GABBLER RECOMMENDS: What happens when literary novelists experiment with science fiction by Laura Miller

“Dystopian fiction is animated by fear, but postapocalyptic stories almost always harbor a kernel of desire. Dystopia is a form of criticism: It sounds a klaxon, urging society to course-correct before it’s too late. But the postapocalyptic narrative is fatalistic and romantic. Civilization’s coup de grace might come, as 20th-century science-fiction novelists anticipated, in the form of nuclear war, or—today’s preference—as a pandemic or devastating climate change. The carnage will certainly be epic. But afterward comes the possibility of a return to what really matters and a clean slate on which to draw society anew. Even at their most seemingly nihilistic, postapocalyptic scenarios invoke the persistent, cherished American myth of the frontier, that place where a man can prove himself through hard work and violence, free from the rules, hassles, and compromises imposed by civilization.

Despite their varying ages, races, and genders, this is the basic temperament of all the characters in Station Eleven: a propensity toward melancholic, vaguely paralyzed reveries that invokes the type of personality you’d expect to find in someone who writes literary fiction. These people are, when you get right down to it, all pretty much the same person. So much for the promise that literary writers will bring something more than stock figures to their science-fiction scenarios; Mandel’s rueful musers are just a different kind of stock figure.

Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself. (Mandel insisted that she didn’t consider Station Eleven to be science fiction.) And besides, science fiction has its own bravura stylists, writers such as William Gibson, and psychologically acute humanists, such as Karen Joy Fowler. Gibson’s Neuromancer is the most evident influence on Void Star, the new novel by Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a well-received 2007 riff on Homer’s epic. Mason is a computer scientist (the novel’s title is a reference to the C++ programming language), and Void Star attempts the difficult feat of rendering the abstract ecstasies of mathematics in artfully oblique sentences: “The glyphs are intricate, radiant with significance that she can’t quite articulate. Like rain, she thinks, on a clear day, seen over miles of ocean. Like ideograms distended in a black hole’s gravity.”

Void Star comes the closest of all these recent examples to the classic definition of hard science fiction: idea- rather than character-driven and devoted to extrapolating from the technology we now employ to whatever tech will define our future. The novel has many small, astute predictions; Irina observes that with the advent of self-driving cars, people are even more inclined to treat their vehicles like bedrooms, places to get dressed and apply makeup, “anonymity substituting for privacy.” But Mason’s characters, too, are uncompelling compared to his plot, the waferlike concoctions of technothriller convenience, their superpowers perfunctorily deepened with a side serving of regret.

Science fiction has always promised its readers fictional wonders they can’t get in other genres, stories in which the stakes are high and the ideas are heady. What’s surprising is not that literary novelists are increasingly taking up science fiction’s tools, but that more of them didn’t try it sooner. Now, as the present crumbles away into a future that evolves more quickly than most of us can track, it seems impossible to write about contemporary life without writing science fiction. But the secret to doing it well doesn’t lie in suspenseful chase scenes, weighty messages or mind-blowing existential puzzles. That stuff can be fun, but it can also feel pretty thin without something that’s supposed to be a specialty of literary novelists: the fullest appreciation of humanity in its infinite variety and intricacy. Do justice to that, and the wonders will take care of themselves.”

 

[Via]

Advertisements

Add an annotation/comment:

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s