Tag Archives: Astounding Science Fiction

What comes after SF

fig. 1. Has the future of SF come and gone? Illustration: “As Mars Sees Us”, by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, July 1940.

What comes after SF

‘the hour of its birth is the hour of its death.’
—G. W. F. Hegel[1]

Is there a future for science fiction?

Consider this: writers of science fiction have imagined not just the end of civilisation, and the end of the human species (among others), they have even imagined the end of everything—up to and including the beyond of the end. And yet rarely—perhaps never—do writers of SF imagine the end of SF, even though its finale is necessarily implied in the end of it all.

This is perhaps less strange if we consider that SF itself rarely features in the futures imagined by SF writers. Could it be that the collective imaginary of science fiction sees no future for SF? Or at least no future for SF in SF. With the notable exception of recursive science fiction,SF is strangely absent from most imagined futures. Is recursive science fiction, then, where we will find SF imagining the future of SF? Perhaps—but I’m not holding my breath.

Recursive SF is a somewhat fuzzy sub-genre of SF—which is no bad thing in that fuzziest of all genres. In its clearest and narrowest definition, it is ‘science fiction stories that refer to science fiction […] to authors, fans, collectors, conventions, etc.’[2] However, the self-referentiality of recursive SF runs the gamut of the more straightforwardly comic and satirical at one end (like Frederic Brown’s novels, What Mad Universe or Martians Go Home), through to the more self-consciously critical works of Barry Malzberg, in which Malzberg uses the conceit of self-referentiality to interrogate SF—albeit in fictional garb.

When speaking of two recursive works of Robert Silverberg’s—‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ (1973) and ‘Schwartz Between The Galaxies (1974)—Malzberg notes that they are ‘less […] work[s] of fiction than of literary criticism.’[3] This is an apt description of some of Malzberg’s works. For instance, his ‘A Galaxy Called Rome’ (1975) is an excellent example of, and introduction to, such critical-recursive SF. Malzberg himself prefers the term ‘decadent science fiction’ to describe what he’s up to—a term that is presumably derived from Joanna Russ’s suggestive essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’ (1971).[4] To the extent that such ‘decadence’ is indicative of a more self-aware and sometimes critical take on the pretensions and pathologies of SF, that often includes formal experiments in literary style, both Russ and Malzberg associate it with the development of a ‘New Wave’ in SF in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, and despite my own fascination with the New Wave and ‘decadence’, I have yet to find amongst its practitioners any evidence of what I have set out to find. Namely SF imagining either the SF of the future, or the end of SF itself—even though the utter exhaustion of SF is hinted at in the most corrosively recursive SF (Silverberg’s short story, ‘The Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ again leaps to mind).

The entry on ‘Recursive SF’ at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction seeks to expand the definition of recursion to include, ‘Alternate Histories, usually backward-looking in time, and frequently expressing a powerful nostalgia for pasts in which the visions of early Genre SF do, in fact, come true.’[5] This is almost an answer to my question. Unfortunately, I am not looking for a ‘backward-looking’, retrospective vision of the future of SF, no matter how attractive such decadent confabulations are. No doubt imagining a different future for, say, SF in the 1940s, is easier to do given that one is imagining an alternate future based on what happened in our universe. But for now, in this quiet sector of the multiverse, I am trying to find is an SF that imagined SF in its future, not a future past.

What got me thinking along these lines was a remark made by Michael Moorcock in his introduction to a 1969 collection of New Wave SF writings, appositely entitled The New SF:

In the early days of the science fiction magazines writers often tried to visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented. In a sense, therefore, the stories in this book are something of a natural development from magazines like Amazing Stories (founded 1926) for, to Hugo Gernsback the editor of Amazing Stories, they might well seem like the products of an ‘alien’ future.[6]

Moorcock’s remarks are more suggestive than factual. The idea that the wild and wacky experiments of the New Wave could almost have been the future of science fiction imagined in the past is a fascinating thought. I have, however, found little evidence for Moorcock’s claim that SF writers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were doing much to ‘visualise what literature would be like in the futures they invented’. I could be wrong about this—indeed, I want to be wrong. Perhaps somewhere in the lost drafts of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) one can find an outline of the entirety of SF’s future trajectory, and, inevitably, its end.

