Singularity | Commentary

Hungry for the thrill of encountering an exotic alien culture? You may need to look further than the SF shelves at your local bookstore.

This Space for Advertisement by Lucius Shepard

What first attracted me to science fiction was the prospect of being immersed in a culture that seemed more exotic than my own. When I was a kid, it didn’t take much to put me there — the presence in a book of a word such as “Venus” inspired me to create my own world with scarcely any help from the author, furnishing the planet with selections from the catalogue of monsters and freakish vegetation that I carried in my brain. As I grew older, my imagination reined in by the drab consensus imposed by a public education, I came to require a more expert level of invention in order to be so transported. No problem. The work of Vance, Herbert, Le Guin, Wolfe and others did the trick just fine. Lately, however, I’ve been hard-pressed to find books in the genre that satisfy my need for the sense of otherness I derived from those masters. For me, “sense of wonder” is a concept that necessarily incorporates a richness of cultural detail and/or character. While I’m able to extract a degree of amusement from a contemporary novel in which, say, an immense astronomical object is jacked up, reamed out, and refitted for some cosmically significant purpose, generally speaking these novels are populated by characters with no more personality than styrofoam peanuts, and the idiosyncracies of an alien or futuristic culture, the delicate, small details that persuade the reader he or she has been afforded a view into a breathing world far, far away . . . they have for the most part been supplanted by heavy doses of rubber science and lame political speculation.

But there’s hope . . . for the same quality I once found appealing in science fiction is much easier to find these days in the detective story or police procedural, and in many instances, these novels create a fictive world as compellingly intricate and alien as Wolfe’s Urth or Herbert’s Dune.

For example, in Paul Mann’s policiersThe Monsoon Season, The Ganja Coast, and The Burning Ghats — we are introduced to an India of breathtaking complexity, a world where criminals rule cities within cities, populated by politicians whose machinations put those of the Borgias to shame, streetdwellers who carry corpses for a living, film producers who create sets on which their very lives are played out, deracinated hippies who achieve the ultimate high by allowing a partially milked cobra to bite them on the tongue, all this set against backdrops of tropical billionaire-ish excess and of a vast eccentric underclass influenced by a thousand gods manifesting in surreal urban landscapes worthy of Bosch. Mann’s depiction of India may not be accurate, as one New York Times reviewer has suggested — but who cares? Was Dune “accurate”? Le Guin’s Winter? Or any of the luminous cultures given us by Jack Vance? The fact is, all fiction — indeed, all writing — is a form of fantasy, and thus intrinsically inaccurate. Whether one is speaking about Conrad’s South Pacific, an intellectualized examination of contemporary society by Richard Powers, the books of neo-realists such as Denis Johnson and Don DeLillo, or even the soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture memoirs of Monica Lewinsky, the thing that empowers all these works is the bright particularity of their authors’ vision, and in each case, that vision, in essence, differs from the base matter of reality no more or less than do the visions of Tolkien, Bradbury, and Ballard. No one thinks as do Conrad’s characters, in long, ponderous meditations upon human nature and the dark natural chaos. DeLillo’s America and Ballard’s England have the feel of hallucinations. Vance’s elaborate picaresques have less in common with consensus reality than they do with García Márquez’s fabulist Macondo. Authenticity, when the word is used as relates to fiction, is a function of vision, not accuracy. And by that standard, Paul Mann’s novels are authentic to a fault.

The point of this exercise is not to recommend Mann’s novels to readers of science fiction (which I do wholeheartedly, nonetheless); nor is it to suggest that what leads readers to police procedurals is similar to what has led other readers to science fiction . . . though that is likely the case. My chief intention is to say that what has caused the elevation of certain science fiction novels — whatever their literary worth — into the canon of well-loved books is not their ideas, their scientific marvels, but rather their authenticity, their focusing of vision upon culture for the purpose of setting us, the readers, down amidst the smells and sounds and tastes and sights of a milieu wildly different from the one we know.

