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Instead of Suns, the Earth

Another kind of science fiction

by Christopher Cokinos

Published in the July/August 2010 issue of Orion magazine




IN HIS ACERBIC COLLECTION of essays, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, writer and critic Thomas Disch says that “there can be no question that the rocket ship is the genre’s primary icon. . . . It is an identifier, like the cross or the hammer and sickle, with a single all-encompassing meaning, one that transcends all distinctions of class, taste, or even logic.” The similes Disch chooses are apt, for science fiction’s upward gaze has all the hallmarks of faith, religious or secular. It is a kind of dreamy frontierism in which the Earth is our past, the suns our future. “The Earth is man’s cradle, but one cannot live in the cradle forever,” wrote Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket visionary; the quote is famous among the starry-eyed. Never mind that the metaphor implies that our planet is a piece of furniture and that outer space is somehow as suited for us as the air, water, and land of our home world. The summit to be climbed isn’t the last fourteener in Colorado, but the next planet your “faster than light” (FTL) drive gets you to.

Most people who dismiss science fiction or read it only years ago tend to think the genre begins and ends with such rockets and warp drives, star cruisers and space battles, little green men and bug-eyed monsters—with the implication that the impulse to sally forth and leave the Earth behind is essentially a childish one.

Dreams of spaceflight are at least as old as Lucian, but it was with Jules Verne in the nineteenth century—then emphatically with the rise of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction in the first half of the twentieth century—that spaceflight became the central trope of the genre. Ray guns, atomic knickknacks, creepy aliens, silver-suited damsels, square-jawed, philosophy-spouting men, flat prose, wretched prose, conversations interposed within ridiculous plots in order to convey explanations, usually pseudoscientific in nature, suspensions of disbelief as big as Saturn’s rings, libertarians victorious on a highly mechanized Earth (or Moon or Mars, etc.)—all of this constitutes what contemporary novelist Geoff Ryman calls the “bonfire of the stupidities.” Indeed, Margaret Atwood—who, despite her protestations, has written science fiction —once derided the genre as merely “talking squids in outer space.” Notwithstanding the scientific gloss on which science fiction seems to depend, a great deal of the genre concerns “fantasies about the escape from science—the escape from the subtly nihilistic dominion of reason in the post-Enlightenment West, into a generically unbound Jungian Disneyland . . . ” writes Chris Nakashima-Brown in a recent issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Ad astra per aspera doesn’t seem quite so realistic in that light. But Ryman and others are thinking hard about a science fiction that’s not given over to escape but to imagined likelihoods on an alien and bewildering planet—Earth.

Even during the 1940s and 1950s when pulp science fiction ruled—especially John W. Campbell’s magazine Astounding—there was push-back against the formulas of planetary romances, über-robots, and cold equations. Writers such as Theodore Sturgeon, Philip José Farmer, and Ray Bradbury paid close attention to style and character. Clifford Simak’s science fiction dealt with travel to other realms, artificial intelligence, and a post-apocalyptic Earth, but his quietude and pastoralism still set him apart. For Simak, landscape is present unto itself and nature is not a spur but a balm. “In a thicket down the hill a thrush struck up its evensong and the liquid notes ran like a quieting hand across a drowsing world,” he writes in Time and Again, one of his many works set, at least partly, in rural Millville, Wisconsin. Across the Atlantic, in 1958, the British writer Brian Aldiss opened his first novel, Non-Stop, about a multigenerational interstellar voyage, with an epigraph that reads like something from A Sand County Almanac: “A community which cannot or will not realize how insignificant a part of the universe it occupies is not truly civilized.”

The urge to dispense with the old conventions of science fiction—space opera and bland prose, primarily—reached a fever pitch in the 1960s, when rebellious writers including Disch, Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and others launched the New Wave. Stylistic experimentation became wedded to a harsh skepticism about science and technology. Generally, things loosened up. Ballard focused on “inner space,” feminist writers launched critiques against the blatant misogyny of the field, and ecology became a subject of serious work, as in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Though not a New Wave writer, Ursula Le Guin came into her own in the ’60s and ’70s, and is still amassing a corpus of graceful, thoughtful work that includes The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and, recently, The Telling, among others. And she is a stylist literary readers can appreciate. From her short story “The Good Trip”: “Lenient and sweet in their length are the twilights of a latitude halfway between equator and pole: no tropic monotonies, no arctic absolutes, but a winter of  long shadows and a summer of long dusks: gradations and accommodations of brightness, attenuations of clarity, subtleties and leisures of the light.”

