Russell Letson: On revolutionary vs normal SF (in the pseudo-Kuhnian sense) and other matters

First I have to say that the notion of revolution in art is one that puts me on guard right away—unlike scientific models, which are structures of propositions and evidence always open to reformulation, art is not an attempt to produce a coherent and testable system, nor is it fundamentally propositional, nor does it react to surprising new “data” in the way that science must if it is to remain functional. Despite the frequently cited turn-of-the-twentieth-century examples from music and painting (Stravinsky outraging audiences with “Rite of Spring” or the Fauves pissing off critics whose predecessors had been pissed off by the Impressionists), the arts do not seem to proceed by revolution, but to operate in a much more gradual and interactive manner, as practitioners respond not only to whatever internal logic their art might have but to each other and to audiences…

This is easily seen in genre fiction, where a successful innovation leads to imitation and variation—the process that William Tenn/Philip Klass likens to the back-and-forth riff-trading of jazz (“Jazz Then, Musicology Now”, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1972). Then there’s the matter of aesthetic fatigue, in which writers (and audiences) tire of the same old stories being told in the same old way and start to twist their generic tails (and tales) a bit. This, I suspect, is one of the forces behind “New Space Opera” (which is a new label for same-only-different changes that had been working through the space-adventure subgenre since Poul Anderson’s work of the 1950s): the introduction of hard-SF standards for imaginary or speculative technologies and the importation of motifs and tropes from neighboring subgenres and traditions (cyberpunk, Stapledonian cosmic vistas, anthropological/xenological portraits, the Singularity, and various visions of the posthuman condition).

All of which is a long-winded prologue to a meditation on what we can expect to see when looking back at any given year. The pop-journalism list culture that Adrienne dislikes (and that I don’t much care for myself) is, as she suggests, driven by marketeering and publishers’ perceptions of the inscrutable urges of the readership. Lists I understand—my wife and I both love to recommend books and writers, movies and actors and directors, CDs and musicians, and we are constantly writing out suggestions on napkins and the backs of register tapes. What we don’t do is rank the recommendations. And the receivers of our wisdom never, ever ask “Which one is the best?” or “Could you number the top three?” We figure that they’ll work their way through the suggestions, taking the good and ignoring the ones that don’t work so well, and perhaps determining that that’s the last time we’ll ask them for a good book or movie. This is, in fact, just what I see myself doing at Locus, and at the two or three conventions every year where I’m asked what books I found interesting since last time—with the understanding that when I have the talking stick, I get to rabbit on about the history or aesthetics or political significance or plain old neatitude of the books under discussion. That’s why Locus doesn’t just print a bunch of titles with star ratings under our bylines.

So it doesn’t matter whether The Dragons of Babel is paradigm-breaking or pseudo-Kuhnian-normal, revolutionary or bourgeois-Same-Old, or somewhere in between. It is not going to keep our collective attention (at least in the medium-to-long term) without other crucial ingredients that do not plot on the innovation scale: language, pacing, texture, and that most measurement-resistant quality, heart. Its appeal may (and does) come in part from ingenious and unexpected deployment of old materials—the kind of make-it-new inventiveness that our current culture seems to value highly. But innovation is not a quality that the longitudinal audience will see clearly (though the scholarly among them may). What they will see is a story that pulls them along, and an interplay of elements (metaphor, character, plot, setting) that creates the illusion of a whole world that means in a way that the experiential world never quite does. And there are other titles scrawled on my napkin (that’s why I ask for extras) that offer that illusion and that sense of meaning while remaining “safely” within the bounds of “normal” SF—for example, Joe Haldeman’s Marsbound, John Varley’s Rolling Thunder (both Heinlein homages and thus smack in the middle of the standard model), Ken MacLeod’s The Night Sessions, Karen Traviss’s Judge, or Mike Brotherton’s Spider Star. I might recommend these books to different people or for different reasons, but it doesn’t make sense to see them as belonging to a hierarchy. They’re not competing against each other, except perhaps in the actual commercial marketplace, and ranking there is a matter for Amazon or Bookscan, not me.

One thought on “Russell Letson: On revolutionary vs normal SF (in the pseudo-Kuhnian sense) and other matters

  • February 11, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    I totally agree. I love lists like Cheryl Morgan posted on her blog from last year’s World Con, 20 Essential Science Fiction Books of the Past 20 Years. It was a nice list of novels by the different panelists in no particular order. Having over the years either reading their book reviews or what have you and knowing the books they like and similar ones I like, I get a good idea of what to chase after, find and read. On the opposite side I have a good idea of what to stay away from when certain other panelists recommend a novel. Or the, “Well this person loves this novel, and this person, total opposites. I guess I have to read it then.”

    As for what’s ‘best of the year’, all one needs to do is see what movies are nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards to understand how silly that is, let alone who actually wins.


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