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Science in the Ghetto

I have, by pure coincidence, been re-reading Kate Wilhelm’s 1975 collection, The Infinity Box. I was reading the title story because I mean to write something about it; I read the rest simply for  pleasure. Until I realised how much what I was reading connected with recent discussions about the current place of women in science fiction, and in particular my contention that what we consider to be science fiction has narrowed in recent years.

Two things struck me very forcibly when reading the Wilhelm collection. First, that the stories were even better than I had remembered. Second, that while I knew these stories were unequivocally science fiction when I first read the collection (probably about 1977), today they would almost certainly not be considered sf.

It took me a while to work out why that might be, but in the end I think it comes down to context.

The constituent stories first appeared at the very start of the 70s. This was the tail end of the New Wave, and while I would hesitate to identify Wilhelm as a New Wave writer she was undoubtedly and unavoidably influenced by the dominant mode of the genre. The New Wave was actually a two-part thing. In Britain it really got going around 1963/64 and petered out probably about 1971 (which pretty much dates it from Michael Moorcock’s assumption of the editorship of New Worlds to that magazine’s Dr Who like death and revivification as an original anthology series). In America it came slightly later, probably starting around 1966/67 (Judith Merril’s England Swings SF, Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions) and lasting probably until about 1974 (we might think of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren as the transformation point). The after-effects lasted, of course, some can still be identified today, but the New Wave itself was short though its influence on the genre was wide and deep.

It is facile (but no less true for that) to identify the determining characteristic of the British New Wave as being a discovery of literary modernism (a form that had more or less passed science fiction by completely to that point). In America, though there was some avant garde literary experimentation (which tended to skip modernism and go straight for postmodernism), the determining characteristic was iconoclasm, the use of a subject matter (primarily sex) that had largely been absent from the asexual sf of the so-called Golden Age. That said, there is still one thing that both versions of the New Wave shared: the attitudes of their time.

From the late 1950s onwards, the works of people like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, R.D. Laing and B.F. Skinner escaped the academy and became widely and popularly known. Laing, for instance, was a most unlikely bestseller and, according to Gavin Miller, a major influence on Alasdair Gray (see Alasdair Gray: The Fiction of Communion). Sociology and psychology were the new sciences, and, being new, the most relevant to now. And because these were the happening things, they were the base sciences underlying the happening sf. Wilhelm, for instance, references Skinner and behaviourism directly a couple of times in this collection. They were ‘soft sciences’, in the somewhat disparaging term of the old-fashioned hardcore sf fans for whom the ‘hard sciences’ (physics, chemistry and, at a stretch, biology) would only ever really do for proper science fiction; but they were sciences nonetheless, and for those readers and writers who wanted to move the genre on from its rather staid, limited core, that was good enough to underpin a new science fiction.

The interesting thing in all of this, of course, is that the science fictional interest in how our society works, for instance, whether in the relatively realist form of Wilhelm’s ‘April Fool’s Day Forever’ or Thomas M. Disch’s ‘Angouleme’ or the far more baroque ‘“Repent, Harlequin” Said The Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison, brings the genre close to the concerns of the mainstream. Similarly, the behavioural and psychological interest of Wilhelm’s ‘The Infinity Box’ or Delany’s ‘Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones’ or Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ also brings the genre close to what is considered the natural territory of the mainstream.

Given the new level of interest in literary form and experiment at the same time, and it is hardly surprising that the tail-end of this period also saw the greatest agitation from within the sf community for the tearing down of the ghetto walls. Those outside the sf ghetto had no reason to see it yet, of course, but within the community we were recognising that what the best contemporary science fiction was doing was little different from the best mainstream literature in either technique or concerns.

What happened next, perhaps inevitably, was the release of Star Wars in 1977. Suddenly everybody, in or out of the ghetto, was confirmed in their impression that the core of the genre was concerned with extravagance, size, big dumb objects and mythic archetypes. Even if their work wasn’t already being questioned, Laing and Skinner and Marcuse would have no place in a Star Wars universe. The social and the psychological dropped out of forming the science in science fiction; and no matter how the majority of the genre’s better writers strived and continue to strive to maintain the social and psychological qualities first introduced to the genre during the New Wave, these qualities are now part of the literary form rather than the core scientific concern of the fiction. Nowadays, with exceptions (and there are always exceptions) the majority of science fictions take as their core scientific concerns exactly the same ‘hard’ sciences as did the sf of the Golden Age, physics, chemistry and, at a stretch, biology.

The genre has contracted back to where it had been, and as a result the sort of science fiction that Kate Wilhelm was writing in this superb collection would no longer be recognised as science fiction.

