 years ago—is evidence not so much of the health of science fiction than it is an expression of our failure to build eutopia in the present. As I have argued elsewhere, SF invaded and submitted the utopian literature of the 19th century by building an empire on the wager that utopia will always be revealed as dystopia. SF’s triumph as a genre is intimately bound up with this wager, as much as its ability to best express the dystopian capitalist frenzy of accumulation and expansion which chases itself across the globe and on into the cosmos.

12 thoughts on “A tale of science fiction and decomposition”

    1. “When anything but the free market is dystopia, the market is presented as utopia.”

      That’s great. It nails the way the commodity form invades the entire practice and imaginary of our society, such that our literature largely replicates this without understanding it. As Marx says re the capitalist social relation, it’s going on behind our backs.

      The illustration is my detournement of the great SF artist Richard Powers. It’s taken from the cover of Walter Miller’s first collection, “Conditionally Human” (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?7847). I’ve altered the image, partially erasing the original. I should have titled it “Robert Rauschenberg does Richard Powers”.

      Rauschenberg famously erased a William de Kooning drawing and exhibited it in 1953 as “Erased de Kooning Drawing”. Such negative art was in the air at the time. Consider Guy Debord’s 1952 film, “Hurlements en faveur de Sade”. But as Debord says elsewhere, these were simply variations upon the self-consciously destructive or “anti-artistic” practices sketched most notoriously by Dada and Surrealism, but also by their progenitors, the more “dark” and outre forms of Romanticism in the 19th century (e.g. Hölderlin, the French Bozingos, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, etc.).

      My variation on Richard Powers is a tired old story bedecked in the exoticism of SF.


  1. It’s interesting that the works we admire, “Death of a Spaceman,” or Stand on Zanzibar were efforts to bring reality and realism to science fiction. Science fiction seldom tries to be truly realistic. Then, as now, most of its fans want fantasy. It’s interesting that we now look back at these science fictional attempts at realism and see them as critiques of the genre.

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    1. I agree that the question of realism and SF is intimately associated with what I am calling the decomposition of SF. Realism played a similarly avant-garde role in SF as it did in 19th century European literature. You can see this sketched in Kornbluth’s sadly shortened career. For instance, compare the realism of “Altar at Midnight” (1952) with the formal “experimental” realism of a final story, “The Last Man Left in the Bar” (1957). In five short years you get the entirety of 19th century literature + rocket ships.

      I consider Philip K Dick one of the true avant-garde realists of SF. Dick was hardly a “hard” realist of the Campbell school. Nonetheless his fiction was more realist than most of the pulps, more accurately evoking the sense of modern dislocation and alienation of urban capitalism; and realised in characters more believable than entire armies of Campbell school capable men.

      What does it mean to be “realist” in SF? Must the physics always be right, for instance, or is this truly a subsidiary question? SF by its nature is both realist and anti-realist (or fantastical if you prefer). Born of capitalist industry and the application of scientific method, it also inherited a more ancient fantastical folk tradition filtered through Romantic appropriations and experimentations.

      In books like “Stand on Zanzibar”, not only is the realism of the future starkly in question, but even more plainly science fiction’s ability to express this. Brunner’s fractured narrative, structurally influenced by John Dos Passos, pushes the attempt at future realism so far that it tends to threaten the coherence and unity of the novel. Brunner anchors his narrative in the story of the two friends, but it’s the novel’s formal structure many of us have come to see, revelling in the terrific world building and dreadful detail of his extrapolation of 1960s global cold war and state capitalism.

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  2. I am fascinated by this idea of decomposition of narrative. I reviewed a story a moment ago that’s emblematic of the opposite—narrative as creative and affirming force (and ostensibly “true” to both the subject of the story and reader): Mari Wolf’s “The Statue” (1953). I while I might plant my flag firmly in the camp of recursive fiction, all the delightful paths narratives take fascinate me….

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    1. I’ve gotta read this story asap! I reread The Hoofer by Miller last night. It’s a goody, shorter than Death of a spaceman, maybe not as good (just as good?), and in a similar style and theme.

      Olaf Stapeldon is the great forerunner of SF’s decomposition, notably in “Last and Frist Men” and “Starkmaker”, the two future epics masquerading as history. Stapeldon’s work is a little like a real version of “The Winter Journey” by Hugo Venier—Georges Perec’s fictional sourcebook for the entirety of the 19th century European literary avant-garde. In Stapeldon’s case, his future histories serve as summary and anticipation of the entirety of SF’s content, past and future, and sketched in only two slim volumes (take that bloated SFF multivolume “epics”!).