To further illustrate what I am driving at, regarding the absence of an imagined future for SF in SF, let’s look briefly at two examples of recursive science fiction from the 1950s and 60s: Arthur C Clarke’s novel, The Sands of Mars (1951) and Edmond Hamilton’s short story, ‘The Pro’ (1964). In Clarke’s novel, the protagonist is a long-time science fiction writer who now lives in a future that has overtaken, in part, his pulpish imaginings. He journeys to a Mars that already has the rudiments of a permanent colony, somewhat bedazzled by the way the near future both confirms and refutes his fiction. Hamilton riffs on a similar theme. However, he makes the dislocation of the SF writer who has lived to see the future the central focus of his short story. In both cases nothing is said about the SF in the science fictional present imagined in either story. It either no longer exists, or—demonstrating a singular lack of imagination—is simply the same as it was when these stories were written. One can only assume that if there is an SF in these imaginary worlds, it is exempted from the forces of change and history that are otherwise speculatively evoked in the self-same stories.

Could it be that the inability to imagine a future for SF disguises a repressed belief that there is no future for SF? In his 1994 essay, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,’ Roger Luckhurst argues that, ‘SF is dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution’.[7] Motivated by those interminable debates that mark fandom, which locate the ‘death of SF’ in an imagined transgression of what is meant by ‘SF,’ Luckhurst argues that such anxieties necessarily emerge precisely as a result of the establishment of the genre in the first place. Indeed, he further believes that SF has a ‘death wish’ that is bound up with the boundaries of the gerne, and that is a function of the repressed desire for a ‘proper death’: either by way of its dissolution and return to the mainstream, or by way of being acknowledged as more than or better than its pulp, popular origins. Either way, the establishment of clear boundaries for SF only intensified the anxiety of this death-wish, and the anxieties that continues to metastasise with ever controversy over perceived threats to these borders, whether from within or without (though especially from the former).

Luckhurst is at his most interesting when he focuses upon ‘the effect[s] of the structure of legitimation’, by which he means that the exclusionary policing of SF’s ambiguous borderlands by trufans and writers alike is the real source of SF’s internal conflicts and ‘death wish’.[8] By any measure, the efforts of people like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell in establishing an exclusive definition of SF was bound to explode, given not only the relatively arbitrary origins of their stipulative definitions of SF, but also the patent influence that the rich borderlands of the genre continued to exert upon readers and writers. What’s clear, even amidst the hardest of the so-called Hard practitioners of SF, is that there is no such thing as pure SF. Perhaps SF was stillborn from the outset, a consensual hallucination held together by the will of a Gernsback or a Campbell, not to mention the self-legitimating institutions of fandom they surrounded themselves with. Indeed, Gernsback’s and Campbell’s SF is starting to sound more like something you would find in SF, some harebrained scheme cooked up in the imaginary laboratories of the future.

One of the interesting threads Luckhurst unpicks, but does little with, is Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering attempt to establish not only the contours of SF, but also its aspirations to be more than simply another pulp ghetto for popular consumption. In Gernsback’s proselytising and agitational vision for SF, SF is calling into being a world that has yet to come. To my thinking, implicit in that vision is a sense of the self-limitation of SF. Once the world Gernsback desires has come into being, once the general consciousness of the population is in synch with science rather than simply ‘tak[ing] new inventions and discoveries for granted’ in a quasi-religious fashion, then SF’s role as harbinger and teacher will be complete.[9] And once complete, the need for SF will simply disappear.

The idea that SF has no place or part to play in the future it fictionally conjures into being, can be seen in the Clarke and Hamilton stories discussed above. There is a sense in both that with the realisation of the dreams of science fiction, SF as anticipation and advocacy is rendered superfluous. Clarke’s story is more positively disposed to the merits of SF as anticipation, no matter how flawed the speculation often is, whereas Hamilton poses that perhaps there was no point in the first place, and that the space age of the 1960s was realised despite the existence of SF. Indeed, its Hamilton’s pessimism about the worth of SF—reflecting, perhaps, his own mixed feelings after almost 40 years in the business—that gives this story is melancholic power. He seems to be posing: would it have been better if SF had never been born in the first place?

