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Sunday 23 September 2001

To Genre or Not to Genre

Book Reviews by Claude Lalumière
(Special to Locus Online)

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
(Doubleday, 2001)

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
(Hyperion, 2001)

I used to own a bookshop called Nebula. The original concept was a comprehensive science fiction and fantasy specialty, combined with a selection of comics and film books. Over the years, the shop grew to include many other book categories that I felt would be of interest to my core genre clientele. One of the things I took special pleasure in was keeping an eye out for out-of-genre fiction that would quench the thirst of my science fiction customers without being explicitly SF at all. Were I still a bookseller, there are two such books from 2001 that I would be recommending to my customers: Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. Before getting to these books—to set up what I have to say about them—I'd like to discuss SF a bit.

First, let's consider J.G. Ballard's Crash, in my opinion both one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and one of the greatest accomplishments in science fiction. Many readers would disagree that Crash is science fiction at all (and certainly David Cronenberg's humourlessly shallow film adaptation was never promoted as SF): it's not set in the future, and there are no aliens, no time travellers, no speculative technologies, no space voyages, no psychic powers, no dimension-hopping, no reality-altering historical divergences. In short, it offers none of the paraphernalia usually equated with SF. And yet precisely because Crash eschews all of those things—while still managing to be SF (as I'll argue below)—it exposes SF's intrinsic qualities.

There are almost as many definitions of SF as there are SF writers. I will not attempt here to define SF, although it will be necessary to invoke some definitions of SF to illustrate my point.

One could say that SF speculates on the effects of technological and/or societal change on humanity. I think that most SF readers would agree that, from H.G. Wells to Robert Heinlein and from Isaac Asimov to William Gibson, this has proven to be one of SF's defining characteristics. Let's return to Crash. In this aptly titled novel, Ballard deals with the impact of automobile technology on humans. To this day, it remains a pertinent diagnosis of the transformative effects—both wrought and latent—of car culture on human consciousness. In other words: it's a work of fiction that speculates on the effects of technological change on humanity. Ergo, it is SF.

One could also say that SF is the literature of cognitive dissonance, in which bits of seemingly contradictory information clash to propose different ways of perceiving and interpreting reality. More than anything, that thrill, that search for consensus-shattering worldviews, is what keeps me reading SF. When Wells challenged anthropocentricism and British imperialism in The War of the Worlds, it was a willful act of cognitive dissonance (although the term had yet to be coined). A century later, Paul Di Filippo's Ciphers—opening with the telling line, "Am I live or am I Memorex?"—was a memetic assault on consensus reality that layered cognitive dissonances like moisturiser on a terminally dried-out cultural landscape.

Yet, much of what is marketed as SF downplays cognitive dissonance. In fact, like mainstream mimetic fiction, much commercial SF offers comfortably familiar settings and ideas that in no way challenge consensus reality. Are such books truly SF? I'd argue that they're not—that they're simply using spaceships and the like to masquerade as SF. In fact, too many books published as SF by the major publishers are such travesties. Di Filippo's Ciphers—with its exuberantly dense use of cognitive dissonance and, thus, its implied threat to the hegemonic voice of commercial SF—was published by small press Cambrian Publications. And Ballard's Crash, by presenting attitudes and relationships to the automobile that violently clash with the hegemonic consumer culture model of the car society, used cognitive dissonance to explore the role of the automobile in human culture and consciousness—an approach that is quintessentially sciencefictional. In Ballard, consensus reality is the alien world.

Any SF specialty bookshop worthy of the appellation stocks Wells, Ballard, and Di Filippo. That's a no-brainer. Other writers walk a more ambiguous line. Their books could never be seriously marketed as SF, yet they nevertheless offer pleasures—and explore ideas—that SF readers (at least those who agree with my above observations) are apt to appreciate. Take, for example, the previously mentioned Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. (A warning: I'm usually careful not to reveal key plot elements of the fiction I review, but the following consideration of the appeal these books might have for SF readers will perforce include such spoilers.)

By the end of Choke, readers are reassured that all overtly sciencefictional red herrings were just that. Victor is not the reincarnation of Jesus Christ: it was a fabrication of Paige's. As for Paige, it turns out that she is (in all likelihood) not a time traveller from 2556: she's just delusional. So what's left of sciencefictional interest?

For one thing, Palahniuk, like Ballard, treats consensus reality like a sciencefictional setting. No mores can be accepted at face value. Every behaviour, belief, habit, or norm can potentially be dissected, inverted, and perverted in an effort to grasp it. Palahniuk, since his first novel, Fight Club, has been setting his books in the here-and-now, but the reality described by his narrators clashes violently with the cultural perceptions that allow us to function (more or less) viably on a day-to-day basis. Like Di Filippo's Ciphers or Ribofunk, Palahniuk's narratives are memetic assaults of cognitive dissonances, challenging consensus interpretations of reality. Like Ballard's, Palahniuk's fiction reads like a diagnosis for incurable cognitive pathologies. In Palahniuk, humanity treats societal change like a contagious disease, releasing antibodies that will only cure the affliction once they kill the patient. How much more sciencefictional can you get?

