June 6th, 2012

Puzzling Over the New Yorker's Science Fiction Issue

So here I am, still puzzling over the New Yorker science fiction issue.  There were a good many things in that issue to gave me pause, but tops in the puzzlement department was the essay by Margaret Atwood, “The Spider Women.”  And I like Atwood -- I even like her science fiction novels.  But I just can’t figure out what she’s trying to say here.

“Below a certain age, [children] don’t distinguish between ‘true’ and ‘not true,’” she says in her first paragraph.  This is certainly an interesting subject, but that’s the only mention we get of truth and falsehood until the end.  There’s no explanation of when we do start seeing the difference, or why it matters, or even if it ever does.

Instead, still in the same paragraph, she passes to the difference between science fiction and other types of literature.  For children, she says, “Science-fiction tropes aren’t read as ‘science fiction’; they’re read as fiction.  And fiction is read as reality.”  But, she says, “there comes an age when you realize that some of what you read is -- how to say this politely? -- extremely made up.  When did I know that sci-fi was of a different order than Oliver Twist?”

This difference -- between mainstream literature and sf -- isn’t explained either, though.  Instead she goes on to relate the plot of a dreadful-sounding pulp story she read as a child, something about men on a distant planet being pampered by women who, it turns out, are fattening them up only to paralyze them and then lay eggs on them.  “What the story gave me, as a reader, was a key new differentiator: That was unlikely to be true, or ever to come true... Whereas when I read Orwell’s 1984 a scant few years later, I thought it could all too possibly become true: in the midst of the Cold War, it more or less already was.  Such distinctions still matter.  To me, at any rate.”  And that’s the end.

Am I missing something?  I mean, I do miss things, embarrassingly often.  Here, though, Atwood goes from the difference between true and false, to the difference between sf and non-sf, without explaining either one.  And then she ends her essay by saying that the distinction between true and false is important -- but what does that have to do with science fiction?  If sf is “extremely made up,” does that mean it’s less true, and that people who read it are more like children?  I don’t think that’s what she’s saying -- for one thing, 1984 is undeniably sf -- but it’s the only thing I can come up with after going around and around on this for a while.

Also, if you’re going to compare sf and mainstream literature, the comparison shouldn’t be between pulp fiction and Oliver Twist.  If you’re going to start with the best literature has to offer, you should use as examples the best sf has to offer -- The Left Hand of Darkness, maybe, or A Canticle for Leibowitz.  None of the other essays in this issue had this sort of elitist detachment -- well, of course not, they were by Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury* -- so it’s unfortunate that this one did.

Some of the stories in this issue puzzled me as well, or maybe I’m just not the audience for them.  I hated with a white-hot hate San Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy,” where the author seems to throw in everything he can think of, because after all it’s science fiction, right?  It doesn’t have to make sense.  So he goes from a weird Philip Dick-type melting reality story, to playing games with narrative, to -- and I think this was the part I really disliked -- an alien attack -- because after all, it’s science fiction, right?  Along the way we get a woman who wants another child; two people pretending to fight on a rooftop, until one of them falls off; and a gay cop who for some unaccountable reason dates a series of women.  Like I said, maybe I’m not the audience for this one, or maybe I just didn’t get it.  Jonathan Lethem, in “My Internet,” started with a funny conceit, postulating a smaller Internet inside the larger one for just a hundred people, but he doesn’t do anything with this premise; it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

I liked the other two stories better.  Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” is all in tweets, and was published on Twitter@NYerFiction -- but this isn’t just a gimmick, it makes sense in the context of the story.  And my favorite was Junot Diaz’s “Monstro,” which starts with an epidemic in Haiti.  Of course the first thing you (or I, anyway) think is AIDS, but there’s another terror Haiti is known for... The narrator is in the Dominican Republic, and even though the epidemic is getting worse he doesn’t leave because he’s in love with a woman there -- which strikes me as completely realistic, especially for this character.  Diaz also seems familiar with the conventions of science fiction; for example, he’s able to provide important background information without bogging the story down in infodumps. My only complaint with “Monstro” is that it didn’t end, or ended just at the most critical time. 

I also like Diaz’s fiction because he introduces me to Spanish words that aren’t in my dictionary, but then when I go to look them up -- well, they aren’t in my dictionary.  “Janguiar” I think is Spanglish, “to hang around with,” and “buenmosa” is a combination of “buena” and “hermosa,” but what’s “vaina”?  My dictionary says “sheath, scabbard,” but that doesn’t fit the context -- “Mira esta vaina,” says someone, looking at pictures of infected people.

And why haven’t I read Diaz’s novel yet?  I have no idea.

*RIP, sadly