Monday, October 1, 2012

INTERVIEW: Paul Kincaid--Is SF "Exhausted?" (Part 1)

Paul Kincaid is one of the most well respected critical voices in science fiction and fantasy. The author of such books as the Hugo-nominated What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, Kincaid’s writing has also appeared in such outlets as the Times Literary SupplementNew Scientist, New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and SFSite. The G was lucky enough to be able to “sit down” with Paul to discuss his recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here's Part 1 of their talk...

Let me begin by saying we’re thrilled to have you with us today, and to get the chance to talk in a bit more depth about your recent LA Review article [“The Widening Gyre,” 9/3/2012], in which you look at three yearly anthologies of short fiction: Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, Richard Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2012 Edition and Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. I was really blown away by the article, as were most people who read it. Could you just walk us through the genesis of this project? How did you decide to take this up?

It’s really quite simple: I was commissioned to write it. Not the polemical aspect of it, but the LA Review of Books approached me to do a review of five year’s best anthologies. As it happened, two of them didn’t show up, so I ended up reviewing those three.

At one point, I came within an ace of turning the commission down. I’ve reviewed best of the year anthologies several times over the last few years, and I felt I was beginning to repeat myself. But almost from the moment I started reading the Dozois I found my argument, and the more I read the more clear and urgent it became to me. It took a long time to write, actually, almost two months, and there were several false starts along the way, but I always knew the shape of my argument.

The central argument of the piece is that science fiction and fantasy have, to use your own words, “reached a state of exhaustion,” where authors appear to have lost “any real conviction about what they are doing.” You seem to view this as the culmination of three distinct but interrelated crises: a crisis of ideas, in the sense that short fiction in SF/F isn’t pushing boundaries like it used to; a crisis of identity, in which the features that set science fiction and fantasy apart from mainstream literary fiction are growing indistinct; and a crisis of conviction, where writers appear to be more going through the motions than producing work of passion. Is this an adequate way of framing the issues at hand?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that you’ve summed up, rather neatly, three of the strands in my argument. No in the sense that I think I was arguing something subtly different underneath these three things.

Overall, I am not suggesting that any of these is necessarily a bad thing. I view my essay as more descriptive than prescriptive. What I was trying to do was set out two different but interrelated things: how the genre presents itself, and how those of us within the genre choose to regard it.

So, with that in mind, let’s take that first crisis: the crisis of ideas. Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form. In music, think of Stravinsky; in art think of the post-Impressionists, or, later, Picasso. What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.

Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form.

What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp. Some of it was extremely good, but I wasn’t finding short fiction that was in any way engaged with exploring the possibilities of the genre. (Incidentally, I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel. It may not even hold for the short fiction field as a whole, just for what is being presented as the ‘best’, or at least the most representative examples of the form.)

Now it may be that we, by which I lump together the authors, editors and consumers of such volumes, are all quite happy to see an essentially conservative presentation of the genre. But I wanted to note that that was what I had observed.

You are right, the second crisis, the crisis of identity, is intimately connected with this. Here I must hold up my hand: ever since I began writing about science fiction in the 1970s I have argued for an end to the ghetto. I firmly believe that we should be able to traverse the entire spectrum of literature from the most naturalistic to the most fantastic without any change of gear. I certainly read at least as widely in the mainstream as I do in the genre, I read non-fiction as readily as I read fiction. I happen to believe that the more you read, the more widely you read, the better a reader you become. So in essence I am quite happy if the pigeonholes that box off certain forms of literature are broken up.

But what I was finding here was not the collapse of genre boundaries in this sense. Rather there were two things I noticed. One was the writing of science fiction as though it were fantasy, primarily as a way of escaping the rigor of the former. The other was the avoidance of genre markers; writing stories as though they were fantasy yet which have no element of the fantastic about them. Or perhaps they have something vaguely fantastical in the background, but that is not what the story is about. There is a famous line attributed to Chekov to the effect that if you have a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it has to be fired in the third act. What he means is that within the construction of a play or a story everything has a purpose. If you are writing a science fiction story, then the science fictional elements need to be intimately connected with what the story is about. If it isn’t, if you write a fantasy story that could as easily be set in a historically definite time and place without any change to the sequence of events, the characterization, the motivation, the consequences or what have you, then it really isn’t a fantasy, it’s actually some sort of failed historical romance.

Now that is not a judgement about how good or bad the story might be. I was specifically referring to the story by K.J. Parker, which I happen to think, as a work of fiction, was a fine piece of work. But it did not read as fantasy to me, I could not see why it had been written as fantasy, and I could not see why it had been published as fantasy.