None of the illustrious cultures of science fiction have been wholly invented. Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, the esteemed anthropologist, and one can plainly see from her work that she has read two or three ethnographies. Frank Herbert shows in Dune that he was more than a little conversant with Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Travels in Arabia Deserta. Vance spent a good portion of his life in the Merchant Marine, and his brush with various cultures shines out from the core of his work. So, given that in the past science fiction writers have drawn from life to create marvelously detailed otherworldly cultures, and given further that the task of doing the sort of research necessary to this kind of enterprise has been made considerably easier by the advent of the Internet, one wonders why this mode of invention appears to be on the wane.

(Some, I suppose, may here be moved to put forward the names of recent novels that they feel constitute proof contrary to all I’ve said. Quell the impulse. Chances are I’ve read the item, and chances are also, after a brief exposure to its charms, I gave it to my dog to chew.)

Not so long ago, I sat in a theater listening to an audience cheer the explosions in a film that, apart from the quality of its pyrotechnics, was spectacularly inept. It occurred to me then that Cyril Kornbluth’s story, “The Marching Morons,” was without a doubt the most prophetically accurate story in all of science fiction. The culture Kornbluth describes therein, in which the semi-literate masses respond only to things that are bright and loud and devoid of subtlety, is our own. And perhaps that is the ultimate cause of the slippage I perceive in science fiction, and in much else. Perhaps the entropic, self-consuming engine of the culture, the entire ball of shit with its yammering media and a sheeplike populace so generally impaired that it’s been reduced to parroting catchphrases and sound bytes . . . perhaps this process has defined miserable new standards; and writers, lazy beasts by nature, see no reason to exert themselves to surpass them. Now and again, of course, a book appears that does surpass them and is well-received; but all that this may mean is that a few embers of the old fire have not yet been smothered by a lack of artistic oxygen.

If this is the case, as I fear, then I suppose it does no good for me to complain. I and everyone else should just wad up some doughy crud, press it between covers, send it forth to be feasted upon by hordes of Homer Simpson clones who, after chewing and belching, will lift their dull eyes and intone, “Oooh . . . giant aliens!”

All systems fail. Everything fades. Archetypes are reduced to rubble. Lovers become parties to a relationship; wise men become nattering pundits on Larry King and Rivera Live; princesses preen for the cameras and die fleeing from photographers; a leader is brought down not by strong enemies with evil hearts, but by a plump young lady with kneepads; a wave of social Darwinism like the one that has long since inundated the Third World is poised to break upon the American shore.

Things look bad.

But for no reason I can fathom I remain mildly optomistic. I keep telling myself that a good book, now . . . I mean a really, really good book, one that’s vivid, enlivening, an entertainment that takes you somewhere else, away from all the grim reduction that’s swallowing the light, a book that presents you with a wide, elegant avenue down which to wander, peopled by strange creatures both like ourselves and not, the Great Cloud of Being always passing overhead, tea chests the size of Egypt, wildernesses you can hold in the palm of your hand, destiny and the inevitable sadness served up in a thousand heretofore untried flavors, madness that triumphs, the alarming consolation of love, the bitter aftertaste of friends who proved to be merely inconsequential colors one affected during a certain passage of time, the longing of a thief alone in a desert, hearts unused and unwanted, miracles of shadow, wire animals, bread made from stones, the brand new god revealed . . .

Hey, what could it hurt?

In the meantime, seeing as how life still goes on (“I don’t know why,” Dorothy Parker reminds) and the cotton is high and the eagle on the silver dollar hasn’t screamed, why not check out Paul Mann’s The Ganja Coast? It’s a cheap paperback. Cost you a meal at McDonald’s and a couple of afternoons. Passes the time while the apocalyptus blooms. Science fiction it’s not, but hey, what could it hurt?

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Copyright © 1998 by Lucius Shepard and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.