The Anti-SF Novel

A talk given to the Philadelphia SF Society

I'd like to talk, in a perverse sort of way, about the anti- science fiction novel. There are a lot of conventions to the sf genre, you know, warp drive and faster than light drive and time travel and blasters and phasers, vast galactic empires. There are a lot of unspoken conventions, too.

Michael Swanwick once talked about how, when he was writing THE IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER, he found that one difference between fantasy and science fiction was that fantasy was often normative, and science fiction was often transcendent. (Forgive Michael, if I've mangled that.) Another way to say this is to say that the purpose of the quest, besides collecting enough plot coupons to get to the end of the book, is to right a tremendous wrong and bring order back into the world or kingdom. Sometimes, as it is in Tolkien, the order is a less glorious order--maybe you've got men in charge instead of elves with all the reduction in aesthetics that implies--you know, instead of palaces among the trees we've got Elvis paintings on black velvet.

In science fiction the point is often to shatter the existing order, to transcend it. People evolve and become something better, cooler, SLAN. Or the AI is released into the system at large to evolve and change, thereby changing the world as we know it, as in NEUROMANCER. DUNE does that, in a Christ- figure sort of way, with Paul Maubdib clearing the way for his son, the giant worm, who transcends human.

This is kind of dangerous ground, getting deep into the parlor game of what is the difference between sf and fantasy, but I thought it was really cool so I felt compelled to talk about it. You can start getting into sticky stuff. I think, under this rubric, STAR WARS is space fantasy because it is overthrowing the emperor to re-establish the republic and the old order of the Jedi Knights.

But something required for the genre or genres, whether to reestablish order or transcend it, is the hero who changes everything. Luke Skywalker is the perfect example of the hero who changes everything. He overthrows the bloody empire, for god's sake. This is the central story of sf, as read by all us adolescents and arrested adolescents, it's the real and for me, serious indulgence of sf. If there's an injustice, the hero will stop it. It doesn't matter if the story is on the scale of a city or a planet or the galaxy, sf is the story of the outsider who is smarter, mutated, or endowed with special powers and therefore is the person, the only person who can make the difference.

Think of it. Asimov's THE GODS THEMSELVES, ENDER'S GAME by Orson Scott Card, Stephen Donaldson's WHITE GOLD series, anything by Edger Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein characters from the hero of HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL to Lazarus Long, Anne McCaffrey's dragonriders, almost any science fiction movie you can think of... That's one of the things I love about science fiction; the chance to think of myself as special, as smarter, to identify with the one who matters. I used to secretly hope that if I believed fiercely enough, I would become a telepath. For the sake of my marriage, thank goodness I was wrong.

I think there is something mildly insidious about my love of the special outsider, much the same way that I feel there is something insidiuos about my love for Dairy Queen. For years, I spent more time with books than I did with almost anyone or anything else. As they said of Milton, I saw the world through the spectacle of books. For a girl who was not popular, for a girl who found the whole social dance of adolescence to be not only too complicated but perhaps conducted in a language I didn't even speak and understand, well, the other world, where outsiders were special and where the misunderstood were often the key to saving the universe, was a very seductive place.

I was only allowed to take seven books out of the library each week. I had books taken away from me in school. I suspect I wasn't the only one. Science fiction and fantasy taught me that if I was an outsider, but a bright outsider, then if I waited a bit my destiny would come upon me.

It didn't, of course. Destinies may or may not be out there, but they rarely seem to come knocking. I had to go out and get mine. Being an outsider has certain advantages when it comes to evaluating and selecting strategies for living a life. I grew up in a small town that was blue collar and redneck in equal degrees and I did realize somewhere in High School that if by chance I had been popular and attractive I might now be blond, have four grandchildren and be living in a trailer park. But the secret half-felt half-yearned for idea that I might be special and that I might be marked out for a destiny; that I might be able to topple the oppressive government, banish the evil overlord or that I might even be the next level of evolved human but just hadn't realized it yet, while delightful and reassuring, didn't feel true. What felt more true was that I was a lonely, ill-socialized child.

The truth is that any system that I could overthrow or that any one person could overthrow probably wouldn't last very long in the real world anyway. If books were giving me maps by which to parse out reality (and remember, I was doing more reading than I was anything else, so in a very important way, books were my reality, were more real than most of my life and were certainly more vivid) the map of the lone person who saves the world seemed false.

So in an attempt (to continue the science fiction as Dairy Queen analogy) to balance my diet, I started writing a novel where the hero couldn't change the inequalities of the system. I made the system neither all bad nor all good. This did present certain plot difficulties. If my hero (lets call him CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG in a not very subtle plug) if Zhang isn't going to be instrumental in bringing down the rather klutzy socialist government under which he lives, and isn't going to make dramatic political changes that cause that government to start taking the rights of homosexuals a little more seriously, what is he going to do?

