Thursday, June 07, 2012

Mr. Heinlein was Already Upset about the Communists

I have been reading the New Yorker SF fiction edition this week. Some intriguing stories, but also some one page reminisces from William Gibson, Ray Bradbury (who sadly died yesterday), and Ursula Le Guin among others.

The latter tells of how SF in the 60s was quite a small, and mostly male club. "There were the expectably enormous male egos and also some fiercely conservative opinions, which I hadn't expected among people who were supposed to be looking forward, not back" she said on joing the Science Fiction Writers of America meeting. Having spilt a drink on Mrs. Heinlein's dress she doesn't identify herself as "Mr. Heinlein was already extremely upset about the Communists at the University."

And this is interesting of course, because from this distance it seems that SF is as likely to be a conservative medium as a liberal one. Didn't Iain M. Banks invent his "culture" books because he was fed up of all future societies being right wing and totalitarian? Certainly, Heinlein is not the only one, but probably the worst, when it comes to seeing the future in right wing terms. I still have difficulty agreeing with the view that Starship Troopers (the film) is a satire; Verhoeven has too big a budget and the satire is played too straight for that. But how amazing that a nearly forgotten novel could get "green lit" in Hollywood at all?

Writers who are too politically aligned are often harder to read. I baulked at Heinlein's world in "Stranger in a Strange Land" - there's an uneasy mix of sex and censoriousness - and that was without knowing his politics. Yet "1984" doesn't become a problem when you're aware of Orwell's politics, perhaps because they were themselves not aligned to "party lines." There are plenty of writers who are politically liberally, socially left wing, and yet linguistically conservative (think Carol Ann Duffy or Alan Hollinghurst), though I doubt if there are that many contemporary experimentalists who are "right wing". (But in Britain we've rarely had an intellectual, as opposed to a populist extreme; except, briefly, on the Marxist left - readers of BNP literature or the Daily Worker will not find that much to tax their intellectual capacities.) One of our leading contemporary SF writers, China Mieville, is a political radical, but in Britain there seems quite a disconnect these days between activist and activist thinker. Although perhaps I'm being optimistic; the social democratic middle is the ideal which thinkers are shrinking away from given the disappointments of Tony Blair and Nick Clegg.

Of course, politics is not straightforwardly left-right; I personally find this coalition pretty right wing, yet in some aspects more socially liberal in its first couple of years, than Gordon Brown's Labour party (though that "liberalism" is a veneer that's quickly wearing thin.) If what we again practiced in Libya was a last attempt at "liberal intervention" then it was done with the rhetoric of the right - in British foreign relations there is apparently no other language.

And language is important: as well as ideas. SF at its best is as good as any other literature, but outside of a few outliers isn't necessarily linguistically that inventive. Political ly engaged writers, like the poet Sean Bonney, Tony Harrison going back a bit, or punk provocateur Stewart Home, can also be linguistically interesting. I'm not sure if it is possible to write a politically charged work in a conventional language. If there's outrage in Lanchester's "Capital" it is couched in the language of a Guardian op-ed.

And though all writing is political in some sense, it doesn't necessarily have to be about issues. I'd say Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" is a highly political novel, yet its historical setting makes it difficult to "read" anything into it. Her fascination is not, I feel, with the politics of the time she's writing about, as much as the politics of change. (She's previously written about the French revolution.) Easier to do, of course, looking at the past, rather than the present. As last summer's riots proved, there is both an underbelly of resentment in our society, and an establishment quite as willing as any in the 50s or 60s to throw the book at it. There were quite a few butterflies crushed on wheels in the aftermath; (as well as bad lads given their comeuppance.)

From a perspective of several hundred miles - I sit, nearer to Moscow than Manchester, in Helsinki, writing this - and reading the papers about the Eurozone's crisis, the UK seems both more likely to kick out against injustice, and less able to. History tells us that revolution (or even evolution) requires not just a citizen's will, but an intellectual or middle class. The Iraq war, a conflict that affected us personally hardly at all, a long way, away, has been the only issue in the last dozen years, that has exercised the latter in any number. It is (perhaps thankfully) impossible in the UK to imagine a fringe party gathering enough votes to affect the balance of power.

For a writer then - perhaps its enough to just document or, better still, imagine. That's what SF does after all. For Le Guin and Atwood, SF could make up for some of the compensations of the world they were living in. At the end of Le Guin's piece she tells of writing a story for Playboy, which she had to publish under her initials as the "readers" of that magazine would be frightened by a female byline. It was political enough that she was published there; and even, that Playboy published fiction at all. All kinds of deceptions were being practiced there of course - but it was the sixties, after all.

But a final word from those SF reminisces from Ray Bradbury; writing not long before his death yesterday he reminisces about his grandfather who died when he was five. In his story "The Fire Balloons" "one of the priests was like my grandpa whom I put on Mars to see the lovely balloons again, but this time they Martians, all fired and bright, adrift above a dead sea." The writer who made us remember the importance of books in "Fahrenheit 451" won't be writing any more sadly. RIP, our Martian chronicler.


Art Durkee said...

SF is a very diverse field now, artistically and politically, and LeGuin did her share of making it that way. The number of writers in the field with personally progressive politics has almost always outnumbered those who were openly right-wing, but the important point is that SF is the literature of ideas, and many SF writers have done "if this goes on" social and political speculations in their art that contradict how they personally might vote. Including Heinlein.

As for experimental writing in SF, actually that's what the whole New Wave in the 60s and 70s was about, as encouraged by editors/writers Harlan Ellison in the US and Michael Moorcock in the UK,among others. To say that there is no experimental writing in SF is to have not read much SF, IMHO. Just as not all superficial linguistic play is really experimental, not all things SF can be judged by their surface appearance. There have been about the same percentage of experimental SF writers as in mainstream literature, some of whom have written quite radically into their late careers. Alfred Beater, Samuel R. Delany come to mind. And I'd hardly call LeGuin herself a bland stylist, her apparently plain prose isn't.

Shelley said...

As a writer of historical fiction myself, I was taken by your point that Hilary Mantel's work is relevant not because it is directly related to the politics of our era, but because it's a window into the politics of change.

And that's definitely our time.