Friday 6 February 2009

A Sociological Theory of Bad Sci-Fi

Taste is a subjective thing and it's pointless trying to construct a theory that rigorously or scientifically justifies one's preferences. But that's not going to stop me from having a stab at why bad science fiction is, well, pants.

In an excellent
post, Martin of Wis[s]e Words fame discusses how science fiction literature inhabits a second class existence. He talks about the feting of literary authors when they have a dabble in sci-fi (he mentions PD James, but also Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Philip Roth spring to mind), even if the science fictional aspect is, well, pretty dodgy. And also the assimilation of prominent (but often long dead) SF authors into the literary canon.

To my mind nothing illustrates the dichotomy between "proper" literature and SF more clearly than the prodigious output of
Iain (M) Banks. For his literary works he is simply known as Iain Banks, and for the SF the M initial is inserted. As a reader of all his work they are entertaining, clever, original, and witty. None of his SF can be shoe horned into the big-gun-bug-eyed-alien mould, even though there are plenty of them about. But as far as the literary world are concerned, some of his output is more worthy than others. According to the first edition of this book's attempt at creating a new literary canon, only one Iain M Banks makes it into the 1,001-strong list (The Player of Games) while a handful of his literary novels make the grade.

Can this be put down to general snobbery? Probably, but not solely. But what makes literature literary is, crudely and generally put, the adherence, or a commitment to subvert a set of accepted narrative strategies, which usually prize style, plotting, subtle invocations of influences and contemporary fashions, and characterisation. In other words, literary authors work in a particular field encompassing other authors, publishers, lay and academic apparatuses of criticism, and audiences with certain expectations. Ishiguro's
Never Let Me Go can get away with it not just because it is by a respected name, but because it conforms to certain literary conventions. Iain M. Banks's SF, a superb author like Peter F. Hamilton, at least for now, fall outside of these conventions.

The field of science fiction operates in much the same way hence why it is easy to dismiss literary forays into its domain as not 'proper' SF. For example it is quite possible to write a book or series of books around one or several big ideas and still win sci-fi plaudits because value is attached to speculation over and above traditional literary value. Authors like
Richard K. Morgan, Stephen Baxter and Harry Turtledove are certainly in this mode.

Bourdieu, fields do not exist in isolation. They inter-mesh and overlap other related and formally unrelated fields to varying degrees. Similarly everyone simultaneously inhabits multiple sets of fields and sub-fields. Some are in complementary relationships while others are conflictual and contradictory. In my own case, as a regular reader of science and literary fiction, I am aware of the "capitals", strategies and stakes each field possesses. Among others I inhabit a sociological field, circumscribed to a degree by specialism, geographical location, and academic biography/career; and the socialist end of the political field - again conditioned by my party membership, the issues that particularly interest me, and my experience as an activist. A theory of taste, or rather more accurately, a theory that explains why I like what I like can be constructed from concepts generated from this framework.

Let's illustrate this with a novel I've recently read.
John Birmingham's Weapons of Choice is the first in an alternate history trilogy that sees a multinational naval taskforce from 2021 accidentally transported across time and space to the mid-Pacific on the eve of the Battle of Midway. The rest of the book is spent with all sides - the task force and the 1942 combatants trying to come to terms with the "transition", with a touch of 21st century meets WWII scrapping along the way.

The premise of pitting modern day technology against the 2nd World War is not a new one - Harry Turtledove did it over four turgid books in his
World War series (where alien lizards from outer space have a go at invading Earth in 1942). And there are a couple of obvious winks in Weapons toward it. But what makes it objectionable to me is not just the cardboard characters and unlikely plotting (seriously, in a middle of a war and unsure about how much 21st century technology Japan had salvaged, would precious and irreplaceable materiel be expended in POW rescue missions?), but also the drawing of the female characters - who are either Paris Hilton alikes who do guns and kung fu, or dowdy lesbians - is awful, and the overall sociological naivete really grates. It offers an apologia for the War on Terror (accepting the thoroughly discredited claim this is a clash of civilisations and ideals) and puts a liberal gloss on the allied involvement in WWII, which, of course, was all about stopping the bad guys. Birmingham really does believe it too - there's more than one occasion when characters from the future lecture their forebears on the theory that history is merely a clash of contending ideas.

