Rope Tricks: Science Fiction after Socialism
A feature by David Curl
[Note: this feature was first published in September 1997]
Aware that I was moving through a Twilight Zone of contemporary politics, I was a fascinated, appalled spectator of the recent general election campaign. I contributed some of my time and effort towards the Great Victory, as I'll remember all my life just as I'll also remember the election-night party that I attended and the alcohol poisoning that I suffered from on Day One of the New Era.
Traditional party political narratives have been shown by recent events to be in an advanced state of degeneration. The best that the Conservative Party could do, campaign-wise, was 'Britain is Booming: Don't Let Labour Blow It', an inept version of an older and better slogan which, themed around 'Great Again' and 'Ruin', chimed rather more convincingly with some of the national myths. This poster alternated rather amusingly with a very similarly coloured ad for HARPIC on a billboard which I pass every day on my way to work; elsewhere it was photographed next to derelict building sites and other apparent scenes of blight. Conversely, the Labour Party took power as "a party of the radical centre", as according to its leader a "social-ist" party. Managerial competence blended with a kind of High Anglican philanthropy seems to be the tone of the new government, and this is at least better than the mixture of incompetence and corruption which characterised the last years of the Major regime.
However: happening to arrive at Trafalgar Square at 6.30pm on Sunday 13th April I discovered that a riot had occurred following the previous day's Liverpool Dockers/ Reclaim The Streets demo.
The Square smelled of urine; the bins were overflowing and there was rubbish everywhere. The nineteenth-century architecture of central London - "nothing but shops and offices and official buildings and statues, it all belongs to capital or the state.. ornate, gross; centuries of surplus value stored up like fat" - was overscrawled with graffiti - ART FOR ALL OR NOT AT ALL over the National Gallery; SUK SALAD (what?) and over and over the anarchy symbol and RECLAIM THE STREETS. Everywhere, pink Anti-Election Alliance stickers reading FUCK MIDDLE ENGLAND, BRAINDEAD TORY BASTARDS; USE YOUR CROSS WISELY, CRUCIFY A POLITICIAN; and TO ALL CANDIDATES AND CANVASSERS IN THIS CONSTITUENCY: FUCK OFF.
Strange that a coalition between a militant group of trade unionists on the one hand and a bunch of eco-utopians on the other should crystallise from the urban scene all the anger and abandonment and fear and rage felt by those whom the evolving consensus ignores. There: the refusal by people who would once have allied themselves with some grand left-libertarian world-historical vision to ally themselves with any kind of programme. Joyous speed-driven idiocy. Living for the moment.
Modernity's Freedom Dreams.
From the beginnings of modernity until now, many of us have lived according to a dream of freedom. This dream which at its heart concerns the inevitability of progress, the perfectibility of human nature, has existed in many forms and borne many names. It's haunted our own century as Socialism, a creed which has especially in its Marxist forms tended finally to efface the religious sense of history as necessarily bounded or cyclical, replacing it with the more scientistic notion of history as both linear and unbounded. Marxism propounds a materialist Heaven on Earth perhaps many generations hence - a millennial hope which has been used to justify the infliction of suffering in the here and now, in a new Pascalian wager no less cynical than the original one - but one day sure to arrive.
This story has been influential within fantastic fiction; fantastic fiction has helped to shape the contours of the story, which is so influential that even the stories told by the dream's enemies are warped by its gravity.
Conservatives like to tell the tale of a governing class established as such through some unexplained act of Providence. When corrupt, these creatures who in any case live beyond any ordinary or common morality are corrupt on a grand scale. Some horror stories, vampire stories especially, are analogues of this narrative. Bram Stoker's Dracula, the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's 'Fall of the House of Usher': these are aristocratic figures, thrust into the darkness, changed, under the new light of democracy. The grandeur of vampires and the covert readerly sympathy that they often attract can be ascribed to the perverse attraction felt by the modern democratic subject for the older forms and assumptions of arbitrary power. To give a late example, RA Lafferty's short fiction looks back to the grand aristocratic cynicism of the past, the old unquestionable forms of excellence. The commanding presence of these ghosts in his fictions renders ironic Lafferty's apparent support of the ever-expanding universe, the ever-expanding curriculum. In the nutshell of a Lafferty short story, we see the enemies grapple: truly, in an SF short written by a true master of the genre, the metaphysical poem lives again.