      The question of decomposition becomes explicit in the SF new wave and after, with all of the various experiments, good, bad and indifferent, that followed in its wake. What’s maybe even more interesting than this decomposition is the way the SFF industry developed in its wake. The multi-volume escapism that has come to dominate modern SFF is not only a retreat from the “excesses” of the new wave, but in many cases was written by former adherents and faithful. SF radicalism foundered in the 1970s not only on the much-reported death of capitalism, but the money to be made from the millions desiring an escape from the everyday drudgery and boredom of work.

      Modern SF is a cyclopean machine for turning dreams into commodities.


  3. I’ve read the text The Meaning of Decay in Art on cddc.vt.eu (not sure who was the original author), and I have to say I don’t share the pessimistic analysis/outlook on *decomposed* art.

    As I already said on my blog, I think these tendencies are the logical result of artists wanting to break the mold, coupled with a few historical developments. I think the inventions of photography was crucial, because it deprived painting of a goal. As a result, painting moved away from representation towards more abstraction (first via impressionism, etc.). It is my belief that this development away from representation influenced all the other art forms. Coupled with that, there were the effects of the Enlightenment, which resulted in people becoming aware that social norms were not set in stone, broadening the possibilities of artists too.

    Is that decay?

    6 decades have passed since 1959 and I see none of the destruction of art nor a crisis of artistic expression. Sure, some art practices are decoupled from the mainstream, the proletariat, etc., but that has always existed: already in the 17th century, and probably long before, certain artists were perceived as decoupled from regular taste (consider for instance Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis). And yes, lots of art indeed produces commodities – but, again, Rembrandt – that has been the case for a long, long time.

    One can indeed question the effectiveness of this radical art, but again, was it effective 100 years ago? I guess art has become less naive about it’s own power/role, as Adorno famously poked at poetry after the Holocaust. For some this surely is confusing and traumatic, but for me this realization is more a step forward, than a problem.

    At the same time, I see artistic practice flourishing for regular people: there never has been more participation in people dabbling in hobby painting, ceramics, writing poetry, SF fan art shared on Reddit, recording music in the bedroom on a laptop, etc. And no, most of these hobby artists are not poor or lower class, some bourgeois, yes, but when looked at society as a whole, creative practice & participation is on all time high. Part of that indeed is escapism & entertainment for some, but what is inherently wrong with that? It surely doesn’t negate authentic expression of people with no knowledge of Hegel or Tarza.

    And this crisis of meaning, representation, decomposition, does not negate the fact that there still are people living in abject poverty because of their artistic practice – 21st century Van Goghs, so to say. I know a fair amount of people that make experimental music scraping by on practically nothing, but that are willing to do so because they believe in the value of what they create, even if the audience that follows them is very, very small. And yes, some of these have/had bourgeois parents. I’m not sure what to call these artists, but they are radical, idealistic, probably escapist too (in their denial to just tag along with the mainstream and live a productive life), and, to me and a few others at the very least, not devoid of meaning at all: it communicates beauty, harshness, a certain truth, what have you, the whole shebang. Does it help class struggle? If at all, only slightly. But again, is that decay?

    Could it be that the person who wrote the text in 1959 was himself stuck in an outdated mode of thinking (the avant garde should save the world) and should have better turned his critical analysis onto his own thinking, rather than pointing at the failure (cultural problems) of something as vast and sprawling and diverse as art? What is art anyway? What validity have blanket statements about “Art”?

    By all this I don’t want to say culture has no role to play. “Cultural means of action” surely exist. But I don’t think it is a form of decay (moral and/or formally) that art isn’t what some expect it to be.

    (I’m sorry for the rant, maybe none of it really applies, I’m not a Marxist scholar, and maybe I misread things into that 1959 text. It’s just an offhand reaction to it.)


    1. Debord’s idea of “decomposition” can seem counter-intuitive from the perspective of being pro-art or pro-creativity. To be clear, it’s not a rejection of artistic creativity so much as it is the criticism of the peculiar ghettoization of creative production under conditions of capitalist modernity. I don’t believe it is pessimistic in the way you seem to feel. But I can understand why you would think that. Indeed, without a sense of Debord’s goal in making this criticism it is hard to understand the point of declaring that art moves towards its “decomposition”.

      I wouldn’t argue that decomposition is just the result of “artists’ need to be original and renew”. Rather, I would pose that such “freedom of expression” (“freedom of the word” in the case of poetry and prose), cannot be understood without reference to its historical conditions. For instance, the idea of the artist expressing their inner self and “their world” is bound up with the emergence of Romanticism and post-Romanticism (and its precursors in the Renaissance) rather than simply an unalloyed fact of human being. And so, we need to further consider the idea and practice of the “individual” that gives rise to such “freedom of expression”, and the relation of this individual to the broader project of bourgeois modernity.

