Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Ghetto Within The Ghetto

Lou Anders steps in to the Benford Debate with a very thoughtful post which says some of the things that Benford was -- I agree with Lou here -- trying to say about the precarious position of rationalism in a somewhat anti-rationalist climate... but leaving out the Fantasy straw man and getting to the much more cogent point about how that Enlightenment ethos is presently faring...

"In fairness to Benford, we are not exactly living under a science-sympathetic administration at present." says Lou.

He has a lot of good points, and I'll pick up on one in particular, which Gary Gibson also quotes in his take on the matter:

"As someone who grew up in a much deeper south than even the region is today, it was exposure to science fiction that had a direct and measurable influence on deprogramming me from the prejudices and ignorance prevalent in a lot of my immediate childhood environment. I grew up around Christians who believed in a seven day creation, preached the reality of Hell and Judgement, and railed against the lie that was evolution. They were also, for the most part, racists and homophobes. They told jokes using the N-word, would never date a minority or someone who had, and generally represented a host of values I find base and inexcusable. And the only difference between them and me was that I had a father who shoved a science fiction paperback into my pre-teen hands and ordered me to read it. After all, it's pretty hard to be prejudice against blacks and gays when you're a-okay with Klingons and the Green Men of Mars."

After quoting this, Gary goes on to say how he thinks some of the furore is missing the point:

"When I say 'missing the point' what I mean is that (so it seems to me) Benford's real concern is that scientific rationalism - or simply rationalism, full stop - is under constant attack from base superstition and base prejudice... When Benford disses the rise of fantasy, it seems to me his real concern is the loss of science fiction's core message: that it can introduce the reader - particularly the young reader - to one of the core values of rationality: questioning the accepted order of things."

I think there's a lot of truth to what Lou and Gary are saying. SF as deprogramming? Hell, as a gay kid growing up in Central Scotland, I can identify pretty strongly with the picture Lou paints of his childhod environment. The New Town housing scheme in Hellwinning where I grew up was built in the 70s to take the Glasgow inner city overspill and punt it out to greener, more suburban pastures. Result? Take the razor-gang culture of Glasgow and cross-breed it with the small town mentality of an Ayrshire village. Subsitute "catholics" for "blacks" and you get the picture. The Scots, much as I think wey're an innately socialist culture, also gave the world the Orange Lodge and the Masonic Order and, eventually, the Ku Klux Klan. I remember the National Front, Skrewdriver, all of that same "prejudice and ignorance" that Lou puts his finger on. And I remember how reading Robert Heinlein (of all writers!) opened my eyes to issues of sexuality and gender, with works that, for all their self-indulgent libertarian tosh, presented ideas of group marriages and alternative lifestyles that helped me come to terms with my sexuality. Samuel R Delany kicked the door wide open, but it was Heinlein who unlocked it, so to speak, when I was that 14 year old kid finding solace in the local library, devouring Asimov and Bradbury and -- holy fuck -- the crazy, whacked-out drug dreams of PKD. Questioning the accepted order of things? Damn straight.

And here we are now, twenty years later, with a rat in the Vatican and a chimp in the White House, with fundamentalism on the rise, and bread and circuses on the telly. Intelligent Design in the classrooms (well... some classrooms). Nazis marching in Australia. Is this actually the End of the Enlightenment? Do I get to live out the next fifty years of my life watching the gradual erosion of our belief in rational thought until one day the New Falangists come to shoot me and dump my body in the woods somewhere? Well, that might be a bit alarmist but I wonder just how much the name "Lorca" actually means to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Say "fascist" to someone and they'll nod -- yeah, like Hitler, Mussolini. Franco, anyone? Spain, anyone? A half a century of fascism right on our fucking doorstep, shrugged off with a few package holidays in Benidorm. Forgive me if I don't trust us not to backslide into the civilised barbarisms of the 20th Century.

