| Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction, and Reality
Liverpool University Press, 1999
Introduction:-- Deconstructing The Starships *
Plurality of meaning, fluidity and process: an understanding of language as contingent, unfixed; the product and definition of a particular social formation—these icons of la nouvelle critique are the familiar tools and usage of science fiction. It is no wonder that adventurous writers of contemporary non-genre fiction (e.g. Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux) are turning to the tropes and conventions of sf in their search for a writing that expresses the current state of the science of fiction.
When I was invited to take part in this event I was told that I had to talk about some development in my designated patch of ‘the real world’—that is, literature—that was first suggested in a science fiction story, novel or article. I'd better admit straight away that I don't think I can do this. In physical science inventions or discoveries tend to arise out of a certain common background, within which the race to first publication is an exciting irrelevance. When it comes to cultural innovations, whether it's a new kind of novel or a new kind of hat, that naked singularity, the yousaw-it-here-first moment, is even more elusive, and the search for it even more dubious and illusory.
At first it might seem there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of sf's penetration into popular culture—from a space shuttle called after a fictional starship to the Transformer cutouts on the back of your cereal packet. Something that passes by the name of science fiction has become the folklore of the twenty-first century, and while it would be impossible to identify any particular stories as the source material it is clear that certain acclaimed mainstream writers have taken this transformation on board. Paul Theroux's O-zone, Don DeLillo's White Noise employ sf tropes: the alien invasion, the pollution disaster, quite realistically and seriously. Martin Amis and Patricia Highsmith have both brought out volumes of postholocaust short fiction. But I would maintain that what Theroux, DeLillo and many others are acknowledging has very little to do with that highly individual phenomenon, the literary genre of science fiction. Star Wars merchandising, Star Trek TV, matt-black penknives, ergonomic café furniture, even Nuclear Doom—this is the diffuse, eclectic, twentiethcentury obsession with ‘the future’ out of which science fiction itself took shape. Sf is a co-effect here, not a cause. The ease with which a fantasy like Star Wars or Star Trek slips from the galactic battlecruisers to the mediaeval swordfights shows how completely this ersatz ‘future’ is subsumed into the timeless zone of universal cultural nostalgia—with any amount of knights errant and death-dealing monsters, magic swords and cloaks of invisibility.
It is true that there have been some striking examples in recent years of mainstream writers actually writing sf, notably Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award. One could also mention Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, and Marge Piercy's Woman On The Edge Of Time. Where Theroux and DeLillo seem to use their sf themes and chunks of popular science as up-to-date interior decoration, the meat of their books remaining fixed in contemporary America, these others have imitated the whole form: not only in the creating of ‘entire’ imagined worlds, but down to the smallest details of genre cliché. Certainly Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is so similar to genre feminist sf of the mid1970s that whole chapters could be lined up together sentence by sentence to ‘prove’ that the one must be the cause or inspiration of the other. But didactic fantasy—Utopian or ‘Dystopian’—has a long history, and its links with sf might best be regarded as a case of convergent evolution. At any rate, it would be absurd to claim that social satire has spread outward from science fiction. However there is an interesting relationship between the well known features—good and bad—of the sf genre, and the preoccupations of modern literary theory: a relationship which cannot be called causal, in general or in particular, but which is none the less curiously intimate. I would propose that the ‘science’ in science fiction has always had a tacit meaning other than that commonly accepted. It has nothing in particular to say about the subject matter, which may be just about anything so long as the formal convention of future dress is observed. It means only, finally, that whatever phenomenon or speculation is treated in the fiction, there is a claim that it is going to be studied to some extent scientifically— that is objectively, rigorously; in a controlled environment. The business of the writer is to set up equipment in a laboratory of the mind such that the ‘what if’ in question is at once isolated and provided with the exact nutrients it needs. This view of sf is not new to science fiction writers and critics, but it is worth restating: the essence of sf is the experiment. Working under these strictures, a writer is forced (willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, through talent or the lack of it) to give up a good many of the concerns of the literature we have all been brought up to consider normal and worthy. A typical science fiction novel has littlespace for deep and studied characterisation, not because writers lack the skill (though they may) but because in the final analysis the characters are not people, they are pieces of equipment. They have no free will or independent existence; to attempt to perpetuate such illusions is hopeless. The same reductive effect is at work on the plot, where naked, artless urscenarios of quest, death, desire are openly displayed; and on the position of the author. And when I mention the demotion of the author I am not, or not only, referring to the curious relationship between sf fandom and the sf writer. The self that speaks through the—literally—experimental narrative of sf is only contingently individual. What it speaks through its stock figures is not a privileged, arbitrary artistic experience but something that can be tested and rejected: true in this set of circumstances, false otherwise.
Science fiction then is intrinsically—as Catherine Belsey says of mediaeval theatre—non-illusionist, emblematic. Its fictional worlds do not pretend to any mysterious independent existence off the page and beyond the words. And ironically, while gifted writers have been struggling to create the ‘real novel’ within the conventions of sf, outside the genre ideas about the novel, and about fiction in general, have suffered a period of dramatic change. The necessary omissions and blanks of sf have become positive virtues, in la nouvelle critique. Character is a bourgeois myth. Nineteenth-century expressive realism was a brief aberration. The fictional text, radically reinterpreted (and here I paraphrase Belsey's critique of Roland Barthes' position) becomes a collection of signs, the study—or deconstruction—of which will produce an anatomy of the process of its production; the limits imposed by the ideological matrix which defines this process, and the transgressions by which these secret rules are revealed. The text thus becomes what science fiction always was—a means, not an end: an experiment that can be examined, taken apart, even cannibalised by ruthless commentators, rather than a seamless work of art.