This care with beautiful language, once the concern of only a handful of SF writers, continues to grow within the genre. Ironically, it’s now harder to speak of SF as a unified genre because some work seems to emanate from mainstream literature (Pynchon, DeLillo) while the genre itself, like contemporary American poetry, has splintered into numerous camps. There’s cyberpunk, steampunk, the new space opera, slipstream, the new weird. Against such flashy terms, what chance is there for “mundane science fiction”? Mundane—of the Earth.

In 2004, Geoff Ryman—a writer praised within and without science fiction for such novels as Was and Air: Or, Have Not Have—joined forces with other attendees at the Clarion West writers’ conference to issue the “Mundane Manifesto,” a humorous but pointed diatribe at science fiction’s continuing delusions with faster-than-light travel, time travel, and alien contacts. For the Mundanes, SF belongs on Planet Earth in the not-distant future. It doesn’t belong in the realms of fantasy. The manifesto is a natural outcome of that greener, more humane counterstrain in science fiction working against now-trite (if, at times, entertaining) tropes, a counter-strain in which people and places matter as much as, if not more than, premise, plot, and prediction.

“The Mundanes recognize,” the manifesto begins, “that interstellar travel remains unlikely . . . [and] that magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely. . . . This dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.” In short, the manifesto declares, “the most likely future is one in which we have only ourselves and this planet.”

This is as bluntly stated an ars poetica against science fiction’s dominant meaning as I’ve seen. Ryman and his cadre also launch into a list of banned subjects, including, humorously, “. . . aliens who act like feudal Japanese/American Indians/Tibetan Buddhists/Nazis or who look or behave like human beings except for the latex.”

In other words, the Mundane Manifesto is the ultimate smack-down of the space-rapture crowd. In place of hoary SF wet dreams should be “a new focus on human beings: their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dreams, hopes, and failings. . . . The awakening bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate the beauties of this Earth and its people and what will happen to them in time. . . . An awakening sense of the awesome power of human beings: to protect or even increase their local patrimony . . . or destroy it.”

If, to readers more familiar with nature writing than science fiction, The Mundane Manifesto still sounds mighty anthropocentric, I suppose there are two responses. The first is, yes, it is. The second: mentally italicize those phrases “this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth” and “the beauties of this Earth,” both of which seem drawn straight out of the moral climate that permeates North American and British nature writing. The manifesto’s prose might not sing right there, but Ed Abbey would approve. Such a focus on the Earth, on the near future, on characters inhabiting both, becomes an invitation to see another kind of science fiction, a science fiction that functions more as compass than chimera.

In a 2007 speech before the Boréal science-fiction convention in Montreal, Ryman expanded on the manifesto, saying that “being a Mundane boils down to avoiding the old tropes and sticking closely to what science calls facts. We believe that for most of us, the future is here on Earth . . . why, why the continual desire to escape our beautiful planet?”

That desire to escape—echoing over and over again in vast reams of science fiction—can, along with lots of other aspects of genre convention, turn off conservationists. In the main, science fiction, which posits itself as a literature of the future—and here Ryman borrows from Hannah Arendt—isn’t about the future at all. It’s too often about not growing up in the place where you live. Science fiction, Ryman argues, mostly “does not want to dream of a real future.” Because the real future looks like it might be somewhat shitty.

But it’s a shitty that deserves attention, and in that attention maybe we find ourselves working toward some accord—with each other, with the biosphere. “What,” Ryman asked in his speech, “. . . is so un-wonderful about Earth? What is so unexciting about our future here? Disaster, innovation, climate change, and virtual reality, understanding of our DNA, biocomputers that evolve?” These may strike others as terrifying, not wonderful, but the point remains. We’re here. This is what’s happening. The Earth—human, nonhuman, more-than-human, posthuman—is pretty remarkable. Science fiction can find a footing here and a relevancy. It can ground-truth our present becoming our future.

