Speculative Fiction in Conversation Part 4

This is part 4 of an email conversation I had with Matt Cheney about the state of Speculative Fiction. Read part 1 and part 2 and part 3. Some things discussed: the object-subject relationship, zombie movies, the evaluation of art, Star Trek as godawful crap vs. fun godawful crap

I admit I may have misinterpreted what was being said in the thesis about the object-subject relationship; you do state there very clearly that Delany believes SF can't be defined and imply that the borders of SF and not-SF are murky and porous if they can be said to exist at all. I, too, hold Borges and Kafka in the highest esteem, and I've always thought that Bradbury was overrated and his work kind of childish. When I read people in the SF community saying that the best time to be an SF reader was when you were 12, Bradbury made a lot more sense to me. When you're 12, he's a wonderful author. However, I'm still not sure there are a completely different set of criteria for judging SF vs. non-SF.

Take your zombie moving example; the best zombie movies (which are mostly made by George Romero) include strong doses of cultural critique and often very real drama; think of Dawn of the Dead (the original), Diary of the Dead, or 28 Days Later. These are not just good zombie movies, they're good movies period. Sure, a generic zombie film can still be a lot of fun, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the same could be said of work in any genre. Not everything has to be trying to join the ranks of Kafka and Borges, but that has nothing to do (in my mind) with genre. Some people are just trying to tell a fun story, without pretensions, and more power to them. Indeed, it's the notion of Bradbury as a "great" author that bothers me; as a fun author, in the realm of, say, JK Rowling, he's top notch. I feel the same way about JRR Tolkein (when I was 12, The Hobbit was one of my favorite books).

As Romero illustrates, though, there doesn't need to be a hard line between "fun" stuff and stuff that is "good" on a deeper level (though the ins-and-outs of this definition of "good" would be another conversation entirely). There are plenty of examples of it in popular culture, from Deadwood to The Wire to The Dark Knight to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Indeed, this is usually my favorite stuff; I like having a little sugar with my medicine, and if I have a choice between Flaubert and David Mitchell, I'm going to pick Mitchell every time. Which is where my frustration often kicks in with the SF community, because while I honestly think that some of the best writers working today are self-identified SF-types (mostly the writers who fill up those anthologies we were talking about), there's still strong factions in the SF community who hold up Bradbury and Tolkein and Herbert as if they're the greatest thing since the invention of the printing press. And that's the thing: I love reading stories about zombies and spaceships and superheroes and robots, but that doesn't mean that I identify with the group of people most fanatical about those things, or that that's all I want to read about, or that simply the presence of those things makes something worth reading. A friend of mine and I were talking about how we were the kind of people who have seen every single episode of Star Trek and understand that it's godawful crap. Fun to watch, godawful crap. But I'm not sure that means that you need different "protocols" to enjoy it or find it fun to watch, any more than you need different "protocols" to enjoy Murder She Wrote or That 70's Show or anything else that falls into "fun crap" category.

What I'm trying to say here is that I honestly don't believe this has anything to do with having a different way of reading SF, or that SF is a way of looking at things somehow ineherently different then other ways of looking at things, and I still feel like all this reading-protocols, subject-object stuff is just another way for SF types to seperate themselves from "mundanes" and pat themselves on the back.


Hi Eric,

Yay, I finally have something to disagree with you about!  (I was beginning to worry about myself -- there's a Gilbert & Sullivan song from Princess Ida that I've always loved where the chorus is, "Oh isn't your life extremely flat/ With nothing whatever to grumble at?")  So I'm going to disagree, then ask some questions, because I've blathered on far too much and am actually quite curious about some ideas you've expressed.

Here's my disagreement: I don't think it's helpful to say that Romero's zombie films are "good films" in the general sense.  I just can't think of any criteria under which I would categorize them as "good films" except as "good zombie films", though I like them a lot (I even like Land of the Dead, which plenty of people seemed to dislike).  There are moments that I think reach a certain height of cinematic achievement -- some parts of Night of the Living Dead, the last shot in Diary of the Dead (in which disgust at the gore is, in the context of the movie, mingled with pity and sadness) -- but you can't ignore the bad acting, the frequently pedestrian writing, the obvious attempts at social critique (sometimes effective, certainly, but never subtle).  There are things that are really great at being what they are, and are a height of accomplishment within the world of what they are, and then there are things that are more than that -- the evaluation "good movie" that describes a film like Renoir's Rules of the Game is an evaluation of "good movie" that does not describe Dawn of the Dead, and though it is, of course, possible for one person to enjoy and appreciate both (I like to think I do), I just can't even conceive of a meaningful evaluative system that would put the two films on equal standing.  To do so would be to deny the usefulness of evaluation at all.  Which may, in fact, be a meaningful position.  But there's no point in disguising that position as one of, itself, evaluation when it is the denial of evaluation.  (Another interesting position would be to turn the terms around, to argue that since all evaluative criteria are a result of cultural-historical biases and are, like so much else, socially constructed, therefore we must be able to create a rubric under which Romero is a greater artist than Jean Renoir.  Such an exercise, though, is beyond my imaginative capabilities.)

