Sunday, July 04, 2010

Review: Red Planets

[Mark Bould and China Mieville, editors. Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.]

Discussions of marxism and discussions of science fiction are both at their best, their most interesting, when they come from a place of passion. I'm sure most of the contributors to this book feel both of those passions -- otherwise, why do work in this particular area? Unfortunately, academic discourse excels at absorbing passion and bleaching it out, and that happens in many, though not all, instances in this volume.

Similarly, science fiction and the eclectic body of theory related to social change of which marxism is one element are for me sites of great interest, enjoyment, passion, and reflection. Yet in both cases, I cannot claim an exhaustive or conventional grounding in any kind of 'proper' canon, but rather have wended my own idiosyncratic way through some relevant texts. These things, I think, shape my reaction to the book, such that people less interested or more expert in one, the other, or both areas might have quite different experiences with this book than me.

I had previously been vaguely aware of the existence of lefty-relevant science fiction studies, but knew nothing about it. In that area, the work of a writer named Darko Suvin is foundational, and his definition of science fiction as "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition" with "the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional 'novum' ... validated by cognitive logic" has been very influential [214]. This definition is, as contributor Andrew Milner observes,

also a nicely elitist definition, insofar as it is confined to literature (excluding film and television), but nicely contrarian insofar as it seeks to expand the canon to include something as inherently disreputable as SF. It is simultaneously theoretically rich and respectably radical, delivering from Russian Formalism by way of Brecht and from Bloch out of Gramsci. It is, in short, just want the Doctor of Philosophy ordered. [ibid]

Embodied in this and other definitions, and encoded in much of science fiction studies, seems to be a kind of snotty attitude towards other sorts of genre fiction -- the power of imaginative, speculative play is displaced with the grim intellectuality of "cognitive estrangement" as a basis for articulating why it matters. This volume both recognizes the importance of Suvin's work and much that is derived from it, but also, at least in places, refuses to be limited by it.

After reading this book, I feel like I have a bit better understanding of what has the potential to interest me about theoretical writings on not just science fiction but popular culture more generally. That is, I'm interested in what we can learn about the social world and changing it through doing, reading, and discussing imaginative, synthetic projections rather than strictly analytical ones. And I'm interested about what can be learned about storytelling from theories about the social world. All of this includes an interest in what we can learn via stories about ideologies which organize and obscure the social world, about political choices in social change, and about how the social world could work differently.

In this book, there are a few essays that don't feel like they really do that. I'm thinking particularly of the essays that seem to come out of film studies, which were generally (although not completely) less interesting to me. I did enjoy the glimpse of the cultural environment of the German Weimar Republic between the World Wars, which was provided as context for one of these essays, though its actual analysis of a couple of sci-fi films produced in that environment was less interesting to me. I also felt that the first essay of the book, which was about understanding -- or, really, classifying -- mechanisms of estrangement in science fiction with reference to art history was kind of neat but it did not evoke a particularly engaged flavour of interest in me.

The rest of the essays feel like they touch what interests me when it comes to theory and pop culture, in one way or another, though obviously your mileage will vary depending on your own knowledge and predelictions.

I liked, for instance, William J. Burling's exploration of how art and music are envisioned in post-capitalist societies in the work of Ursula LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson. There were moments where his analysis of how LeGuin missed the mark in The Dispossessed felt more like the kind of cheap gotcha politics I associate with the academy and sectarian grouplets than useful criticism, but I'm not convinced he's wrong -- I have a feeling there is more to it than what he outlines in his theorization of the relationship between the arts and the mode of production, but I haven't been able to articulate quite what, and he makes some important arguments.

I also appreciated Steven Shaviro's examination of the sub-genre of post-Singularity science fiction, a la the work of Ray Kurzweil (which is science fiction even if it gets sold as grounded prediction). This kind of sci-fi story is based on the idea of a moment at which humanity's technological progress results in the crossing of a definitive threshhold after wihch we become postthuman. He argues that this sub-genre is both an example of the ways in which the neoliberal capitalist environment so insidiously turns our every utopian impulse into a product or marketing scheme, while also showing that the better instances of the sub-genre contain within them useful lessons about the dynamics of capital.

Sherryl Vint's use of the work of an author named Cordwainer Smith, of whom I had never heard, to argue for an extension of marxist theory related to alienation, commodification, and species-being to animals was really great. Philip Wegner's discussion of Ken Macleod's Fall Revolution Quarter -- I hadn't heard of him either -- was similarly exciting, though I think I'm less enamoured than Wegner with George Lukacs' idea of Augenblick when it comes to radical interventions in the social world. Similarly, I didn't really get some fairly significant chunks of Darren Jorgensen's contribution, which seeks to reorient science fiction studies around the work of Louis Althusser rather than its current more historical orientation -- I have a feeling like I wouldn't like either side of the '70s debate among marxist theorists his essay revolves around. But I found his assertion that we should read sci-fi not to decode contemporary ideology but as literal suggestions about what change we should try to create to be intriguing, if strange and a little ridiculous. And I would like to read more that follows up on Rob Latham's examination of urban sf in light of the radical geography of David Harvey and others.

I was disappointed that very few of the marxisms on offer seemed to be approaches that explicitly treated relations of gender, racial, sexual, and other oppressions as integral to capital. There was some useful discussion of the colonial origins and outlook of a lot of sci-fi, but that was about it. I know that there has been work on science fiction and these areas, which makes the narrow understanding of marxism embodied in most essays in this book even more discouraging.

The book ends on a good note, though, with a delightful piece by China Mieville. His academic prose has flair and humour, and you can tell it is written by a writer and not a mere technician-of-words. And he -- himself a writer of fantasy that is steeped in ideas of interest to the left -- pushes the Suvinian notion of science fiction to the breaking point and makes an ingenious preliminary case based on a materialist examination of what the "cognition" in "cognitive estrangement" can actually mean for breaking down the sharp and snobby distinction between science fiction and fantasy. I certainly recognize the criticism that lots of fantasy, particularly high fantasy, is politically very reactionary, but I've always felt it doesn't need to be so. As well, I've always loved all three legs of the science fiction/fantasy/horror tripod, but probably have read more fantasy than the other two. And my own sense of why such writing matters, which I need to think a lot more about, is that it has to do not with cognition but with imagination. So I'm enthusiastic that thinkers of the caliber of Mieville are beginning to give more serious consideration to fantasy as well.

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