Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Strange Fiction 6

6. Crazy Shit, Dude: or, SF and Cognitive Dissonance

Sidelined by our own kneejerk reaction against the attitude that "only a geek would take SF seriously", that "only a geek would expect rigorous science", pissed off by the implicit insult here (science is boring >> your interest is boring >> you are boring), we risk going off half-cocked in our response. What we ignore when we argue the case for SF as scientific and sensible, founded in theory and extrapolation, is that those works of Hard SF and Alternate History which best serve as examples here are only a fraction of the field. Yes, theory and extrapolation are one of the tricks by which SF prevents the counterfactuals / hypotheticals from overpowering the suspension of disbelief. But they are only one of the tricks, and it is only in a small corner of the field that this trick is seen as the most important.

SF does not simply, like the pathetic narrative, explain and explain and explain how things actually are or might be, substituting science for ideology (i.e. socio-political theorising). It doesn't just explicate the counterfactual / hypothetical until we are persuaded that, oh, well, of course this could have happened -- not here and now, but in the right circumstances, because of X, Y and Z and so forth, and so on. It doesn't treat the counterfactual / hypothetical so simply, as an awkward untruth -- a threat to suspension of disbelief that must be countered with logic -- a weakness to be overcome with reason; rather, like the comic or the tragic narrative, it treats the counterfactual / hypothetical -- and the tension towards disbelief that it generates -- as a strength to be utilised, exploited. Like the absurd or the unheimlich an irrationality is injected into the alternative / future narrative, an implausibility which it capitalises on.

Let's call it the strange.

How about some more poems? Like the alternative narrative:

There was an old woman in Peru, '52.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She joined the revolt and replaced the State's Head.

Or the future narrative:

There was an old woman in Mars City 2.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth and chips in the head.
She ripped their meme-patterns, installed them in Teds.

As you can see, I've done some extensive research into the socio-political situation in Peru in the 1950's, possible revolutionary factions, and events and actions which might have led to the desposing of the government of the day. And I'm sure you'll be wowed by the rigorous science underpinning my speculations on the viability of lunar colonies, robotics as toys, and the potential translation of human thought-patterns into other media so they can be made to persist outside the human flesh. You see how I've made it all plausible and stuff? Yeah?

What do you mean, "no"?

In those two example there should be a disjunct made obvious between, on the one hand, alternative narrative and Alternate History, and on the other hand, future narrative and Hard SF. The sort of alternative narrative which simply changes the past and tells a story in that altered setting (THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE? THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA?) is quite distinct from the type of Alternate History which pivots on theory and speculation regarding (usually military)courses of particular events. The same holds for future narratives and Hard SF. In the latter example there's not even the slightest effort at justifying the "speculative elements" -- but given that it's essentially a four-line story, why the fuck would I want to bloat the poem up with the requisite infodump anyway? Is it any less functional as a future narrative? And, hell, in the first example, rather than leaving out all the specificity of dates, peoples and places necessary to rationalise a counterfactual coup, I could have (with a few problems of rhyme and scansion) simply substituted Ruritania for Peru and still had what is fundamentally an alternative narrative.

Yes, these examples are boiled down to a ridiculous simplicity. But I think the future narrative is a good example of what's actually going on in a lot of SF; it's a little microcosmic picture of how at least one type of SF story may be constructed and, in its blithe disregard for any real honest-to-god theory and explication, it begs the question: why the fuck should we take this kind of crazy shit seriously? Mars colonies... chips in the head... identities stored as "meme-patterns"... downloaded into "Teds"... yeeeeessssss... riiiiiiiiiiight. You don't think that sounds a bit... fanciful?

We can and do take it seriously, but not because it's "possible". It isn't possible. It's fiction, and it's fiction containing elements which utterly contradict our knowledge of how the world is. We don't have Mars colonies. The only people with chips in their heads are a few loons at MIT who've read one too many issues of Mondo 2000. Identities cannot be stored as meme-patterns. And what the fuck is a Ted, anyway? (It's a robotic teddy-bear, dude. Isn't it obvious?) Half of that story is telling us "this could not have happened", not here, not now, and none of it is offering anything remotely resembling scientific justification for the *ahem* "speculative elements". So how does it work?

