Science Fiction in the Real World
Book by Norman Spinrad;
Southern Illinois University Press, 1990 part 2
Because in the real world, someone in probably less than entirely ideal financial circumstances, and with at least as many personal hangups as anyone else, was inspired by the random conjunction of elements in the environment to come up with a story that then had to be pounded out word by word under the influence of a relationship with a spouse, last night's dinner party, this morning's state of health, and maybe booze or dope besides. A generalist like me will never be able to explore any one critical approach with the depth and fineness of detail of the dedicated specialist. But a dedicated specialist will never convey the real texture of multiplex literary reality either. I suspect that this inherent schism of perception between the writer of fiction and the writer of criticism is the source of the age-old tension between writer and critic. This is why Robert Heinlein claimed he never read reviews. This is why many science fiction writers regard academic criticism with skepticism. This is why it is often greeted with the desire to "get SF back in the gutter where it belongs." For after all, to the specialized critic who complains that the fullspectrum approach is unwritable in practice, the novelist may modestly point out that he does it all the time, and no novelist more so than the writer of science fiction.
The novelist knows that it's all smoke and mirrors, that there are techniques for creating the literary illusion of fully rounded reality without filling in all the fine detail, and the writer of science fiction has to invent such detail itself, ofttimes from scratch. If one is accustomed to writing in this manner in the first place, one will naturally tend to bring the tools and techniques and tricks of the novelist to the work when one turns away from creating fiction and toward telling the story of literature. And that is my critical approach in Science Fiction in the Real World: a novelistic one. What else? I was a storyteller before I was a critic, and so if I'm telling a story about a book I've read, or a film I've seen, or a literary phenomenon, I'm going to feel free to use the tools of the storyteller to do it, even, upon occasion, bits of scene and dialog. Why not? I have been very fortunate indeed that Shawna McCarthy and Sheila Williams and Gardner Dozois at jIsaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine have given me carte blanche four times a year to publish critical pieces of some length that need not confine themselves to discussion of current books and need not conform to any stylistic critical conventions. And aside from this introduction, the concluding essay, and the essay on Philip K. Dick, all essays in this book were first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
In a sense, I've tried to write a kind of science fiction about science fiction, to relate what gets written to the lives of the characters that write it and the world that shapes their consciousness, which is not too different from relating the lives of made-up characters to the made-up world you create for them. That may sound a tad pretentious, but as often as not it can mean something like the revelation that Philip K. Dick wrote The Unteleported Man around a magazine cover because he needed the money, or that Anthony Burgess once churned out eleven novels in one year, including A Clockwork Orange, to build up an estate for his family because he had been (erroneously) told his days were numbered, or that Lawrence Durrell batted out The Alexandria Quartet at high speed because he sorely needed the bread, or that I did likewise with Agent of Chaos. Even if you live in an ivory tower, as I've said elsewhere, you've gotta pay the rent. And the rent is usually outrageous. If this is marxism with a very small m, it is certainly also Capitalism with a great big fat C, you better believe it! Nor, of course, is literature created in pristine laboratory conditions in a socialist system either. There are those who will say that a good deal of the foregoing is a commercial genre writer's rationalization of the satanic pact he has made with Mammon, that a serious literary writer does not allow his work to be shaped and molded by landlords, the publishing apparatus, his current wife's opinion of his potency, what he sees on television, or the state of his health, financial and otherwise. Indeed, there are those who contend that only those works written with such pristine literary intent are fit subject matter for serious literary criticism. All else is commercial genre writing, to be studied by the Popular Culture department as artifact.
So in a way it is true that Science Fiction in the Real World is a rationalization of the plight of the writer of science fiction confronting the critical tradition, in that it is a revisionary examination of where we are and how we got there, and a revisionary redefinition of the concept of "genre" itself. For in the real world of human life and passion there is no such thing as the writer as unmoved mover, and in the real world of modern American publishing, everything is a genre, you better believe it, even "serious literature," with its own stylized packaging, its own spectrum of distribution expectations, its own stable of bankable writers, and the effects of all these on what writers end up writing. That is another reason why this book is called Science Fiction in the Real World. "Science Fiction" is a term that has always been highly elusive of definition, and this is not merely a matter of clever little word games. Is it a school of literature? Is it a genre? Is it a subculture? Is it an industry? Is it a set of image-systems? Is it about space and the future? Is it scientific speculation? Is it bug-eyed monsters? All and none of the above. From a certain critical perspective, science fiction has its roots in the tale of wonder as the Ur-story of the species, but from another, equally valid perspective, it was born with the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926 as a genre spun off from the boy's adventure pulps. From one perspective, it is the fiction that best copes with matters of transcendence and destiny in our present rapidly mutating reality, yet from an equally valid perspective, it is the totemic object of a cult.
It is a severe error indeed not to consider the many ways in which the existence of a subculture called Science Fiction Fandom has influenced what is published and what gets written and how science fiction as literature is critically perceived. The exclusion of this matter from the sphere of literary discourse weakens any overall viewpoint on science fiction quite drastically for the same reason that critics are generally unequipped to deal with it. Namely, that it is a unique phenomenon in the history of the world. Where and when else has a genre of fiction accreted such a subculture around it? Science fiction fandom has existed as a subculture since the 1930s. By now it is international; conventions are held every weekend in the year somewhere, and World Science Fiction Conventions (Worldcons) can draw over 10,000. Science fiction fandom started half a century ago with readers publishing their own amateur criticism, but by now it includes costumers and creative anachronists, the roots of the national space community, and the Trekkies who kept the legend of a dead TV show alive for years until they could finally resurrect it as a series of movies.