So where does SF fit into this equation then? Does it have a core message of rationalism which serves to counter the anti-Rationalist drive of those who'd turn back the clock to the fucking Dark Ages? Yes and no, I think. Lou and Gary -- rightly, I think -- point to SF as a battleground between science and superstition, but to focus in too narrowly on rationalism as a central tenet of SF, I think, runs the risk of confusing the battleground with the troops. There's a lot of different types of SF, with a lot of different aesthetics at play in them. We can imagine SF as the vanguard of rationalism but I think a simple look at the shelves reveals a more complex picture, one with, yes, front-line shock troops, but one which also includes Fifth Columnists and armchair generals. This is my main bone of contention with the whole debate of SF=rationalist versus Fantasy=romantic; it's where I take issue with Benford, and anybody else arguing on the basis of such an artifical dichotomy.

Let's look at it from the other angle for a second. What seems to go hand-in-hand with this definition of SF as profoundly rationalist is the application of an oppositional definition as regards Fantasy. Gary doesn't do this and neither does Lou, but Benford's blog entry, I'd say, is working with exactly such a definition of Fantasy. And the key incendiary point which sparked off the webwrath around this entry is, I'd suggest, that the narrowing of definition with regards to Fantasy is carried out on a different basis to that by which the definition of SF is focused in on a purely rationalist core. Where SF is characterised by a kernel of craft which sits amongst a morass of commercial hackwork, Fantasy is characterised by the morass of commercial hackwork which sits around a kernel of craft. Benford, it seems to me, is making a category error we see constantly at the root of this Great Debate, equating SF with the literary handcrafted mode of Hard SF and Fantasy with the commercial production-line bulk of MacFantasy. Since SF has its own commercial production-line bulk and Fantasy has its own literary handcrafted modes, by not comparing like with like, the result is specious and insulting. At its most generalising and superficial this misconception ends up with the hawk-eyed, square-jawed intellectual brilliance of SF in the blue corner and slack-jawed, blinkered superstitious nonsense of Fantasy in the red corner. SF versus Fantasy. Science versus superstition. Rationalism versus Romanticism.

As I say, Lou doesn't make this slur:

"For my money, it's all about narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off."

Gary likewise imposes no preconceptions on fantasy:

"It's hard for me to define what the core values of fantasy (however you might choose to define it) might be, but ultimately fantasy, like sf and every other form of literature, is a tool to be used in whichever way a particular author chooses to use it."

Thing is, you could swap the terms "sf" and "fantasy" in there and the statement would be just as relevant, just as pointed. Unless we define SF as innately rationalist we're unable, I think, to define the core message as rationalist; we can only examine it as, like fantasy, a literary tool with many applications. And the characterisation of SF as profoundly rationalist -- to the extent that Benford ascribes -- is, I think, a matter of choice rather than subjective truth. The nature of that choice is to take the whole field of SF, ignore much of the contradictory theories and alternative definitions, discard a large proportion of what we call SF, and focus in on a narrow subset -- the fictions created by those writers working in the literary mode I tend to label Scientistic Fiction.

Having already gone into the whole idea of fabulation and formulation at great length in previous blog entries, I'm not going to reiterate my position, except to say that a) the commercial bulk of both genres is Symbolic Formulation; b) Symbolic Formulation is functionally indistinguishable regardless of genre; c) we can either characterise both genres by the morass of hackwork or examine both on equal terms looking for core features; d) doing the latter allows us to distinguish various literary modes which can all be described as forms of Strictured Fantasy; e) one literary mode -- which I label Scientific Fancy -- is defined simply as utilising scientific speculation and is primarily concerned with the use of such as a fictive tool; f) the most deeply rationalist of these modes, precluding metaphysics and "magic" and requiring complete scientific rigour, I call Scientistic Fiction.

This begs the questions: is that literary mode of Scientistic Fiction actually the core of SF in general? Is this an accurate analysis of the basic nature of SF?

No, I'd argue. Scientistic Fiction is one type of SF but not the core. It is not the dominant mode -- in terms of basic numbers, in terms of books on shelves in the shops. Nor is it the fundamental mode -- in terms of historical roots, in terms of features necessarily shared by the books we label SF. The real core of SF is more Scientific Fancy than Scientistic Fiction, a literary mode which is as Romantic as it is Rationalist, if not more so... as much Verne as Welles, if not more so. Again, I've blogged about this at length already so I won't repeat myself; all I'll say is that any objective survey of the history of SF, whether you start with Mary Shelley, with Verne and Welles, or with the American pulps, will recognise the vast influence of Romanticism in SF. I think it's simply inaccurate to characterise SF as exclusively rationalist, when the core of it is driven, as I see it, by a fusion of Romanticism and Rationalism.

