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A review

Here's my review of James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel's The Secret History of Science Fiction from the latest issue of Locus -- with thanks as always to the Locus folks for permission to excerpt a bit of my column from time to time.  Herein I do not so much review the anthology -- which is well worth reading -- as use it for a springboard to address certain literary questions that I've thought about for a long time but have never before wrestled into coherent form.

***

The seeds of James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s ambitious, provocatively titled new anthology, The Secret History of Science Fiction, were sown in 1998, when Jonathan Lethem’s controversial essay “Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction” appeared in The Village Voice. Lethem asked readers to imagine an alternative history in which Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow won the 1973 Nebula Award—for which, by the way, it was nominated (Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was the winner). In that alternate reality, the literary potential of science fiction was recognized and embraced both within and without the genre, with the result that the walls enclosing the ghetto of sf crumbled at long last. Obviously, that didn’t happen. 

 

Or did it? Kelly and Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, in fact, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, “the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real,” and that “outside of the public eye,” writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.

 

 

It’s a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly and Kessel are wrong in an centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.

 

First off, these are wonderful stories, every one. And I applaud unreservedly any project that is likely to take readers outside their normal comfort zones—though I wonder, in this case, how many mainstream readers are going to pick up a book with this title; sf readers, on the other hand, will be drawn to it by that same title. This is a small but telling indication of the narrow yet deep fissure that really does separate speculative fiction from mainstream literary fiction.

 

It’s worth giving the entire list of contributors in order to demonstrate how Kessel and Kelly have, for the most part, made selections that would seem sure to buttress their thesis: Margaret Atwood; T.C. Boyle; Michael Chabon; Don DeLillo; Thomas M. Disch; Karen Joy Fowler; Molly Gloss; James Patrick Kelly; John Kessel; Ursula K. Le Guin; Jonathan Lethem; Maureen F. McHugh; Steven Millhauser; George Saunders; Carter Scholz; Lucius Shepard; Kate Wilhelm; Connie Willis; and Gene Wolfe. (I note in passing that the editors have included stories of their own: worthy stories, to be sure, yet I wish editors would refrain from doing this, especially in an anthology that, like this one, has a polemical purpose—even the whiff of self-interest detracts from one’s argument.)

 

That’s a pretty even split between writers mainly associated with speculative fiction, those with a primarily mainstream reputation, and those, like Lethem, Chabon, and Fowler, who slip back and forth between both camps with relative ease, regardless of where they started. The stories are presented mostly in chronological order, from Tom Disch’s classic “Angouleme,” which appeared in 1971, to Steven Millhauser’s “The Wizard of West Orange,” of 2008; I suppose the editors decided to begin in 1971 in order to include Disch’s story; it’s hard to see another reason why that date, rather than any other, was chosen as the starting point: indeed, the logic of their thesis would seem to argue for a starting date of 1972 or 1973, when stories nominated for the 1973 Nebula would have been published.

 

I did wonder at the absence from this list of such writers as J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany, Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford, Nalo Hopkinson, and James Tiptree, Jr., just to throw out some names from the sf side off the top of my head, each of whom would seem like a poster-child for the editors’ thesis. Even stranger is the fact that, with the exception of the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, all the writers here are Americans. It seems ironic that a secret history of science fiction dedicated to the proposition that genre boundaries don’t truly exist should attempt to prove that assertion from behind geographical boundaries. Also notable is the absence of writers of color. Shouldn’t a secret history attempt to take minorities into account?  

 

As I said, the stories are all strong—many of them are award winners, and at least one is so well known that it seems out of place. There is nothing secret about Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It is a widely anthologized story, taught in many high schools, and as such is probably as well-known outside the genre as inside it; unless its inclusion here casts it in a new light, making a convincing argument for a fresh interpretation, which I don’t believe is the case, I don’t see why some other, less well-known Le Guin story couldn’t have been chosen. Yet interestingly, “Omelas” is the one story here from the speculative fiction camp that I think could have been written by a mainstream writer. It’s a postmodern fable, not a piece of speculative fiction.

 

I’m going to attempt a definition here, or at least an explanation. Speculative fiction writers are apt to treat the subjects of their speculations as if they were real, no matter how outlandish and unlikely; thus, speculative fiction of the highest quality often has a unique reality to it. It employs the tools of mimetic fiction to ground and particularize its flights of fancy, whether they be technological or magical. It takes them literally. It concretizes metaphors. But when mainstream writers venture into speculative fiction, it’s all too often either a day at the playground, during which they feel free to cast aside the mimetic conventions they normally hold to in regard to plot, character, setting, etc., or a trip to the Olde Curiosity Shoppe, where they can pick and choose among exotic settings, objects, atmospheres, etc. to use as symbols and such in their own stories, which remain highly mimetic in a traditional sense. I don’t mean to suggest that this distinction holds for every story published by a mainstream or speculative fiction writer, only that it expresses something true and important about the unique quality of speculative fiction. Put another way, when mainstream literary writers or readers venture into what they perceive as the realms of speculative fiction, they follow the tedious bromide of the   suspension of disbelief. When speculative fiction writers and readers do their thing, they engage the engines of belief. This is a distinction borne out again and again in the stories of this anthology. Let me give some examples.

