Saturday, August 1, 2020

Why the future looks bright for climate fiction.

''Why the future looks bright for climate fiction.'' Bryan Appleyard looks at why the genre is having a resurgence—and picks his top five cli-fi works. Jessica Harrison, the 35 year old editor of the new series from Penguin Modern Classics, admits that for her the term at first evoked book or magazine covers with "half-naked girls and purple planets". Neither is present on the austere white covers of her list. The reason the list came into existence was that Harrison had spotted that some SF titles - notably John Christopher's The Death of Grass and Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud - were selling well. Perhaps because they are - whisper it - cli-fi, in that the Hoyle is near-apocalyptic and the Christopher is post-apocalyptic. Thanks to Covid we are into apocalypses at the moment, and SF has always delivered. "A great swingeing plague is one favourite stratagem," Kingsley Amis wrote in his wonderful book on SF, New Maps of Hell. The book's publication was a transformative moment for SF in Britain. For one thing it inspired the creation of the yellow-jacketed SF series by the publisher Gollancz. "The Gollancz list actually was started as a result of publishing New Maps of Hell," the veteran SF publisher Malcolm Edwards explains. "They started their SF list because they realised a lot of the books Kingsley Amis had mentioned were not published in the UK, so they decided to do something about that." Amis became an SF fan as a boy. "The first coverful of many-eyed and tentacled monsters was enough assurance for me, as it must have been for thousands of others, that this was the right kind of stuff," he wrote. Fair enough, but SF has never quite been acquitted of the charge of childishness. Amis admits that "what attracts people to science fiction is not in the first place literary quality in the accustomed sense of that term". Despite this, his book is one of the most erudite defences of SF as a genre full of serious writing. If you need further proof of that, I suggest you read my choice of the two greatest SF stories ever written: Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Unlike many writers, Ishiguro embraced the genre when his novel was shortlisted for the all-SF Arthur C Clarke award in 2006. He even turned up for the ceremony, at which, I am told, there were people dressed up as Star Wars stormtroopers. Staggeringly the future Nobel prizewinner did not win. Anyway, the Penguin series is good, very, and should go some way to dispelling the illusion that SF can't be literature. HP Lovecraft bores me rigid and I can't get anywhere with James Tiptree Jr. But the Strugatsky brothers from Russia and the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem are superb, as is Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. Edwin A Abbott's Flatland is a brilliant conceptual fable. So what is SF? First of all, it is not fantasy. Bookshops and publishers have confused this issue by creating a single genre: Fantasy and Science Fiction. Annoyingly, fantasy accounts for 70 per cent of sales and SF 30 per cent. This is perhaps because of the success of Game of Thrones, but the genre was effectively created in 1949 by JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Both of these are good, as is the superb fantasist Mervyn Peake, but little else in fantasy is. The problem is that it is just too easy; you can make stuff up as you go along. SF is more rigorous. "Fantasy tends to involve magic," says John Jarrold, a literary agent specialising in SF, "and all the appurtenances, like dragons and medieval kingdoms. Whereas science fiction is the improbable possible, where you might say that fantasy is the impossible in terms of the world we know." SF connects to the real world. It should have, as Edwards puts it, "the illusion of possibility". Clute says it involves "arguable" worlds, meaning we can imagine them existing on the basis of what we know in the present. "There's no point in a story that says nothing to us about how we're living our lives now," the SF writer Adam Roberts says. I mean, it would be just purist and vapid. It has to be speaking to our present - the concerns and stuff that matters to us now." This echoes Amis's fine definition of SF: " Science fiction presents with verisimilitude the human effects of spectacular changes in our environment, changes either deliberately willed or involuntarily suffered." The key words being "verisimilitude" and "human'. Darko Suvin, a Croatian SF writer, coined the term "novum", meaning a new thing, "a framing hypothesis", something that dislocates the logic of the world we know - time travel, perhaps, or, in the case of Cat's Cradle, the existence of ice-nine, which can freeze the entire world. Once an SF author has a novum, she/he has the logic, the discipline that must be observed - no sprites, goblins or magic to get you out of a narrative cul-de-sac. As Suvin observed, this disqualifies films such as Star Wars as SF, since the proliferation of novums is ornamental, not structural; they are excuses for special effects such as lightsabers. In fact this probably disqualifies most movies classified as sci-fi. The obvious exceptions are films such as Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, Morten Tyldum's Passengers and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. All of these stick to the discipline of their various novums. Two less blockbusterish films should be