Hate and love in Science Fiction

April 4, 2009

Science fiction is how I came of age. However, I’m not as well-read as I ought to be re: modern science fiction. My reading stopped after cyberpunk happened. I came across an interesting quote recently regarding Theodore Sturgeon by Harlan Ellison, which started me thinking about why this was. Before I get to the quote, I’d like to ruminate some.

Science fiction is classic outcast literature. It’s simultaneously an expression of wonder and fear. Wonder at the worlds the imagination creates to escape from reality and fear at the consequences thereof. Wonder at how easily society has excluded the science fiction reader/writer and fear of the world that would presume to do so. Science fiction seems to me to contain both the outcast’s conscious rebellion and the pervert’s intellectual masturbation. When faced with absurdity, how else to react but to subsume it and make it palatable?

Good science fiction necessarily confronts the darkness. In classic science fiction, the darkness of the present through the future. In cyberpunk and modern science fiction, the darkness of the future through the darkness of the present. A Deus ex machina like Klaatu from the Day the Earth Stood Still was a reaction to the frustration folks with an environmental conscience felt at the direction they believed society was going. The dark vigilante mindset of the Dark Knight is a testament to the paranoia of post-9/11 America made palatable by wrapping it in a bat’s cloak. When history cycles and the old fears become new again (the red scare of the 50s echoing in the Islamist scare of the 2000s), we see more and more people using alternate mediums to subvert the conversation the way those stories and films did. Ursula K.Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is fantastic when read now, in the shadow of Guantanamo. Her utopia and its cost makes more sense now than ever. By positing that our torture of an innocent child brought about her utopia, Le Guin co-opted the wingnut idea that it could be possible to exchange our humanity for security. Only Science Fiction, the art of the possible, is capable of such a deft humanitarian leap.

There’s two possibly equally worthy ways of looking at the outcast’s oeuvre. He may come at his work from a perspective of compassion and love, that perhaps the universe can be explained and made fair. Or, he may come from the perspective that there is no fairness, only that we must sidestep its ills and concentrate on the self. One is outward and the other inward. These are the two streams of Science Fiction I recognize that have always fought for dominance, and this struggle acts, perhaps, as a true snapshot of our culture.

Cyberpunk science fiction is a dark forecast of our evolution. It’s, in some ways, appropriate for our time. It deals with dystopias whose top-heavy power structures are lacking in spine. It’s neon-like and anime, it’s the grime of Tokyo and London. It reads to me like the logical conclusion of Ellison’s impulse. I don’t like it very much though I can’t coherently explain why without an appeal to nostalgia and the American-ness of traditional Science Fiction.

The quote that prompted all this was

“It became clear to Sturgeon and myself that I knew virtually nothing about love but was totally familiar with hate, while Ted knew almost nothing about hate, yet was completely conversant with love in almost all its manifestations.”

-Harlan Ellison on Theodore Sturgeon

Both men are extremes. When I read Ellison, I read about the hardening of the soul, a shrinking of compassion as the hero is beat down. When I read Sturgeon, I see the glacier melting and a kernel of hope where once there was none. Over time, I think Ellison’s won out. We’ve seen post-apocalyptic worlds and dystopias explode into the mainstream with no counterbalance. Is there hope? Can we feel hope? Or are we too far-gone in our economic apocalypse?

After World War 2, at the beginning of the Cold War, Ray Bradbury wrote a magnificent story called “There will come soft rains” which I had to read for English class back in grade eight. There can be no clearer picture of dystopia than in that story. Humanity has ended in a nuclear holocaust and we are left observing the smart home of Mr. and Mrs. McClellan. What stands in for humanity are the household appliances left behind in “smart houses” that perform their usual functions in their master’s absence. The AI reads a Sara Teasdale poem for the absent mistress’ enjoyment. It reminds the absent Mr. McClellan that insurance payments are due. The story thus ought to be hopeless as it posits no salvation for humanity, and yet, it is one of the most compassionate pieces of literature I have ever read. It plays on the hopelessness of the Cold War and creates magic with it. Why can’t we react the same way to our post-9/11 dystopia? What has changed in our culture that these sorts of stories are no longer told with the same frequency? Exactly how did the outsiders and the outcasts end up marginalized into nihilism?

Harlan Ellison (arguably an asshole, but a very talented one) said:

I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.

It is a love/hate relationship I have with the human race. I am an elitist, and I feel that my responsibility is to drag the human race along with me- that I will never pander to, or speak down to, or play the safe game. Because my immortal soul will be lost.

In this cyberpunk age, which is upon us in reality in the year 2009 AD, with all its masses of fake money and lumbering banks, economic collapse and undercurrents of angry dissent, I think that it has come to pass and I’m not ready. I can’t read for escapism because it is around me, living in post-industrial Newark, New Jersey. My home overlooks the elevated railroad tracks. On the other side of the Ironbound is poverty and crime. On my side is middle-class suburbia where everyone speaks Portuguese. In the distance are tall buildings shot with neon, the giant LCD screen of Prudential Center that burns red and white at all hours of the night.

The outcasts, the freaks, are always conscious of their own powerlessness, whichever Science Fiction writer you read. They know the deluge cannot be undone yet they must heroically try and in failing, define their humanity. Science fiction supposes a power greater than present reality, a power so infinite due to its imaginative standards that it is almost divine. The protagonists in Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God,” (click on title for link) on discovering that by helping the Buddhist monks enumerate scientifically each of God’s nine billion names (thereby heralding the end of God’s purpose), they may inadvertently end existence, decide to sabotage the project. This is how that story ends:

“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven. (There is always a last time for everything.)

Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

At it’s core, I miss something about the future that Science Fiction represented. I wanted it to make sense only in retrospect. Five hundred years from now, when we look back, then it ought to make sense. Not now. That hopeless desperate beauty that ignores reality and takes true compassion to arrive at. Gotta have hope. All the other stuff belongs in the future. We can’t possibly be living the outcast’s dreams. This is why I don’t enjoy cyberpunk/modern science fiction as much as I would like to, even as it, as always, confronts the nameable darkness around us. This compassion is what I miss. I miss Theodore Sturgeon.

Here’s my favorite story ever, Slow Sculpture.


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