Monday, September 25, 2006

Science fiction is the main literary tradition of the last 100 years

Science fiction is indisputably the main literary tradition of the 20th century and, for all we know the 21st, although there are some who may not want to recognise the fact. Over the last 100 years, ever since Einstein achieved his revelation with his special theory of relativity, science has pushed back our understanding of ourselves and the universe to an unimaginable degree and brought technological benefits and curses that previous generations would have called miracles and cataclysms.

By using technology to magnify and extend our natural senses we have made exponentially revelatory discoveries about the world around us whether by burrowing deeper into the nano scale or peering further back to the far side of the universe and the beginning of time. We have discovered how tiny and insignificant we are, and how, if there is only one God, He must surely have His hands full with all those billions of galaxies to look after, so what time could He possibly have for us? The more we discover with our hyper-magnified senses, the more we develop and refine our theories of reality -- although each generation of scientists has liked to appear supremely confident in its knowledge. Cumulatively, the effect has been to instil in us a sense of inevitability of progress -- a future which goes on until the heat death of the universe -- in which mankind has the potential to continually adapt himself in order to survive, and in which cultures and societies may be disruptively different from our own.

As a partial consequence, fiction writers have had their imaginations magnified by a greater ability to perceive the possibilities for human endeavour, and compare them with the reality.

One of JG Ballard's insights is that Surrealism is the main visual tradition of the 20th century, as well as science fiction being the main literary tradition. As someone who studied Surrealism and Dadaism, I would say that it is not just the visual tradition of Surrealism but the philosophy of Dadaism and Surrealism together which represents the only sane and the dominant response for witnesses of the tragic vulcanic chasm that exists as a tectonic rift valley between the parallel paths of the development throughout the last 100 years of science and technology on the one hand and human political misgovernment on the other. After all, at the beginning Andre Breton could not even imagine that Surrealism could be a visual art movement.

Dada, Surrealism and science fiction all employ the imagination to objectivise aspects of our present condition which we may find painful or difficult to explore otherwise. From HG Wells through Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Ballard himself, William Gibson, Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, Kurt Vonnegut and many more, science fiction has been used to seduce us into accepting the dark and unforeseen consequences of our shortsighted decisions. It has of course also been used to trace the dreams of imperial fantasies, especially when sanctioned by the mighty corporate finance of the planet's dominant hegemony -- we are talking Star Trek, Star Wars and similar space opera. Here we see America dreaming an interplanetary pastoral allegory of how it would like the rest of the world to perceive its benign expansionism. Such films have dominated the top ten box office smashes of the last twenty years.

And then there are comics, specifically American comic books, which frequently merge both Surrealism and science fiction to create, as Stan Lee himself has often said, a modern mythology all the more remarkable for being the product of hundreds and hundreds of authors working in concert to create a self-consistent universe populated with fantastic characters who act out their parts in cosmic dramas of life, death and ultimate meaning, as well as love, tragedy and betrayal. Like any good pantheon from Norse to Hindu mythology, there is always one superhero you can choose to identify with, whether it's the driven, guilt-ridden Batman, the messianic Warlock, the simple-minded, clean cut Superman, the Jekyll-and-Hyde rage machine that is the incredible Hulk, or the macho loner with the sensitive heart who is Wolverine. Although much of this pop art is trash, it has also produced its share of the greatest literature of the last hundred years, from the keyboards of writers such as Neil Gaimon, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, whether or not these are recognised by departments of English literature in any of our universities.

A central principle of Surrealism is taken from Pierre Reverdy, who remarked in 1918 that the most powerful poetic image is one which brings together the most disparate and even opposing elements. The further apart they were originally the greater the charge generated by compositing them side-by-side. A central principle of Dadaism is that rejection and gallows humour are legitimate responses to the absurd atrocities generated by the so-called developed world's way of life. Mainstream 'modernist' and 'post-modern' literature, with the exception of 'sociological' big picture fiction, has failed to tackle these issues with such effectiveness and engagement. Much mainstream literature, particularly in Britain, tends to concentrate on pitiful singular dramas of frequently isolated and alienated individuals. By contrast science fiction takes the big picture and forces us to confront what is at the focus of our blind spot when we stare into the mirror. And it frequently does it by using the above principles.

The greatest exponent of this type of writing and the greatest writer of the 20th century is undoubtedly.... William Burroughs. To call him a science fiction writer is a bit like calling Mozart a pianist. The potency of Mozart lies in overarching virtuoso energy and originality of his total vision, and the same is true for Burroughs. If one were to seek out a single metaphor which more than any other expresses the relationship of the individual to the time in which he lives during the last hundred years it has to be that of the junkie and his supply chain. Eric Mottram's book on Burroughs, the Algebra of Need, explains brilliantly how this metaphor pictures humanity as trapped in the web of exploitation and deceit that is the inevitable result of predicating that society on naked economics, removing meaning from life, and the leeching of power from the individual to those at the top; and how the success of this system is akin to the success of a virus which infects its host and uses it to manufacture further copies of itself, ad infinitum. The means of the infection of our minds is metaphorically the same. The result is the environmental and human suffering and devastation which we see around us burgeoning on every continent on the planet.

This can be the only valid topic for any self-respecting and compassionate writer nowadays. The corporations have hypnotised us by letting us wallow in one end of the Horn of Plenty, but at the other end of this supply line is a vision of hell on earth. Science fiction writers can help us visualise a better alternative.