On one level it works because these fanciful notions are, to a large extent, conventional. We recognise these as tropes, fictive idioms which -- like those of Noir, Western, Romance, whatever -- we accept for the sake of a good yarn. We know the trench-coat wearing detective is unrealistic. We know pirates were not actually like Captain Jack Sparrow. We know the portrayal of the Wild West on screen is mostly tosh. But we accept them as romantic nonsenses because it's more fun that way. Forget the futurology. Forget the predictive accuracy, the scientific rigour. It's not a matter of setting up a "what if", a hypothetical, and extrapolating forward from that, finding a story in the ramifications; as often as not the story comes out of the tropes and is only bolstered with theory afterwards.

Going back to Jetse's "laws of the possible", I'd say we need to substitute "plausible" for "possible" if we're going to be brutally honest about SF. And I'm not even sure it's always that plausible. The jaunting in Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, for example, is a hypothetical with no real theoretical basis other than the classic SFnal handwaving of "the next stage in human evolution". We might try and justify it by muttering something vague about quantum physics, but it's got sod-all foundation in real science. Fuck it, I'd say Bester is totally walking roughshod over the laws of physics here, kicking thermodynamics to one side, pushing the dirt over it and saying, Look, it's the Goodyear Blimp! as he points in the other direction.

Bester's classic novel may well have rather a lot more to it, to put it mildly, than the throwaway doggerel of my nursery rhyme, but... in terms of theory and extrapolation? In terms of plausible scientific speculation?

So of course your average non-genre reader, recognising the dependence on conventionality, recognising the strategies of pulp genre and Romanticism -- the cowboys and the monsters and the rocket-ships and so on -- is going to wonder why on Earth we take this stuff seriously. As long as we continue to justify SF by reference to the plausibilty of the science, they'll continue to counter with the references to the innumerable works where no such plausibility is evidenced, the countless cases that work, that we immerse ourselves in, that we suspend our disbelief in, regardless of their fanciful content... simply because the tropes that they're constructed from are accepted as "harmless fun".

Of course they too are wrong. Yes, one technique for dealing with the disruptive artificiality of the counterfactual / hypothetical is to rationalise it. Yes, another technique is just to excuse it as a conventional whimsy, a product of the innately romanticising nature of the form. But neither of these are the only technique. Like the comic and tragic narrative, this future narrative functions by making the irrationality an integral component of the story, I would argue, a structural feature. As the comic and tragic narratives are built around the absurd and the unheimlich, so this SF narrative is built around the strange. Let's look at that nursery rhyme in a bit more detail to try and trace exactly how.

The first sentence dislocates us from the here and now, introducing the new subjunctivity of "could not have happened now" by positioning the events in an obviously invented place -- Mars City 2 -- a simple combination of known terms which do not belong together in our world. There's a cognitive dissonance here, an estrangement, but it's mitigated by conventionality. On one level the convention is from the real world, the name-structure of the settlement being in a recognisable, traditional format -- Kansas City, Sun City, Mexico City... Mars City. On another level, we also recognise a fictive convention, the SFnal tradition of naming otherworldly colonies in that format. Given that there's a Sun City in the real-world, there's a possibility that we could theoretically read this as an alternate narrative rather than a future narrative, assuming that this invented Mars City is still located on Earth... but this reading is pretty damn unlikely, I'd suggest. Even if you've never read an SF book or seen a Sci-Fi film in your life, you're more likely to map the relationship thus: Mars City is to Mars as Kansas City is to Kansas (and as Mexico City is to Mexico). And just to seal the deal the extra SFnal convention of the numbered colony is thrown in -- it's not just Mars City, it's Mars City 2. And again this maps to a real-world convention -- the numbering of military bases, scientific stations, rocket ships, and so on.

The result is that the sense of dislocation is balanced with a sense of relocation. A synthetic elsewhere which eases the estrangement can be easily constructed by the readerout of the very words that create the estrangement in the first place.