 

Don DeLillo is a writer that many in the sf community regard as “one of us,” or at any rate a second cousin once removed. And I wouldn’t dispute that; his novel Ratner’s Star shows a genuine affinity for science fictional ambience, and I think he’s had a strong and salutary influence on many speculative fiction writers, myself included. But his story here, “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), merely drapes itself in the trappings of science fiction, beginning with that vaguely Ballardian title. The story takes place in a space station on which two astronauts go through their routines as, below them, an apocalyptic war breaks out. But really, there is no central reason for the story to take place in space. It could just as well be set on a submarine, or in a nuclear missile silo. Even the war is secondary: or, rather, symbolic. DeLillo is following the second course set forth above: he’s made a trip to the Curiosity Shoppe. Perhaps that’s too harsh; what I mean is that DeLillo doesn’t take any of it literally; the settings in space and in the future are not important to him in themselves but only as vehicles to transmit that certain feeling of anomie and absurd estrangement so central to all his work. This is true of Ballard as well. But here’s the difference. For DeLillo, the present is like something out of science fiction. For Ballard, the present already is science fiction, only most of us don’t recognize it yet. For DeLillo, it’s a simile. For Ballard, reality.

 

In “Descent of Man” (1977), T.C. Boyle follows the first course: a trip to the playground. In this antic, satirical romp, he skewers the conventional story of marital estrangement with savage zeal, setting up a romantic triangle between the nameless narrator, his wife, Jane, a primatologist, and an ape, Konrad. The story makes no pretence at verisimilitude: it is hyperbolic by intent, full of clever allusions to other works of science and of fiction, with ironic hat-tips to Darwin and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others. Boyle’s magpie approach is textbook postmodernism. Readers are not supposed to take the characters or the setting of the story any more seriously than Boyle himself does; which is to say, not at all. The point is the author’s cleverness, his wit and humor and jaded sophistication, which extends even to featuring an African-American character who speaks in the kind of blackface dialect that would normally, if we weren’t all so cool and beyond that, be, well, kind of offensive, especially coming from a white author. The story is a performance meant to shock yet also to be applauded. And I do applaud it, though I don’t shock as easily as all that. But I will insist that, whatever heart is beating beneath its shaggy hide, it’s not the heart of speculative fiction.

 

Now let’s look at two representative stories from speculative fiction writers. If Kessel and Kelly are correct, then there should be no difference between these fictions and those of Boyle and DeLillo beyond the superficial. There should be no way that an intelligent reader of Boyle and DeLillo, familiar with their work, could misread these stories in any fundamental way, even if coming to them for the very first time. We shall see if that’s the case, or if, rather, some very specialized reading skills are not required—skills that readers learn from reading speculative fiction, because speculative fiction is written in a certain way, and demands to be read in a certain way.

 

Karen Joy Fowler’s “Standing Room Only” (1997) is a remarkable story. Grounded in the most minute details of the quotidian mundane, which Fowler presents with the cool yet sympathetic exactitude of a Flaubert, it follows the day of a young girl in Washington, D.C.—a girl who happens to be Anna Surratt, the daughter of Mary Surratt, whose boarding house was a meeting place for conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln, which took place on Good Friday, 1865, the very day of Fowler’s story. Little by little, the author, with exquisite control, introduces jarring elements into her account, elements that are inexplicable to Anna yet, to the sensitive reader, gradually add up to the realization that Lincoln’s assassination has become a popular destination for time-traveling rubberneckers. Nowhere, however, is this stated explicitly. And so dependent is the realization upon an openness in the reader to the consideration of speculative fictional possibilities, that otherwise intelligent and acute readers, whose experience is limited to realistic, mainstream fiction, could potentially miss the climax and leave the story in a state of dissatisfied confusion. Rather than experiencing the exhilaration of reading a small masterpiece, the final revelation of which unlocks the story in emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating ways, such readers would feel they have instead read a pointless and failed story. Even if they do understand the time travel aspect, they are likely to feel it trivializes the historic moment by taking it into woo-woo territory, reneging on what had seemed to be the promise of some small yet savory epiphany in a young girl’s life. If this seems far-fetched, consider the number of mainstream readers and reviewers who did not recognize that Fowler’s novel Sarah Canary might have been more accurately titled The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Fowler applies the imagination of a speculative fiction writer to Lincoln’s assassination, and it doesn’t result in a visit to the playground or to the Olde Curiosity Shoppe—it results in a visit to Washington, D.C. on Good Friday, 1865: yet also—and this is indispensable, because a writer of historical fiction could also take us there—to some distant, unknown, but not wholly unknowable, future. Because through the hints that Fowler drops in the story, readers can deduce certain facts about the future—our future—from which the time travelers have come: it’s an integral part of what Fowler is up to, yet it’s almost certain to be lost in its entirety upon a mainstream reader. The misreading is not because of Fowler’s clumsiness or the reader’s stupidity: it’s due instead to a difference in the very DNA of speculative fiction and literary fiction, a difference that Kelly and Kessel want to gloss over. But to gloss over this distinction is really to sandpaper away the bumps and sharp edges, the grainy specificity of a particular application of the imagination, that makes speculative fiction unique and vital. 