13 thoughts on “Science in the Ghetto

  1. Hi Paul,

    It’s long been my impression that genre categories were less rigorously patrolled in the 1960s, and there was in general more open-mindedness when it came to fantasy and SF. For instance, I’ve met some fantasy-lovers who, at the time, adored Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, and who considered it fantasy. Meanwhile, some fantasy and SF writers, such as Tolkien and Vonnegut (not to mention stuff like 2001, or how genuinely loopy the original Star Trek was), found mainstream audiences, as the counter-culture picked them up. (Drugs did have an impact in making people more interested in/accepting of fantasy and SF. And just look at an author like Philip K. Dick! Was he an SF author or a theologian? Well, why can’t they be the same thing?)

    1960s underground and independent comics, too (“comix”), were much more adult (Crumb, Bodé), and less easily classifiable …Well, I may be wrong in this line of thinking, but it’s an impression I’ve had for a while now.

    If I am correct about this (generally speaking), what I suspect happened was that, starting around the late-1970s/early-1980s, Hollywood and other culture manufacturers abandoned more open-minded adult audiences, and started marketing SF and fantasy (and other genre pieces) directly to children, teens, very young adults. This both drove away adult audiences and resulted in a simplifying of the genres (not to mention strong branding). The same thing happened in comics, too, as the independent and underground became commodified by the major houses. Vertigo Comics may claim to be “for mature readers,” but I think it’s easy to see that their target audience has long been teenagers who’ve gotten a little too old for Spider-Man. (Vertigo published Neil Gaiman, not Gilbert Shelton! Or Fritz the Cat.)

    (The devolution of Star Trek makes a perfect test-case. The Original Series was Golden Age SF, concerned with ideas and cultural commentary, as well as theoretical SF concepts. Then, series by series, and film by film, it gradually becomes an action franchise. The most recent feature-length film killed Star Trek totally dead in my book, completing its transformation into nothing but explosions and witty one-liners.) (Just look at how an boy’s fantasy-action movie like Inception is regarded as hard-hitting, mind-blowing, philosophical SF! Well, in comparison to the rest of the field, sure, it’s practically Stranger in a Strange Land!)

    Much has been made about how media consolidation has led studios and publishers to abandon backing smaller projects in favor of “safer,” higher-concept, blockbuster franchises—and there’s a tremendous amount of of truth in that. But that thought shouldn’t stop there; I think that it’s also important to note that this pursuit has gone hand in hand with:
    . strong branding (the audience must recognize instantly what the product is, so there’s a push toward clear, recognizable genre stereotypes);
    . mass-audience appeal (so everyone, from the very young to the very old, can enjoy it—and buy it).

    What’s happened more recently is that the children of the 80s have grown up, and it’s acceptable for adults to read fantasy/SF/comics. (And now they’re having their own children, a whole new generation of LOTR and Star Wars consumers.) But, largely, they’re reading simplified, branded versions of those things/genres.

    Indy comics today, for instance, is largely a pale reflection of the truly transgressive, genre-warping comix of the 1960s. It’s the same story with independent cinema (Miramax), which has little to do with the truly independent cinema (and often uncategorizable) of John Cassavetes, Elaine May, Barbara Loden, others.

    …Anyway, thanks for writing this! As all your posts do, you’ve really got me thinking.


    1. One of the things I find interesting is the way that film influences literature. I’m not sure if it really happened before the 1960s (except in a few self-conscious cases), but more and more since then books seem to echo the movies rather than the other way round. Everything reads as if it was really intended to be a film script, complete with jump cuts, fades, pans, slow motion and the rest.

      The vast majority of science fiction I read today (and this includes the really good stuff) reads like the bastard offspring of Star Wars. A novel cannot be real gosh-wow scifi unless it is crowded with big screen effects.

      For instance, I rate many of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels very highly, some of them focus on very interesting ideas. But every book has scenes, regularly spaced throughout, where you cannot help but think: this was supposed to be done on widescreen, or: wow the special effects would be spectacular here.

      The move, which does I think date to Star Wars, is indeed a move from the adult to the infantile, as you say; but part and parcel of that is the fact that it is a move from the intellectual to the visual. Nowadays, if you can’t see it you can’t imagine it.

      1. We may seek a dominant not only in the poetic work of an individual artist and not only in the poetic canon, but also in the art of a given epoch, viewed as a particular whole. For example, it is evident that in Renaissance art such a dominant, such an acme of the aesthetic criteria of the time, was represented by the visual arts. Other arts oriented themselves toward the visual arts and were valued according to the degree of their closeness to the latter. On the other hand, in Romantic art the supreme value was assigned to music. Thus, Romantic art oriented itself toward music: its verse is musically focused; its verse intonation imitates musical melody. This focusing on a dominant which is in fact external to the poetic work substantially changes the poem’s structure with regard to sound texture, syntactic structure, and imagery; it alters the poem’s metrical and strophical criteria and its composition. In Realist aesthetics the dominant was verbal art, and the hierarchy of poetic values was modified accordingly.
        —Roman Jakobson, from “The Dominant” (1935)

        Jakobson perhaps overstates the case, but I won’t argue against the claim that if there was one dominant art form of the 20th century (or at least 1930–2000), it was cinema.

