Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Robert Heinlein's Friday - Probably Not Coming to a Theater Near You

io9 has just posted a list of "Ten Science Fiction Novels That Will Definitely Never Be Movies." Robert Heinlein's novel Friday made the #1 spot - and I'm pleased to note that there's a link to my 2006 article about the book, which has probably led to a record number of eyeballs looking at this blog at once, and certainly that posting (which originally ran in a peer-reviewed academic journal).

I suppose the fact that the words encompassed within the hyperlink happened to include "group marriage" was a factor.

At any rate, I found myself considering the film's likelihood of ever becoming a movie. As the blog suggests in its comment, the story's abundance of sex, which Friday has quite casually, with several men and women, is a complicating matter. On the whole Hollywood is rather more reticent than it used to be about depicting casual sex, especially where this is construed as pleasurable or fanservice-y, and is certainly unlikely to insert it into such things as feature action films, and certainly big-budget science fiction films. (Roger Vadim, who actually did feature casual sex in a science fiction film - the cult classic Barbarella - once remarked that "Hollywood is sometimes licentious, but always puritanical."1 So it remains today.)

It sometimes seems as if Hollywood is less bothered by sexually adventurous women than sexually adventurous men (James Bond had to clean up his act while Sex and the City was just taking off), but this sort of thing was clearly a problem for comparable material in the not-too-distant past. The 1998 TV movie Chameleon (a pilot for a TV series that never got made for the now-defunct United Paramount Network) had the titular character - like Friday, a sexy and sexual genetically engineered covert operative - hopping beds in its first half (mostly in the line of duty), and then giving this up as she became more self-aware, less an instrument of her employers and more her own person. She was not seen having sex again in that film, or the two sequels (1999's Chameleon II: Death Match and 2000's Chameleon 3: Dark Angel) which followed it. On the TV series Dark Angel the feline component in the genetic code of the Friday-like Max caused her to periodically go into heat, but the writers handled the material very carefully, keeping her out of the sorts of adventures and misadventures to which this could easily have led (though I imagine some of the fan fiction writers must have been less inhibited about exploring that side of her).

If anything, I imagine the studios to be more anxious about such matters today, and that is all without considering the story's handling of Friday's rape by enemy agents during an interrogation, which has understandably disturbed and offended many a reader.

One might also add to the list of problems the looseness of the story, the highly personal nature of the plot, the elaborate world-building required to faithfully render his version of Earth, the crowding of the tale with Friday's views on life, the universe and everything (all especially difficult challenges for anyone trying to build this into the kind of science fiction film that would sell enough tickets to cover the cost of a suitable budget). Consequently, it seems that too much would have to be cut out, and too much added, to turn it into a workable film - too much to seem worth the effort. All that said, I don't know that I would have come up with the same top ten, but I'm hardly surprised to see Friday on it.

1. The remark appears in his first autobiography, 1975's Memoirs of the Devil. Incidentally, this has likely been a stumbling block for that Barbarella remake long in development hell.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Of Science Fiction and Futurology

Science fiction writers have often displayed a propensity to downplay the extent to which the genre makes predictions about the future. (To name a recent instance William Gibson did it again in Wired in September.)

There are good reasons for this. A writer's purpose in producing a piece of fiction is much more likely to be the creation of art or the presentation of an entertainment than writing a manual to life at some future date. Serious guesswork about, for instance, life in 2050 might be secondary to what they are doing, or even incidental. They may also wish to distance themselves from the opprobrium some have directed at futurology.

Yet, in the process they sometimes exaggerate the distance between the two endeavors. The truth is that science fiction writers often ask the same questions as futurologists, and often arrive at the same answers. (After all, "extrapolation," labeled by John Campbell but long preceding him, is at the heart of the harder types of science fiction.) In the course of their work they often look at, and draw on, what their counterparts on the other side of the line have done, science fiction writers referencing futurology, futurologists drawing inspiration from science fiction, for a very long time now. (Looking at Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, for instance, the influence of predictions about aerial warfare by the military theorists of his day is very apparent in the book's often-denigrated early chapters.) And many try their hand at both games successfully (science fiction writers from H.G. Wells to Vernor Vinge becoming accomplished futurists).

