Notes from New Sodom

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

Monday, March 14, 2011

Piffle and Balderdash

You know that Guardian article I tore into the other week? The flipside of Mullan's abjection of "genre fiction" is, of course, our tendency to project balderdash and piffle at the drop of a hat. For instance, a quote from this Sunday Herald interview with Kazuo Ishiguro has apparently been doing the rounds. Speaking about a younger generation's attitude to science fiction, he says:

“It’s almost like they’ve given us older writers licence to use it. Before, it was ghettoised and stigmatised. For years there has been a prejudice towards sci-fi writing, which I think has been to the loss of the literary world, and not vice versa. But with things like graphic novels now, people are taking it seriously.”

When writers say things like this it's probably a fair indication that they are... well, recognising an abjection of sf, acknowledging that the field of general fiction suffers in terms of quality because of this abjection, and acknowledging that the field of sf, actually, does not suffer. Because, you know, that's what they're saying. Explicitly. When writers say things like this, I'm really not sure what the point is in pointing accusingly at other writers and insisting that they obviously wouldn't be so unbiased, vis-a-vis Marty Halpern's response:

Though the quote speaks positively about SF, I would suggest that were you to ask authors Alex Garland and David Mitchell, whose work is specifically acknowledged in this article as examples of this "science fiction in lit" trend, both would vehemently deny that their stories have anything to do with "sci-fi." Rather, they would argue that their stories are about people, and real emotions, and the human condition in a setting that is different from our own reality. Heaven forbid these authors -- and their publishers -- should be associated with science fiction.

Which is all very well except that Ishiguro is talking about Garland's generation being the ones who opened his eyes. Immediately before that quote in the Herald:

He credits Garland’s generation for inadvertently assisting in writing the book. By the time Ishiguro returned to the novel for a third time in 2001, Garland and writers such as David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) had begun to experiment with science fiction.

Indeed, interviewed by the BBC about sci-fi and the Oscars, Ishiguro casts Garland as the direct influence who got the old dog to learn new tricks:

"If you're a novelist of my generation, we grew up with a prejudice against sci-fi - we felt slightly snobbish about it, whereas people of Alex Garland's generation embrace computer games, manga, and graphic novels. They mix all these things with highbrow ideas... I've learnt a lot from them, and being friends with those guys helped me lose my prejudices and a whole exciting world opens up. In cinema it's never been like that. Some of the greatest highbrow films like Metropolis, 2001 or Solaris have been sci-fi movies."

I would suggest that were you to ask Alex Garland, he might well be miffed at being painted as a gutless apologist for the sort of prejudice he has, it rather seems, actively done something about. Cause, yeah, the guy who's currently working on the screenplay for Dredd... I'm sure he's going to be real chuffed at being Edward Woodwarded into someone's Straw Man: Wait, what? You're sure I'd do what? Gee, thanks for the arrant presumption, not.

As for David Mitchell, here's an interview where he's asked about breaking with the sort of... standards of propriety I rant about in my response to Mullan, about the perception of impropriety in writing "genre fiction," about "this barrier between science fiction and ‘literary’ fiction. Is this barrier for real?" What he says is:

"I’ve never entirely made up my mind about this. There obviously is a barrier and some prejudice. I guess that’s where I’d start. I remember a while back a newspaper asked the question ‘What is Science Fiction?’ and they’d get 20 different answers from 20 different people. And the best answer I can recall is ‘Whatever is published as science fiction’. It sounds like a neat, pat answer but it’s actually saying something quite worthwhile, which is that genre is largely created by the industry. So approaching genre fiction, I think, the only question that really matters is, is it any good? I think, for example, James Ellroy is good, Margaret Atwood’s good, Ursula Le Guin is good. And whatever the semiotics of the cover are saying to me in terms of what genre this book is a member of, that’s almost a distraction that you have to make an effort to ignore”.

So, let's see? Acknowledges prejudice: check. Characterises the genre as essentially eclectic rather than formulaic: check. Offers the classic anti-definition of SF a la Damon Knight: check. Asserts that quality is all that counts: check. Names specific writers sold as category fiction who demonstrate that quality: check. Suggests it may well be necessary to willfully disregard the packaging which punts a book as pure commercial product, as this is insignificant/misleading: check. This seems a far cry from a vehement denial that his work has anything to do with sci-fi.

But, wait! Ishiguro doesn't actually slap on the geek chic t-shirt, run the flag up the mast and proclaim to all and sundry his absolute uncritical devotion to the glory of SF. Instead, in that article he's paraphrased (note: not quoted, paraphrased) as considering the label "sci-fi" misleading. We don't have any idea whether he actually said "sci-fi" or "science fiction" or "sf." We don't have any idea if, for example, he said that "science fiction would be a wholly accurate descriptor, but to call it 'sci-fi' conjures up associations that are totally misleading." But he expresses... reticence, damn him. He recognises that such a label invokes preconceived notions that are inaccurate. Shame on him! How dare he be worried that the term "sci-fi" will mislead the general public about the nature of the film because of the prejudices loaded into it!

Um... really? I mean, seriously, is this a heinous sin? To be uncomfortable with the film of NEVER LET ME GO being labeled "sci-fi" for the exact same reasons a writer published in the category of science fiction would be?

But, wait. No, he's not worried about alienating discriminating audiences. Rather, he's "wary like everybody else that it'll bring in the wrong audience with the wrong expectations." No fucking shit. It's a Hollywood movie. As far as Hollywood movies go, "sci-fi" is Total Recall, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Avatar, and so on, and so on -- the bloated bollocks of the spectaculist schlockbuster. Oh, for Ishiguro it also means Metropolis, 2001 and Solaris, but in the Hollywood marketing machine we all know, for fuck's sake, that this is not what "sci-fi" means. In the Hollywood marketing machine, "sci-fi" has a brand image of action/adventure which makes it Big Fucking Money. It's aimed at a mass audience -- not self-identifying SF afficionados, but people looking for popcorn flicks with eyeball kicks. This is the mass audience in cinema terms.