       

Gene Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat” (1995) is another time travel story, though a very different one in aim and execution. But it, too, presents serious difficulties to a mainstream reader. The full complexity and ingenuity—not to mention the horror—of this bravura exercise in unreliable narration may be lost on those who are unfamiliar with the history of speculative fiction and its evolution as a literary form. The plot is too complicated to recapitulate here, but suffice it to say that Wolfe presents readers with a main character, Emery Bainbridge, whose view of the world, and women in particular, is atavistic, bordering on, if not crossing into, the misogynistic. He is at the very least suicidal, and perhaps murderous: the stereotypical angry white man who shocks everyone when he goes postal. In Bainbridge, Wolfe provides a devastating deadpan satire, yet also a poignant portrait, of that sfnal archetype, the omnicompetent man: a man out of his time in the modern world, chivalric, capable, a man of action and of logic, yet also, in the right circumstances, a monster. Wolfe sticks like glue to Bainbridge’s point of view, yet he also allows us to see that Bainbridge’s self-perception and account of the events that take place at a remote mountain cabin during a snowstorm are not to be trusted. At the end of the novella, readers are left with three possibilities: (1) Bainbridge is crazy and has just murdered his son, his second wife, and one of his two adolescent or even preadolescent stepdaughters, taking the other as his new wife, all while under the delusion that he is responding to an incursion of time-traveling females from a future devoid of men; (2) Bainbridge is perfectly sane and, with ruthless, cold-blooded efficiency, has avenged his son’s murder, protected his wife and stepdaughters, and successfully—indeed, with admirable ingenuity and resourcefulness—met the challenge of an incursion from the future . . . met it and turned it to his own advantage by murdering some of the invaders, stealing their advanced technology, and keeping one woman as what amounts to a sex slave; or (3) some mix of (1) and (2). I find it hard to imagine a mainstream writer even conceiving of this story, let alone executing it. And I believe its subtleties, complexities, and ambiguities—to say nothing of the dialogue Wolfe is engaging in with genre writers from Heinlein to Joanna Russ—are likely to be lost on mainstream readers. They will understand that Bainbridge is not to be trusted in his explanations and rationalizations, but in doing so, they will either dismiss the time traveling females as delusions, evidence of Bainbridge’s insanity, or they will accept the time travel aspect of the story but search for a symbolic or metaphorical meaning without grasping the truly horrifying implications that arise when it is accepted as a brutal fact: among which is the possibility that Bainbridge, the omnicompetent man, is ensuring not only his own extinction, but that of his entire gender, not just because of what he does but because of who he is. Bainbridge, as much as the women of the future, is trapped in a time that is alien to him, the circumstances of which conspire to make him monstrous. He is the real zigurrat of the title, not the spaceship to which that term is applied in the text. Here, again, the speculative fiction writer takes seriously, as something real, what in a mainstream story would be unreal: either a delusion on the part of a character, or a bit of literary artifice inserted by the author as a symbol or metaphor, an objective correlative standing in for the “real” reality of the story.

Could the editors have made their point with stories from other authors? Perhaps they could have done a better job of it. Steven Millhauser’s “The Wizard of West Orange,” about the unsettling effects of a prototypical invention being developed in Edison’s laboratory in 1889, is one story by a literary mainstream writer that actually enters into the realm of speculative fiction in the way I’ve outlined above: it takes its premise absolutely seriously. And yet, there will always be individual mainstream writers who “get” speculative fiction. Michael Chabon is another example: he’s written, and written about, speculative fiction before, and his story here, “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance,” is a wonderful bit of steampunk—but only because Chabon understands and respects the special qualities of speculative fiction, not because there is no such thing, really, as speculative fiction. It’s important to stress commonalities among writers across genre lines, but after having read this provocative anthology, I feel more convinced than ever that those lines, at least in the case of speculative fiction—I’m not qualified to speak to other genres—reflect more than simple marketing categories. They, too, are real.


 

 
 

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