This change of subject in science fiction is bound up, perhaps surprisingly, in the genre’s relationship to mainstream literary values, in which prose style, character development, metaphor, and the like are brought to bear on “a future in which things really change,” for, as Ryman notes, “literature destroys innocence.” Freed from innocence, he says, we can become more responsible. Much SF has been hack work that tends to cultivate innocence and avoid responsibility because of the emphasis on gee-whiz premises and twisty plots at the center of readers’ values. The more literary SF is, the less irresponsible it might be. And by working within the science fiction genre while still caring about literary values—good description, say, or credible inner lives—writers can avoid turning mundane SF into the kind of arm-waving and finger-pointing that has characterized much of another great literature of ideas: nature writing.

The mundane science fiction that Ryman yearns for exists, but it’s suffered from disrespect from within the genre and neglect from outside. In the battle of Space Science Fiction versus Earth Science Fiction, the commercial winner will likely continue to be the former, but the latter can’t be ignored any longer—and readers of environmental literature concerned with the future of the planet might do well to put down Muir and pick up some science fiction.

Ursula Le Guin is among the best writers today, period, and her work is deeply invested in reimagining how the human and nonhuman helix together. So, for readers of nature writing, she has the double advantage of being a fine stylist and a steward of the Earth. Because her “Hainish” novels are set on other planets and do posit instantaneous communication among worlds, they might not fully fit the definitions of the Mundane Manifesto. But who cares? Even the Manifesto writers said the document should be burned when it was no longer needed. Whenever I hear nature-writing types talk about the lack of “ecofiction,” I think, “Haven’t they read Le Guin?” Goodness knows her work stands, pardon the pun, light-years over such granola didacticism as Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia.

Despite gender portrayals that some might find problematic but which I find accurately reflect a certain type of male-scientist attitude, Gregory Benford’s Timescape makes the list that the Mundanes themselves compiled in pointing to work that hews closely to a geocentric fictional universe of environmental crisis and responsibility. Timescape is among the few novels that rightly have been praised as showing a compelling, precise picture of what working science is really like. Well characterized and sharply set, it’s a good read. The Mundanes point to other writers and works: Philip K. Dick. Orwell’s 1984. William Gibson’s Neuromancer. There are the climate-change novels of Kim Stanley Robinson; Robinson also coedited the 1997 anthology Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias. There was a special mundane SF issue of the magazine Interzone. In a recent issue of Orion, I praised Paolo Bacigalupi’s stunning post-fossil-fuel novel The Wind-Up Girl. There’s Cormac McCarthy’s bleak The Road. There’s Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Darwin’s Radio. There’s Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, and Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, as critic Rich Calvin has pointed out in his take on the mundane movement. Ecoreaders might also turn to George Stewart’s Earth Abides; Wallace Stegner and George Stewart were friends. A canonical work of the New Wave is John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, while the 1990s saw the publication of David Brin’s epic Earth, which reads like a hybrid of James Lovelock, Loren Eiseley, and Michael Crichton, had the last been a liberal. Nature-writing fans of Scott Russell Sanders may not know his novel Terrarium. Domed cities and landscapes are all the rage with Stephen King, Steven Millhauser, and that hilarious mundane ecotext The Simpsons Movie. Stylish, thoughtful films such as Gattaca and Moon fit the Mundane Manifesto’s interest in near-future realism, even if they don’t directly deal with the beauties and heartbreaks of the Earth. For that, one might look at, say, a kind of SF/documentary/unclassifiable masterpiece, French filmmaker Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. And Children of Men, based on a novel by P. D. James, is a heart-wrenching film of a grim, near-future Earth.

So do pick up Le Guin (or Aldiss or Brin) if you think all science fiction is “sci-fi,” the latter being a term of derision. Certainly, in the Earth versus Space argument in science fiction, Le Guin has been on the Earth’s side from the get-go even when her characters are on other planets. For those worlds are not just settings for human technological savvy—for new kinds of rockets, so to speak; they are worlds with many lives that deserve attention, respect, love, and care.

“A telling is not an explaining,” she writes in a novel about the importance of stories in making us gentle and mature. Of course we need both, tellings and explainings, to craft the tomorrow we and the Earth deserve. More and more I suspect we’ll find the most helpful ones in mundane science fiction and less in a nature writing caught in the throes of anger, elegy, and categorical technological denial, which often feels too much like a chosen powerlessness.

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Christopher Cokinos is the author of The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars.

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