Given this relationship it would seem natural that if one of these is stagnant, so is the other, and that has indeed been my impression. There is a wide, though apparently not dominant, view that science fiction has fallen short in the ideas department in recent years. (As Charles Stross recently noted, all we have to show for the last three decades in this respect is radical hard science fiction and the Singularity, both rather well-worn at this point.) It seems to me that futurology, too, has been short on ideas for many years now, evident all across the spectrum from optimistic techno-libertarianism, to pessimistic eco-catastrophism. The former shows little sign of innovation, which has tapered off since the boom in Singularitarian thought during the 1990s. (Since then we have tended to see the same names, the same ideas, those of Vinge and Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec and company cited over and over and over again rather than the production of original, compelling arguments for this idea – as demonstrated in Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler's rather tepid Abundance.) The same goes for the latter. (While ably describing our problems, it has great difficulty describing how the plausible technical solutions might actually be implemented.)

These failings, in turn, point to still larger failures in our intellectual life. The technical frontiers appear to be the same one we've been looking at for decades, except that our prospects for conquering them seem more modest than in, say, the years of the tech boom. Meanwhile, there is a distinct lack of imaginative daring among our thinkers on social and political matters. And it is not only readers of science fiction who are noticing. When the hand on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock moved one minute forward this month, Kennette Benedict, the magazine's executive director, cited the lack of "new thinking" as a factor.

In short, this problem is much, much bigger than the doldrums of a single literary genre.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Debate Continues . . . (As Paul Kincaid Answers)

Over at his blog Through the Dark Labyrinth Paul Kincaid has posted the first part of a response to the buzz his September review of three anthologies of year's best and award-winning science fiction for the L.A. Review of Books generated online, complete with links to dozens of essays and commentaries which caught his eye.

My post of September 17th made the list, and was actually addressed in his remarks. Kincaid makes it clear that he is "agnostic" about the idea that the future will be incomprehensible in the way that I mentioned, but that he finds the presentation of the future as incomprehensible an unsatisfactory approach to writing science fiction. He points to the experience of rapid change in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which led to things we take utterly for granted (trains, planes and the rest), and the way in which we quickly "domesticate the new" (as we have the personal computer in recent decades).1 Accordingly, he notes, writing a future-set story means dealing with the tension between the differences which "scream" at the reader, while being familiar to the characters, with the writer's job
negotiat[ing] that tension . . . display[ing] the strangeness to the reader while at the same time evoking its familiarity for the residents of that future. My feeling is that an increasing number of writers have taken this notion of the singularity as an excuse for not engaging with the familiarity of the future, only with its strangeness.
The result is that we get strangeness rather than a "sense of a lived future, . . . [a] thorough inhabiting of the world."

I agree. In fact, this tension was a significant concern for me when writing my future-set novel Surviving the Spike. As I told Maria Violante in an interview about the book last year, I specifically chose to eschew the common cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk approach of overwhelming the reader with flashy detail (what Bruce Sterling called the "literary equivalent of the hard-rock wall of sound," and what I described as "an ad for the future") in favor of a world just as densely imagined, but which was made to "feel like a place people lived in," those quite different lives ordinary to the people actually living them.