    2. By the way, I meant to add that the drugs thing in the New Wave ties in with the interest in psychology. You’re not going to be interested in mind altering if you don’t think there’s a mind to be altered.

      So the drug influence (a very strong part of the iconoclasm of the American New Wave in particular) was part of that whole process of thinking about the ways we perceive the world.

      The drug culture has changed since then, and with it the role of drugs in literatures like science fiction.

      1. I went to a teaching conference at a public high school earlier today, and there were anti-drug signs everywhere. And several of the teachers mentioned that their number-one priority in the classroom is keeping kids away from drugs. Which they seemed to define as marijuana and alcohol.

        I think I’ve figured out what US test scores are the lowest in the industrialized world.

        1. Also prominently displayed at this school, in the large central classroom where we gathered: a huge sign reading “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.”

          I was grateful to see such naked honesty.

        2. I’ve never much been interested in drugs myself, but I’ve mixed with people who’ve used them. I can sort of see the attraction of things like LSD; but I’ve never really figured out why coke and heroin became the drugs of choice.

          But in British schools the main enemy (to judge from recent newspaper reports) is alcohol. Binge drinkers are getting younger, it seems.

          1. I don’t mean to suggest that drug abuse isn’t a serious problem, especially for the young. But to make a teacher’s #1 priority ensuring that students “just say no” to pot or alcohol strikes me as insane. Both pot and alcohol are extremely common drugs that most adults use (here in the States); the teenagers will be able to drink legally in a few more years, and they’ll be smoking pot as soon as they get to college (if they want to). They can also buy smoke tobacco cigarettes starting at age 18; they can smoke them at any age (“Uh, I found a box of these.”).

            By all means schools should do what they can to combat abuse, but demonizing those substances—casting them in the role of Our Terrible Adversary—doesn’t seem either effective or sensible to me. Especially since the kids will be able to smoke and drink very, very soon! (Indeed, commercial advertising is already relentlessly encouraging them to drink! “Just as long as you’re 21 or older! Don’t do it before that magical age—but after that, it’s the common adult thing to do!”)

            As for other drugs, I’ve spend a decent amount of time around people who use mushrooms and LSD, as well as reading accounts by people who used them, and it seems indisputable that such drugs can aid creativity by radically altering one’s perception. And it’s possible to use both without particularly dangerous side-effects, provided they’re used responsibly. But it’s easy to see why the Powers That Be want psychotropic drugs banned: “consciousness expanding” isn’t some idle expression. When people are free to do them…well, you end up with something like the late 1960s. I suppose whether that’s good or bad largely depends on one’s ultimate vision of what society should be.

            Coke and heroin became the drugs of choice, in my understanding, because they’re pure pleasure. People will always choose the gallon of ice cream. Or, in this case, the gallon of deep-fried ice cream stuffed inside a donut and deep-fried again and sprinkled with sugar. By all means, warn people away from substances like that! (Warn them away from refined sugars while you’re at it! And watching too much television.) (Although Barrack Obama did coke, so there you go.)

            But warn kids in a reasonable manner. Pot and alcohol and even mushrooms are pretty common substances that many adults choose to regularly use, even as many others choose not to. They only really become problems if one doesn’t particularly like them, or when they’re heavily abused. Why can’t we just tell kids that? …My guess is that it’s because the federal government, which funds public schools, insists instead on continuing Reagan’s failed and insanely irrational War on Drugs. And won’t provide funding unless said War is top priority. (i.e., the federal government wants an excuse to continue incarcerating young black men, and making weed illegal seems to be doing the trick.)

            To bring this back to your original thread, I see this “Just Say No!” approach as infantilizing the subject matter. Treat older teens like adults (which they will soon be), and respect them to be able to understand why drugs can be problematic, and why it’s best for their physical and mental health to not spend all their time consuming them. But making schools miniature police states in order to accomplish that goal…well, there we see what the goal actually is.

            Meanwhile, I’d propose that a far bigger problem to US children today than alcohol or pot is when the kids don’t go outside and run around and play. Or when they’re obese by the age of 8, and know nothing about nutrition. Or when they spend several hours a day parked in front of a video screen… I’d much rather see schools combating those health issues.

            1. Sure drugs can aid creativity by expanding perception, but at least as often they lead to self-indulgent flabby narcissism, meaningless gibberish or just formless tripe. Philip K Dick being a good example on both sides of the argument.
              Unfortunately, and partly as a consequence of the War on Drugs dogma, the other side of the argument has polarised into a Drugs are Great (man!) camp which is equally unhelpful and dangerous.
              What this means with regards to SF I am unsure. There is a backlash against Literary Fiction in some quarters often based on a view of that genre that is as innaccurate as the outsiders view of SF as all Star Wars and squids in space. When did this begin? Is it a consequence of the dumbing down that came post-Star Wars and through the anti-intellectualism of Thatcher and Reagan?

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