Monday, January 07, 2008

Thinking the totality: on science-fiction

Reminded by Sam Jordison's blog on science-fiction (including grumpy comments by moi prompted not by SF but the evidence-free abuse of literary critics), I returned to Michael Holland's very short essay on the subject in Nowhere Without No, a collection of memorial essays dedicated to Blanchot.

I'm often drawn back to these 600 words, so let me try to work out here what I think they're telling me.

It begins by linking a famous passage from The Writing of the Disaster in which Blanchot addresses his post-mortem readers: You who live later, close to a heart that no longer beats, suppose, just suppose… with the appeal of science fiction (emboldened words stand for italics in the original).
Science fiction ... offers the prospect of a later age where human life continues beyond the death of the body: an era when theology has given way to technology, and the original Undead - the vampire - has mutated into the average space hero. There are thus no tombs in the sci-fi world, and with them disappears the border they police between the here and now and the beyond. The beyond is the here and now for the space hero. No part of the universe is out of bounds, all time is accessible in the instant, transcendance has become the everyday.
I'm expecting SF experts to dispute this definition, so to answer them in advance, I think the existence of tombs in a particular novel shouldn't mean Holland is wrong and doesn't understand the genre. Think of this as a characterisation of SF as the extremest fiction. Whereas ordinary fiction is constrained by the fact of death, SF stands for the transcendently-free imagination. In this sense, Sam is right to called SF "one of the defining literatures of the last century" but wrong to limit it so. It is the defining form itself: fiction par excellence. OK, now see how that fits.
The appeal of sci-fi lies in its ability to bring us into a sort of intimacy with the humanity of the future, freed from the trauma and mourning of the end of theology thanks to the capacity to live later which it owes to technology. Sci-fi thus satisfies an urgent need, during our age of transition, to be assured of some human continuity from one era to the other, and reassured that, unlike the vampire, the undead who people the techno-world will not be agents of evil and terror.
Again, we can thereby think of SF as the epitome of fiction in general, in this case our personal, post-religious need for hope and self-help: a coming to terms with life, our own transitional age. Holland, however, sees a problem for fiction here.
But seen from the future it anticipates, sci-fi will inevitably appear as primitive myth. For like all myth, it hangs back from thinking the totality of what it projects - which is to say, total transcendence in the here and now (whose reality will, for the first time ever, make myth itself a thing of the past).

The unthinkable reality of that transcendence is violence. The only way transcendence can remain transcendence once it becomes real (free of myth) is by incorporating within itself a capacity for violent destruction without limit (which for the theological era was equivalent to absolute evil) considered as no more than a dimension of the everyday. The “human” condition of possibility for this is the ability of human subjects to live on, beyond physical destruction. But its implications for human subjectivity remain unexplored. Though the sci-fi hero is always already dead, living later, essentially a late being seen from our present standpoint, sci-fi narratives are spoken by and to a subject for whom that mode of existence remains totally unthinkable.

In sci-fi the violence of transcendence is deflected so that the world and only the world (which includes the bodily reality of the individuals who inhabit it) is exposed to transcendence as violence. Sci-fi is thus essentially nihilistic. It frees the reality of transcendence from the demonization by theology, but merely invites us to contemplate it in the form of endless technological apocalypse.
The reason why I'm drawn back (given that much of it probably escapes me) to this is because, again, it can be applied to fiction in general. The writers of fiction I champion tend to follow the logic of their inspiration, the implications it has for the work's form and content. In this way genre distinctions are rendered irrelevant - which might explain why Sam thinks SF novels are not called SF novels when they wins literary prizes, though I'm not confident that prize committees do it for this reason. So what would SF read like if it undertook Holland's challenge? My answer: literary fiction.

Holland's final words offer his own answer, an appropriate one for the volume in which it appears.
Where can our age of transition turn if it is to think and anticipate what it will be to "live later"? Re-read Blanchot’s fiction, re-read until you can read. Later is not now, it always was. "You who live later" was and is us; the "heart that no longer beats", always our own.

Live later, before it is too late.

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