Friday, November 30, 2012

Science Fiction Aesthetics and Sensibility

A couple of days ago, Jonathan McCalmont posted Annoyed with the History of Science Fiction to his blog. "Annoyed" notifies us, from the top, that it's to be read as a rant rather than a sampling of his thoughts on the subject of the history of science fiction. Fair enough. The title also-- unintentionally, perhaps-- conflates some hypostasized notion of all the existing histories of science fiction distilled into a single "history" with what non-academics usually mean by the word "history" (viz., the past, which inevitably becomes singularly dicey when treated as a conceptual entity). By "history," McCalmont, I believe, means the former. Rants can be interesting and useful, though, and "Annoyed" is both.

It seems a Locus Online piece by Gary Westfahl provoked McCalmont by making the sort of generalization that seems always to be with us in the sf/f sphere: "the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable." McCalmont explains his annoyance thus: "The reason I am singling out Westfahl’s essay is that it illustrates the field’s lamentable tendency to allow these types of broad historical claims to go completely unchallenged and unsupported." So far so good. But when he says
I believe that the historical approach to science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use this approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
Here, I have a bit of trouble with McCalmont's own generalization. Yes, I see what he calls "the historical approach" used by some academics and many non-academics in the field all the time, but unlike McCalmont, I assume they're doing so because they've chosen to ignore the variety of attempts quite a few smart academic critics have lately made (and continue to make) to grapple with the ungainly, difficult-to-grasp subject without falling into pitfalls Samuel R. Delany has often and effectively excoriated (and which McCalmont duly alludes to). A science fiction work's closeness to the culture and politics of its time means that any history necessarily has to take shifts in culture and politics (and scientific practice as well as science!) into account. There are scholars in the field attempting to do that-- taking a variety of approaches that try their damnedest to eschew generalizations like the one McCalmont cites about Heinlein's influence.

Now let me get on to the interesting and useful parts of McCalmont's post. He takes John Berger's excellent Ways of Seeing and David Bordwell's On the History of Film Style as examples of approaches to an aesthetic field's history (art history and film history, respectively) that is illuminating rather than stultifying. Bordwell, McCalmont tells us, pays special attention to the impact certain film techniques (particularly "deep focus," "long take" and "dynamic editing") had on film-making and how we watch films. I think McCalmont gets to something important when he writes:
Terms like ‘info-dumping’ are the science fiction equivalent of the film critic’s ‘deep focus’, ‘long take’ and ‘dynamic editing’. However, while film critics are able to draw upon a rich technical lexicon, the few technical terms used by SF critics generally come bundled up with their own unexamined assumptions about how best to write science fiction. For example, the lionisation of show-don’t-tell at the expense of the info-dump assumes that the aim of science fiction is to tell a story that is immersive in that it never causes the reader to break from the story and think about what it is that they have just read. However, some authors such as Stanislaw Lem, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson make frequent use of info-dumps as they believe that wading through densely written expositional text is an integral part of the science fiction experience. I would even go so far as to argue that Lem’s approach to info-dumping is so effective and idiosyncratic that it not only forms an integral part of his novels’ literary affect, it also makes his work substantially more complex and interesting than anything written under the purview of show-don’t-tell.
If we simply assume that show-don’t-tell was a linear improvement on the info-dump then it follows that writers like Stephenson and Lem are nothing more than unsophisticated writers who have yet to acquire the skills necessary for Heinleinian narrative immersion. However, if we assume that science fiction is a literary tradition rich enough to create its own literary techniques and that the info-dump might be a literary technique with its own affective payload then experimental info-dumpers such as Lem and Stephenson immediately appear more important and influential.
I've long felt that the most difficult to talk (and therefore think) about aspect of science fiction is its special, particular aesthetics and sensibility. Aesthetics and sensibility don't easily fit into the discussions of a work's narrative techniques, and yet they matter tremendously. (McCalmont cites Delany's wonderful, still important "About 5,175 Words" as an exemplar for how one could go about discussing/analyzing sf aesthetics at the textual level.) Many reviewers and critics and fans and writers just generalize about aesthetics by proclaiming that such and such a work or description imparts a "sense of wonder"-- which for me usually indicates an inability to discuss the aesthetic passage in question in technical terms. McCalmont is right, I think, when saying that Delany shows critics how they could do this with a great degree of specificity. What makes this even more frustrating (for me, anyway), is that like all other aspects of sf writing, sf aesthetics and sensibility have changed over time, are at the moment, in fact, changing in ways that are making some of our veteran critics uneasy and unable to assimilate much current sf to sf as they've known and loved it.

 I'll add here that as a publisher and editor of a small press, I'm absolutely aware of there being a major shift in sf writing-- one that I think involves sf aesthetics and sensibility more than narrative techniques-- underway. I've been assuming that the reason I can't really put my impressions and conjectures into words is because it's very difficult to get enough distance at this point to do so: isn't that the nature of being inside a shift? But another reason might be that this is an aspect of science fiction that hasn't been as well worked as, say, narrative conventions and tropes, have.

Anyone have any thoughts on this? I'd love to see more discussion of this subject. Unfortunately, most of the emphasis in McCalmont's post and in the comments to it has focused on language and textual style-- important aspects of aesthetics, certainly, but doesn't cover issues of form (which is briefly alluded to with reference to Kim Stanley Robinson and John Brunner).

I'd be particular interested, of course, in a discussion that talks about the aesthetics and sensibility I recognize in the work of, say,  Nalo Hopkinson, Andrea Hairston, and Kiini Ibura Salaam, or the particular aesthetics and sensibility of feminist sf  generally (which I can recognize by feel when I encounter it but have never tried to explain).


Anonymous said...

Great points about the discussion and evolution of the aesthetics and sensibility of SF!

"About 5,750 Words" is one of my favorite critical essays, and in his later "Science Fiction and 'Literature' - or the Conscience of the King" Delany eloquently makes the point that those aesthetics aren't static.

Personally, I think much of the "grumpiness" in contemporary genre criticism stems from a shift in the cultural vocabulary that underlies genre aesthetics: the development of a "new normal" which non-cognoscenti can interpret and enjoy (FWIW, I've written about this in greater detail here and here).

Ethan Robinson said...

Thanks so much for this! I've been pondering these issues on my own for a while now and have been having a hard time finding my way in to think and write effectively about them--your comments and Jonathan McCalmont's have opened things up for me tremendously. If blatant self-promotion can be forgiven, I've written the first of what I hope will be many essays in response to points raised here and there. This one's on the implications of various expositional techniques in sf.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks to both Chris & Ethan for your links.

Ethan, I particularly like the way you explore how "infodumping" can (and, at its best, does) work. In several places (which I lack the time to hunt for just now) Delany insists that the major difference between sf & literary fiction is the former's emphasis on objects & the "objective world" and the latter's on subjects & subjectivity. That has been a crucial insight for me & one that bears heavily, I think, on this discussion (& also complements the direction you chose to explore in your post).

Ethan Robinson said...

Thank you!

I recall the comments of Delany that you're referring to--and they've been very helpful to me as well. Something I wasn't able to address in my post (but hopefully will at some point) is the notion that--related to the importance of the object--where non-sf can, if it chooses, take the context in which it occurs for granted, assume it as natural, sf can't do this. Or at least can't to a certain extent--obviously vast swathes of sf writers have been guilty of taking a lot of aspects of social context (gender roles leap to mind!) for granted...

In a way it relates too to Russ's observation (I think it's in "Toward an Aesthetic"?) that sf is the only literature to take work as its primary subject.