Well, in my case, he became a computer consultant. Which turns out to be maybe a little too realistic for even my own taste. If I was going to write something other than Dairy Queen, it didn't mean I had to write broccoli. But he was a whizz bang kind of computer consultant, with a very sexy kind of computer consultant job. For what it's worth.

I get mail once in awhile from people who complain that the novel didn't really have a plot and some on-line reviews complain about the same thing. Of course, it's told in multiple points of view and I had this other grand theory about the structure of the book.

Which led me to my second book which has what I thought of as a whizz bang kind of plot. If my protagonists couldn't overthrow the evil system, and couldn't come to some sort of terms with it (which is what I figure I do in everyday life, but I admit isn't much fun to read--a reason why I'm a piss poor letter writer since my life even bores me silly half the time) I figured they could attempt to escape from it.

I found out another gemre myth, although this one laps over into mystery and thriller, too. The myth that eventually we find out what is going on. The worst example of that is when the evil villan explains what his nefarious plans are so the hero can escape and foil them. But as I writing this book it occurred to me that I never know what is going on. I don't think Proctor and Gamble is really a Satanist Corporation based on their moon and stars insignia because I come from Cincinnati and I have friends who work at P&G, I don't believe in Satanism so don't see what sort of corporate strategic value this would have, happen to know where the insignia is supposed to have come from (in the good old days of the nineteenth century sop was shipped up and down river and most of the men who did the loading and unloading couldn't read, so most companies had a fairly simple insignia that was chalked or crayoned on the sides of crates so the guys could identify them and the moon and stars was originally a crude moon and stars that eventually became P&G's logo) not to mention the fact that my view of humanity is that we're not smart enough or disciplined enough to conduct any sort of conspiracy. But if you notice, all of my reasons for assuming that P&G is not a Satanist Corporation are based on my own assumptions and some things people tell me.

I never know what's going on. Even when I'm in the middle of some secret, like a surprise anniversary party, or when I was at the scene of the event people talk about years later, I missed stuff and other people drew different conclusions than I did. I can't imagine that other people really know how the government works. And if our government is beyond understanding, surely the Galactic Empire is beyond understanding. And I can't believe that one evil genius has a clear understanding because I've been a peon in a big company and lord knows we were never doing what the brass thought we were doing.

So the evil genius is programming human-implantable computer chips so that not only do they enhance our intelligence but secretly allow the evil genius to take over our minds? Well somewhere, a bunch of software enginneers writing code are bitching about schedule slippage and not enough time on the Cray and the math guys who do the algorithm shit are figuring out better and more incomprehensible ways to make you Know French Instantly and the design is changing even as we speak and when the first two hundred thousand get their computer chip implanted there's a error in the chip that means when you doing floating decimal operations it makes pi equal to three and then there's a version 1.2 that replaces it and by the time the evil genius gets to give the command that makes everybody into zombies, all that happens is we get an Error 440 message flashing simultaeously acorss all our retinas because you can bet in all the fiddling nobody was particularly safe-guarding that little unsupported feature. And if the evil genius lets people in on her plan to take over the whole world, well, have you ever tried to get six people to decide on where to go for dinner?

So I was going to write a story in which lots of people didn't know everything that was going on. They knew pieces. They knew that the evil corporate guy had double crossed the bank and taken it over in a sort of Shearson Lehman financial move from Wall Street, and that he was in the hip pocket of the President for Life, but they weren't even really sure he was after them. But when your life is possibly at stake and your passport is suddenly on hold, maybe you should read the weather and predict that you're going to get rained on, even if you don't know what the weather might be like somewhere else.

This was my theory and some people liked it and some people hated it. Writing it I stumbled on yet another problem with sf. I was writing near future sf outside the US, so there were other languages involved. Now given a running start and a couple of weeks I can sort of get around in bad Spanish or bad Mandarin, but you know, I've studied languages and they're hard. So how come people either speak forty-seven different languages or its important for the plot that they don't understand?

Even more commonly, everyone speaks English. Do you know how hard it is to speak English? We have a vocabulary of about half a million words in the language, not counting technical and scientific terms. The next largest language is German, with about 185,000, French has fewer than 100,000 words. That's a lot to learn. Not to mention that our system of spelling sucks and we have some rather arbitrary uses for pronouns. Plus what we do to questions. Granted, Chinese and Japanese have their own particular ticks, since Chinese is a tonal language and from what I can understand, Japanese has this sort of apparently simple, folded in on itself grammer which is like origami and about as difficult to master well.