But mainstream SF has usually subscribed to the socialist view of history, or to one of its analogues. As dominant within SF as the modernising faction within the Labour Party, there's the story of a heroically sensible group of technocratic reformers taking over and using the world-machinery for the general good.
In postwar SF, one thinks of Asimov, whose early 1950s Foundation sequence revolves around an elite group of 'psychohistorians' who have effectively discovered history's rulebook; the sequence shows the group's struggle to preserve human knowledge beyond the fall of the Galactic Empire, thereby shortening the inevitable age of darkness that must result. 'Psychohistory' and Marxism-Leninism both claim to be 'sciences' of human development. However, whereas the latter sought to appeal, at least in principle, to the oppressed peoples of the world, the former is necessarily and unashamedly elitist. After all, one of Psychohistory's axioms is "that the human conglomerate be itself unaware of psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions be truly random."
This is in effect a codification of how American capitalism regarded itself at the time the sequence was written. The system, not usually acknowledged as such then or now but rather seen as part of natural order along with the laws of physics, depended upon each company attempting to maintain a competitive edge in terms of knowledge and technique, themselves conceived as a form of property. In particular, competition between firms selling similar products was often focused around the disciplines of advertising and market research, which saw the public as an uninformed mass to be statistically investigated and programmed: this is precisely Psychohistory's attitude to the broad mass of people. Thus the drives and techniques of postwar American capitalism, which saw itself as the saving grace of a world in which previous Empires were finished, decimated by war, are converted by a kind of alchemy into a complete scientific system to rival that claimed by the USSR. Reluctantly, one has to admit that it is a great tribute to Stalinism that a nation as backward at the start of the century as Russia should force an American mythologist into this kind of defensive manoeuvre; likewise that the free-market Americans should have been forced into the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, and so on.
In terms of the direct influence of socialism within SF, one thinks of course of HG Wells and through him of all the early and golden age science fiction which glorifies a wise and benevolent scientific elite. Many of the early twentieth century writers explicitly endorsed Socialism, with rather than against their better judgement. Often, after becoming intoxicated with their own supposed rationality and sound judgement, they set up, in place of the God in whom they self-consciously disbelieved, grand capital-lettered abstractions such as Reason or Mankind. Eventually, Wizard of Oz style, they found that they themselves had to ventriloquize in order to hear their abstractions speak.
Now, I wouldn't want to denigrate Wells, one of the founders of SF and in his early life not only sane and grounded but also in his own person a representation of the new-found articulacy of the lower middle classes and an energetic refutation of the notion of the writer as gentleman. Some of his early short fiction, notably 'The New Accelerator' and 'The Man Who Could Work Miracles', is astonishing and haunting simply for the way in which it celebrates the glory of anomalously rapid motion. Then in his early novels, The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau et al, Wells provides a series of possibilities for the human race, with science as both good (innocently exhilarating) and bad, capable of hurling an Edwardian space capsule complete with comfortable sofas and gilt trimmings Moon-wards, capable also of creating the kind of holocaust of evil, misconceived genetic engineering that eerily prefigures the actual 'experimentation' carried out by the Nazis later in the century. The Sphinx in The Time Machine stands as an ambiguous emblem of all that is unquestionable and yet must be questioned; the Palace of Green Porcelain, so like the palaeontological museums that Wells himself would have visited, stands for the persistence of memory, the sense that has haunted and continues to haunt SF that its own concern for the future is an illusion, and that the eeriness of the present is its true subject.
