Mark Cantrell, Author

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ESSAY: "That Sounds Like Science Fiction"

Posted by Mark Cantrell on December 7, 2014 at 3:10 PM

"My God, Dave, it's full of literary stars…"


Mark Cantrell is an avid reader of science fiction. When it comes to being a writer he's not so sure he's earned his place among the genre's stargazers, but in pondering his 'credentials' he does at least get to wax lyrical

 

OVER the years I’ve given up trying to explain why I am not – strictly speaking – a science fiction author. These days, I tend to shrug and accept the label whenever it's pinned to my name; it’s not as if I'm ashamed of it or anything.

 

On the contrary, I'm proud if people want to associate my name with the genre; at least I would be if I weren't furtively checking over my shoulder to see if somebody was about to call me out as a charlatan. You see I'm not entirely convinced my 'credentials' as an author of science fiction hold up to any real scrutiny.

 

My work certainly isn't of the hard science fiction ilk; I'm no Clarke or Asimov, not even close. These writers, as much as they set the standards of the genre in their era, were also as much about popularising science and the scientific method, as much as they wanted to inspire their readers to the potential of a material (scientific) understanding of the universe .

 

In this day and age, the rise of the religious right and creationism notwithstanding, we live in period not only fashioned by science and the scientific method, but also in many respects inspired by those science fictioneers of the genre's golden age, to the extent, perhaps, that we have come to take it too much for granted.

 

Seriously, how many of us have any idea how all this techno-stuff we consume in our daily lives actually works (even if that's only in the barest sense); how many of us truly appreciate that this 'stuff' is born out of science and engineering, and not simply invoked into being by corporate marketing magi?

 

As Arthur C Clarke said: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

 

Once we find ourselves removed from the immediacy of the workings, once they become akin to a magical performance, then that gap in our understanding creates a void wherein the fantastical and the quasi-religious can rush in to fill. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all; maybe it's time for some old school, hardcore, hard science fiction.

 

But I'd have to pass on accepting the baton. It's not my forte.

 

Fortunately, there's plenty of the hard science fiction writers out there, imagining the future on a solid understanding of real science; a quick glance at my shelves reveals Gregory Benford, David Brin, Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, along with the masters of yesteryear, be they Arthur C Clarke or old Asimov himself. I couldn't hold a candle in the company of these lights; hell, I couldn't ignite a match.

 

But there's always the softer forms; the less disciplined, if you will, that play fast and loose with the science, but nevertheless seek to remain true to scientific reasoning and a material understanding of nature. Here, in this continuum, is where I'm at, if there's any semblance of substance to my science fiction credentials; you'll find me flitting back and forth along the spectrum, from the sci-fi inclined speculative fiction all the way to the event horizon, where science fiction diverges into the phantasms of fantasy.

 

That said, we'd best take care to remember that all works of fiction are a fantasy, no matter how tight they might cling to scientific principles and the material understanding of the universe. For instance, science dictates that – on current understanding – faster-than-light travel is impossible, yet it's a mainstay of science fiction, in some way shape or form . Don't let the universe get in the way of a good story, you might say.

 

We speculate to accumulate, we extrapolate, we take short-cuts for the sake of the story, and strive to remain as true to the principles of science as we can; obviously, the deeper and broader one's understanding of real science the more one can speculate convincingly.

 

On that score, I'm no scientist, though I remain interested and absorb what I can, but it means I'd be pressing my luck, or going over old ground, if I ventured into the realms of hard science fiction. No, best to know my limitations and sidestep my shortcomings.

 

You could say I'm more the social sci-fi author, akin to people like Philip K Dick – or at least ploughing a similar furrow – delving into the human condition more than exploring the frontiers of the possible; forages into the inner space rather than outer space. Even so, I still find myself pausing at any suggested place I might occupy in this wildly constructed literary taxonomy.