As to the third crisis, the crisis of confidence, this, too, is intimately connected with the others. By a lack of confidence I meant that very few of the writers seemed to be intellectually exploring the world of their creation as though it were fresh. All too often they felt like off-the-shelf futures, reoccupations of scenarios, settings, perspectives that long-time readers of science fiction are already familiar with. Now when I say this I do not, I cannot, ascribe motive to the authors in question, all I am talking about is the effect upon me as a reader. But it certainly felt like a retreat into safe territory.

All of these three crises are aspects of the same thing, a sense that the SF and fantasy short fiction that we see represented in these volumes is no longer a place for daring, or even, really, for novelty. Now that may be a fault (if you want to see it as a fault) of the authors, it may be a fault of the selection criteria of the particular editors (or the SFWA voters in the case of the Nebulas), or it may be a consequence of my great age and long history of reading in the genre. Whatever, I felt myself unsurprised and therefore unsatisfied by the vast majority of the stories I read. (It is not the same case within the novel, which is something we may come back to later in the interview.)

The inevitable consequence of that lack of surprise, the fact that the stories do not upset our worldview, make us rethink and reconsider our perceptions of the world, is that you question why supposedly knowledgeable members of the SFWA and vastly experienced editors with a matchless knowledge of the field, should choose these works as representative of the very best that the genre has achieved in the last year. What does that mean for our perceptions of and expectations of the genre? Science fiction is a genre that makes a fetish of novelty, the new, the ‘novum’, is actually a fundamental part of one of the most famous definitions of the genre. Yet here it is the conservative that is being raised up. Is that a good thing?

Some authors—Neal Stephenson in science fiction, Elizabeth Bear in fantasy—have been publicly lamenting science fiction and fantasy’s pessimistic turn (pejoratively referred to in fantasy as “grimdark”). You wrote a blog piece in 2009 where you noted much the same thing. Do you, like Stephenson, feel that science fiction needs a “new positivism” or “new progressivism?” Or are golden age nostalgic movements and reinventions of the wheel part of the problem?

Before I get around to answering this question, I have noticed a number of people who have misinterpreted what I said. When I spoke about confidence in the future, I was talking about confidence in the creation and understanding of that future. I was, emphatically, not calling for a return to optimism. When writers like George R. Stewart or Carolyn See or the young Stephen Baxter destroyed the world in their fictions, they did so with absolute confidence. They believed in the world they were describing, and therefore we the readers did too.

To be perfectly honest, given the state of the world today, I would think there is a far greater likelihood that contemporary science fiction will be pessimistic rather than optimistic. And since I hold, with J.G. Ballard, that science fiction is primarily a way of writing about the present, then I think that has to be a good thing. One of the trends I have noticed in American science fiction recently has been the emergence of the catastrophe story, by which I mean not the abrupt discontinuity of nuclear annihilation that you used to find in so much American SF of the 1950s and 60s, but the slow, steady running down of the sort of comfortable existence we’ve become used to. That is very much what British writers of the 50s and 60s wrote, but American SF never went that way. Until now. Now we get things like Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh (a woefully under-appreciated novel) or the best of the stories in Maureen McHugh’s After the Apocalypse. In many ways, this is a recapitulation of something very old in genre terms, but its application to the contemporary American experience is very new. I think it might be saying something very interesting about declining American confidence. But they are examples of writing positively, convincingly, with total self belief, about the negative.

One of McHugh’s stories was in one of the collections, but it stuck out from the rest. That sort of conviction about the world of one’s creation does seem to be lacking in so much short fiction. In McHugh’s story, I could see what was happening; I’m not even sure that some of the authors of the other stories could see what was going on in their own work. Anyway, that is by way of a diversion, but it maybe explains how I was using the word confidence.

By which you can probably guess that I see no need for a ‘new positivism’ or ‘new progressivism’ (actually, those are two very different things. By ‘positivism’ may we be thinking of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, a philosophy of science that proved inadequate as an account of what science actually does? By ‘progressivism’ may we be thinking of what I suppose we might consider the old fashioned communist left? I’m all for science fiction espousing the ideas of the political left, I’m just not sure that’s what Stephenson intended.)

The final sentence of your question, however, is very interesting. The so-called ‘radical hard SF’ that emerged in the 1990s, the reinventions of the new hard SF and the new space opera, were exciting movements, at least for a while. They found life in the most jaded of SF traditions, and they were instrumental in creating what became known as the British Renaissance. So it is perhaps dangerous to dismiss such movements out of hand. In fact, I suspect that every so often it is necessary to reinvent the wheel.