Weapons fits nicely into the alternate history/techno thriller sub-field of SF, but you cannot help but bring the baggage of other fields to bear when forming a judgment. It almost completely eschews literary values, sticks in the craw of my political values, and on top of that does as much violence to the laws of social development as the premise does to the laws of physics. But, again showing up the subjective limits of a sociological theory of bad sci-fi, Weapons is not intended as an intervention in any of these fields, but as a cultural artefact it cannot help but be interpreted through the filter of other fields and judged according to tastes informed by them.

Bourdieu's concepts provide a method for investigating literary tastes in much greater depth than this illustrative example, but it cannot arbitrate on the question of value. It is a way of explaining why some things are valued and others are not. What it cannot be is the final word on good and bad taste.

(An alternate and more formal way of spotting bad fiction is
here, courtesy of Feminist SF).


Anonymous said...

Wasn't this the same Bordieu who attacked Marxism as economically reductive? I've not read any Bordieu directly (though I mean to) but from what I had gathered second hand he always seemed much more able to fall into the Foucauldian "power relations not class relations" bunch...

Anonymous said...

Vonda N. McIntyre wrote an article called "Straining Your Eyes Through The Viewscreen Blues" about how to write SF including this passage:
"This is a slightly less blatant version of the game of space opera, in which one writes a western, then trades earth for Omega Orion XI, trades the six-guns for lasers, masers, rasers, phasers, or occasionally for broadswords and crossbows (in a high-tech civilization, mind you); the horses transmute to FTL starcruisers, the cleancut collegiate-type good guys in white hats turn into cleancut collegiate-type good guys in mylar jumpsuits, and the squinty-eyed bad guys in black hats turn into clones, giant ambulatory carrots, humanoids, virusoids, or insectoids (or vice-versa, depending on one's level of xenophobia)."

Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece. I tried the Birmingham book but gave up. I'm not madly fond of techno-thrillers. Interesting what you say about Hamilton which I'd largely agree with bar a couple of reservations, certainly he is an ideological writer of the centre/right which can make for some interesting approaches in his writing. In a way I find it fascinating how he stakes out a position there which is sort of unusual in the UK context...

Phil said...

Dave, I've read quite a bit of Bourdieu and I can't remember him attacking Marx as a reductionist. The one criticism he makes of Marxists is the tendency to forget the advice Marx himself once dispensed - that the things of logic should not be confused with the logic of things. That is to say the concepts with which we understand social phenomena are not the same as that social phenomena. Our models and theories can only ever be approximations of varying sophistication.

For example when workers fail to behave in a way a theory predicts they should, to draw a conclusion that things are hopeless or workers are too conservative or whatever is a failure to realise workers can at times behave as if they're guided by theory. If they don't there's something faulty with the analysis underwriting the theory. I think the wildcat strikes this last week have shown this to be the case for a good section of the far left.

Phil said...

Hamilton certainly carries a bit of leftist baggage with him, with the occasional sly digs at socialist politics in the Night's Dawn trilogy and the Commonwealth Saga. The first two books of the latter with the war against the borg-esque Primes shows more than a hint of animosity toward collectivist politics. And as for the universes he spins they're like a capitalist's wet dream - just compare its treatment with the galaxy-spanning capitalism of Banks's The Algebraist. You can tell there's a real difference between their political outlooks.

That said Hamilton's stuff is a truly excellent read.

Anonymous said...

Do you really want to take the Lindsey dispute into hyperspace?

I was hoping to get some time to read the post again properly and comment in detail. One question that springs to mind is why you want to talk about bad SF when there is so much of the good stuff to talk about. I might have thought that the first question to ask would be whether it is predominantly working-class people who read SF, presumably as escapism, though the only sociology course I've ever taken was in Deviance).

Isaac Asimov mentions in an introduction in a short story collection that one critic once complained that he had no style, but couldn't tell him what that was when he wrote to her.

Anonymous said...

So can we hope for a socialist analysis of William Shatner's TekWar?

Anonymous said...

Well I was going to say that if you were having a Terran Jobs For Terran Workers dispute and the Vulcans didn't support it, it might be better not to believe or claim that they'd turned into an unprincipled bunch desperate to hold Earth back, just that their logic had led them in a different direction. Just as they tend not to accuse you of being racist morons not because they are too polite, but because they know it isn't true, and even if you have the same position as the Klingons on the use of Romulan subcontractors doesn't mean you would be better allied with them than with the Vulcans.

