SF is a bit more pessimistic than I remember

I recently enjoyed two famous works: THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester from 1958, and THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu from 2006. This post has some loose thoughts without quotes; the texts are not at my disposal anymore.

I admire Bester’s punchy, no-nonsense sensibility, and you can tell he observed the urban counter cultural circles of his day, much as Delaney did for his own “heterotopian” depictions. STARS is also a progenitor of cyberpunk, focusing on the administrative society, gifted old children with ESP, a flaming vision with an explanation in time travel—all things that find a new articulation in AKIRA (those six volumes from Dark Horse were my LORD OF THE RINGS in middle school).

But most striking to me was where we end up philosophically. The anti-hero’s revenge quest concludes on a note of classical pessimism. We are not causes but effects, vessels of the will, a blind drive to exist, with no purpose. However, the gifts that Gulliver (!) Foyle unlocks also make him into a philosopher of the future or a free spirit that Nietzsche spoke of.

What makes SF stand out to me compared to other speculative genres or paraliterature is its mooring in historical totality as the Marxist tradition has described it. (It’s in this sense that Jameson has argued consistently that SF is a continuation of 19th century realism, up to ANTINOMIES OF REALISM.) Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances show an amazing sensitivity to those contradictions in the economic base that motivate the growth and movement of production, with THE LONG TOMORROW offering that analysis without the ideologically backward conceit of imperialism in space.

But Bester reminds me that even the so-called golden age of the pulps of course had a streak of mysticism running through it, and a increasing skepticism or hostility toward science as it is practiced in our society. This skepticism goes back to the immediate postwar period. The New Wave authors systematized this tendency, perhaps, through Le Guin’s Taoism, but by no means started it.

Liu’s novel is contemporary but is clearly a throwback to the Anglo-American early 20th century. It’s committed to hard SF concepts, to the use of the mystery structure, and its representations of an alien society evoke the satirical parables from the French enlightenment.

But here too is a pessimistic view, with a gothic dimension to it. The novel talks about the cultural revolution in the same way early 19th century gothic tales spoke of the French terror as ground zero for ghosts and monsters. Our fundamental understanding of physics is put to doubt in a familiar experience of postmodern demolition: the grid of rationalism swept off to make way for supernatural chaos—but like the gothic tales there is a rational explanation. The implications of this story about contact across interstellar cultures and civilizations, however, are rather dark, even tending to social Darwinism.

Perhaps SF as I’ve understood it only survives as “Hard SF,” and it is the fantastic tale (now called fabulism) that is on the order of the day in the genre scene. Or these distinctions are ancillary to a post-subgenre attitude. I only wish for more optimism in SFF, not merely in the sense of tropes and conventions, but the undergirding philosophical assumptions and structures that SF has articulated unlike any other form of fiction. We have enough modernist and late modernist stories that tell us a better world is not possible.

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