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Authentic literature

Author: • Jan 23rd, 2008 •

Category: Ballardosphere, literature, science fiction

I had to smile when I read this from Wired’s Clive Thompson [via Boing Boing]:

If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas. From where I sit, traditional “literary fiction” has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? Because it puts me in mind of similar sentiments from Ballard — from 31 years ago:

I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century, and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. S-f has been one of the few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change—social, technological and environmental—and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Hobbits in Space?’ (a review of Star Wars), 1977.

This is itself a variation of a thesis Ballard had been expounding since at least 15 years before that:

Science fiction is the apocalyptic literature of the twentieth century, the authentic language of Auschwitz, Eniwetok, and Aldermaston.

J.G. Ballard, from the blurb to the original 1962 edition of The Drowned World.

But Ballard doesn’t even write SF anymore — or does he? I asked him about this in our 2006 interview:

Well, the problem is that at the heart of science fiction was novelty: it was predicting the new all the time. I remember reading science-fiction magazines from the 1950s and one was constantly excited by the vision of the future dominated by television, advertising, space travel — the modern world, in short. As far as I can see, science fiction has lost that sense of the new, because its vision has materialised around us. We take it for granted. The future envisaged by science fiction is now our past, and the result is it’s probably come to a natural end. That doesn’t mean that one can’t continue writing it: one just has to move into a different terrain.

Move into a different terrain…

This echoes recent remarks expressed by William Gibson:

Well, I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up… If I’m going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I’m going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. ‘Cause I’m going to have to go beyond that… But I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the ’80s and ’90s, as strange as it may seem to say this, we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.William Gibson, 2007

In light of these comments, views to which I subscribe needless to say, I’m having trouble plugging into this sudden swell of geekazoid enthusiasm for ‘science fiction’, expressed most visibly by hotshot blog i09. When in the course of a normal day one can stroll through any number of virtual realities and simulations, engaging in prosthetic inter-personal communications which would have seemed unthinkable even 10 years ago, where’s the point in continuing to try and define the genre? When the future has collapsed into the present so completely, and completely reshaped our view of reality right down to the most banal details of our lives, as it does in the here and now, all I see when I conjure up the term ‘science fiction’ is mouldy old episodes of Star Trek and creaky reruns of Flash Gordon.

As for the stuff that addresses the bewildering rate of change in the technological and social spheres of today — the writing that is currently floating the boat of Clive Thompson — call it ‘realism’ instead, and consign the ‘literary fiction’ that wasted so much of Clive’s time into the same ‘dead genre’ file as Flash and all those other space operas.

With its increasing focus on things like today’s NASA nanotech, real-world cutting-edge green technology and guns that shoot Nerf darts, io9 is looking more and more like Boing Boing…and vice versa. And doesn’t that sort of prove my point?

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7 Responses »

  1. You have a point, but I also have to agree with Bruce Sterling: the best futurist is the one who predicts the present.

  2. I agree, Kuja — but I also think that Sterling quote reinforces my point.

  3. Ballard realized the limitations of sci-fi. But there are still plenty of writers dealing with ‘profound philosophical questions’ who don’t fit into the sci-fi genre. Le Carre for instance, William Boyd, David Mitchell, Alisdair Gray, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Martin Amis and many more.

  4. Yes, Chuck — including Ballard these days!

  5. Indeed. If it’s possible to put JGB in a class I’d call him a post-modernist. Or perhaps a magic-realist. For me he achieved a perfect blend of fact and fiction in ‘The Kindness of Women’.

  6. In fact, crime fiction has taken the mantle of science-fiction (in particular in Europe). The genre has taken a surprise turn, and a host of writers are using it as the true ‘literature of the present’

  7. That’s interesting, could you elaborate a bit on why? Because — although I’m wary of boring people by referring to Ballard every time in this thread — his last four books have in fact been subversive variations of crime fiction…

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