By the time of The Shape of Things to Come however, one of Wells' most influential 'novels' in terms of the way in which subsequent writers have dreamed of SF's political mission, Wells had himself become a self-deluding ventriloquist. Things To Come is so literal in its recitation of dates, and statistics, so concerned with the present-day for at least its first third that it might has well have been called Things That Already Are. Similarly, Wells's bullying, self-righteous insistence on the wrong-headedness of believing in nationstates, rearmament, and war grates when one remembers that he was also a couple of years into the First World War the author of the national-chauvinist keep-yer-spirits-up classic Mr Britling Sees it Through.
No artist can be perfectly consistent, but on the other hand each and every work of fiction needs some grain of humility or of final scepticism in order to preserve it as something worth reading. Over the last century, the idea of faultless linear prediction has soured SF; likewise, the loud insistence on one unalterable party line and the concomitant neglect of the inner life has often changed Socialism into another form of oppression.
Lastly there's the story of the anarchic wonderland we could live in if only everyone ceased sanctioning, by voting and in countless other ways, our present civilisation. This is perhaps the oldest fantastic narrative, the dream of a flight from human civilisation into a state which is at once the apotheosis of civilisation, and a return to some older, more 'natural' order. It's also not merely a spectre haunting the world, but a phantasm driving it; in another sense it is the Communist fiction shorn of its armourplate trimmings (naked, unaccommodated, the thing itself).
Ursula LeGuin's 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' is about those who choose to walk away from a social contract which allows ease and comfort for the many at the expense of one small child's suffering; those with true integrity simply walk away into an unexplained and perilous Beyond. The Dispossessed is similarly a dream of flight, with anarchist refugees from the authoritarian planet Urras setting up their own society on its sister-world Anarres. For this anarchist community, capitalism is the self-evidently ridiculous and near-unimaginable Other; when Shevek and some of his friends begin to feel that some of the principles of Anarres' foundation have become obscured by the growing power of the planet's bureaucracy and finally admit to themselves that they have been oppressed within the supposedly free society, they dream of another escape, of an Anarres beyond Anarres.
Funes the Memorious; Ruins.
The important thing to remember about all of these stories, the conservative story, the Fabian or managerial story, and the anarchist story, is that they are all (but least of all anarchism, which is not only more spiritual, but also more corporate) in some sense fantasies, tricks. As with all abstractions, they depend upon us replacing our remembered sensory and kinaesthetic experience with something simpler, more totemic.
When this trick cannot be performed then the world becomes as chaotic as the world inhabited by the eponymous hero of the Borges story 'Funes the Memorious', full of countless sense impressions absolutely incapable of any abstraction. Funes is forever engaged upon quixotic attempts to effect a kind of closure at infinity, wishing to order the world with, for example, his own solipsistic system of numbers ("Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the cauldron, Napoleon, Augustin de Vedia" and so on interminably) but finding these efforts doomed before they even begin.
We are doomed to the same kind of failure, living in a late capitalist, media-saturated world filled with the decayed fragments of the once-grand narratives. One thing that the conservative and social reformist narratives described above have in common is that they are all linear: they all relate our small struggles in the here and now with some grander world-historical struggle to preserve the best of the old ways or else to realise the good society.
Implicitly or explicitly the socialist story and its analogues depend upon a future boundless in its possibilities, and it is for that reason that they fail to gain any purchase in the contemporary world. We now find ourselves, for the first time in human history, without a geographical or political frontier: the Space Race, despite NASA's Mars programme, seems both irrelevant and mundane in a way which would have seemed impossible fifty or thirty years ago. Technology progresses, but as the dreams of SF are realised (sort of) we find ourselves living amongst "real world faultiness of 'Actual Machines'", not "the power-fantasy techno-dreams of 'Fucking Magic'"; previous FM dreams seem remote, ghostly, parodic. Moreover, we now find ourselves inescapably aware of our own limitations and those of the planet and the universe. The implications of, for example, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, of chaos theory and of quantum physics have now largely filtered through: SF readers and writers now instinctively realise, in a way that we didn't in the fifties, that the nineteenth century dreams of human perfectibility, of arbitrarily fine measurement and prediction, are over.