 

Imagination takes up the slack, whichever way you go, and gives rise over time, to the weird and wonderful concoctions that have come to populate the science fiction universe, with all its quirks (quarks?) and idiosyncrasies. And so the genre spawns its multitudinous offshoots, an incestuous – tempestuous – family tree of intertwining thought streams that sometimes find themselves combined in the broad-minded term of 'speculative fiction'.

 

When we get down to it, there's an aspect to science fiction that defies easy definition; we tend to know it when we see it, even as we argue the toss over its defining characteristics and its essential nature. By the same gut response do we tend to recognise its pale imitations, its stylised semblances, and its hollowed out shells, as much as we do its hybridised offspring.

 

"[A] handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method," Robert A Heinlein is quoted as saying on the Wikipedia page that explores some of these conundrums .

 

If only it was that easy: as Lester del Rey is quoted as saying in the same wiki: "Even the devoted aficionado – or fan – has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is."

 

You know it when you see it, then; well, that's one way to slip free of the stranglehold of too tight a definition. Okay, so it'll take practically anyone? Well, not quite, obviously, but I guess it means there's a me-shaped niche in there somewhere.

 

Apparently my reticence at seeing myself included among the ranks of science fiction writers is a trait I share in common with Margaret Atwood; she prefers to make use of the broad label I mentioned earlier – speculative fiction – though her position is of a less reserved, rather more strident type than mine.

 

Writing in The Guardian back in 2011, Atwood addressed this apparent conundrum, quoting Ursula K Le Guin:

 

"To my mind, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction.

 

"In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can't be science fiction, which is 'fiction in which things happen that are not possible today'. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto."

 

Atwood then responded:

 

"The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, 'speculative fiction' means plots that descend from Jules Verne's books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians. Not because I don't like Martians, I hasten to add; they just don't fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed."

 

So Atwood is more concerned about her skill set to carry off science fiction convincingly, I might say I share the same concerns at my own capabilities there, but Le Guin’s point about literary snobbery is all too real. Sadly, there is a stance all too happy to place science fiction, the entirety of its broad church , into a ghetto of the ‘dreadful’: there being, of course, only one 'valid' form of the literary art.

 

At this point, I should confess that I have pretensions to be an author of literature, but please don’t tar me the same feather as the ‘highbrow’ literary snobs. For one thing, they wouldn’t have me (I’m far too uncouth for them, I’m happy to say); for another, I don’t share their arid tastes .

 

Frankly, I see no reason why the two cannot get together between the sheets, but in some circles this is a major sin. Think of the children. Those pour hybridised off-spring born out of the corruption of literature's purity by the base and vulgar inter-mingling of genre. On the other hand, think about the evolution born of the cross-mingling of memes.

 

The literary minded, I dare to suggest, have forgotten the often ‘low’ origins of their ilk; much 'high literature' of today was considered anything but in its day, or was written in a time when such distinctions were meaningless. If you want to take it further, literature and science fiction share so many of the same origins.

 

There was a time, at least in European writing, when science fiction and literature could co-exist within the same novel or story, but over time the brash populism of arising mass markets in fiction rather pulled them their separate ways.

 

To be honest, I blame the marketing industry for a large part of this. At it’s most basic, it’s a worthy function, it serves a purpose, but it seems to me that somewhere down the line, the marketing function has ceased to serve. The practitioners have staged a long-forgotten coup and now seek to dictate; thus have genres become cages rather than handy navigational aids on the literary map.

 

For want of a quick analogy, I suppose marketing has shifted from a hunter and gatherer role, to one of agriculture; it no longer goes out to find. Instead it cultivates; nurtures, and harvests, prunes and trims, domesticating markets and readers and literary forms to its own requirements.

 

So, with that said, I was kind of chuffed to read this comment by the author Jeannette Winterson on The Guardian website , again from 2011:

 

“There are plenty of entertaining reads that are part of the enjoyment of life. That doesn't make them literature. There is a simple test: 'Does this writer's capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?'