In Choke, Victor, the narrator/protagonist, is a sex junkie who attends sex addiction therapy groups. To raise money to pay for his mother's medical care, he nightly chokes on restaurant food, thus initiating saviour/victim relationships with hundreds of would-be do-gooders who see his welfare as their personal responsibility. His aging and ailing mother can no longer recognize him, so he poses, in rotation, as her former defence lawyers (in her prime, she was a self-styled cultural terrorist who, among other things, kept kidnapping Victor from an endless parade of foster homes), while she complains about how Victor never visits her. Victor's best friend Denny is a compulsive masturbator who collects one rock a day to imbue his life with meaning, until that addiction also gets out of control. I could go on and on with details—the description of the airplane bathroom casual sex culture, the strange insular reality of the historical theme park where Victor works, the bizarre sexual encounters, the outré capers of Victor's mom—but none of them will succeed in conveying the near-Clockwork Orange intensity of the language and narrative perspective. Palahniuk digs into the festering wounds of the world we live in, an alien(ated) world we barely dare know. But, as Palahniuk shows us, we ignore it at our own peril.

In comparison, Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil is a much milder affair, but it's a rousing read and, in its way, another example of a mainstream novel concerning itself with matters sciencefictional. It is also of associational fantasy interest, as it centers on the world of stage magic, the profession of illusory fantasy. Indeed, many of the illusions are so vividly described that, before their secrets were revealed, I often found myself convinced that there was a hidden supernatural power behind Carter's spectacular feats.

Gold's novel is an expansive historical novel of Americana somewhat in the vein of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Caleb Carr's The Alienist. It's a much lighter affair than either of them: not as probing and profound as the Chabon and, although it does incorporate certain elements of a murder mystery investigation, not as dark and menacing as the Carr. The protagonist, Charles Carter, was a real-life stage magician (the book's cover is adapted from his most famous promo poster). Several other major characters are also historical—most notably, President Harding and Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television—but the tale itself is entirely fictional.

President Harding dies mysteriously the day after participating in a (seemingly) violent stunt onstage with Carter. An unusually unlucky FBI investigator is convinced that Carter is responsible. While the agent builds his case, the novel flashbacks to Carter's youth and traces his life until it catches up with the main events of the novel. The night they met, Harding passed on a revolutionary secret to Carter, albeit one he could not understand. It concerned the plans for a strange invention—television—by an unknown scientist named Philo Farnsworth. Government and industry are both after Carter, unsure if they want to suppress the invention or have a monopoly on it. Allying himself with the young Farnsworth, Carter creates a new illusion showcasing the new technology. Meanwhile, a menace from his past returns, hired to kill Carter while the FBI agent closes in to arrest the magician.

There are several points that make this novel interesting from a sciencefictional perspective. First, there is the description of a semi-secret culture existing in parallel to mundane life, the world of magicians. This may not be as extreme a vision as, say, the hidden city of Wells's "The Country of the Blind," the immortality cult of Robert Silverberg's The Book of Skulls, the secret world of car crash fetishists of Ballard's Crash, or the complex conspiracy behind Di Filippo's Ciphers, but it does offer some of the same exotic pleasures (despite being, unlike these examples from science fiction, an account of a real subculture rather than an imagined creation). Second, in readjusting history to fit his narrative—especially the date of television's creation—Gold comes close to committing an act of alternate history (but not quite, as we come to understand that the events of the novel fail to change the course of history).

Finally, Gold explores the reactions that television—a technology with the potential to radically change society (which we know it fulfilled)—evoke in a wide array of people, from technicians, scientists, and entertainers to capitalists, elected officials, and generals. And we see a glimpse of the transformative effect it can have on audiences. Although Carter Beats the Devil deals with a technological innovation that is in our past, it does so in a way very much like a science fiction novel set in the present day or near future would with an emerging technology. Of course, because the novel's future is our past, its speculations are no more speculative than Carter's illusions are supernaturally magical. Gold's conjuring of fantasy and science fiction turns out to be a sham, but what a wildly entertaining one! An illusion worthy of his protagonist.

What is science fiction? I tend to despise the climate that dictates such genre classifications. And I'm not saying that Choke and Carter Beats the Devil are science fiction, not really. But, paradoxically, they may offer more of what some SF readers are looking for than many of the books on the SF shelves.

Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer whose criticism has appeared in The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, January Magazine, Montreal Review of Books, Blue Coupe, and Black Gate; his humour in Safarir and TheFunniest ToGo; and his poetry in L'Écrit Primal.  He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his website.

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