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.

9 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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.


  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….

    Liked by 1 person

    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.


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