So in my futures, people are wrestling with language all the time. It's sort of my way of getting revenge on the world for the time I spent in China and the three weeks I spent in Italy (Italian, by the way, sounded like a piece of cake after Mandarin.) People say to me that they think there should only be langauge problems if that's part of the plot of the story, but you know, for me, part of the sense of wonder, the travel, comes from language differences. I haven't gone as far as Ursula Le Guin did in ALWAYS COMING HOME, I haven't invented a language, and I won't go so far as Klingon, but something deep within me really admires the impulse.

So a conversation in my future can go something like this (From "The Cost to Be Wise" in STARLIGHT, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

"Inside everyone was sitting around on the floor, talking. None of the teachers were there, were they all with the old man? I smelled whisky but I didn't see any, which meant that the men were drinking it outside. I sat down at edge of t he group, where it was dark, next to Dirtha. Dirtha was watching the offworld girl who was shaking her head at Harup to try to tell him she didn't understand what he was asking. Harup pointed at her blue box again. "Can I see it?" he asked. Harup was my father's age so he didn't speak any English.

"It was warming up in here, although when the offworlder girl leaned forward and breathed out, her mouth in an O, her breath smoked the air for an instant.

"It was too frustrating to watch Harup try to talk to the girl. 'What's your kinship?' he asked. 'I'm Harup Sckarline.' He thumped his chest with his finger. 'What's your kinship?' When she shook her head, not understanding all these words, he looked around and grinned. Harup wouldn't stop until he was bored, and that would take a long time.

"'I'm sorry,' the girl said, 'I don't speak your language.' She looked unhappy.

"Ayudesh would be furious with us if he found out that none of us would try and use our English.

"I had to think about how to ask. Then I cleared my throat, so people would know I was going to talk from the back of the group. 'He asks what is your name,' I said.

"The girl's chin came up like a startled animal, 'What?' she said.

"Maybe I said it wrong? Or my accent was so bad she couldn't understand? I looked at my boots, the stitches around the toes were fraying. They had been my mother's. 'Your name,' I said to the boots.

"The toes twitched a little, sympathetic. Maybe I should have kept quiet.

"'My name is Veronique,' she said.

"'What is she saying?' asked Harup.

"'She says her kinship is Veronique,' I said.

"'That's not a kinship," said Little Shemus. Little Shemus wasn't old enough to have a beard, but he was old enough to be critical of everything.

"'Offworlders don't have kinship like we do,' I said. 'She gave her front name.'

"'Ask her her kinship name,' Little Shemus said.

"'She just told you,' Ardha said, taking the end of her braid out of her mouth. Ardha was a year younger than me. 'They don't have kinship names. Ayudesh doesn't have a kinship name. Wanji doesn't.'

"'Sure they do,' Shemus said. 'Their kinship name is Sckarlineclan.'

"'We give them that name,' said Ardha and pursed her round lips. Ardha was always bossy.

"'What are they saying?' asked the girl.

"'They say, err, they ask, what is your,' your what? How would I even ask what her kinship name was in English? There was a word for it, but I couldn't think of it. 'Your other name.'

"She frowned. Her eyebrows were quite black. 'You mean my last name? It's Veronique Twombly.'

"What was so hard about 'last name'? I remembered it as soon as she said it. 'Tawomby,' I said. 'Her kinship is Veronique Tawomby.'

"'Tawomby,' Harup said. 'Amazing. It doesn't sound like a word. It sounds made-up, like children do. What's in her box?'

"'I know what's in her box,' said Erip. Everybody laughed except for Ardha and me. Even Little Shemus laughed andhe didn't really understand.

"The girl was looking at me to explain.

"'He asks inside, the box is,' I had gotten tangled up. Questions were hard.

"'Is the box inside?' she asked.

"I nodded.

"'It's inside,' she said.

"I didn't understand her answer, so I waited for her to explain.

"'I don't know what you mean,' she said. 'Did someone bring the box inside?'

"I nodded, because I wasn't sure exactly what she'd said, but she didn't reach for the box or open it or anything. I tried to think of how to say it. 'Inside,' I said. 'What is?'

"'The box,' she said. 'Oh wait, you want to know what's in the box?'

"I wasn't sure so I nodded.

"She pulled the box over and opened it up. Something glimmered hard and green and there were red and yellow boxes covered in English and she said, 'Presents for Ayudesh and Wanji.' Everybody stood up to see inside, so I couldn't see, but I heard her say things. The words didn't mean anything. Tea, that I knew. Wanji talked about tea. 'These are sweets,' I heard her say. 'You know, candy. I knew the word sweet, but I didn't know what else she meant. It was so much harder to speak English to her than it was to do it in class with Ayudesh.