 

"Subject matter is not the point. It might be socially relevant, or it might not. It might be historical, science fiction, a love story, a crime novel, a meditation in fragments. There is no point judging a novel by its subject matter; what is in vogue now will be out of date soon. Nobody reads Jane Austen because we want her advice on marriage. And we don't care that she lived right through the Napoleonic wars and never mentioned them once. Who cares about the Napoleonic wars now?

 

"Novels that last are language-based novels – the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power – forget it.”

 

To my mind, Winterson's take on the matter transcends the literary divide. The problem is that a powerful language can be daunting. Powerful language can provoke thought and thought is a deeply personal, internal reflection on the world around us. We live immersed in an everyday culture that doesn’t particularly encourage thought; in some respects it’s uncomfortable with contemplation.

 

No, indeed; thought can provoke introspection; it can inspire a critical eye cast over the physical and social reality in which we dwell. In short, it's dangerous to the blind faith of consumerism. And science fiction, as much as it probes the future, always has a thing or two to say about the world around us today. The genre has the capacity for a rather subversive edge.

 

Here's what Bruce Sterling had to say in the preface to William Gibson's Burning Chrome (Grafton Books, 1986 edition): "If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophecies, and scratch ourselves in public. We can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins make us seem harmless."

 

Historically, science fiction has been the realm of ideas, with a poor reputation for character (and still less for women and minorities); yet the best of it – the most daring? – has pushed the bounds. It's a mirror to society; a warts and all depiction, demanding we perceive not only how we want to see ourselves as a society and a species, but also how we truly are. This is a genre that has dared to dream beyond the horizons of the here and now, challenged us as a species to strive for something better and accept no limitation of faith, or class, creed or circumstance.

 

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars," as Oscar Wilde had it.

 

So here this reflection of my place in the science fiction universe takes a turn that is a tad idealistic, but then isn't that the writers' prerogative? Truth is, there's nothing automatically progressive about its outlook, but neither is it an exclusive club of libertarians, neoliberals, and authoritarian technocrats either; science fiction is the light and the dark of us, all jumbled up in the Frankensteinian monstrosities we conjure out of our febrile imaginations. But, then, much the same can be said of pretty much any and all literature.

 

Yes, science fiction can be literature in its own right. Sterling alluded to science fiction's pulp origins. That's certainly one of the source pools of its evolutionary origins, but across the Pond separating the old cyberpunk from Old Europe, is another meme-pool that churned out some of the genre's genome.

 

We've already met them, courtesy of Atwood above. Think of HG Wells as one quick example. Safe to assume that few people would deny old HG His place in the canon of English literature, even though The War of the Worlds is quite undeniably a work of science fiction too. Let's not forget old Jules Verne, either.

 

And finally, we have the grandmother of the genre herself, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley , who bequeathed to us one of the most enduring of science fiction tropes: that in our almost godlike ability to probe and reshape reality to our fallible whims, we – not the creature – are the very essence of the monstrous.

 

As even the ancients knew, Hubris invokes its Nemesis, but in my reading of the Frankenstein story, Mary Shelley was stepping beyond this simple dualism, much as was the world she inhabited as it hurtled into a scientific and technological maelstrom that has far from abated.

 

The future is already here, as William Gibson reminded us, restless as it is, and it can be a bewildering and terrifying place. That's a rich seam for any author to mine, not just the science fictioneer, as we contemplate our place amidst the things we made, and ponder how our creations have wrought a change in us.

 

It's that hybrid DNA at work. Sterling's pulp origins, but HG Wells et al, Shelley, Clarke and others; it’s the duality of humanity, the optimism of a better tomorrow and the shadows of fear that the good times are over. Both are rooted in the here and now: the hope that there is a tomorrow.

 

We fear the worst, hope for the best; literary or otherwise, that's what it's like being an author. That's kind of what science fiction is all about too. Maybe there is a place for me on its shelves, after all. Here's hoping.

 

Mark Cantrell,

Stoke-on-Trent

30 November 2014

 

Copyright © November 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Categories: ESSAYS, BLOG, ABOUT ME

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