      To that end, “decomposition” is a result of both the “freedoms” unleashed by bourgeois modernity, particularly where it pertains to individual artistic expression, and the limits to this freedom—material, formal and pecuniary (perhaps especially the latter, considering the often-marginal nature of much “experimental” artistic production, as you’ve noted). For Debord, such “decomposition” only manifests clearly, as a project, within the broader movement of bourgeois modernity. What are the results of reaching this impasse? Mallarmé’s onward rush to blessed silence. Malevich’s White Square on White. George Grosz and John Heartfield’s “Art is Dead. Long live the new machine art.”. And, etc.

      What you need to hold onto when reading Debord’s critique of modern art as “dissolution”, “decomposition”, “decline” or even “decay”, is what it is not: it is not a moral judgment on the intrinsic worth of a particular art-object. Rather, Debord is trying to understand the tendency of various arts to not only reach the limits of expression, but to express these limits. He believes that this movement toward the negation of the art-object and art itself, nonetheless, contains a positive project that is bound up with the more general critique of alienated practice in capitalist society.

      His point is rather simple. Once the avant-gardes of art pose such an impasse in an artistic fashion, “up to and including the destruction of expression itself” (as he wrote in “The Sense of Decay in Art”), where does it go? The two options that he highlighted from 1959, either the reactionary retreat into tradition, or the “progressive” celebration of such negation (by the likes of contemporaries like Beckett and Ionesco, for example), doesn’t “solve” the problem—if, indeed, there is a problem to solve. But then that’s Debord’s wager.

      I certainly don’t deny your description of the ongoing developments of art beyond their purported “decay”. But I would question whether the extensive nature of such production, including the flourishing of hobbyists, fans and DIY art, is a sign of movement in Debord’s sense of the term. I believe that the last 50 years confirms Debord’s thesis rather than refutes it, insofar as we have seen a vast extension of cultural production that is simultaneously lacking in the formal dynamism of the avant-gardes up to the middle of the 20th century. Again, this is not a moral judgement, rather it is an observation: we have chiselled away at the formal discoveries of the avant-gardes for more than half a century, and the question remains: is there a “beyond” to the destruction of expression?

      None of this is to deny the “beauty, harshness, a certain truth, what have you, the whole shebang” of art over the last 50 years, even if it implies that aesthetic criteria are perhaps not the best way to understand what Debord is driving at in terms of “decomposition”. Indeed, Debord believed that it was the turn *against* aesthetics embodied in the negativity of the most extreme examples of avant-garde experimentation that revealed a *positive* project beyond the merely artistic expression of the limits of aesthetics. The positive project he proposed, initially, under the idea of a “hypothesis of constructed situations”, exerted a profound influence upon the conceptual arts and architectural experimentation of the 1960s and 70s. But none of these Debord considered fruitful developments of his hypothesis, insofar as they tended to remain at the level of the merely artistic elaboration of anti-aesthetics.

      My current use of his idea of “decomposition” is much more modest than his own. Even though I have a long interest in the speculations and practice of the Situationist International, for now I am mostly concerned with using his idea to criticise the development of SF—something I’m not sure he would be that interested in frankly. For instance, I’m using “decomposition” to understand what I’ve occasionally called—after Russ and Malzberg—the High “Decadence” of SF in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This is the crucial period that unlocks not only the movement that SF underwent leading up to this (particularly for Anglo-American SF from the 1920s), but also its trajectory beyond the “High Decadence” and “decomposition” of the 1960s and 70s. Whether or not this will prove fruitful for me is yet to be demonstrated. But I’m persisting for the time being, until I reach my own impasse.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. (double post, same reply as on my own blog)

        Thanks, that clarifies things a lot.

        I do think art has arrived at a certain end station, in the sense that its limits are well understood and researched by now, by which I mean that true formal/conceptual renewal seems to have become impossible, because, indeed, expression has been destroyed over and over again. That is not to say creativity & originality is not possible anymore – on the contrary: the doors are wide open to do about anything in art, because of this destruction.

        In that sense, there is no problem to solve anymore – which is not to say there are no broader social problems anymore.

        This doesn’t mean that the avant garde is dead – on the contrary, there will probably always be an artistic practice that is not (yet) accepted by the mainstream, but I do not think these contemporary avant gardes posses the same formal dynamism of the ones up to the middle of the 20th century. Not that formal changes don’t happen anymore (they do, often tied to new technologies, but not solely because of that), I’m rather talking about the conceptual breaking points the historic avant garde brought about. In that sense I think there is no “beyond”, but that doesn’t matter, as conceptually art has finally claimed (and achieved) full freedom in an endless mise en abyme & recombination of formal possibilities, opening up to endless (new) possibilities.

        And all that is indeed (partly?) the result of the abandonment of aesthetics and aesthetic rules.

        (If I find the time, I’ll try to give some examples from contemporary music later this week.)


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