An aside. Compare how the original nursery rhyme sets up a similar estrangement with the word "shoe", but does not offer a counter-balance of interpretability. Compare also the parseable structure of "Mars City 2" with a name designed to signal Fantasy rather than SF -- where there might be clues in the linguistic roots of the name to the "location" of the city in a sort of conceptual space (e.g. "Katambuktu", "Saint Beaucoup") or not as the case may be (e.g. "Rakkasneru"). In both we are offered a relocation to a synthetic elsewhere, but the elsewhere of fantasy is positioned in a metaphoric landscape of culture and language rather than. In fact, with fantasy the dislocation might well be offered with no relocation whatsoever, or with a relocation to a synthetic elsewhere that lacks even the conventional signal of place which we're offered in the capitol R of Rakkasneru. I could easily imagine a writer like Jeff Ford, for example, beginning a surreal little fable with the first line of the nursery rhyme exactly as it stands: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. This is why I referred to the "nascent fantasy" of the nursery rhyme.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Back to the future narrative:

If the first sentence dislocates (and relocates) us, creating a sense of estrangement, the second sentence reassures us that, regardless of this estrangement, the story does still relate to our own experience, by focusing on the comprehensible relationship between a mother and her children; it sets up a completey recognisable situation and a completely recognisable problem. One might say that the writer is distracting the reader from the dissonance, forestalling any collapse of the suspension of disbelief by saying: don't worry; this is about human beings just like you. But "distract" is the wrong word. Rather I think the writer is establishing a sense of normality within the strange, establishing the relationship between the elsewhere which is strange to us and the here-and-now we know. This is the sense in which SF is often said to be about the present rather than the future. Think of the sort of classic PKD novel where the elsewhere is a Mars colony in the future, but Dick basically portrays it as 1950's suburban America.

I'd suggest that a good term for this might be "cognitive consonance".

Moving on, the third sentence fuses the comprehensible and the strange, the old and the new, balancing the novelty of "chips in the head" against the traditionality of "broth"; but it also, in following on from the first two, develops the narrative. Attuned to the try/fail cycle of plot, understanding that the broth is an attempt to solve the narrative problem, we understand also that the chips in the head are to be read as a part of this story. Our interest is piqued. Are the chips in the head connected to the broth? Are they another attempt at a solution? Will they work? If so how?

In the fourth sentence we're given the solution in a double-whammy of weirdness. We can discern an instantly recognisable feature of SF here in the world-building effect of language, whether it's actual technological jargon ("ripped", "installed"), pseudo-scientific portmanteau ("meme-pattern"), or a known word recontextualised as the signifier of an invention ("Teds"). Again we see situational estrangement, in the idea of a "meme-pattern" and in the implication that these can be recorded.

The really important thing, however, is that the linguistic innovation is not just situationally estranging; it is structurally integral. The resolution of the problem and the fusion, the coalescence, the collapse, of these... estrangements into the singular idea of "chips in the head which allow us to rip a person's meme-patterns and install it elsewhere" are inseperable. At the point where we grasp just what those chips in the head can do -- when we realise that a mind, having been recorded, can be downloaded into a robotic teddy-bear so that the mother no longer has all these hungry kiddiwink's flesh-mouths to feed -- we are being given not just a (novel, strange) hypothetical but a solution of the problem, a resolution of the plot.

So we can see in this an example of what (as I understand it, at least; my knowledge of his work is second-hand, I'm afraid) Darko Suvin refers to as "novum", the sort of "speculative element" which gives SF is title as "the literature of ideas". What we're looking at here is an overload of linguistic strangeness, coinages piled on top of one another, heaped around the core idea of "chips in the head" until the conceptual mass is sufficient for that accumulation of suggestions of innovation to collapse into a singular idea; in that sense, novum is an apt term. This novum is not the same thing as a genre trope, not at all -- though most novum will eventually be recycled by later writers, and a set of tropes derived from the process of conventionalisation, symbolic formulation. Even when a novum is constructed in a fiction which plays with existing tropes, familiarity is of less import than the estrangement, the peculiar novelty it capitalises on.