I have a friend who grew up watching the original Star Trek in a mud hut in West Africa. After having travelled through a segregated Southern US as a very young child, it was obamaesque to see a black woman as the communications officer on a starship.

"The skipper grimaced at the empty visiplate. 'Because we don't know what they're like and can't take a chance!' "

Anonymous said...

That was from 'First Contact' by Murray Leinster, quoted as a Milestone in Bad Science Fiction in 'The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists' by Jakubowski & Edwards along with this from Robert Heinlein's 'The Number of the Beast':
"Our teeth grated and my nipples went spung!..
My nipples popped out; I grinned and stuck out my tongue at them. They stayed up; I was happy."

I don't think Heinlein was a scientologist, so I don't think John Sladek is referring to him in this excerpt from 'How I Became A Science Fiction Master in only 15 minutes a Day' from 'The Science Fiction Source Book' edited by David Wingrove:
"One prominent scientologist, I understand, back in the 1940s wrote on a special typewriter with extra keys for commonly used words like 'intergalactic' and 'spunng'. He also saved time by typing direct onto a roll of toilet paper."

Charles Platt does somewhere start a review of Heinlein's work by pointing out that Charles Manson had a copy of 'Stranger in a Strange Land' when he was arrested and doesn't get any nicer. I do recall a moment in SiaSL when a professional Witness is asked if a house in the distance is white, and she replies that this side is white.

I find the Culture novels unreadable. When I see the word Culture on a novel's blurb, I reach for my Browning as Goebbels would say. I do like van Vogt, the Slan novels but even the Null-A ones, I like Mack Reynolds' pulpy socialist tracts (as did readers of Astounding Science Fiction, surprising given the right-wing editor in a relatively right-wing country). Maybe I have relatively proletarian tastes, I'm not sure. There is literary SF I'm quite happy to read. I was in a SF bookshop recently and someone told a member of staff that he found it hard to read recently (last 20 years) published SF, and I have some feeling of that, as with preferring familiar music.

Philip K. Dick may have written novels with titles like 'Galactic Pot Healer", but that doesn't make themat all lowbrow.Perhaps there is more leeway in SF to write badly but still have meaning as the exact duplication of the present day is harder to keep going, and the qulity of the idea that distinguishes the SF story may mitigate its stylistic failures.

Havock21 said...

You Sir are a confirmed, halfwit.OK

The premise of pitting modern day technology against the 2nd World War is not a new one .

You missed the point here. its about the effect 21C technology has, the effect Knowledge of the future has both from a technological and social perspective. Equality, justice, how its perhaps evolved, hardened , a what if.

Its easy to see why so many people I know consider the SF community to be a bunch of HALFWITS, arrogant, stick up, we know and if its not to OUR GOD DAM NARROW LIKEING its SHIT!. You sir have managed to misinterpret the book, miss major plot lines and cannot get MIDWAY right FFSAKE.

Yes MIDWAY not MEDWAY and you hot linked it as well, still misspelled.

Oxygen thief you be.

Phil said...

Someone takes themselves a little too seriously methinks! Did you actually bother to read the post properly?

Skidders, I'll say this about the Vulcans - they'd never cross a picket line, it being illogical n'all.

As for who reads sci-fi, I don't know. I'm sure someone's done a study on its class readership somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Appreciating the Vulcans qualities may be half the battle.

May have meant Goering not Goebbels. Musn't misrepresent dead Nazis.

Perhaps "Weapons of Choice" fits neatly into one of the eight classic plots: the quest. Perhaps a literary rather than a sociological paradigm is what you need.

Ursula Le Guin says somewhere (perhaps in Science Fiction and Mrs.Brown) that the reason for reading fiction is enjoyment.

On 1001 books, Aldiss' Non-Stop was classicly misretitled in the US, but I would ruin it if you haven't read it if I told you how.

Phil said...

I'm surprised Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt made the grade. Intriguing premise but, tbh, it wasn't great. His Mars trilogy is far more worthy.

Anonymous said...

"Thoroughly discredited," huh? Saying it makes it so.

Phil said...

And your proof the war on terror is a clash of civilisations is?