Dominic Sandbrook speaks to the nation on science fiction. Some reflections, BBC Radio 4, Start the Week 24th September 2014.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
(Ursual Le Guin, speaking at the National Book Awards, 2014)
The latest edition of Start the Week had an intriguing line up of guests: the seminal fiction novelist William Gibson and the less well known Michel Faber both of whose works includes science fiction; the academic Judy Wajcman who has previously written about feminism and technology and whose new book examines the way that capitalism makes technological change a force over people’s lives rather than a straight-forward libratory force; and Dominic.
Dominic struggled to get a word in, although he did initiate one of the more interesting discussions in the programme about the way that technology is sold now is pervasive in a way that it has not been in the past, he only did so by saying the opposite. And typically, this was at the end of the programme and the idea was left hanging like an unfulfilled promise. What is notable is that nearly everything that Dominic said specifically about science fiction was wrong. I will highlight three points he made here.
Science fiction speculates in a way that other forms of fiction cannot.
Dominic’s first mistake was to suggest that it is science fiction’s ability to be speculative that defines it. For example, he argued, it is hard to explore the “what ifs” of gender in a more naturalistic form of literature. Sticking with the example of gender, there is clearly an element of truth in this. Gender is so deeply embedded in our thinking and social practices that to portray alternatives to it is necessarily anti-naturalistic. But it is by no means the case that this is done uniquely in SF. Music hall and burlesque drag is a long-standing form of gender-bending practice, and was one of the more important underpinnings (rather than SF) of the best pop-cultural transgender expression in the early 1970s, The Rocky Horror Show (1973). In English literature it is hard to escape the gender role comedy in Shakespeare, particularly Viola in Twelfth Night. In more recent literature the most notable example of playing with gender is in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928) where her hero changed gender in his/her long life through English history. In part the book was based on Woolf’s (probable) lover Vita Sackville West’s journey around Europe dressed as a man.
Of course, any form of fiction that is realist in content can only show the disruption of gender identities (as Shakespeare does). To show a different set of social relations requires some form of speculative fiction. Some science fiction is speculative, but so is fantasy and any form of fiction that through shifting its setting away from here and now creates an alternative vision of the world. As Judy Wajcman pointed out during this edition of Start the Week, often science fiction fails to create this shift presenting a vision of the future which is the present plus gadgets (I think it is William Gibson who makes the point that it is possible to put a mobile phone into science fiction, but to write about how they transform daily life never happened – Captain Kirk doesn’t text on his communicator while a visibly irritated Scotty is explaining that the dilithium crystals willnae stand it and I wull hae tae quickly prepare tae stairt the infinitive splitting reactor). One only has to look at the stultifying fixed gender relations in the original series of Star Trek to see the unevenness of how alternative futures are imagined. As Ursula Le Guin has pointed out, science fiction stands or falls in the completeness of the alternative worlds it creates.
Science fiction is the new religion.
Tom Sutcliffe, the presenter, sprang a question on Dominic that he struggled with, asking whether the rise of SF was contingent on the decline of religion. This clearly threw Dominic since his answer to most questions is (I paraphrase) “but it has always been like that”. Thus Dominic reacted against Judy Wajcman’s idea that new technology has become dominant in forming self-identity, desire and in shaping our sense of what the future by arguing (wrongly) that this has always been the nature of advertising. Similarly, he asserts that technological change always has unintended consequences, and at all points in history people always see their technology as the last word on modernity. (This last point is highly debatable. Firstly, it is only relatively recently that people have lived through a number of major technological changes and this sense of constant revolution is bound up with modernity. The condition of modernity is not just that more change will happen but that this change may not be altogether good . This is the tension in modernity and modern science fiction).
Dominic struggled to find an answer to the religion and SF question. Eventually, he did through asserting another unchanging truth, that there is always a need for moral guidance and as religion declines, SF has taken up at least some of the need. He thus treats as static what is changing. The decline in religion can be seen in number of ways. For example, it is a decline in the rigid moral orthodoxy that traditional imposes on people. This is replaced with a more flexible moral order with a sense of rationality, and here through refection the individual was expected to reach their own moral conclusions (this being expressed in the rise of Protestantism in part of Europe). The growth of fiction in general (and not SF in particularly) is part of this moral individualism.