Given a future in which SF was realised in line with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s desire, presumably SF would become something akin to pulp Westerns, a fiction of nostalgia for a lost time. In large part, SF has become this. The shiny rockets and bubble headed space suits of the Golden Age of SF can today seem to be more aged and out of place than spurs and a Colt 45 were in the 1950s. But in developing this tendency toward nostalgia, SF is not just the Romanticisation of a lost past—the past of the pulps on the verge of the space age. It is also the Romanticisation of an imaginary future that never was. That dream of SF—of grand and ever-expanding space exploration and colonisation—was not and perhaps never will be realised. Indeed, Ballard’s fiction from the 1960s, when he attempted to redirect SF from its technophilic obsessions amidst the burgeoning space age of Mercury astronauts and Project Apollo, has proved to be a better guide to our present.

Is it possible that the repressed desire for death and the striking absence of an imagined future for SF were finally realised in the New Wave? Not the ‘proper death’ that Luckhurst spoke of, by which the New Wave broke down the walls that separated SF from the non-genre literary recognition it both envied and imagined itself superior to. Rather, the New Wave enacted the death of SF—albeit in an erratic and largely unconscious fashion—and brought it to ruin through the exhaustion of all the shop-worn tropes in a fury of play and experiment. Which is not to say that the New Wave in SF did not live a terrific life full of noise and wonder. But as Robert Silverberg has mordantly noted:

by 1972 the revolution was pretty much over. We were heading into the era of Star Wars, the trilogy craze, and the return of [a] literarily conservative action-based science fiction to the centre of the stage.[10]

In any case, SF died—or at least that archetypal Anglo-American SF born in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between the 1920s and 1940s. It was killed off amidst a blaze of play and experimentation at precisely the same time that the revolutionary movement that erupted in France and Italy in 1968 and 1969 was being murdered by erstwhile friends and foes alike. And much like the supersized capitalism that came after the failed revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the reconstituted and globalised SF is a strange beast: a vast commercial spectacle, a bloated behemoth that staggers through its domesticated afterlife, shorn not only of its earlier aspirations and optimistic urgency, but equally denied the peaceful death it so richly deserves.

And today, through the fog of an infinite regress of proliferating sub-genres, which inadvertently mock the old delusion of a unitary SF, we see our old friend the commodity, whose terroristic mass production has brought the biosphere itself to the brink of destruction like some arch science criminal of yore, colonising the real and the imaginary with equal indifference and spite.

Is this the future that SF imagined for itself?


FOOTNOTES

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George di Giovanni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1813, 1816, 1832] 2010. Translation modified.

[2] Anthony R. Lewis, An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990. See, also: https://data.nesfa.org/Recursion/

[3] Barry N. Malzberg, ‘The Science Fiction of Science Fiction,’ in Engines of the Night, Baen Ebooks, [1982] 2013.

[4] See, Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing out of Genre Materials,’ College English vol. 33, no. 1 (October 1971); Barry N. Malzberg, ‘Thinking about Thinking About Science Fiction,’ in An Annotated Bibliography of Recursive Science Fiction, ed. Anthony R. Lewis, Cambridge, Mass.: NESFA Press, 1990.

[5] John Clute & David Langford, ‘Recursive SF’ in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2021).

[6] Michael Moorcock, ‘Preface,’ in The New SF, ed. Langdon Jones, London: Arrow Books, p. 8.

[7] Roger Luckhurst, ‘The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic,’ Science Fiction Studies Vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1994), p. 35.

[8] Ibid., p. 44.

[9] Hugo Gernsback, ‘A New Sort of Magazine,’ Amazing Stories Vol. 1, no. 1 (April 1926), p. 3.

[10] Robert Silverberg, ‘Introduction to “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”,’ in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Four: Trips, 1972-73, Subterranean Press (Electronic Edition), 2009.

In praise of the infodump

fig. 1. Astounding Science Fiction, September 1948, in which John D. MacDonald’s ‘Dance of a New World’ first appeared.

In praise of the infodump:
or, the joys and pains of reading science fiction in general and John M. MacDonald and Laurence Manning in particular, and various other works of the last century and more, and etcetera

Infodump: “An item of sf Terminology commonly used to designate chunks of technical discourse inserted into fictional texts […]. In sf criticism, the term is often used to pejoratively name a flaw, when the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it”—from the SF Encyclopedia

1.

Why is the infodump so hated, so derided? I suspect that the chief reason is unstated—or barely suspected. Could it be that vast slabs of unadorned information impede our ability to suspend disbelief and briefly escape the humdrum world of wage labour and quiet despair?