"Nobody was paying any attention to what she said but me. They didn't care as long as they could see. I wished I could see. Nobody was even thinking about me, or that if I hadn't been there she never would have opened the box. But that was the way it always was. If I only lived somewhere else, my life would be different. But Sckarline was neither earth nor sky, and I was living my life in-between. People looked and fingered, but she wouldn't let them take things out, not even Harup, who was as tall as she was and a lot stronger. The younger people got bored and sat down and finally I could see Harup poking something with his finger, and the outland girl watching. The she looked at me."

Needless to say, it isn't exactly the universal translator.

So now I'm hot on the trail of another thing that bothers me about sf and fantasy. If you get a secret power or if you find an alien artifact or if you're stuck in on the moon with matches and toothpicks, or whatever the set-up is, those things, those powers, always turn out to be exactly the things or powers you need.

I went to college, and I got a lot of skills. Like focusing a microscope. Not the big electron microscopes but those black ones that you find in High School and in the first couple of years of college. At one time I could prepare slides and focus a microscope like no one you knew. Other people called me over to their lab tables to focus their microscopes. At no point in my life since have I been called upon to focus a microscope, much less save the world with this amazing skill.

Ditto those giant paper flowers, the ones that are two feet across that they sometimes sell tourists in Mexico. And I can do macros in a Word Processing language for Wang word processors, the old mainframe kind where there was a three foot wide hard drive that had to be kept in an air-conditioned room and it still crashed.

None of my myriad of weird college or work skills have ever provided me with more that idle conversation. Not even knowing some Mandarin has ever done me much good. [Tell Mandarin restaurant in Italy story]. Just once I'd like someone to find an alien artifact and have it be just about as useful to them as an arrowhead is to me. I mean, arrowheads are cool, but I've never even so much as fended off a mugger with one.

I think there is a difference between this particular convention and the other ones, though. I think the other ones, that outcasts are special people, for example, are myths we tell to console ourselves. We want the world to be that way. I think that the tendancy to find just the tools that we need and learn the skills that will save the universe are more writerly shorthand. They are an easy way to shape plot. Not a true way, just an easy way.

So in my current novel, my protagonist gets some super-duper-technology-so-advanced-it's-like-magic powers and they are utterly useless. But readers in my writer's workshop keep griping about them. They're the proverbial gun on the wall in act one that everybody expects to be fired in act three. I happen to know that what she got was the explorer's equivalent of one of those kits you keep in the trunk of your car in case you have car trouble--you know, a big sign to put in the window that says HELP and a can of fix-a-flat. When the banditos come out of the forest while you're driving down the Pan American Highway, a can of fix-a-flat isn't going to be all that useful. But she has these language problems and she isn't sure exactly what all this stuff is for... If people like my editor keep complaining about them, I'll have to cut them, so if the novel comes out and there isn't an amazing scene in the first chapter about how Janna gets her powers, well, you know that I couldn't quite pull it off.

Having said all that, I do want to confess that I think of what I write as science fiction. It takes place in the future, for one thing. Joanna Russ has a comment in Towards an Aesthetic of American Fiction where she says, "Criticism of science fiction cannot possibly look like the criticism we are used to. It will -- perforce -- employ an aesthetic in which the elegance, rigorousness, and systematic coherence of explicit ideas is of great importance. It will therefore appear to stray into all sorts of extra-literary fields, metaphysics, politics, philosophy, physics, biology, psychology, topology, mathematics, history, and so on. The relation of foreground and background that we are used to after a century and a half of realism will not obtain. Indeed they may be reversed... What in other fiction would be marvelous will here be merely accurate or plain; what in other fiction would be ordinary or mundane will here be astonishing, complex, wonderful...For example, allusions to the death of God will be trivial jokes, while metaphors involving the differences between telephone switchboards and radio stations will be poignantly tragic. Stories ostensibly about persons will really be about topology. Erotics will be intercranial, mechanical (literally), and moving."

I think the ideas are important in my stories. I am interested in what people consider character-based sf but I would say that I find the background--you know, the settings, like Mars, the eyeball kicks like cups of coffee that heat themselves up when you take the lid off, the society where they have five genders--all that cool stuff, at least as important and as interesting as the foreground--the story and the characters. And background in mainstream fiction is rarely important because it's our background and that background doesn't tell us any more about ourselves in fiction than it does in everyday life.

I don't really write the anti-sf novel, much as I would like to. But I'm afraid that if writers don't constantly examine the genre, it will fossilize and die, so I'm always looking for the unconcious assumption I make and wondering if it shouldn't be pinched or twisted or turned on its head.

The body of this talk will be going up on my Web Pages and if you think of anything after tonight, I'd appreciate it it you'd e-mail me and let me know.

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Maureen F. McHugh (mcq@en.com)