Fantasy and the possible

“Yet the invocation of magic by modern fantasy cannot recapture this fascination, but is condemned by its form to retrace the history of magic’s decay and fall, it’s disappearance from the disenchanted world of prose, the ‘entzauberte Welt’, of capitalism and modern times.”
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The desire called utopia and other science fictions [71]

The major works of serious literary fantasy reflect upon this concept of magic-as-waning (John Crowley, Sheri Tepper, Susanna Clarke, et al.). How can this magic be linked properly to its reserve of power, namely human creative power? This creative power has become alienated, and the dialectic of enlightenment applies here just as much to religion because of fantasy’s secular-thus-literary realm of exploration. Well, it ought to explose, but more often the literary fantasy (or just plain fantasy, the literary mulls things over more profoundly than this) will at least reflect on its own alienation. 

John Crowley is a prime example of this in both his masterpiece Little, Big as well as the Ægypt cycle. Susanna Clarke upsets our expectations by positing a final waxing of magic rather than its disappearance from the world, which emphasises all the more how the magical truly has waned from our world and even our imaginations. It is striking that Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was so acclaimed, but what is even more striking was that its reception seemed always to be accompanied by a note of surprise that this, a book that involved magic, was not hopelessly puerile. We could, this raised-eyebrow subtext suggested, actually enjoy something that wasn’t on the Eastenders end of the realism continuum, yet that was not of the dwarves and unicorns variety. It was becoming acceptable to note that there was indeed a literary fantasy that could be read by those coming from the literary vector rather than the other way round, coming from fantasy but being discerning. Previously it was Borges and Calvino who were in this non-purely-realism citadel (acceptable, as Gore Vidal notes regarding another topic, because they don’t write in English, which we might call the language of instrumental reason), but others have joined them. One would hope, however, that as fantasy became literary, non-discussions as to the artistic merit of previous bastions should really become moot (such that we can say J.R.R. Tolkien was not “snubbed“, he simply didn’t deserve the Nobel). 

If we can reflect on the passing of magic in a fantasy text, is this more than a shallow generic narcissism? Does it point to an intriguing approach whereby the old Freudian idea allows magic to be regarded as wish-fulfillment, rather than having little to do with the “thinking through of the dialectic” that Fredric Jameson is proposing. The alienation of magic has much to do with the alienating power of technology and reason, how these forces of industry and enlightenment are regarded as inhuman, rather than as the ne plus ultra of humanity. We might make a connection here with Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three Laws“:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. 
  2. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This nexus of technology and possibility is left unresolved and unexamined in the realm of magic, and we still put our eggs in the basket of wish fulfillment. That fantasy revists and rehashes the magic-as-waning trope again and again shows that we fundamentally do not understand where we are now, where we have come from, and the fact that imagination is not a diversionary exercise in wish-fulfillment. Fantasy, by its obsessive compulsion to repeat the same ideas again and again is begging somebody to notice it, to see that it matters, that it affected us before, and can again. 

Do androids dream of remarkable things?

One notable difficulty which science fiction – and sci-fi – has is that while it is a discourse of possibility, it makes too few concessions to social reality for it to be regarded as a part of literature as conceived as a liberal art. Literature had become, via grammar and rhetoric, a liberal art in the sense of it being that which the free [Latin: liber] person (man originally) would study. Now it is also something we tend to do in our free time, though the professor of literature spends remarkably little time actually reading literature, and more time keeping up with other responsibilities, with writing about writing (about writing) having become more professionally rewarding than reading. Either way, it is a concern to us as a form via which we can be circumspect about aspects of our existence.

Science fiction is different to speculative fiction or to the fantastic (I think of Calvino’s Cosmicomiche as an example of the latter, perhaps Margaret Atwood falls into the first loose bracketing) in that it is more concerned with being a type of thought experiment, than the fullness of life as is (apparently) found in realism. The most basic description you can give of a classic of science fiction starts with the sentence “Imagine if…”. That goes for hard science-fiction in the line of Tau Zero or Ringworld. These are opportunities to chase after the myriad implications of an event or an idea.

There is then the question of the more nuanced texts, such as those of Philip K. Dick, Sheri S. Tepper, Dan Simmons, Walter Tevis etc. In these examples it is not the idea that is made the master of the form, and there is an interplay between character, setting, and form that makes this field more interesting as literature rather than as “ideas texts”.