I'm also wary of evaluative systems based on personal likes or dislikes -- I've never been able to get a whole lot of pleasure from Proust, but I'd still say he's a more substantial and important writer than anyone who's ever written science fiction.  With someone like Proust, the failing is mine, not his.  I am not a great enough reader for him, and probably will never be so.  I'm also wary of the sugar/medicine metaphor, because I don't actually think great literature is good for you in any quantifiable way other than how it broadens your ability to appreciate other texts -- some of the greatest war criminals in history have loved and appreciated the greatest of literature.  (Wallace Shawn's play The Designated Mourner is worth taking a glance at on this and similar subjects.  Or many of Bolaño's books.)  "Fun", too, is entirely relative, and there's an anti-intellectual strain to how we often conceive of "fun" and its relationship to stories -- it's the thing that doesn't require fully engaging your brain.  Part of this is tied to the idea that all literature should be accessible to everybody, which is a ridiculous notion -- advanced theoretical physics isn't the least bit accessible to me, yet I know there are physicists who find tackling the most difficult theories to be fun, and I would not denigrate them for doing so -- indeed, I would think them rather odd if they didn't find fun in contemplating the richest and most difficult accomplishments in their field, and I would doubt their talent.  But for some reason when it comes to literary texts, the expectation is different: your fun is supposed to be my fun, and that fun should be easy fun.  How dull the world would be if that were true!

I'm a pragmatist as much as I am a postmodernist, so I'm always interested in the systems and structures that seem to produce the most meaning, and I just don't think it's very meaningful to equate things like Rules of the Game and even the greatest of zombie films, because such an equation loses the meaning-producing differences between the items.

That's what all of this stuff boils down to for me: do the differences that we conceive, perceive, and note between items that we stick in certain frames lead to greater meaning and/or pleasure than wider or narrower frames would?  Is it useful to call something "science fiction" rather than "fiction"?  Five years ago, I probably would have said no.  Now, I offer an emphatic yes, because my ways of understanding things, of valuing them, of finding interest in them have come back again and again to needing some things to be x and others to be y -- which is not to say that the universe is or should be limited to only x and only y, but that those are categories that help me find the most meaning in the texts that fit comfortably enough into them.  I also like texts that don't fit comfortably into categories, because that's where, I think, the most rejuvenating energy comes from -- texts that force us to have to reconfigure our ways of making meaning instead of simply using the templates that have worked in the past.  But a text that defeated all our templates would be impossible to understand, utterly alien, so we can't go too far.....

For me, the differences between types of reading and writing that Delany points out are subtle and not even necessarily mutually exclusive -- and they are not evaluative.  People are always tempted to assign evaluative meaning to them, but that is a mistake that should be fought against.  For the whole system to work, such terms as "bad literature" and "good science fiction" have got to be as meaningful as their opposites.  I think the distinctions between "literature" as a phenomenon and "science fiction" as a phenomenon are worthwhile ones (meaning-producing), and therefore I refuse to allow them to be evaluative labels, regardless of what people who prefer one or the other want, and I accept the basic idea of protocols, differing histories, differing prioritization of the subject, etc. because to me that's a conceptual system that makes sense and lets me get the most out of a wider variety of texts than I would be able to otherwise.  Nothing more than that.  I don't think it's really, in the grand scheme of things, all that big a deal, nor do I think the challenges are nearly so great as Delany sometimes has made them out to be.  Good readers read in all sorts of different ways all the time, and good writers, I think, encourage readers to try out different ways of reading.  (For another way I think differences can be interesting in creating the meaning of a story, see my discussion from some years back of Lucius Shepard's story "Only Partly Here", a story I thought would have a different meaning depending on whether it were read by someone prioritizing SF protocols over others: http://mumpsimus.blogspot.com/2004/01/only-partly-here-by-lucius-shepard.html )

I should probably state here, too, that a lot (though not all) of my interest in science fiction is an interest best described as historical or even anthropological rather than literary.  I've neglected to make this distinction very often, thinking it was obvious, and this has sometimes led to misperceptions of what I'm trying to say.

