Human Contingency and Finding What You Want at the Bookstore:
An Address to the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, June 4, 2005
I've spent the last month or so wondering what useful thing I could possibly say to an audience composed largely of people who study science fiction. After all, most of what I have to say is contained in my fiction, and I've often learned more about my work from critics and academics than I understood when I was writing it. This is as it should be. I doubt that I can offer more insight into my work than could be brought to it by any number of people in this room today.
What I can bring, I suppose, is a glimpse of what science fiction writing looks like from the inside. Or, to put it another way, I'll try to address a question my readers frequently ask: What were you thinking?
Well, what I've been thinking about lately -- brace yourselves -- is the definition of science fiction
This of course is one of the most tedious convention panel topics of all time, second only to "Sex in Science Fiction: Why There Is or Isn't Enough or Too Much of It." But I recently celebrated my fifty-first birthday, and one doesn't want to enter into one's second half-century without a credo, a manifesto, a working definition of one's art, or some other form of literary Viagra. So here we go.
Plenty of definitions of SF have been offered up over the years, but none of them have been entirely satisfactory. Any successful definition, it seems to me, should be able to shed some light on three questions about the literature that have puzzled me for some time. These questions are:
1. Why do alternate history stories "feel like" science fiction, even though they're obviously a-scientific (and must so remain, at least until quantum physicists discover the universe in which the Confederacy won the Civil War)?
2. Why is science fiction so particularly beloved by adolescents and high-functioning autistics? Laugh if you like, but no less an authority than the neurologist Oliver Sacks has described SF as "the national literature of Asperger's Syndrome." This ought to tell us something, if only we can figure out what it is.
And, 3., Why does science fiction always seem to be on the brink of a fist fight with conventional religion?
I recently contributed to a collection of essays published in honor of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, or at least in honor of the fact that that Steven Spielberg had touched that venerable text with his gilded wand. In it I described science fiction as a literature of human contingency. What I mean by this is suggested by three quotes I pulled from the Wells novel, and I'll read them here:
First from the early chapters of the book:
"[As] men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusioria under the microscope do the same."
And again, from early in the book:
"[L]ooking across space with instruments, and with intelligences such as we have scarcely dreamed of they see, at its nearest distance only 35,000,000 of miles sunward of them, a morning star of hope -- our own warmer planet, green with vegetation and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility, with glimpses through drifting cloud-wisps of broad stretches of populous country and narrow navy-crowded seas."
And this, more explicitly, from later in the novel:
"Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods. I do not know how far my experience is common. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me. I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all."
Well. What exactly is going on here? These are primal SF statements -- they resonate as science-fictional in tone and intent as clearly or more clearly now than they could have when they were first published, well before the term "science fiction" had been coined. What, then, do they have in common?
In each there is a kind of pulled focus -- that is, a radical shift of perspective from the immediate to the very large or small scale: from Mars to the infusoria under the microscope, across interplanetary space, or to take another example from The Time Machine, from the primordial past to the far future, across time on the evolutionary and geological scale. We know, of course, that Wells was a student of T.H. Huxley and a passionate advocate of the idea of evolution, but his advocacy isn't strictly scientific: for Wells, evolution isn't a way of interpreting the fossil record so much as it is a way of contextualizing human life. It becomes, in other words, an aesthetic idea, a subject of or inspiration for his fiction, and it implies this radically displaced perspective -- a detachment, as he says, from the world around him, to somewhere inconceivably remote.
This is the same displacement of perspective forced by the biology Wells had studied under Huxley and the geology he had studied with less success under a Professor Judd, who, as Wells says in his Autobiography, in a warning to scholars then and now, "bored me cruelly." It's the displacement of perspective forced by science in general since Galileo and particularly, in Wells's day, since Buckland and Lyell and Darwin. What has been displaced is the centrality of the human species in our own narrative of ourselves. Once we were the sum and function of the universe, the focal point of God's attention even when he was displeased with us. But here we are now, not at the center but at the periphery of our known universe, not present at the beginning of time nor likely to be present at its end, not the crown of biological creation but only one facet of it, not apart from the animals but cousin to them, not even centrally located between heaven and hell, and if we are uniquely beloved by God he has become in this new dispensation a refugee God, driven from the visible world into the crevices of our own ignorance: his existence remains possible, the faithful are forced to argue, only because "we don't know everything." This was the intellectual context in which Wells wrote his early classics.
It was a shocking paradigm shift for many -- as one early reader of Lyell's Principals of Geology predicted before that book was published in 1830, "[T]he saints will be in an uproar." The saints were. Literature, however, was more cautious. Literature had largely retreated from the realm of the sacred but had yet to establish a firm footing in Darwin's universe. Not because it rejected these ideas but because they were difficult to embrace in a conventional literary way. In fact, there were two possible approaches to this material as fiction. The first and most obvious was simply to write about it, as Matthew Arnold did in his 1867 poem "Dover Beach," in which he superimposes the geology of Lyell on the decline of faith: "The sea of faith / Was once, too, at the full.... / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / retreating to the breath / Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world. .... The world, which seems / to lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain".
Bleak, but to the point.
The second and, I think, less obvious approach is the one Wells took in his early novels -- that is, to write from within that post-Darwinian vision of the world, not to comment on it but to inhabit it. Matthew Arnold looks at Darwin's universe and issues, in effect, a melancholy sigh; Wells dives into it and plays like a kid in a sandbox.
