I have things to say about some of the fiction I have been reading, but before I get to that (hopefully next week), I have yet another passage from Samuel R. Delany’s the Jewel-Hinged Jaw to share. As I mentioned in last week’s post on the collection, I’m highly interested in exceptional claims being made on behalf of a genre or sub-genre: what does it do that other modes can’t?
The follow passage is from Delany’s lengthy, tour-de-force essay on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed in which he heavily critiques several aspects of the novel while at the same time illustrating what an important, accomplished novel it is for the field. It follows a critique of Le Guin’s treatment of sexuality, pregnancy and gender relations among the Annaresti — one of the two main cultures in her book.
Annaresti ideas about pregnancy and Annaresti adolescent male bonding behavior want a different resolution from the one they get [in The Dispossessed]. What suggest this different treatment is the specifically science fiction model which holds that the origin of both ideas and social behavior — especially when the author is free to speculate and invent what she cannot know — is of equal interest with the ideas and behavior itself. This concept, that ideas and behavior, however natural/moral/unquestionable, have effective social histories, is one of the indubitably significant messages that informs science fiction’s inchoate textus. (This message is not intrinsic to the textus of mundane fiction.) A compendium of the various rhetorical postures, which both the most sophisticated and the most ham-handed science fiction have devised to support this model (and of which the model is constituted), would guides us through most of the truly significant verbal tropes traditional to the genre up through the beginning of the sixties: sometimes ideas are seen as degenerate, as in Bester’s Scientific People in The Stars My Destination; sometimes they have developed, as with Asimov’s atomic traders in Foundation; others are seen as simply laterally transformed. Yet there is hardly an s-f writer who has not expended some considerable amount of whatever linguistic inventiveness she possesses on presenting a compressed, syntactic or imagistic representation of such an ideohistory. (272-273)
If I’m parsing this correctly (and there’s no guarantee of that), what Delany is suggesting is that because science fiction (or at least a key — really the major — stream of science fiction) takes as its main subject a projection of a future state and because (textual) science fiction’s key tool is words, science fiction stories have to use words to represent that future state — and that requires playing around with those words in order to create the SFnal effect. And what’s more, that playing around includes it in some sense of the history of how those words arrived at that state of meaning and this is because the reader is not from the culture being represented in the story.
Certainly mundane fiction (what I would call ‘literary realism’) is limited in the exact same way that science fiction is in the sense that words can never truly represent emotional, psychological, historical and social states. However, because literary realism rests on the shared assumptions, the ideas, the ideologies of the current day, it is not forced into the linguistic inventions and rhetorical postures that are required of science fiction, which can only achieve its effect by interrogating and inventing itself away from those shared assumptions.
If you buy this claim (and I may, although I think the history of the field [and of “mundane” fiction] since this was written complicates things), then this is why the exhaustion of science fiction matters: it means that writers are not fully engaging in the rhetorical postures that Delany describes above (and elsewhere in his fantastic, exhausting essay on The Dispossessed). It means that science fiction has become more mundane.