Though often polarising, the infodump is a common feature of science fiction. For its detractors it is the very epitome of all that is non-literary about SF. For instance, the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia’s entry on the infodump notes that for some critics, ‘the infodump presents as a large obstructive mass, a clump of narrative whose author has not properly digested it’. For such critics the infodump simply is a literary flaw. But is there only one type of infodump, an impossibly perfect Platonic form whose perfection is, perversely, its distracting imperfection?

Recently, what set me off ruminating upon the infodump was reading a short story by John D. MacDonald: Dance of a New World (1948). The story is not one of McDonald’s best SF genre pieces (for that I would recommend Spectator Sport). But it’s not all bad. A solid tale to while away some of the perils of boredom.

For the first few pages the story tootled along, establishing character, plot and setting in relatively efficient fashion. From the first sentence, unquestionably a story of the future set on a more hospitable Venus than what we got, with one of the characters working as a supervisor of a work gang of local indigenous lifeforms called Harids. The Harids are conveniently insectoids, presumably so we don’t have to care too much about them being rendered zombie like all the better to slave away upon the human run plantation—no doubt one of many projects spreading the unalloyed joys of marginal economics throughout the solar system and beyond. All this information is deftly arranged by MacDonald, woven into a story that works hard to make more of less. A good example of the “show, don’t tell” principle in action. And then this happens:

Shane Brent went up to his room in Hostel B, shut the door wearily, listlessly pushed the News button under the wall screen and watched the news of the day with little interest as he slowly undressed. Crowds demonstrating in Asia-Block against the new nutrition laws. Project 80, two years out said to be nearing Planet K. Skirts once again to be midway between knee and hip next season. The first bachelor parenthood case comes up to decide whether a child born of the fertilization of a laboratory ovum can legally inherit. Brent frowned. Soon a clear definition of the legal rights of “Synthetics” would have to be made. He stopped suddenly as he had an idea. He decided to submit it to Frank. Why not get Inter-Federal Aid for a project to develop Synthetics to fill personnel requirements for future project flights? But would humanity agree to colonization by Synthetics? It still wasn’t clearly understood whether or not they’d breed true.

This block of information—a microdump perchance?—plays little or no role in the main plot. Nonetheless, it helps further set the scene—or rather flesh it out. After reading these tantalising flashes of the world that the character Shane Brent inhabits, I found the author’s previous efforts at convincing me of this future even more secure. Though clearly an infodump, it is far from the indigestible mass hated by the haters. The chief protagonist even interacts with it. It is an example of the infodump at the service of the story, working in concert with the “show, don’t tell” principle with the aim of further establishing mood and setting with subtle, not overwhelming detail.

Laurence Manning’s story, The Living Galaxy (1934) is, on the other hand, the very opposite of MacDonald’s wonderfully brief and efficient infodump. These days when Manning’s story is remembered, it is best known for being arguably the first, fully fictional rendering of the “generation starship” trope—though this is under dispute (see, the Generation Starships entry at SF Encyclopedia). Manning’s story is all infodump. It’s at its best in its initial conceit of fictional pedagogy: a future history presented as the past of the near immortal heirs of homo sapiens. Unfortunately, this wonderful set up is frittered away in its dull delivery. My heart goes out to my imaginary descendants in this story, having to sit through their marvellous past rendered boring. It seems as if school sux, even in utopia.

Being all infodump is by no means a slight upon this work. For is the absence of entertainment or convincing distraction the best damnation we can manage?

Indeed, I have not come to damn the infodump but praise it.

fig. 2. Wonder Stories, September 1934, in which Laurence Manning’s ‘The Living Galaxy’ first appeared.

2.

I believe there are at least two souls of the infodump. The first is all that is listed as worthy of despair; for instance, the too common reality of the indigestibly prolix and dull in information retrieval. But there is another, more striking class of infodump of which the example from John M. MacDonald above gives us a glimpse. One of its hallmarks is an excess of realism—though excessive only in a literary sense. What I mean is that the reality conjured is by way of a sensory overload, in which fragments of the imagined future (or “present”, for that matter) threaten to drown the reader. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is an excellent, though partial realisation of such an excess (more on this below). Nonetheless, both souls—variously dull and poetic—push at the limits of the novel, even if one is more self-consciously set upon breaking the conventions of literature.