The proponents of Scientistic Fiction seem to have always had a love/hate relationship with Romanticism. While more than willing to utilise its heroic character types and plot structures and, more importantly, its aesthetic of the sublime, they are perhaps uneasy with the suspension of doubt which goes hand in hand with this Romantic sense of rapture. Since SF's sense of wonder, like that of Fantasy, hinges on the sensation of incredulity, this can lead Scientific Fancy to constantly push the boundaries beyond what is scientifically possible, if not indeed beyond what is logically possible in order to provide the reader with something truly "incredible". To the proponents of Scientistic Fiction there is a line that cannot be crossed, at which point the work becomes "Science Fantasy" or simply "Fantasy". This is usually the point where the incredible becomes inexplicable (other than with recourse to the metaphysical, the magical, that is). Scientific Fancy, on the other hand, gives a lot of leeway, accepting ESP and jaunting in the works of Bester, gods and reality-breakdowns in the works of PKD, the metaphysical conceit of Zelazny's Roadmarks, the bending of time and space in Herbert's Dune, and so on. From its very inception, indeed, SF had writers such as Bradbury, stories such as "The Veldt" at its very heart.

This, I suggest, is one source of the hostility shown to Fantasy by proponents of Scientistic Fiction. Many of the benchmark works of SF breach the rigours of Scientistic Fiction and yet, with a flagrant disregard for scientific orthodoxy, we continue to blithely refer to them as SF. The proponents of Scientistic Fiction, characterising such breaches as "fantasy", and characterising their own literary mode as the core of the field, must therefore characterise these breaches as the incursion of Fantasy into SF, a pollution of the pure form. The result is, I think, a bunker mentality, a sense that rationalist SF is under attack from an Other whose worldview is anti-rationalist, Romantic. The result is, I think, a ghetto within the ghetto.

There are two confusions at work here.

Firstly, if Scientific Fancy is the historical and formal core of the genre, it cannot be the metaphysical, the irrational, which is the corrupting element, since this is an intrinsic aspect of works like those of PKD. Romantic forms -- in terms of cliches of character and plot structure -- can be seen as having a negative affect on the literary nature of all SF, but this should be sourced to the process of Symbolic Formulation, which is as much a part of SF (c.f. formulaic Space Opera) as of Fantasy (c.f. formulaic Epic Fantasy). This is simply a side-effect of the process of genrification.

Secondly, the metaphysical and the irrational is not actually the automatic indicator of an anti-rationalist, Romantic worldview. Rather, it might equally well be evidence of a Modernist worldview at work, one which is seeking to reconcile the illogic of our human experience with the logic of the systems we create, to reconcile passion and reason, to offer frameworks by which we can relate the "spiritual" nature of our consciousness to the "material" nature of our cosmos. This is why, I would argue, so much SF is Scientific Fancy rather than Scientistic Fiction, and why so much Scientific Fancy not only accepts the metaphysical and the irrational as an element but, as in the works of PKD, addresses it full-on. The core values of SF include scientific rationalism, yes, but that is because it has the core values of Modernism; as pulp, populist, Modernist fiction, it inherits from and incorporates the rationalist worldview.

The predication of a division between SF and Fantasy based on the one being Rationalist and the other being Romantic, leads then, I think, to a division in SF itself, that between Scientistic Fiction and Scientific Fancy. Projecting the same erroneous assumptions of a Romantic aesthetic onto Scientific Fancy as it does onto all of Fantasy, seeing works in this mode as "impure" works of an SF which is and must be Rationalist above all else, the mindset of the champions of Scientistic Fiction leads us into a factionalism which is surely pointless and artificial.

Now, bringing this all back to the point we started at, where does this leave SF as a fiction which questions the accepted order of things. If we see it as, at heart, Scientific Fancy rather than Scientistic Fiction, as Modernist rather than Rationalist, I think, it's actually in an even stronger position, because in tackling the metaphysical questions, questions of what it means to be human, the nature of reality, of truth itself, as PKD, for example, does again and again, SF brings to bear not just the core values of scientific rationalism but the core values of secular humanism. It is both of these value sets, I would argue, which really define the battleground. And it is the latter, I would argue, most of all which make SF the type of fiction which can help a 14-year old kid in Ayrshire come to terms with his sexuality, or show another kid from the Deep South that the prejudice and bigotry of his peers is small-minded nonsense. I'm by no means trying to minimise the importance of scientific rationalism here, but without that humanist value system, we might well still be rationalising racism.

