Thursday, February 23, 2012

Apocalypse Not Now; or, why the end of the world is a cliché

I admit to having a low tolerance for post-apocalyptic science fiction.  I just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which was excellent but as much as I could take.  When I read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, I was in a bad mood the whole rest of the summer, so I tend to stay away from books I should otherwise probably read, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if it means having to plunge myself into a world in decline or collapse.

Of course, I recognize that this is just a personal preference, but it seems an appropriate abuse of a blog to turn a personal preference into a virtue.  So, I’d like to make the case against the end of the world as a cliché that does more harm than good, both for fiction and for ourselves.  But first, let’s give the cliché its due. 

I remember how revelatory it was to read early William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and to see how cyberpunk broke with much of the science fiction that preceded it.  The cyberpunks refused to allow technology to solve social problems.  New technologies only created different arenas where social conflict played out.  This brought a whole new political sensibility to science fiction, and it made some of the stodgy hard SF that came before it seem not only dated but reactionary.

As a cyberpunk sensibility came to prominence within SF, narratives about courageous scientists solving the world’s problems with inventions were replaced by dystopian visions of hackers trying to outwit multinational corporations that facilitated environmental devastation.  As a corrective, this cyberpunk sensibility was, and still can be, important.  However, as a dominant narrative trope, it has its limitations.  What started out as a progressive critique can easily morph into a kind of fatalism.  If you’ve read one too many books with cynical, well-armed protagonists, you know what I mean.   If I want to see angry, white men trying to figure out what to do based on nostalgia for a lost world, I’ll just watch Fox News.

One of the most intriguing (though also infuriating) post-cyberpunk books I’ve read is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  What makes it post-cyberpunk is its refusal of the clichés of apocalypse.  Doctorow’s novel envisions a post-scarcity world where many of the problems that obsess us now have been solved.  However, unlike pre-cyberpunk SF, those solutions aren’t the point of the book.  The book investigates what happens next.  How do people live in a kind of utopia where social interactions remain important?  The first half of the book lays out an amazing world that is so refreshingly free from cyberpunk concerns that I was able to realize how oppressive that worldview had become.  The second half of the book is inexplicably concerned with how rides work in the future-Disneyworld and a real let down, but that’s another issue altogether.

Of course, I would like to take the best of both worlds and write about a plausible future that doesn’t deny challenges yet doesn’t give into them either.  In fact, the apocalyptic mindset of the villains of the novel I’m writing has made their characterizations one of the easier tasks I’ve taken on.

Things are going well with my novel.  I’m 125 pages in and about to head into the crucial section of the book.  I’m actually going to step back from writing for a week to think about it more (and to catch up on a cascading to-do list I’ve been neglecting).  In other writing news, I hope to see Cedar Fallsians at the Final Thursday Reading Series tonight for a reading in honor of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Nancy Price’s Sleeping with the Enemy.  I’ll be premiering a new flash fiction monologue.  I also have a humor piece coming out soon in McSweeney’s, one of my favorite ezines.  I’ll shamelessly plug it when it gets published.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Language Problem in Science Fiction

            Part of the problem is familiar to any viewer of the original Star Trek.  You’re sitting there watching an episode and suddenly you think, “Hey, why do these aliens speak English with vaguely Eastern European accents?”  In the original Star Trek, this was just one of those things you weren’t supposed to question, like the physics of Warp drive and William Shatner’s hair.  By the time The Next Generation came around, something called the UniversalTranslator had been invented as a work around.  One of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books explained it by having tiny fish in people’s ears doing the translating. 
            I’m sympathetic to the problem.  It really slows the pace of your dialogue if you have to wait for a translation, so it’s much easier if you can just pretend that intergalactic language barriers just wouldn’t exist. 
            Of course, it’s all a lie. 
            It’s hard enough to talk to someone one generation removed from you about the latest feature on your phone, even if you otherwise share the same language and culture.  It’s ridiculous to think that communication is going to be easy in any future-globablized world, never mind in any intergalactic context.
Furthermore, the most interesting aspects of language are often those most subject to change.  We all speak language that reflects the slang of the moment and the shorthand we use to get things done.  GGN and GR8 aren’t much different than 23 skidoo and the bee’s knees, but neither would mean much to characters in a Jane Austen novel. But too often sci-fi ignores the problem of language so that it’s easier to write narratives that stretch over hundreds or even thousands of years.
            Many contemporary SF writers go in the other direction, immersing readers in the techo-jargon of a given moment, in hopes that we will pick it up as we go along.  Sometimes this works well.  I’m reading PauloBacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and having no problem picking up the genetic engineering lingo.  But I found the short story, “The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe in Rewired:the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology to be impenetrable.  The anthology editors described it as “crammed.”  I can think of more descriptive adjectives.
            In the novel I’m working on, I need to find ways to present various forms of speech over more than a century.  The challenge is navigating between the Scylla of plausibility and the Charybdis of understandability.  I’ve gotten around this in one section by having Business English mandated as the only acceptable means of public discourse.  In another section, I’ve abused Google Translate to have conversational English peppered with a range of terms from other languages.  For the last section I need to write, I need to figure out how to make funny jokes about future settings.  That may be the biggest challenge, but it’s also the litmus test.  You know you know a language when you can make jokes in it.