The source of my ruminations on excessive realism is Guy Debord. He once wrote upon a situationist use of theatre which influences my thoughts here. Debord’s aim was decidedly more anti-literary, insofar as he envisaged the negation of theatre by way of ‘an excess of realism’. The characters would meet in a ‘normal’ situation lacking in ‘spirit or interest’, in which the conversation would be equally ‘normal […], which is to say, not very intelligent, not very stupid. A permanent and empty spectacle, like life […], with brief overtures of what could be’.[1] Such a vision reminds me of some of the achievements of literary modernism: from Lautréamont’s Maldoror to Joyce’s Ulysses by way of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The point being that the excess of realism Debord invokes is neither just tedious nor simply marvellous, but both (‘not very intelligent, not very stupid’ surely being alternate names for the two souls).[2]

Two of my favourite SF novels are arguably all infodump: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Stapledon’s works, founding epics after the fact, are without peer. In the case of the former, the excessive nature of a future history is underlined by its being an unrelenting infodump, albeit in a more poetic register than most. Stapledon errs on the side of epic, the form in which the infodump is best suited, wedged as it were between the lyrical and the dramatic. Nonetheless, they are not the only examples of the prose poetry of the infodump. Walter M. Miller’s short story, The Big Hunter (1952), is also an excellent example. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) approaches the majestic scale of Stapledon by taking a leaf from the masters of modernity to turn its eye upon the epic quality of the future everyday. Indeed, Brunner comes close to Debord’s demand of an excess of realism. He falls short only to the extent that he concedes ground to the strictures of plot and characterisation.

I have often envisaged an infodump novel that would push further in the direction Brunner opened. Except, whereas Brunner inserted character and plot to relieve the reader of his assault upon their sensibility, I would strip the novel of all such concessions in order to leave the cavalcade of these fragments from a future mass culture. Undoubtedly, by turns tedious and entrancing, the two souls of the infodump would be reunited, all the better to underscore the necessary irreality of aspiring after the real upon the page.

Is it too much to imagine the infodump in its excessive guises as the real source of literature? I am thinking here of not just the dull and repetitive parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey, but especially of the hard prose of the chronicles, Herodotus’ Histories being the true grandaddy of all the infodumps. Closer to the present, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick comes to mind with its innumerable and often unjustly maligned digressions into whale history and folk lore. Stephane Mallarmé’s two paragraph prose poem Le Phénomène futur (1871) is more obviously science fictional, and a simple joy at two paragraphs in length, leaving its world building remarkably dense and slight simultaneously. Mallarmé, to my mind, constitutes a bridge of sorts between the SF ghetto and the 19th century literary avant-garde of Europe. On the far, more science fictional side of the bridge I can see Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848) and J. H. Rosny aîné’s La Légende Sceptique (1889), both prose poems of cosmic dimension. On the more self-consciously literary side of the bridge I spy Jorge Luis Borges—though he undoubtedly slummed on the far side as well. Surely Borge’s Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) is the prose poem of the infodump? Further away, harder to see, buried in the sub-structures of the bridge, an old, dog-eared copy of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (1658) lies wedged.

Can I be serious that all of these are iterations of the infodump? At the very least I believe not only in the merit of the infodump, but also that what we categorise under this term is somewhat less straightforward than is often imagined. Not only is the SF infodump not as dull or turgid as is often imagined, infodump-like examples of prose can be found scattered through modern literature and its more ancient progenitors. My attraction to the infodump is, nonetheless, leavened by a certain fascination with those that have set out to break literature, or at least give it a good thrashing.

For where does the infodump begin or end? On the page? In a conversation? Broken up into a cavalcade of memes? Indeed, I dream of the world as infodump, and of a work that is one great infodump, a science fiction tour de force that inevitably and simultaneously will be a grand misstep. My Zanzibar that is no longer Zanzibar. Necessarily, it will divide opinion. There can be no other way.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Guy Debord, Correspondence: The foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957-August 1960), trans. Stuart Kendall & John McHale, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 376 (letter to André Frankin, 24 July 1960).

[2] It’s worth noting that Debord saw little of use in the novel form (at least for situationist uses): ‘There is not much future in the détournement of complete novels, but during the transitional phase there might be a certain number of undertakings of this sort’. The only such uses that Debord approved of, insofar as they brought him and other situationists the use of money in a moneyed world, were Michèle Bernstein’s parodic detournements of Françoise Sagan on the one hand, and the Nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet, on the other: respectively, Tous les chevaux du roi (1960), and La Nuit (1961), both Roman à clefs of sorts, dealing with Bernstein’s life among fellow young International Letterists.