The problem may lie, however, with how often the wheel is reinvented, how slavishly the old forms are recreated. The iPhone was a radical reinvention of the whole idea of the mobile phone; the latest generation of the iPhone is a few cosmetic tweaks. The New Wave was a reinvention of science fiction that made Britain the centre of some of the most exciting work in the genre; by the 1970s British science fiction was in the doldrums. So reinventions of the genre, returns to our roots, are movements that can bring innovation into the genre, but within a very short time they become a new conservatism. I think that may well be where the genre is right now. These things are never clear except in retrospect, and there are always individual radical voices who go their own way regardless of the general trend, but that’s how it feels to me at the moment.

I'd also like to explore the “crisis of identity” argument you make in your LA Review piece. First off, I felt that a running concern through the piece that the internal boundaries between science fiction and fantasy growing indistinct, and that this was, in some respects, problematic. At other points, you criticize specific stories in these anthologies for being science fiction or fantasy in a superficial sense only. Let's go back to K.J. Parker’s novella “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” for a minute--a piece you criticize for barely being science fiction at all. Why does it matter to have a strong and distinct sense of what science fiction is and where its boundaries lie?

In part I answered this question earlier, but there’s actually something else going on here. It is a very subtle point, and I’m not sure how clear I can make it because I’m not sure how clear it is in my own mind. The whole of the LARB review has to be read as work in progress, and I’m still working through the consequences and implications of the ideas I expressed there. I probably will be for some time to come.

Okay, let me begin by taking a step back to an essay I wrote that appeared in Extrapolation in 2003, called ‘On the Origins of Genre’. In that essay I argued that there is no one thing that defines science fiction, in fact I suspect it cannot be defined. What we have, rather, is a set of tropes, reflexes, tones, approaches that we commonly recognize as science fiction. By analogy with Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances, as each new work comes along we identify it as science fiction or not depending on how closely it conforms to the set of characteristics we have already labeled science fiction. Of course, each new work then in its own way adds new characteristics to the inventory, so our notion of what constitutes science fiction is in a constant state of flux.

One consequence of this, that I don’t think I fully realized at the time I wrote that essay, is that the heartland of the genre is very clear, but the further you move towards the edges the fuzzier it becomes. To be honest, I don’t give a damn about where the boundaries lie, because they will always be in motion. There’s something Heisenbergian about them: the moment you identify a boundary, it will be in a different place. It is precisely because of this uncertainty that I actually find the boundaries the most interesting places to explore. Something that aims to occupy the very heart of science fiction or fantasy is going to tick a whole series of very familiar boxes, but it isn’t going to say anything interesting or unexpected about the genre. Which is not to say that I do not derive a great deal of pleasure from reading, or re-reading, a piece of straight-down-the-line old-fashioned SF; I do that a lot, and I enjoy doing it. But it isn’t telling me anything about where the genre is now, where it might be going, what its possibilities are; and it isn’t going to surprise or delight me in a novel way.

There is also an issue with this approach to genre that I haven’t fully resolved. The film Apollo 13 won a Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation, yet it is not science fiction. It is an historical drama, it recounts (with dramatic licence) real events involving real people from the past. At the same time, it involves many of the tropes we associate with science fiction: it is set in a rocket ship going to the moon, practically the entire cast is made up of archetypal Campbellian ‘competent men’. So it is possible to see why so many Hugo voters saw enough family resemblances between the film and their understanding of science fiction to give it the award. In a sense, this example actually supports my argument, but it leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable.

This may hark back to Chekov’s gun. The hardware of the film is science fictional, but it is not being used to make a science fictional point or tell a science fictional story. The hardware is essential to make the historical point, it is not essential to any science fictional point. As I say, this is something I have not fully resolved in my own mind. But a story like ‘A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong’ does not use its fantasy. There is no reason within the story for it to be fantasy, other than that is the setting the author has chosen for it. Which makes it feel to me as though the fantasy is redundant, a gun that is never taken off the wall and fired. It is, I repeat, a lovely story, but take away the Ruritanian setting and the story is not affected one jot.

The other crossover element that I criticized, and it is a different aspect of the same issue, is the number of stories that use the affect of fantasy in what is ostensibly a science fiction story. If you look back at science fiction criticism over the years you will find authors and stories consistently being criticized for hand-waving. That is, for setting up a rigorous situation and then resolving it in some less than rigorous way. Fantasy, now, is another and even more blatant way of doing that. True fantasy is as rigorous as science fiction: you play fair with the readers. If anything can happen, then nothing matters. Using the tropes of fantasy to resolve a science fiction story is just a way of waving your hand and saying ‘it doesn’t matter, because anything can happen, all it takes is the whim of the author’. I cannot read a story that takes that form without my confidence in both the writer and their creation instantly plummeting. 