mentioned for their connection - or, rather, disconnection - from the fine SF books that inspired them. The first is Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, a dark masterpiece based on Michel Faber's book of the same title. The latter is the best SF book I have recently read, the former one of the best films I have seen in the past few years. But apart from the novum of alien disguised as a woman who seduces and destroys human males, they are utterly different. The other film is Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, based on the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic. Both are entirely different, and both are magnificent. The message of these two films is a rebuke to the Hollywoodisation of sci-fi. The aliens are not BEMs - a term from the 1950s meaning bug-eyed monsters - nor are they cuddly, large-headed babies. Indeed, they are incomprehensible, which, if you think about it, any real aliens are most likely to be. To misquote Wittgenstein, if an alien could speak we would not understand him. This points to the highest mission of SF - to inspire wonder and, by doing so, to reconcile us to one of the central facts of contemporary life: the pace of technological change. "In the very fluctuating world that we live in now," Clute says, "SF serves all sorts of purposes. It can serve to remind us of the history we used to occupy and the futures we never had. At its best, its most intense, a contemporary science fiction novel can serve as a tool of recognition. A way of understanding where we are now." This is, of course, one purpose of fiction in general; SF just happens to use different tools. But is this purpose threatened by the overweening power of fantasy in books and films? The short answer is yes. However, a little history may make SF fans more optimistic. Clute's SF encyclopaedia goes back to Homer, but science really enters the picture in the late 19th century, with books such as HG Wells's The War of the Worlds. Then in 1926 came Hugo Gernsback, known along with Wells and Jules Verne as one of the fathers of science fiction; indeed, he created the term. He defined the genre as 75 per cent fiction and 25 per cent science. Gernsback published the magazine Amazing Stories and organised fans into the Science Fiction League. Fans, possibly threatened by anti-SF snobbery, still rush to form groups. These are unlike literary book clubs in one key respect: the authors often turn up. Once the pandemic subsides, try a monthly meeting of the British Science Fiction Association, usually held at the Bishop's Finger in Smithfield, London. They last until closing time. Gernback also established the genre as primarily American, spawning several generations of US practitioners, from Ursula Le Guin to William Gibson, creator of the cyberpunk subgenre. Amis's book demonstrates that in the 1950s SF was overwhelmingly American. Then the British and the Russians came along. Now, and here comes the optimism, SF has gone global, with new waves of Asian and African writers. One Chinese author in particular has to be mentioned, Liu Cixin. I've just started reading his book The Three-Body Problem - it is different from anything else and beautifully written. It is also brave, in that it starts with a vivid description of the horrors of Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Barack Obama loved the book, not least because it made his "day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty". That, of course, is exactly what SF should do. SF will survive even as technological progress seems to race ahead of some of its wildest imaginings. It will survive because it is a way of seeing - not aliens, time warps, superluminal travels and so on, but ourselves. Dr Snaut nailed it in the greatest of all SF movies, Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972). "We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn't want. Man needs man!" More information about the Penguin Science Fiction series at MY TOP FIVE SCI-FI WORKS Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges (1961) This is spectacular SF - although it is seldom acknowledged as such - about an alternative world that seems to exist only in books until objects of that world start appearing in our own. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) Another book seldom called SF, even though it obviously is. In the future clones are not treated as fully human; they merely provide replacement organs for the non-clones. Their search for a place in the fully human world is heartbreaking. Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000) A thrilling reversal of normal SF conventions. The human world is seen through the eyes of an alien, whose world turns out to be a brutal dystopia. Humans are being harvested for their flesh after being seduced by an alien disguised as a woman. The slow revelation of what is going on is unforgettable. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1898) The supreme alien invasion story, made poignantly domestic by the way the alien tripods rampage through the Surrey countryside. Humans cannot negotiate with these beings, but luckily other Earth residents can finish them off. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1977) Aliens land around the world, but nobody sees them. They leave behind Visitation Zones filled with incomprehensible oddities. A brilliant realisation of the idea that aliens may be indecipherably alien.

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