Paul Witcover: A Take on Revolutionary SF

In thinking about Gary’s ideas of normal and revolutionary SF, it occurred to me that intent and reception are important factors. I wonder if there can be truly revolutionary science now—even science that yields the most surprising results and forces a paradigm shift upon us is still likely to be arrived at by means of the scientific method. And how often do scientists consciously set out to smash up the prevailing wisdom? Wouldn’t a truly revolutionary science involve a substantive alteration of the scientific method—something like what Stephen Wolfram set out to do in A New Kind of Science? As for reception, would a truly revolutionary science be immediately hailed as a breakthrough, or would it, as with Wolfram, Einstein, and countless others, be attacked by the establishment?

So let’s look at what is ostensibly the most revolutionary SF novel of the year… Anathem. I concur entirely with the points made by Gary, and I don’t mean to slight this remarkable novel in any way—but is it really revolutionary? Or does it instead use the literary equivalent of a “scientific method”—that is, the bag of tricks and tropes available to contemporary SF writers who stand upon the shoulders of giants—not so much to reinvent the genre itself, or just tear it down, as to pose an interesting and audacious “what-if” experiment in alternate-world creation? I think the latter. It’s something we’ve seen before, though rarely at such an accomplished level. The reception of the novel is an indication that I’m right. Nobody feels threatened by Anathem as they did, say, by A New Kind of Science, a much more revolutionary novel within the context of genre at the time. Some readers and critics have indeed felt that Anathem is not their cup of tea, but I’m not aware of anyone protesting that it means the end of SF as we know it. For all its originality, it is not strange but quite familiar.

The most revolutionary novel I read last year was probably K.J. Parker’s The Company. Here is a novel, written with formidable skill and intelligence, that really does have as part of its project the intent of destroying every readerly expectation, including the notion that an implicit contract exists between writer and reader. Parker isn’t revolutionary in the sense of Delany or Joyce: she is a competent but unremarkable stylist. But she attacks and seeks to undermine the very foundations of the received wisdom about the act of reading fiction—that is, to enter into a sympathetic relation with a world and characters. For Parker, this propensity on the part of readers, inculcated by the whole history of literature, is merely bait in a sadistic trap. What she is doing strikes me as dangerous, like all revolutions should be dangerous. Personally, I find it repellent—but that’s also a plus when it comes to judging revolutionary bona fides. The Company was not on my list of the best novels of 2008; indeed, it was probably my least favorite novel of the year.

Finally, I think that revolutionary SF, however it’s measured, must be far rarer than normal SF. Many years might go by without any novel meriting the label, just as true paradigm shifts in science are rare.

Paul Witcover

3 thoughts on “Paul Witcover: A Take on Revolutionary SF

  • February 10, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Wolfram and Einstein, why not Wolfram and Pons and Fleischman? They threatened the establishment too…

    Or Wolfram and the peddlers of Quantum Mechanics and Tao or whatever mysticism you favor…

    The scientific establishment is ultra-competitive and hungry for fame, so anything new that has promise is embraced, not rejected as the tons of money spent chasing cold-fusion show.

    Also let us not forget that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof – and Einstein was indeed lucky that the proof came so fast, but the relativity ideas were in the air the way the QM ones were and for similar reasons, and while it may have taken more, they would have come about even without a genius like Einstein, the way the QM ideas came from various people

    And if we are at that, Einstein first impressed the physics world with his photoelectric work presaging QM, not writing (excellent indeed, but what has that to do with science ability is unclear) software …

    Regarding The Company, that was a gripping novel that I regretted wasting time on and my first and last KJ Parker read – luckily from the library since I would have hated spending money on this. Though I loved the ending, I just regretted they did not hung and quartered them for stupidity and hubris…


  • February 10, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    “A gripping novel that I regretted wasting time on.” My feelings exactly.


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