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The latest New York Review of Science Fiction (#202, June 2005) is a 'Special Edges and Over Them Issue!' and contains a number of articles that relate, directly or indirectly, to positioning and categorisation of various types of fantastic fiction. The one that particularly intrigued me is 'Traitor to Both Sides' by Karl Schroeder, author of Ventus, Permanence, and other books I should probably have read. The summary:
Science fiction is disreputable [...] SF writers tend to want to solve this problem of disreputability. There are two ways to do this: court literary respectability or court scientific accuracy. I think that both are bad strategies, because the old dichotomy of science vs. the humanities no longer holds true. In fact, sf fits the emerging picture of twenty-first century thought much better than the entrenched academic cultures of either big science or literary studies. The roots of our bad reputation lie in the ideas of another century.
Schroeder then runs through what he sees as these outdated ideas. On the side of Literature, he cites Virginia Woolf, and her contention that 'emotion must come first' in literary art. He then looks at how scientists, or in general people who value objectivity over subjectivity, traditionally react:
Part of my own interest in any argument lies not in whether it's true but in why its advocates want it to be true. What aesthetic extremists such as Woolf are defending--what motivates them to take a side in the war--is a desire to assert the value and dignity of individual, subjective human experience. Many people see science not as something that gives but as something that takes away. It takes away people's right to believe in beautiful and meaningful narratives that illuminate their place in the world--replacing them with mechanical processes. And there is some truth in this, so a stand must be made. Unfortunately, in literature, this stand is represented by the now-entrenched notion that literature is about subjectivity: 'the proper study of Mankind is Man'. I don't think Woolf would have approved of such a simplification of the art. Nevertheless, her stand against the oversimplified techniques of literary realism has been used over the years as ammunition for oversimplified humanism: the realm of the spirit is infinite, while the study of the physical world is finite. The revelation of character is the only means to revealing Spirit.


By contrast, many in the scientific and engineering communities share an essentially Platonist view of the world: there are appearances, and there is the Truth. And only the True can really be valuable. This idea is so self-evident within this community that it is rarely articulated directly; revealing this valuable Truth is, in fact, what science is all about.
The next thing Schroeder has to do to build his thesis is to demolish these two positions, and show how they are outdated. He does so entertainingly. Against Platonist scientists he cites, of course, quantum mechanics, arguing that its implication that science, although it seeks and can find privileged results, is not itself a privileged or unique process, and is not quantifiably different from other avenues of human activity, has not been fully accepted. His argument against literature is a stroke of either genius or insanity:
On the side of literary art, cognitive science has developed to the point where we can determine whether the very notion of character used in literature is valid. Literary artists have been saddled with pseudoscientific notions of human nature for centuries [...] Cognitive science is making quick strides in determining how people think; as it proceeds, a wider and wider gulf is appearing between its findings and the model of personality used in mainstream literature. For instance, while 90% of human thought is unconscious, there is no subconscious--no realm of seething animal passions waiting to burst out in irrational action. The unconscious mind is as rational and alert as the conscious mind; it creates and executes elaborate plans all the time. But the actions of this unconscious do not necessarily shed light on the 'true nature' of the person, if there is such a thing.
I think we can accept that Schroeder has done his research in this area. I have no idea whether this particular conclusion is valid--and even if it is there's an obvious, if weaselly, counterargument, which is to say that Literature is about the experience of being human, not the truth--but as a piece of rhetoric I love it.

So what's his conclusion?
To me, this means writing about the spirituality of the physical and the physicality of the spiritual. Exploring how character and meaning are mechanisms of the physical world and exploring how this physical world is just another story we tell ourselves. Not picking sides; betraying both, in fact, on the way to something new. [...] If I had one manifesto-like commandment for my fellow sf writers, it would simply be: stop picking sides. If you write sf, you're already in the fertile no-man's-land between the cultures. Follow the path you've already chosen. And don't look back.
Having started out by saying that existing scientific and literary traditions are both outdated, Schroeder's finished up by asserting that sf is Special After All, or at least that it should be. Stirring stuff, and obviously seductive for those of us in love with the form, which is one reason I immediately distrust it. To be fair, Schroder explicitly says that he sees sf as just one of many endeavours that should happen in this no-man's-land; but even so, and as fascinating as I find the idea that most of the criteria we use to evaluate sf are obsolete, I can't quite sign up to his argument. I can't quite escape the feeling that he decided on his conclusion first, and then worked out the argument he needed to get himself there.

As a postscript, Schroeder has a blog dedicated to exploring these ideas, called Age of Embodiment (this entry explains some of his thinking). And on his main blog, he's talked a little about how he sees his ideas relate to those of the mundanes.
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that american book covers suck, and UK book covers rock.

However, I think I may have found an exception.

picture poll )
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There is an episode of The West Wing that irritates me greatly. It's called 'The US Poet Laureate', it takes place somewhat over midway through the third season, and as part of a spectacularly ill-judged swipe at fans and fandom it contains the following gem, stated by the US Poet Laureate in resounding Authorial Voice:
"You think I think that an artist's job is to speak the truth. An artist's job is to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don't get to decide what truth is."

Sorkin is disavowing responsibility for his fans. "Don't read too much into what I'm writing," he's saying, "I'm just here to entertain." It's a remarkable statement to hear from any artist, still more remarkable to hear it from a man who created a series so intimately concerned with Substance and Message as is The West Wing. And my reply is simply: Take some responsibility.

Then today in the Guardian, there's this piece by DJ Taylor:
And so here I am a dozen years later trying to establish - an exercise that seems to demand a great many thousands of words - what I, who know nothing but what I read in the newspapers and see on television, think about Iraqi corpses and slaughtered British military policemen. There is, it hardly needs saying, no point, just as there is no point - to descend a little further down the activist scale - in writing a letter to your MP. All you will get back in answer to your reasonable request for information - a recent missive to Charles Clarke bore this out in excelsis - is a sheet of platitudes.

In an environment where art has lost all formal influence, all the writer can do is to keep on writing, in the hope that somehow he or she can make an impact at bedrock, on the series of individual moral sensibilities that read books.

Now, we already knew that DJ Taylor was an idiot. And two data points emphatically do not make a trend, particularly when the points are separated by somewhat more than twelve months, and there are certainly others out there as vociferously active as ever (stand up, China Mieville) - and in any case Taylor doesn't seem as far gone as Sorkin; at least he thinks artists should try, even if they can't actually achieve anything. But then I think, and I wonder whether maybe there is something of a general artistic ennui settling. Maybe it's a product of the same forces that have homogenised and monopolised 'popular music' over the last ten years, and maybe it's starting to happen to the rest of the arts.

I don't really think it is; or at least, I certainly hope it isn't. But to see a piece such as DJ Taylor's in a paper such as the Guardian...well, it bothers me, is all.

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