This is, I think, what really makes us take an SF work seriously. These novum work, and make the story work, because they function as conceits. The reader enters the story with a willing suspension of disbelief. The writer deliberately fucks with that, introducing a counterfactual / hypothetical. But that irrationality is neither mere thought-experiment nor mere fancy. Functioning like an extended metaphor made concrete it integrates plot and theme, glues the story together around it. And like all metaphors it s power rests in the peculiar relationship of literal untruth and non-literal veracity. OK, the writer says, if you're happy to believe my plausible lies, let me give you an implausible lie. Let me give you the absurd, the unheimlich, the strange. Let me give you a counterfactual, a hypothetical, a conceit. Yes, it's patently unreal. Yes, it's going to throw you out of that cosy subjunctivity of "this could happen". But it's an integral part of the story without which the story would not function, would not be a story at all. And if you just keep your disbelief suspended, with that lie I'm going to try and tell you something true.


Blogger Lou Anders said...

As evidenced from this, one of my all time favorite opening lines:

"In the Year One, we came in an armada of a million spacecraft to settle upon, colonize, and claim for our homeland this giant grasshopper on which we now dwell." - Michael Swanwick, "Mother Grasshopper"

But now I think Jeffrey Ford has to write about an old woman and a shoe.

6:46 pm  
Blogger SimonKavanagh said...

Hal Duncan said:

"Yes, theory and extrapolation are one of the tricks by which SF prevents the counterfactuals / hypotheticals from overpowering the suspension of disbelief. But they are only one of the tricks, and it is only in a small corner of the field that this trick is seen as the most important."

Oh ... Christ. It's like Auerbach's 'Mimesis' quelled by 'Harry Potter and the Enormous Cheque'.

Please, Jebus, let them stop talking about fields. Or give me a very big tractor - so I can cheerfully plough it.

Look - I admit Hal's handsome, but this really has to stop.

I do wish that people wouldn't - because they wish to be close to him - encourage Hal.

Admittedly, the very first time I met him (in an elevator at an Eastercon) I thought, as many others have: 'Gosh -

tall, dark and handsome. What's not to like?'

Then he said, as we got onto said hotel elevator that generously serviced the hundred-and-fourth floor (where they

put the smokers):

'Ah. Mon frere. Are we yet upon the Acheron or the Styx?'

And everyone on that lift piled off. Rapidly ... as if the Titanic had struck a bard. Or there was a sale at Argos.

I, however, stayed.

Clever me:

Simon: 'Does this button work? Any? Ha ha....'

Hal: 'A clever working button? In the age we have yet ordered? Surely work is but the ...'

Simon 'Yes, clever, whatever. You f***ing button. You little fu ...

Hal: 'You seem 'agitato'.

Simon : 'Do I...'

Hal: 'But doubtless, your own aggresion is as of Eliot's "Hysteria" is surely - no pun intended - a distillation of Coleridge's dark well of creation as noted in the Biographia Literaria, Volume II.'

To which I drily replied:

"Lobby," as I serenely frantically hammered the 'Emergency' button.

How we laughed! And yet I decided that if the shaking of his soul could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end*.


* Which concludes the case for the defence, m'lud.

2:51 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oh, you lying scoundrel, Kavanagh. You 'orrible, 'ackney 'oofter, you! You know fine well that all I do at Eastercons is get really drunk and sing extremely badly, so our conversation would have gone like this:

Simon: Hello, angel.

Me: BoooOOORN FREEEeeeee!!!!

Simon: Aren't you that Duncan bloke my good friend Peter Lavery refers to as "Alhal"?

Me: As free as the wind BLOWSSSSS!

Simon: I've heard that you're *terribly* clever...

Me: As free as the GRASSSSS grows!

Simon: ...and rather gay. Which is nice.

Me: Like the Pink FlaMINGOOOOOSSSS!

Simon: You really are a terrible flirt, Mr Duncan...

Me: Like Placido DoMINNNNGOOOOO!

Simon: ...but I do find you quite charming, and...

Me: As freeEEE as my BIIIIIIG NOSE!

Simon: ...this may be a bit naughty of me, but...


Simon: ...would you be interested in a quick...


Simon: ...drink. Guinness, isn't it?


Simon: Is that a "yes"?

Lift [arriving at lobby]: *PING*

Me: DRINK!!!!!

Now tell me that's not a far more plausible scenario than your fanciful concoction.

6:56 pm  
Blogger SimonKavanagh said...

Re: our conversation.

"Now tell me that's not a far more plausible scenario than your fanciful concoction."

Ummm ... well... yes.

It is.

I've been bad ...

4:18 pm  

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