But enough (more than enough!) about me -- I have some questions about some of what you've said.

You wrote:

...while I honestly think that some of the best writers working today are self-identified SF-types (mostly the writers who fill up those anthologies we were talking about), there's still strong factions in the SF community who hold up Bradbury and Tolkein and Herbert as if they're the greatest thing since the invention of the printing press.

Why does this bother you?  I ask this of myself a lot, because it bothers me, too -- but it's not a different annoyance for me from the annoyance I have with anybody who doesn't make the same general distinctions I do between types of accomplishment, whether people who call the latest blockbuster "the greatest movie ever made" or people who (narcissistically, I'd say) want to deny the greatness of books that they don't themselves find meaningful right now but which have been meaningful to many people over many decades and centuries.  The annoyance for me comes in the ignorant dismissiveness of the statement, an ignorant dismissiveness that could easily be fixed -- for instance, saying that Bradbury, Tolkien, and Herbert are significant to SF would be, I think, a statement of fact.  Similarly, saying, "Bradbury, Tolkien, and Herbert are my favorite writers," is a perfectly acceptable opinion, because it's an opinion, and we're all, I hope, allowed to like who we like for writers.  But I find the statement as written annoying for the same reason I have a problem dumping the distinction between Romero and Renoir: it ignores what seem to me to be the greatest heights of accomplishment within an artistic medium.

If you were given the power to be God of the Universe, what would you want people to think about fiction?  How would you want it to be perceived?  What do you desire for writers and readers?  I ask because I don't think Delany's way of conceiving these things is the only useful one -- for me, it's been the most productive for my own thinking, but I also like, for instance, Adam Roberts's very different model in his History of Science Fiction -- it's not a model that works as well for me, but it is one I can see being more productive than Delany's for some other readers.  (I won't say more, because to do so would risk simplifying it and misrepresenting it much worse than I have simplified and misrepresented Delany here, because I don't have a copy of Roberts's book -- I read Dartmouth Library's copy a well over a year ago.)  Much depends on what you want your model to reveal, and what you're most willing to allow to remain invisible -- even the most grandly unified of Grand Unified Theories will not be all-encompassing for a phenomenon that is complex enough to need a theory.

The idea of "protocols"/"ways of reading", as Delany uses it, doesn't actually fit what you say about Star Trek, etc., because you're still sticking too much to evaluation rather than description.  A protocol is not an evaluation.  Alas, I would be going out on a frighteningly precarious limb if I tried to apply Delany's ideas to something that's not a written text -- I've already probably misrepresented him, and the critical writings of his that I am most comfortable trying to explicate and expand upon are ones about written language.

But though I don't know how to apply those particular ideas to what you wrote, I still have questions from a different standpoint: What would you say allows you to distinguish something as "fun", "crap", "godawful", "fun crap", and "godawful fun crap" -- distinguish from each other as well as distinguish, more importantly, from "not-fun", "not-crap", "not-godawful", "not-funcrap", "not-godawfulfuncrap"?  At what point do you generalize -- where do people like me, who find Star Trek boring and far more godawful and crapful than fun -- fit in?  What is it that prevents me from adding the "fun" to "godawful crap" if it is not a way of "reading" the "text" of Star Trek?  I have a sense that my lack of appreciation for Star Trek is different from my lack of appreciation for Proust -- I really have no guilt about not appreciating Star Trek, but a part of me wishes I were the sort of person who could appreciate Proust.  On the surface, that may just seem like what is popularly called "elitism" (I dislike the negative connotations that word has developed in our culture; there are plenty of perfectly respectable and valuable types of elitism, and the negative connotations seem to hide more than they reveal) -- but I think something else is going on, something similar to what I've outlined above.  Do you?

Once again I've proved that though I may not have belonged there for skill, I certainly did belong in a book titled Logorrhea,/i>.....  (Would you believe that when I sat down, I intended to write no more than a paragraph or two?  But I didn't have time to write you a short response!)