There is zero need to project into this some sneering, snobbish worry that "the theatre attendees will be nothing but freaks and geeks -- Spock-eared, light-sabre-wielding, loin-cloth attired -- expecting onscreen space ships and/or dinosaurs." This is wholly unfounded, as presumptuous as damning Garland and Mitchell for views they patently don't hold. Might it not just be, in stark fucking contrast, that the "wrong audience with the wrong expectations" Ishiguro is talking about is the great sodding mob of people -- people who've never picked up an SF book in their puff -- who'll think, "this is from the guy who did 28 Days Later and Sunshine; it's a sci-fi movie about clones; I guess it must be like that Ewan Macgregor film, The Island, or something"?

Yes, Ishiguro baulks at the term "sci-fi" because it carries a lot of bullshit baggage -- i.e. wrong expectations. This would be the term that is widely reviled by SF afficionados for the bullshit baggage it carries. The term that was coined by fans, worn proudly as a badge of identity and slowly became synonymous with schlockbuster shite because self-identifying sci-fi fans vocally and vehemently expressed uncritical loyalty to all things sci-fi. It's the term that many SF writer/readers never liked precisely because it signified the puerile rapture of devotees who reveled in the cheesy B movies, the shoddy TV shows, the masquerades at conventions, the schlockbuster cinema. It signified the cringe-inducing geekthink of those who somehow thought that coinage was cool, damn them. It's a term I've heard used within the field precisely to carve out the formulaic pandering (and/or specifically televisual/cinematic product) as "sci-fi" rather than "proper science fiction."

Me, I think this is disingenuous bullshit that insults the field's pulp roots in the attempt to distance oneself from the dreck. Before we cringe and kvetch automatically every time we hear it from the lips of someone not in the granfalloon of the sf community, we'd do well to remember that we invented the term. We gave it the meaning it has today, every single ounce of its significance. We made it conjure up freaks and geeks dressed in funny costumes, expecting spaceships and/or dinosaurs by engaging in a whole crazy carnival community of conventions celebrating it all with wild abandon, even the dodgiest drivel. Accept that crass side of it all, own the schlockiness of sci-fi... or don't. Abjure all that is sci-fi and decry this scum of pabulum as a pox on all that is sf, a false mockery of true science fiction that only contributes to the ghettoization and stigmatisation. Hell, if you want to deny the "sci-fi" label even this amount of legitimacy go right ahead; declare it an invalid label, ruined beyond utility by the decades of dross-engendered preconceptions it is now inextricable from.

I'm just not sure, if that's where we're coming from, why the fuck we'd slam Ishiguro for worrying that classing his science fiction movie as "sci-fi" might mislead a general populace with deep preconceptions about what "sci-fi" is. For the love of Cock, we spend enough time complaining about those preconceptions: No, Total Recall is not really a good example of "sci-fi" -- and we call it sf, by the way; no, Minority Report is not really a good example of sf either -- and please stop calling it "sci-fi"; no, the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds is really not a good example; look, have you seen Gattaca...? no, of course not, forget it. So Ishiguro thinks an audience expecting "another sci-fi movie from the 29 Days Later / Sunshine guy, but with clones" might be a tad disappointed? How the fuck is this a dealio?

When a writer from outside the field actually acknowledges those preconceptions as a problem, do we really have to throw up a monstrous straw flimflam of a bogeyman on the basis of one sentence, corralling not just that writer into it but every potential Enemy who comes to hand, damning them with our own preconceptions? Ishiguro says something respectful of sf, and what? We pick on Garland and Mitchell who're so obviously going to be sneery snootcockers, then zero in one tiny thing Ishiguro says that we can twist to a sneeringly disdainful stereotype?

Piffle and fucking balderdash, I say. And the sort that's only going to make us look, in its indignant fantasising, like the very freaks and geeks Ishiguro so vehemently -- in this utter projection -- wants naught to do with.



Anonymous Henry Swanson said...

I'm confused; can you help? Is it really *not* possible to take Ishiguro's quote for an already obsolete, 'back-handed complement' - ie. it's not as if anyone consciously working hard within the deep imaginative spaces of SF *needs* any 'recognition' of the intellectual, artistic and visionary 'validity' of Science Fiction.. right? Yes, there's a lot of piffle and balderdash talked about SF on both sides of the artificial (and uselessly snobbish) borders.. but - no, I forget the point I was trying to make because I don't have one. I'm just as confused about the true extent of my admiration and (perhaps misplaced & automatic) respect for SF, as I (/think I) am about anything else I like.. -Henry Swanson

9:55 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

"For years there has been a prejudice towards sci-fi writing, which I think has been to the loss of the literary world, and not vice versa."

How is that remotely confusing? For Cock's sake, the man is explicitly saying there's been a bullshit snobbery, an artificial border that's done more harm to lit-fic than SF.

"It's almost like [the younger generation have] given us older writers licence to use it. Before, it was ghettoised and stigmatised."

Again, explicit. The attitude of a younger generation (e.g. Garland) has rendered the old petit-bourgeois standards of literary "impropriety" as obsolete as Victorian dress-code.

Christ, it's not even like he's expressing some shocked -- which is to say condescending -- realisation that SF can be good (well I never!) It's not like he's offering a patronising and unnecessary validation from his position as a literary nabob. He's talking directly about how such snootiness is the defunct snipewankery of critical dinosaurs.

How exactly does one read "the prejudice is wrong and harmful, but it's now obsolete" as some sorta back-handed compliment?

8:36 pm  

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