Monday, September 21, 2009

The Future of Literature: Emergence of Two Cultures

In a recent post on his blog, author Ken MacLeod, draws attention to an article by Kim Stanley Robinson (author of the Mars trilogy) about the failure of the modern literary elite to recognize the genre of science fiction as a source of some truly great works. Also highlighted is the article in the Guardian in which Booker Prize judge John Mullan makes a sad attempt at rebuttal.
Follow the links above, then move on to my comments below (also left at Ken MacLeod's site).
I'm reminded of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures (many thanks to posts and discussions here for introducing me to the work). The natural sciences were dismissed by traditional academic elite of the day as being less important to the essence of human existence than the great works of literature that had (for centuries in many cases) served as the pillars of culture. Regardless of their role in the maintenance of our species' humanity, the Humanities cannot claim much credit for the technological progress that allows (the luckier segments of) the world to live largely free of the plagues, famines, and myriad daily inconveniences so pervasive in times past. (And as a side note, I would suggest that Humanities are at least as responsible as the Natural Sciences for all of disastrous abuses of technology that have followed its development).
I am, I'll admit, a relative new comer to SF, but it seems to me that SF is the experimentally investigative science of literature. I mean this in the sense that in SF, the author is allowed to create controlled experiments, as though he/she were working in a laboratory. The parameters can be set and altered as necessary to optimize the conditions, and then the author can follow scenario to its natural conclusion, free of many of the constraints of the outside world. Then, as the themes emerge, more and more of the outside conditions can be re-introduced, in a systematic way, until the controlled environment resembles the outside world enough to allow reasonable extrapolations based on the investigator's (author's) observations. I would think that the writing of historical novels, or most other genres of fiction, would be more akin to field observations, in which the author can follow events in great detail as they proceed, but has far less freedom to alter or shape their courses, and can therefore only ever report associations and correlations, rather than the causative relationships sought by the experimental investigator.
Perhaps this is all a bit of a stretch, but building upon the (partially implied) argument that the Natural Sciences are the vehicle by which a civilization, as a whole, may potentially progress (or destroy itself), and upon the observation that regardless of the attitudes of the literary elite about the Natural Sciences, science and technology have continued to prosper, I propose that SF is the future of literature. It will continue to grow, and regardless of whether it is recognized by the Booker Prize judges and other such experts along the way, it will become to traditional literary genres what the Natural Sciences have to the Humanities—not a replacement, and (I hope) not a direct antagonist, but rather a separate (and ever growing) culture whose power for understanding and shaping the world forces it to be recognized, acknowledged, and embraced... even if it is never fully respected by the elitists who are left to maintain their arts in the dusty halls and paper-strewn offices of an age that has past.


Procyon Sky said...

Thanks for the wonderful post and the link to Robinson's typically insightful and elegant essay.

I think science fiction as a field faces a huge challenge. It came into being in tandem with technological progress and industrial expansion, in the period from the early 1800s (Frankenstein, 1831, is often cited as the first true SF novel) to the late 20th century. That period saw technological, economic, and social change more rapid and far reaching than any period in human history, going back 200,000 years. The entire surface and biosphere of the Earth, and every human community therein, were transformed in a 200-year blink. It was natural for a predictive, case-study, scenario-exploring type of literature to emerge in that kind of environment. It was the literature of technological change and social extrapolation and the envisioning of vast new possibilities opened up by the spectacle of industrial abundance and techno-wonders, all of which seemed to be expanding without limit. Writers made a natural leap from the sight of factories and skyscrapers and aeroplanes to forecasts of space colonies and a future out in the great unexplored depths of the galaxy.

But now the period of abundance, expansion, and wonders is coming to an end. The next two hundred years will be a time of contracting resources, collapsing economies, and an increasingly denuded human toolkit. I think it natural that there will, amidst all that, still be a literature of thought experiment and of extrapolation. This new speculative, exploratory literature will be an evolutionary descendant of science fiction. But I'm not sure it will be science fiction, just as Homo sapiens is not Australapithecus.

I think it will have to be something new, that takes account of the new era. It will reflect a time of extremely rapid change, but in the opposite direction of what happened from 1800 to 2000. The new task of speculative fiction writers will be not to imagine limitless wonders but to give people hope amidst limits growing ever more implacable. To help them imagine a sane and decent society that can be built not out in the distant galactic future but here and now, with hands, toil, sweat, and whatever tools we can salvage from the wreck of the industrial age.

All that being said, I have to say that I just love Kim Stanley Robinson and his writing. My favorite part of his new scientist article: "So many wander in a vacuum, wondering what things mean, wondering where real pleasure and value can be found. It is always in literature. When you were young you knew. Try it again and see. The world will light up for you as if illuminated by a grand hypothesis, by an ongoing science of meaning - by the literature of your time."

When I read those words I thought of the time that I finished the second book in Robinson's "global warming trilogy" (which consists of Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting). I was sitting in the lobby of the Honda dealership while my car was being worked on. I finished Robinson's book and my whole mind sang with the mystical fire that comes only from reading a great and transcendent work of fiction. I lost track of everything happening around me. I saw and felt things, possibilities, new worlds that seemed just on the edge of real. I wanted to cry. I guess that's what it's like for religious people when they commune with God.

Anyway. I hope the future will always have that kind of writing, whatever form it takes.

When we were young, we knew.

Procyon Sky said...

Oh, and also, I need to start reading KSR's list of Brits.