There is also that popular realm of Dune and Star Wars, which is (as Voegele notes above) is little more than swords and sorcery at faster than light speeds. Star Trek I would put in a sub-group, as the United Nations and the balance of power at FTL speeds.

What all of these have in common is that the overriding ideology defining the discourse is one of willful elitism. We have an unapologetically aristocratic system (as with Tepper’s Grass; and in all of the positively feudal Dune series, notably with examples such as the priestly ‘Bene Gesserit‘ and the ‘Spacing Guild‘), or a elitism of apparent intellectual entitlement. Even in those examples where we supposedly encounter the underworld (as in much of Dick), there is still yet the idea that they are subject to some powerful capitalist or some cosmic corporation. The reason for this is, according to Fredric Jameson’s excellent Archaeologies of the Future is that all literatures write about now, and that at best the future is a distancing device.

The question becomes, then, why are authors of science fiction so perversely conservative, so reactionary? The objection might be made that the elitism of the ‘scientist as hero’ is but the meritocracy of the universities. Even the Jedi, you could argue, do not exclude people on the basis of sex or species, but only on the basis of ability. Very well and good if that is so, but my question would be a bit distanced from all that. If we consider the bustling, space-faring civilization either on the page or on the screen, more often than not we see things from the heights, from a privileged perspective. An exception might be in Bladerunner, where we are in the muck and mire of a decaying Earth, but the governing principle is still ‘higher = better’. Indeed, in the text on which the film is based, the entire narrative hinges on a consumerist desire for nicer things, a cyborg keeping up with the Joneses.

For me, one of the most frightening examples of this blindness to any kind of social inclusion comes from Star Wars, and the fact that it is the most successful series of science fiction texts in history. It is a sub-genre unto itself. In my view, all six films should not be regarded as the story of princesses and knights, and the turn of Anakin to the Dark Side is irrelevant, for to my mind there is too much grey to be entirely comfortable with a fast distinction between Dark and Light (though that is Sith talk…). That is the history of the industrialists, the war-mongers, the bureaucrats. In my mind, the entire story can be seen in the arc from Jango Fett to ‘the clones’. The reason for this is that within the Galactic Empire, these are the only non-Jedi, non-diplomats we encounter. Basically, from the perspective of anybody who matters, everybody else are just clones: interchangeable, replaceable, expendable. They are us.

In all those shots of busy worlds, where the people look like ants, those tiny dots are us, and they have as much an impact on their lives as does the average North Korean. The giant farms where the clones are grown on Kamino for the empire are not so different from the nightmarish world of The Matrix. The clones are but biological robot soldiers, and there is no notion of them having any autonomy. They are in Kantian terms an abomination, humans designed to be a means, and not an end.

What then, is the alternative to all this? Ursula Le Guin as always presents us with both sides, both the mirror of the world as we know it (as Deleuze’s identity, under which I perhaps perversely also include the other three pillars of reason, namely: opposition, analogy, and resemblance) and that difference that ‘makes a difference’. Examples of this are in the anarcho-utopia in The Dispossessed, as well as the properly alien (though Jameson finds echoes of medieval Muscovy) of The Left Hand of Darkness.

My favourite example of an alternative is in a short story collected in Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man. The story is “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” and concerns the attempts by the underpeople of Smith’s cycle of stories (huge in scope, spanning thousands of years) to get the franchise for themselves. It concerns them as people (though not necessarily human), and relegates the controlling apparatus of the galaxy (aptly named ‘The Instrumentality of Mankind”) to the status of a blocking mechanism. It is but another example of attempts to shut down the opening up of citizenship, of rights as well as obligations, of personhood. These are the ideas informing this short story, but it is the execution of it that elevates this text above most others in this genre, bringing it to a level of literary greatness. The conclusion is as emotionally affecting as Flowers for Algernon, and indeed anything else in science fiction.

For the next stage of science fiction, we need to pass beyond the echoes of big science (as in the 40s and 50s), the counterculture (of the 60s and 70s), of neoconservatism (of the 80s and 90s, v. Cyberpunk), and of globalization (the 90s and 00s). For science fiction to remain an important discourse for examining ideas that confront us here, now, then it must step out from behind its blanket of distance, of cool examination, or of intellectual revenge. We must allow the clones, androids, the cyborgs, the robots, the underpeople to have hearts. This is how we can bring our ideas about technology and the future into contact with the human reality of our lives now.