1. Of course, the claim of the Singularitarians is that the change ahead of us would simply have no parallel in our past experience, plausibly overwhelming our ability to domesticate change in this manner - but again, Kincaid's focus is on the quality of the results as fiction, rather than futurology. It seems worth noting, too, that there is little in the Singularitarian package that did not appear in, for instance, Arthur C. Clarke's 1956 The City and the Stars (mind uploading, designer bodies with 1,000 year life spans, immersive virtual reality, etc.), which he managed to present as something other than a succession of strange spectacles.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Tea Party as a Steampunk Movement

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth thinkers like Frederick Jackson Turner and Thorstein Veblen expected that Americans would come to terms with the consequences of industrialization and the end of the frontier – a world of Big Business and Big Science, mass society, and finite natural resources, which necessarily brings with it Big Government, Big Labor and a more refined ecological sensibility as necessary features of everyday life. At midcentury, however, C. Wright Mills in books like White Collar and The Power Elite, William H. Whyte in The Organization Man and William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy all wrote of the failure of American culture to come to grips with these realities. Instead the predominant ideal remained a romanticized world of small business and small government, and unbounded economic expansion sustained by profligate resource use – an ideal which is not merely an object of nostalgia, but a key source of legitimation of rightist political initiatives. Some, like Richard Hofstadter, the historian of the post-New Deal "liberal consensus," or John Kenneth Galbraith in books like The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, believed they saw the country adapting to the new realities, but the repeated and cumulative triumphs of the political right in the last half century has also been the triumph of those who idealize that lost nineteenth century world, and claim to be working to bring it back – the position still around today in the form of the Tea Party's platform.

And so here we have it: an economic model belonging to a world before railroads as a major political force in the twenty-first century, as retro-futuristic as the vision of a telegraph in every home, a steam-powered cars in every garage, and a little Babbage engine in every pocket. The fact that this persists as such a strong element in American life is, of course, worrisome. After all, the coming decades seem certain to pose profound challenges – in particular, challenges relating to technological change, demographic transformation and ecological constraints. The endurance of pieties already outmoded in the day of Queen Victoria, year after year, decade after decade, is a reminder that we never quite met the milder forms those challenges took in the twentieth – and considerable reason to fear that we will cope even less successfully with the problems so clearly coming into view now.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

More Reactions to Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid's comments on the state of science fiction in last month's L.A. Review of Books is still sending out ripples through the critical universe.

Some of these ripples appear in a lengthy two-part interview Kincaid gave the site Nerds of a Feather Flock Together, in which he clarifies and elaborates some of the ideas he presented in that article regarding science fiction's crises of "ideas" (the lack of engagement with the genre's actual possibilities), "identity" (the tendency to write science fiction as fantasy to avoid science fiction-al rigor, or write fantasy sans the fantastic) and "confidence" (as writers eschew real exploration of their worlds).

Two other pieces seem especially worthy of mention.

One is Jonathan McCalmont's response to Kincaid's recent writing in "Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost The Future." There is much that I agree with here. (McCalmont's comments on the genre's refusal to take anything seriously, its tendency to push buttons without taking a coherent intellectual position, the unwillingness or inability to imagine serious alternatives, are all very much on the mark. So too his remarks regarding the attitude of the genre's "gatekeepers" toward the type of debate Kincaid has started.) There is also much that I disagree with. (His take on steampunk's appeal seems to me representative of only a part of that subgenre, and his readings of the Enlightenment idea of a universal subject, and of identity politics, differ substantially from my own.) But I found all of it worthwhile - and the same goes for the lengthier-than-usual comments thread following from it (thirty-nine posts, some quite long, at the time of this writing, with Pat Cadigan and Jeff Vandermeer among those who have dropped by to offer their thoughts).

The other, rather shorter, reply that caught my eye is M. John Harrison's "Pink Slime Fiction," in which he memorably sums up Kincaid's reading of the genre's prevailing pattern as
the intense commodification of ideas & styles evacuated of their original meaning & impact, an apparently deliberate industrialisation of the commonplace & worn out.
Kincaid, when asked for a prognosis, suggested in the interview that the genre seems to be "going through one of its phases of being inward looking, repeating itself rather than reinventing itself." McCalmont and Harrison, too, have some hope of the field's recovery, and all three can point to recent work in the field they have enjoyed, but as McCalmont's analysis demonstrates explicitly and at length, some of the problems of the genre appear to be not just genre problems, but problems broadly and deeply rooted in the cultural moment.

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