Delving a little deeper into this question, what about the introduction of science fiction into mainstream literary fiction? In novel form, I tend to view that as a mixed bag, ranging from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which to me is a very clever and affecting homage to genre fiction, to the largely indulgent mess that is 1Q84. But a lot of the best short fiction I’ve read in recent years has fallen into this vein—from Alice Sola Kim’s 2010 story “The Other Graces” (which appeared in the 2011 Horton anthology) to Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” in the science fiction issue of the New Yorker earlier this year. And, of course, going back to J.G. Ballard, one of my favorite writers of short fiction in any genre. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, on the flipside to firm understandings of what genres are and aren’t, there is a real risk of rigidity and even balkanization. You can see this in fandom, the notion that “well, I only read steampunk or epic fantasy or ‘hard’ SF.” Or the norm that writers can only write about one kind of thing (which certainly wasn’t always the case). I sometimes worry that the generalist in the genre, both in terms of writers and readers, is a dying breed, and that this too has a corrosive effect on the creativity and freedom with which writers approach their craft. How do we collectively—as science fiction writers, publishers, critics and fans—balance these opposing forces?

I once overheard someone say they only read SF by women. Well, that would have meant missing James Tiptree, wouldn’t it?

The rigidity, the balkanization, is stupid, because there is absolutely no way that you can appreciate anything if all you know is that thing. It’s also stupid because you don’t know until you read it whether something really falls into your neat little categories or not.

When we get anything that tends to break down categories, that pleases me. Which is not to say that they are all good. Paul Theroux’s attempt to write science fiction, O-Zone, was one of the worst books I’ve read because he had no understanding or appreciation of the tropes he was trying to use. David Mitchell, on the other hand, does have that understanding and appreciation, though of course he is a former member of the British Science Fiction Association and he knows the genre. Then there is Margaret Atwood; I have doubts about some of her writing about science fiction, but I have no doubt about the importance within the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale. On the other hand, I have similar appreciation for genre writers who write mainstream fiction. M. John Harrison’s Climbers is an excellent example, because it is clearly one with the aesthetic of his genre work, and yet is so very far outside the genre.

What I mean by all this is that there are qualities that come naturally within the genre that can be profitably employed by non-genre writers; and there are qualities in mainstream fiction that are sorely missing in all too much genre work. Cross-fertilisation does not mean dilution of either, it should mean that both benefit. There are writers like Don DeLillo, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon on one (apparent) side of the fence and like Mike Harrison, Christopher Priest on the other who know this and incorporate it seamlessly into their work. I don’t suppose it is a coincidence that these tend to be among the writers I think are producing the most interesting work these days.

Those, writers and readers, who try to restrict themselves to a very narrow compass, are denying themselves the possibility of growth, or at the very least ensuring that their growth will be limited, distorted. In other words, they are crippling themselves. The problem is that this narrow compass can look increasingly attractive. If it is impossible to keep up with everything even in a very narrow specialization, as it seems to be these days, then what is the point of generalization? I am not a very fast reader, 70-80 books a year is my average. There are more than 80 science fiction books published in any year; there are more than 80 SF books that attract serious attention, the sorts of books you feel you should read to keep up with the genre. Since I am also reading outside SF, I cannot keep up with everything that the genre is doing. But nor can anyone else. When it comes to short fiction, look at those lists of also-rans at the back of the Dozois and Horton collections. There are several hundred stories there. If we assume a basic level of winnowing, say one story in every ten makes it on to one of these lists, we’re looking at a universe of several thousand stories every year. Seriously, no-one can read that, no-one can possibly keep up with every piece of science fiction published in a year (and I include Dozois and Horton and their confreres in that). When you look at it like that, reading only within the genre doesn’t look like specialization. For a critic like me, it might even be looked on as being responsible.

If the genre is now so big that you cannot see the edges, then you might read only one part of it, steampunk or weird fiction or hard SF, and still not keep up, and still not feel like you’re specializing. But then, what do they know of SF, who only SF know, to borrow a phrase.

Is it corrosive? Probably. What do we do about it? We can point out that it is happening. We can hope that some people might listen. I have said before that I expected my essay to sink without trace, because I and other people have made similar points before and that has been the usual response. This time, rather surprisingly, a lot more people have noticed. Not everyone has agreed with me, but I don’t want everyone to agree: you don’t have a debate if everyone agrees. As Jonathan Strahan said: maybe it arrived at just the right time when we’re ready to have the debate. But other than raising consciousness on the issue, I’m not sure there’s much we can do, or indeed should do. I have no desire to remake science fiction in my image, or anything foolish like that; I just want a genre in which the challenging, innovative works I value can continue to emerge. So we praise the things that work for us, and hope that enough other people will notice to encourage more work in that direction.

[Check back in tomorrow for Part 2, where Paul answers questions about the "crisis of passion," awards and what's exciting in SF/F today.]