Much of the best SF written over the last thirty years is, for want of a better word, archaeological: one thinks of Ballard's explorations of strange mental states, and of post-technological landscapes, notably "the rusting gantries an abandoned, rubbish-strewn Cape Canaveral, the empty swimming pools and motels, the dead astronauts marooned in still-orbiting capsules".
One also thinks of the Jerry Cornelius sequence written by Michael Moorcock and others, which celebrates the dream of the sixties, a time when the Whig view of inevitable progress reached its apotheosis and then disintegrated. The sequence begins with Jerry as a dangerous sexy androgynous playboy, a polymorphously perverse James Bond, a Messiah for a time when one could "wander in and out of the professions as though these were merely french windows on the stage set of our lives"; by the time of The Condition of Muzak, published in 1977, the stage sets of life seemed more tawdry, the universe of personal and sexual experimentation, of endless fun and pleasure and ever-ready research fellowships by this time a contracting one.
Likewise, Stephen Baxter's stories 'Prospero One' , 'Zemlya' and 'Sun God', are ways of excavating and thus mourning the limitless dream of space, a dream which now seems to belong to an earlier and more primitive age. In Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction, the history of socialism is itself mined: in this novel of factions, of situationist word-play, of all the last wars fought at once, the left seems to have effaced itself and disappeared.
In today's world, we like Funes are in danger of making nothing out of too much; or else finding ourselves, led by a suddenly redundant wish to push back the frontiers, lured into some abyss of self-abasement (drugs; McDonald's; the Spice Girls) or else blank uncomprehending hate (the noose dangled by Class War supporters in front of a moderate trade union leader at a public gathering).
There are no great crusades for artistic freedom left in Europe or America; sure, we may pragmatically wish that the film Crash be available to those who want to see it, but the polemics put out by those who are libertarians and nothing else, the diatribes about "the best instincts of the British people" and so forth which flow from the decent and nothing else tabloids... these seem rehearsed. To live in an illusion of freedom is to live in the outpost-ghetto that the characters in Simon Avery's 'Anonymity Walks' imprison themselves within. Moving through an eternal December, forever broke, choosing partners and ideas as though in some slow depressive underwater version of shopping... and above all, never, never calling their parents because this would be a kind of betrayal.
The Craic; Turning Away.
Well, well. "Ours is not to look back," as Mark E Smith, lead singer of The Fall once remarked. "Ours is to continue the craic." We have to be centred enough to value the past, without becoming entranced (depression has been described as a trance-like state) with some myth of the Golden Age. If we can look at science-fiction's first hundred years as a separable genre coldly and justly then we may be able to write the kind of visionary SF which has a mature and joyous sense of itself, and which has at its heart a kind of final scepticism. Otherwise, we will be crushed under the boulder of nostalgia, and the SF that we produce will be a kind of exhausted pastiche, grand but with no life-giving connection to real sensory experience. May God also forbid that we become the 'loyalists' of any consensus however benign or inspired: as with human designs generally, the political projects of these will succeed and fail, proving good for some people and bad for others.
As for what happens now, well, we can listen to the fading of the old Marxist story into the endless white noise of history, or watch its displacement into cyberspace as happens in Ken MacLeod's firework display of left-wing erudition. We can then read vampire novels, because vampires no matter how faint their vital signs are never finally dead, or, better, we can switch off the news, walk away from our political allegiances, turn aside from our old dreams... and fall endlessly into the darkness back towards the body and the spirit.
© David Curl 1997, 2000
This piece was first published in the British Science Fiction Association's Matrix, issue 127, Sept/Oct 1997.
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