Which brings us a little closer to a useful definition of science fiction. Wells is exploring the human implications of the natural philosophy of his day by imaginatively inhabiting these abstractions in his fiction. In The Time Machine, for example, the ultimate fate of the Earth is not asserted but directly experienced: a man stands on a stagnant beach under a red, bloated sun, as the last crab-like specimens of terrestrial life stir feebly. This is Dover Beach with a vengeance: literally, the naked shingles of the world, not abstracted as in Matthew Arnold but concretized, made tangible at least to the imagination, rendered as a human experience.
There is a line somewhere in an early John Updike story -- I've forgotten the story but I remember the sentence, which perhaps tells us something about John Updike -- anyway, there's a line where the protagonist admits he used to read SF but gave it up because the vast impersonality of time and space implicit in those books made him feel small and futile. Which is maybe a plausible reaction. But I don't think Wells was insisting on any such nihilism. There is nothing in his early or later writing to suggest that he considered human life trivial or pointless. Rather, he seems to be saying, we need to live in both worlds at once -- the daily human world and the Darwinian/Huxleyan cosmos -- because they are, in fact, one and the same. It's this simultaneous perspective Wells insists on: the ultimate end of the Earth is not an obliteration of the Time Traveller's contemporary London but coexists with and comments on it. There is no discontinuity, except from our necessarily limited point of view, between the terrestrial and the cosmic, the daily and the near-eternal.
Thus the perspective must constantly shift, the narrative point of view expand and contract. To the infusoria under the microscope we are as powerful and distant as Martians; to the Martians, we are as insignificant as bacteria; and in the ultimate Wellsian irony, that's how the War of the Worlds is ultimately fought and won -- on human turf, but between, in the end, the Martians and the bacteria.
So what we're talking about is the scale of the universe, and mankind's removal from a privileged position within it. We're talking about vast spans of time, and no especially privileged place for us there, either. We're talking about our position as a branch of the tree of life, not its root or its final flower. We are a seamless part of the natural world, not a creation but a phenomenon, and like every other natural phenomenon we are contingent: in other words, we're the result of what came before us -- only one of a vast number of possible outcomes of the formation of stars and planets, the advent of life, and the twists and turns of evolution. We are contingent beings, living in a contingent and continuously evolving universe.
I did a public reading recently, after which someone in the audience stood up and accused me of using what she called "big words." I have a feeling "contingency" is one of those words, and I apologize for it. But it seems apt, and it really parses down to three assertions any grade-school student -- well, almost any -- could understand:
1) The world -- including us -- was once a very different place.
2) The world as it is -- including us -- might have been a very different place than it turned out to be.
3) The world -- including us -- will one day be a very different place than it is now.
And in these three statements you have much of the substance and content of modern science fiction, a hint of a definition, and the glimmering of an answer to those questions I started out with.
As my Grade 10 English teacher used to say, "Let's review."
Why do "alternate history" stories "feel like" science fiction, even though they're obviously a-scientific?
Because, although it has no real scientific grounding, the parallel-world thought experiment, the fundamental what-if, leads straight into an assertion of human and historical contingency -- a direct literalization of the statement that things as they are might have been very different. In fact the alternate-world story is one of the few examples of a science-fictional contingency not already explored by Wells. (Another example might be the contingency of human consciousness and perception, territory staked out by Philip K. Dick and other 20th century SF writers but never really approached by Wells -- though you could make an argument for his story "The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes".)
Second, why is science fiction so particularly beloved by adolescents and high-functioning autistics? I suspect it's because these Wellsian shifts of perspective come more naturally to people who haven't wedded themselves to the primacy of the social universe in which they find themselves living. The adolescent's point of view is unfixed, and the high-functioning autistic hasn't learned to infer his opinions from the behavior of other people without benefit of conscious thought. Adolescents and Asperger's people are the Candides and Valentine Michael Smiths of the world, their perspective necessarily distanced, and it's not surprising that they resonate to the narrative displacements of science fiction.
Adolescents, of course, make the best atheists, and I speak from experience here. Many of us learn to nuance and temper these opinions as we grow older, but our initial skepticism and incredulity -- can you really repopulate the world from a wooden ark full of animals? -- are only modified, never erased. Wherein, I think, lies the answer to our third question: Why does science fiction always seem to be on the brink of a fist fight with conventional religion? It's because only the weakest kind of SF can sustain any kind of orthodoxy. Human contingency is written into our literary DNA, and orthodoxy despises contingency -- orthodoxy wants the eternal and the unchanging, wants to populate the past and the future with its verities and articles of faith. The message that nothing is eternal, and that the past and future are foreign countries with different rules and habits, doesn't play well at the Vatican, among the crowds at Mecca, or in the palaces of postmodern evangelism at Colorado Springs.
No definition of science fiction is useful, however, unless it's intelligible, so I recently decided to take my version out for a test run. I dropped by my local Chapters store, approached the nearest clerk, and said: "I'm looking for literature that imaginatively inhabits the idea of human contingency as it relates to time, space, history, consciousness, and perception. Where exactly do you keep that?"
The clerk, to her credit, didn't blink -- only smiled and pointed and said, "Dr. Seuss is in the children's section."
So maybe it's not a perfect definition. Maybe it still needs some work. But I think it's serviceable enough to get me through the next novel or two.
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