To use Lou's examples, in SF itself, I would argue, the scientific rationalist approach tends to give us characters whose nature is as often as not determined largely by their race. Both the Klingons and the Green Men of Mars are presented as warlike by nature. Other examples from the same sources -- the Ferengi, the Romulans, the countless sub-human races of Burroughs -- we are often much less A-OK with, and we are so because the writers are providing us with representations of genetic determinism which if applied to Jews or Germans or Amazonian tribesmen could be considered rather dubious to say the least. It is, I think, the application of secular humanism which gives us the subversion of such stereotyping in SF.

So... it seems to me that SF as I see it, while not as exclusively Rationalist as the Scientistic Fiction I think Benford is championing, is definitely on-board with the whole Defence-of-the-Enlightenment thing. The question then is how to go about it.

We can, if we wish, argue for a Rationalist entrenchment against the opposing aesthetic of Romanticism. It seems to me that this is, essentially, Benford's argument. And I think it's fair enough to look at those aspects of Romanticism which are deeply and dangerously irrational and reactionary. The aesthetic which idealises the individual's will-to-power, which appeals to emotion rather than reason, which derides the intellectual "constraints" of reason, which glories in the sublime nature of the wild, which looks to the "heroic" heritage of the past for chivalric models of virtue -- this is the aesthetic which gives us fascism. It's an aesthetic which is I think lurking at the heart of the current self-infatuation of Americanist culture, under the rhetoric of anti-intellectual, martial patriotism. I'd love to see some real scientific rationalism brought to bear on that.

I'm not convinced however that Scientistic Fiction, for all its opposition to the irrationalisms of Romanticism is actually engaged with it enough on any real level to serve as a counterweight. Sod the particle physics. Where is the Scientistic Fiction dealing with the linguistics and psychology of Neo-Con agitprop? The New Scientist had a recent issue devoted to the nature of fundamentalism. There are studies on the nature of fundamentalism. If Scientistic Fiction wants to counter the descent into the Dark Ages, these are the ideas we should be disseminating. Show me some Scientistic Fiction which extrapolates a dystopia from Kohlberg's study of the stages of moral development, which throws in the statistics showing greater engorgement in the dicks of homophobes shown gay porn than in those of non-homophobes; the front line of the battle against fundamentalist bullshit is not in a particle accelerator.

But instead of engagement Scientistic Fiction seems to be reacting with entrenchment, with a disengagement, a retreat into cloisters as shadowed and solid and safe for the would-be intellectual as those of Academia. What the fuck is Benford doing walking out of the Hugos, abandoning fiction for non-fiction? These are tacit acknowledgements of defeat... sullen, petulant hissy fits that hardly help the cause, brother. Rather than addressing the mire of human emotions, the insanities of societies and cultures, rather than acknowledge the irrational and tackle it full-on, the scientistic -- rather than scientific -- rationalist seems to have gotten into the habit of just snorting with contempt at their bugbears of superstition, metaphysics and "magic", "Fantasy". This is a reaction ruled by passion rather than reason; it smacks of one of the most basic emotions, one that drives us blindly and irrationally to the heights of idiocy and lurks at the root of all prejudice: disgust.

This is where I think Benford, and Scientistic Fiction in general, goes wrong. As soon as your worldview has you reacting with knee-jerk disgust, turning away from any challenge to that worldview, cocking a snoot at some imagined rival encroaching on your domain, it ceases to be truly rationalist skepticism, I think, and runs the risk of letting in religious faith by the back door. It's not scientific but scientistic -- idealising the method, tribalising the practitioners, projecting malice onto those pagan idolators next door. Rather than questioning the accepted order of things you end up trying to impose your own "accepted order of things". A recent article on scientism in the New Scientist talks of the belief "that the world is accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason". How does it describe this belief? "This is a profoundly unscientific idea. It is neither provable nor refutable."

