Sunday, May 13, 2007

On Being Finished Clearing My Throat (I Hope)

I'm been clearing my throat about science fiction and genre and whatnot for some time now. All of this has been preparatory to a post about The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. That post is still forthcoming (which is not to say that I've been working on it all this time), but this post is here in part to say that I think I'm more or less through with all the genre-related posts--at least in the way that I've been approaching them. In the future, if I read an apparently "genre" book, if I write about it, I'll try to focus on what the book does or does not do rather than boring everybody with my confusing questions about what might or might not constitute genre. Unless of course I decide otherwise.

I felt the need to do the throat-clearing because I wanted any science fiction readers to know where I was coming from when I finally did write about Wolfe and his books, and because I intended to write something about what sorts of things I have been looking for at different times when I've read science fiction. I read with interest a post Dan Green wrote in January in which he said that he had been persuaded that science fiction "is inherently a kind of experimental fiction"; he thus decided to sample some science fiction
under the assumption it is a genre that seeks to provide an alternative to "realism" and other conventionally "literary" practices, not just by evoking speculative worlds and looking to the future rather than the past or present but also by creating alternative forms and experimenting with the established elements of fiction (plot, setting, point of view, etc.).
I was sort of surprised by this, because I have not come to science fiction persuaded of any such thing. No doubt unfairly, I tended to think of most science fiction as not really experimental at all. So I wasn't coming to it for this reason. And I certainly wasn't coming to it for its predictive powers. In a post on the occasion of the death of Baudrillard, k-punk wrote: "It is a commonplace that science fiction reveals more about the time it was written than it tells us about the future." I agree with this. And I'd agree that learning about "the time it was written" via science fiction could be interesting, especially as part of a kind of cultural studies, but it's also not the kind of thing I'm interested in for a reading experience, except as a byproduct.

In the end, I merely meant to be saying that what I wanted now from science fiction was, if possible, a "literary" experience--but, of course, I was anxious about appearing condescending toward the genre, or presumptuous about what such a literary effect might be. At least I meant to be clear that I did not mean that I want science fiction that finally ending up being little more than what passes for so-called "literary fiction" (damn, it really is tiresome, isn't it?). Hence, the several rounds of preliminaries.

So, then, to finish up with the throat-clearing exercises. In a comment to an earlier post of mine, I yet again wrote that I had a post Wolfe's books in the works (hey, maybe I'm trying to perfect the genre of the deferred blog post!). Replying to my comment, Scraps welcomed me to the "frenzy of interpretation". I take it that this means that Wolfe's series has been subjected to such a frenzy (I've read very little about it). In the event, I don't actually intend to do much "interpretation"--in this sense, the word implies to me an investigation into "what it all means", explanation of symbols, allegory, etc. I have no trouble accepting that these books are packed full of this stuff (certain Christian symbols seem hard for even me to miss), and may to some extent enhance my enjoyment of future re-readings. But I merely plan to explain why I think it's great and why I think it does provide a literary experience of the kind I felt I wanted from science fiction.


Scraps said...

Actually, the frenzy of interpretation of which I spoke has been more literal than symbolic: not so much "What does this mean?" as "What happened?" From the very general ("What is the nature of time -- and Severians -- in the book?") to the specific ("Who is Severian's mother?")

Though Severian, for all his shit-kicking about his thinking and writing skills, is a philosopher, and the literal events of the book are colored (at least) by its being an apologia for Severian's autarchy.

The most remarkable thing to me about the book -- the thing that most stands out in rereading -- is the deceptive clarity of the telling, how much is there in plain sight, from the nature of Urth (the stars shining in the day, the abandoned rocket that is the Matachin Tower) to the natures of Dorcas, Jonas, Baldanders and Dr Talos, etc.

Richard said...

Ah, yes. Of course.

I will be doing some of that (inevitably), but I won't be spending a lot of time trying to explain what I think happened, either.