The belief that SF can fill the moral void in modern life had been held by some, particularly L. Ron Hubbard who moved from being a second-rate SF novelist to become a first-rate charlatan and new age religious guru of Scientology. Not many SF writers would go with him. Philip K. Dick satirised Hubbard in his short story “The Turning Wheel” wherein fragments of a book by a science fiction novelist, known as Elron Hu from its damaged cover, are taken for religious wonders. The point is that SF (or fiction) are not the new Bible, society and the role of idea and the individual in it have changed (and, as Dick’s story point out, a society would have to be very damaged before it started taking its moral guidance from SF). The point that Tom Sutcliffe was getting at, asking if the promised land shifted from one delivered by prayer to one delivered by the technology presaged in SF, seems to have gone over Dominic’s head.
Estate agents in space
Dominic interjects at one point that no-one’s vision of the future has estate agents in it. This point is just slipped in to suggest that SF does not deal with the prosaic, but it is more evidence of Dominic’s near complete ignorance of the genre. Famously, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the Golgafrincham B Ark is filled with all the people that the other Golgofrincham’s believe are useless, telephone sanitizers, hair dressers and estate agents. “The Marching Morons” by Cyril Kornbluth (1951) is a clumsy satire in which a cryogenically frozen estate agent uses his skills in the future to become a dictator. A more wild imagining comes from James Tiptree, Jr (writing as Racoona Sheldon) in her novella The Screwfly Solution (1977) which has intergalactic attackers described as “real estate agents” clearing Earth of its human inhabitants by unleashing the implicit violence of male sexuality. And the opening line of Rudy Ruccker’s 1994 novel The Hacker And The Ants, Version 2.0 is “Monday morning when I answered the door there were twenty-one new real estate agents there, all in horrible polyester gold jackets.” I am sure the list could go on.
The Last Man at the End of History.
Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the programme came not when the historian was talking about science fiction, but when the science fiction writer commented on history. William Gibson commented that “we constantly reknow the past … History itself is an utterly speculative discipline … The history of our past one hundred years from now will scarcely resemble our idea of the history our past”. In short, as Gibson has previously said “it is harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future”. This is fairly standard postmodern, post-structuralist stuff, that past is unknowable and all we can do is create present-minded constructions of it that are little different to fictions.
These words are no surprise coming from a novelist, their path to understanding is exactly in the creative reimaging of the source material they find around in contemporary life and history. What is more surprising is that Dominic wholeheartedly agreed (“absolutely”). I have long seen Dominic’s history as a form of fiction, taking his current right-wing concerns and creating a narrative of the past around them that has the purpose of settling the reader in their feelings about both current society and its history – like a historicising Jeffery Archer. The point is that the historian has sources (the marks that the past has left behind, on paper, film, in memories) and it is the historian’s job to develop methods to allow a critical dialogue with the past through an interrogation of the source material. Without the concept that there are patterns, generalisations and insights to be gained – in other words there is historical truth to be worked towards – the pursuit of history becomes a highly problematic game that can only be understood as a power-play between different discourses. If it were, I certainly would not choose Dominic’s Daily Mail view of the world. The point would appear to be that this comment suggests that Dominic has chosen his past, and now seeks to construct it. However, the past is not as pliable as some imagine it to be.
There are many other points thrown in by Dominic that could be countered if I had the time. He suggests that HG Wells expressed a fear of science (no, he feared where it would lead in some forms of society, and Judy Wajcman began to pick up the point to the question about technology and how it is developed in the interests of those who are powerful in society, the military or the corporations). Another is that Frankenstein is about robots (although I think that Dominic’s point is that like many more modern robot stories, Frankenstein asks the question about what it is to be human, this is not the point of Frankenstein, it is Frankenstein’s humanity, not his creature’s, that is in doubt).
The problem is not so much that Dominic seems to know very little about science fiction. The problem is that it is damaging the pursuit of history with simplistic answers and one dimensional thinking.
 See Hari Kunzru, “Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’”, The Guardian Saturday 22nd November 2014 (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-le-guin-wizardry-is-artistry-interview-national-book-awards)
 See, for example, the work of Ian Watt, particularly his The Rise of the Novel (1957)