Thursday, July 10, 2008

Merchants to the Left of Me...

Kurt Vonnegut, whose work isn't called science fiction only by whims of marketing, hasn't always had nice things to say about the genre, likening it to a forgotten file drawer or a private lodge in one interview, and in another , takes a perhaps more charitable route, acknowledging that he came to the genre by writing the stories he wanted to write, and not from imitating the pulps. I get where he's coming from but still it looks a little like a bigoted argument, allowing examples that he personally likes to be excepted from the stereotyped canon. But since it's Kurt Vonnegut, I'm willing to cut him some slack. For one thing, I had no experience with sci-fi (pronounced "skiffy," as a distinction) magazines as a kid either, and from what I've read, a lot of at has been forgotten for a reason. (But that was true of all the pulps). For another thing, I agree that you can still spot the cult of the space-hero in some fans and writers, and a lot of serious aficionados positively get an inferiority complex regarding the sf marketing ghetto that has limited some excellent literature to a narrow, badly regarded market. (I hope Kurt Vonnegut is thankful to his publishers.)

I love science fiction, and I prefer a broad definition of it. One of the things about sf, compared to other written genres, is that working your way around real-world constraints is expected, and any events or settings can be reimagined to suit the story, or to suit the point, and the best work in the genre uses speculative situations to pick apart the human animal, to conduct experiments in plot and character under a wider range of conditions than the actual world is known to offer. I don't want to understate the element of pure curiosity that science fiction is also built on, or the enduring lure of the adventure story, but I can still shoehorn those things into my viewpoint of a literary laboratory, the usual hypothesis being, "it would be interesting to live in a world where…" Of course, this sort of freedom seems like it could invite tendentiousness, and sometimes it does. It's easier to "prove" your crackpot philosophy when you can control how the world works, but even there, it can be undertaken more or less honestly, more or less well.

I can also forgive Vonnegut when I read stuff like this 'Political History of SF'*, which asserted that the heart and soul of the genre occupies some libertarian/authoritarian axis, and has in either case a right-wing spirit, a sort of violent American optimism, expecting change yes, but presuming that sticking to the current path is going to end up great. The pulp sensibility is pretty forthright. To get a feel of just why that's obnoxious, it's worthwhile to consider the history of sf, which goes back almost as far as you want it to. When you're speculating, it takes some contemporary points of reference to create a society, and consciously or not, the choice of what aspects to accept and reject, and at what consequence, is a social critique. It's hard to write well if you don't understand what people are like (or are not like) now. Looking back, Mary Shelly and H. G. Wells were working in this style. They were intentionally using technology to demonstrate their philosophical and political points. You could (and I would) go back even further to include the old Utopias (by Swift, Rabelais, More, etc.), and let's not forget, for that matter, the innumerable divine parables that waned and waxed with civilizations and tribes for as long as people have been speaking. You may not want to call those fiction, but the innumerable stories of magic beings were crafted to keep the political order. It's a similar animal: what happens at a higher level that helps us understand who we are today?

In early twentieth-century America, the pulp markets spent a few decades filling the cheap imagination of an increasingly disconnected and industrialized society, and the copy of those days was more interested in the clever, swashbuckling heirs of John Carter and Phileas Fogg than on the aftermath of Hank Morgan's or Henry Jekyll's bitter realizations. If the sf pulps had a political philosophy, it was the sort of stuff that got teenage boys going: can-do pluck, manly resolve, and American cleverness, the exact synthesis of the detective and western crap that was also being published at that time. When John W. Campbell took over Astounding in 1937, he began a campaign to expand both literary and scientific quality, but he didn't leave the adventurer mindset behind. He had a huge influence in his day, and yes, he grabbed up Robert Heinlein, who did, by all means, often write a higher grade of rugged individualism. But the general problem with the libertarian philosophy when it's expressed in the genre is that it overstates the individual's capability, and often overstates his influence over society. The usual problem with the military, or, God forbid, the feudal fantasies in space or time, was that the social utility of command hierarchies was seriously overvalued.