Further on in the same article, the author points to Hitler's use of the biology of Ernst Haeckel, and the roots of Stalinist Communism in the Marx's conviction that a science of history had been discovered, to illustrate the dangers of the scientistic worldview: "There is nothing whatsoever in science -- and this should be shouted from the rooftops of every scientific institution -- that makes it immune from such abuses... Some scientists will dispute this, claiming that the values of open, objective enquiry, mutual criticism and protection of learning in the accumulated wisdom of science amount to an ethical system which, if applied to the world, would make it a better place, potentially protected from future horrors. This is not wrong, just fantastically utopian. Such values are not exclusive to science; they preceded it. Science sprang from philosophy, theology and even magic. The reason it became science at all was because of the direction these disciplines took in the course of the Renaissance."

Damn straight. It would be nice to think that everything is and must be explicable, open to rational thought, but taking scientific rationalism that far removes the skepticism, renders it a faith. And if that scientistic faith has you hiding in the dug-out and firing blanks at your own comrades, basically calling them intellectual cowards for "retreating into fantasy", well, ye need some bloody sense knocked into ye, man, cause ye've clearly gone a bit doolally with the ole shellshock. But I'll cut Benford some slack. I'm not a true believer that way myself and I got my problems with the over-zealous application of that faith as regards SF (as should be fairly clear by now), but, hey, when it comes to the Enlightenment against the New Barbarians, man, we're quite clearly on the same side. I just think... point the gun over there, mate... over there.


Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Ditto that.

2:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks extremely, you've clarified a lot that was bugging me about the original post. Came over from matociquala on lj, adn she's absolutely right.
Will cross-post.

5:23 am  
Blogger paul f cockburn said...

Wasn't it Karl Popper who suggested that for any proposition or theory to be "scientific", it had to admit the possibility of being shown to be false?

9:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was Popper who popularized the notion, anyway.

Amen, Hal.

My one quibble is with the term "secular humanism" -- I don't think that fits what you're talking about. The way I've generally heard "secular humanism" employed is much narrower -- as a particular position on ethics and metaphysics, a claim about the world rather than an attitude of skepticism about claims about the world. I think you're talking about what Delany calls "civilization" -- by which he means the tolerance and skepticism about their own tribal myths that people have to learn to live in cities, which are by definition multi-tribal.

But that's a quibble, and maybe you simply mean something different by "secular humanism". Anyway, amen.

10:02 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I agree with your analysis of Rationalism and Romanticism - let's not forget that the French Revolution crowned Reason as a Goddess and then went on to massacre ordinary people. I think SF (and a lot of other literature) is about the marriage of reason and passion; in fact Kim Stanley Robinson has a lengthy peroration on the subject in The Years of Rice and Salt - he uses the term samadhi to refer to it.

I just bought Vellum and started reading it - totally hooked already.

Whether you call the quality you refer to "secular humanism" or "civilisation" or "postmodernism" or perhaps even "the perennial philosophy", I think it is all about being aware that there are multiple perspectives on things, and that more than one of them may be true. I'm not talking about relativism here, more about being aware of the relatedness of everything (in the sense of Deleuze's rhizomes rather than some holistic notion of interconnectedness). But at the same time we need to be prepared to defend our tolerance against bigots.

4:11 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Trying to assess a work's success in fulfilling its aims sounds perfect, but there are a number of problems.

First, barring the reviews of manuscripts passed to you by the author, there is always the commercial intent of selling the fiction. That boils down to to whether the fiction in question is entertaining. Given the variety of what's entertaining, from prostitutes to roller coasters to a humdinger of a church revival service, that doesn't give much guidance.

Second, the question of intent is difficult to discern. Even in something as formal as poetry, it can be difficult to decide whether this imperfection in the scansion is deliberate variety meant to relieve rigidity? Or is it a failure in poetic technique?

Third, any criticism worthy of the name must assess the value of the project. Most criticisms tacitly assume the value of the mystery or the horror novel or whatever. Social or political aspects are usually not discussed, which means they default to the norm. In something like science fiction, which is not a genre (in any usefully limited meaning of the term, at least) both the value of science fiction as such and the social/political values of such fiction are at issue. Anything other than the default is contentious in itself, and will be widely rejected.

4:22 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home