Getting it in proportion

Again from the London Review of Books, John Lanchester warming up for a rave review of [ahem!] George R. R. Martin’s [A] Game of Thrones, etc:

The writer Neal Stephenson, in response to a question about his own fame or lack of it, came up with a usefully precise and clarifying answer:

It helps to put this in perspective by likening me to the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa. It’s true of both the mayor of Des Moines and of me that, out of the world’s population of some six billion people, there are a few hundred thousand who consider us important, and who recognise us by name. In the case of the mayor of Des Moines, that is simply the population of the Des Moines metropolitan area. In my case, it is the approximate number of people who are avid readers of my books. In addition, there might be as many as a million or two who would find my name vaguely familiar if they saw it; the same is probably true of the mayor of Des Moines.

The crucial contributing factor to this condition, which involves being both incredibly, outlandishly famous by serious-writer standards while also being unknown to the general reader, is the fact that Stephenson works in the area of SF and fantasy writing. For reasons I’ve never seen explained or even thoroughly engaged with, there seems to be an unbridgeable crevasse between the SF/fantasy audience and the wider literate public. People who don’t usually read, say, thrillers or military history or popular science will read, say, Gone Girl or Berlin or Bad Pharma. But people who don’t read fantasy just simply, permanently, 100 per cent don’t read fantasy.

Let us meditate thereon.

First of all, there is, at least in Malcolm’s mind, an unbridgeable crevasse between SF and fantasy. They tend to arrive on the same book-stack in many, less salubrious bookshops (who don’t know better). And there is a certain amount of overlap. The differences and distinctions, though, are huge.

Above all, too much ‘fantasy’ is prolix in the extreme. Martin’s ever-expanding saga is currently up to seven tomes, and — probably — as many thousand pages. Life is just too short, unless one is a nerd stuck in a garret with no other time-displacements. On which note, Harry Venning’s ever-pertinent, and delightfully-concise Clare in the Community strip:

Clare in the community: focusing on the essentials


Then, of course, fantasy tends to the dystopian. And that’s where Malcolm is heading away from here.

At its best, SF is precisely-focused. As an exemplar — and in the same context as Neal Stephenson (as will become clearer in a moment) — Malcolm was reminded of Robert A Heinlein’s story, Requiem. This was (as far as Malcolm can see) the third published effort of Heinlein, in Astounding Science Fiction in January 1940. [Wikipedia has a synopsis for newbies.] It is, above all, a statement on what makes us, and our individual existence and its inevitable termination, worthwhile:

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

In the attic of Redfellow Hovel, Stephenson and Stevenson follow from Steinbeck and Sterne. Appropriately so.

Out of Requiem developed the entire Future History sequence. The schema for this was seemingly established by early 1941. The Second Unpleasantness intervened, and Heinlein (with Annapolis and some UCLA education) spent the war working on naval aeronautics — and also recruiting/conscripting Asimov and Lymon Sprague de Camp. What ensued is quite intriguing. Heinlein (along with his third wife, Ginny) was a committed ‘liberal’ and was taking his writing  into ‘social’ SF, and into something more sophisticated than the ‘pulps’ where the genre was born.

What squares the circle here is Stephenson’s involvement with Hieroglyph. Malcolm came across this through a recent article on Slate:

What should we expect from science fiction? In a recent Smithsonian article by IO9’s Annalee Newitz, author Neal Stephenson criticized the dystopian cynicism that currently pervades the genre. Instead he calls a more optimistic, realistic approach—fewer zombies and man’s folly-style catastrophes, more creative inventions and solutions. In the spirit of being constructive, he’s also taking action. The first step is an anthology of optimistic, near-term science fiction, forthcoming from William Morrow in 2014, that will tackle this challenge head-on. Smithsoniandescribes the project, Hieroglyph, as a plan “to rally writers to infuse science fiction with the kind of optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, ‘get big stuff done.’ ”

The seed for Hieroglyph was planted at a Future Tense event in 2011, where Stephenson’s lament about the cynicism of contemporary science fiction drew some fire from Arizona State University president Michael Crow. (ASU is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and the New America Foundation.) “You’re the ones who have been slacking off,” Crow responded, leading to a conversation about how to inspire more constructive writing and thinking about the future.

The upshot was Hieroglyph, as well as an evolving partnership with Arizona State. Full disclosure: I’m working with Stephenson to implement this idea on an institutional level at ASU, where we have unusual opportunities to connect creative thinkers and researchers with cutting-edge work across almost every scientific and humanistic discipline.

october-1945-wireless-world-tocThis takes us to the heart of what good SF should be — and frequently is. So, let’s have the obvious examples:

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C Clarke, as a young RAF radar technician, wrote a letter to Wireless World (which had to pass through RAF scrutiny and censorship) mainly about the future of rocketry, but including a speculation about a world-wide stationary-satellite system. That wasn’t an original idea: Herman Potočnik had published  as early as 1928, but Clarke gave it the ‘oxygen of publicity’ — and the idea was realised through the work of American scientists such as John Robinson Pierce.

Today the ‘Clarke belt’ is getting crowded with something like 200 geostationary satellites.

Isaac Azimov

Azimov anticipated the robotic future with a series of stories, I, Robot, but his Three Laws of Robotics were formulated as early as 1941. All later writers and philosophers have done is apply those Laws — and develop from them.

And so to Stephenson:

My life span encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. At the age of 51—not even old!—I watched on a flat-panel screen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my orbiting, donut-shaped space station? Where’s my fleet of colossal Nova rockets? Where’s my ticket to Mars?

But until recently I have kept my feelings to myself. Who cares that an otherwise fortunate nerd has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled?

Nonetheless, I’ve had a vague feeling of disquiet that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general inability of our society to do Get Big Stuff Done. Those feelings were crystallized by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011. We’re better than this, people.

Which seems as good an approach — to science, to literature, to the Big World we are trashing — as we are likely to get.


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Filed under fiction, Literature, reading

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