As the 'Political History' article describes, one of the earlier stands against the dictatorial Campbell style, was by a group of fans and writers called the Futurians, which included writers such as Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Judith Merril and Frederik Pohl. Mostly they were left-wing, and a few of them (including Pohl and Merril) were declared Communists. (I don't think any of the joiners held the faith through Stalin. Pohl was allegedly excommunicated from the Young Communist League because he failed the ideological purity test--they disapproved of his escapist writing.) Their mission as a literary society was to bring the social experimentation of sf to a higher level of seriousness. Pohl was successful. He was probably Galaxy magazine's most famous editor, and the publication styled itself as a more thoughtful and socially aware brand. The gadgetry and the spirit took second place, or tried to. Vonnegut had at least two stories published in Galaxy. Other writers did fine too.

I picked up The Space Merchants, written by Pohl and Kornbluth, a few weeks ago, following up on my suspicion that the American skill of consuming ourselves to death was spotted much earlier than is normally credited. I stand by it. Mom and Dad are bullshitting you when they tell you that in their day, everybody was debt-conscious and responsible. They spent it all on gewgaws and mortgages too. They were the first generation that could.

The Space Merchants is a monumental piss-take on American consumer culture, and the authors get some major props for writing it in 1952. Half of what was meant as outrageous satire in that year looks like documentary today, and what remains still looks like an all-too probable future. The plot follows the fall and the redemption of advertising executive Mitch Courtenay, who trips through a future culture of overwhelming pollution, depleted resources, and overpopulation. Pohl and Kornbluth get beaucoups bonus points for all the stuff they got right, including addictive products (and obsfuscatory marketing), the "philosophical problem" of political representation by voting per person vs. per dollar, marketing to neuroses (and creating them), outsourcing actual production to India and leaving the American export product as superior marketing (and the bottomless consumption), government services made inefficient through privatization, smearing political opponents as hippies and conservationists, horrifying synthetic food, paid insurance that doesn't insure, a government run by lobbyists, and, of course, reverence for the power of the CEO. In one of the funnier bits, Courtenay is thrust into a revolting job in food production--the life of a typical consumer--and his servitude is ensured as he trades off debt for a slightly less indecent life, and to satisfy his corporate-ensured cravings. There's also an element of contention between Mitch and his wife, who are both serious professionals (a physician and an advertiser), as they balance their lives as domestic partners and as successful individuals, which is probably it's least controversial prophesy (really, would this have happened to my grandparents?). The Space Merchants does what satire does best: it spots the bullshit with laser accuracy, and makes fun of it. It's a great book.

It's a horrible title, though ("Merchant of Venus," at least?). It comes out of Courtenay's big sell--a hard sell to consumers to convince them to relieve overpopulation by colonizing an unlivable hell-hole one planet closer to the sun--the obvious science fictional element. The style doesn't come off adventure-tale, but it's still a booze-and-cigarettes vintage of prose that I associate with short stories from those days. The plot zips along pretty well, a couple nights of enjoyable bedtime reading, and while I don't like to put too undue merit on self-described serious literature, if Pohl's and Kornbluth's prose were a little more timeless (and if not for the vagaries of marketing), The Space Merchants would be put up on the shelves and discussed by students along with Orwell and Huxley. Maybe it will be yet.

Brave New World (1932) was written in the worst of science fiction's pulp phase, and though it's been presented otherwise, it's sf by any reasonable definition. When science fiction is doing a good job at social experimentation, it chips away at the assumptions underlying the public truths, and if it's manipulating them, it does so consciously. Mainstream stuff evolved out of the right wing models soon enough (and Vonnegut was right--it was just a function of time). As for that 'Political History' dude, it takes some balls to rank Greg Bear and David Brin (two authors I could never get into--loved Greg Benford's Cosm though) as more "pure" than Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin. (And for that matter, The Space Merchants is about as Marxist as Animal Farm is capitalist--don't confuse a critique with a prescription.) Much like in the nineteenth century, there's a lot today that could be labeled science fiction, and doesn't end up on the shelves. Claiming the mantle of the right wing is absurd. In my paltry library, I have Ken MacLeod making a case for Socialism by taking production--and capital--out of the equation entirely. Ursula LeGuin has sucked gender conflict out of a society, and examined the results under a sensitive microscope, and Stanislaw Lem has imagined an advanced space age under a moribund eastern European bureaucracy, a dated sort of realism. It turns out I've read most of the dreaded selections on the Socialist sf list and often preferred them. SF as a social critique hasn't gone away. Even as ole Kurt was bitching about it in the sixties and seventies, science fiction was breaking out in depth and style (and if it was still busy congratulating itself, well then). These days you can throw a dart at the bookshelves, and find brilliant stuff of any political orientation. Thank God.

*That link via this place. Read my retarded comment.

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