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Hard ReadingLearning from Science Fiction$

Tom Shippey

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382615

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382615.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM LIVERPOOL SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.liverpool.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Liverpool University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in LSO for personal use.date: 17 September 2021



SF Authors Really Mean what they Say

(p.121) 7 Introduction
Hard Reading

Tom Shippey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The four authors considered in this chapter are Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of representatives, Kingsley Amis, and (working in collaboration) Harry Harrison, and the author of this book. All four have produced works of alternate history, set in worlds where events took a different turn. It is argued that this sub-genre has very clear rules and sub-rules, well understood by readers and authors of science fiction alike. These rules do not, however, exclude – indeed they encourage and demand – the individual, original and unpredictable. It is argued also that the sub-genre of alternate history exemplifies concepts of literary theory, such as textuality and Derrida’s différance, better than mainstream works on which critics generally focus.

Keywords:   Alternate history, Sub-genre rules, Literary theory, Textuality, Derrida, Différance

This piece was first delivered on 22 March 1996 as the Guest Scholar lecture at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, held every year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The audience consisted mostly of academics, not all of them concerned with science fiction – ‘the fantastic’ is a much bigger category than sf, and includes, besides fantasy, much more ‘canonical’ material like ‘magic realism’. This must serve as my excuse for dragging in definitions of theoretical terms, though of course there was a point in doing so. One of the strange things about too many literary critics is that while they no doubt mean what they say, they do not mean it literally. They proclaim (following both de Saussure and T.S. Eliot) that words have no fixed meaning, but in everyday life they expect to get exactly what they ask for. They are all for diversity and against canonicity, but all too often anything that does not fit the agenda (like sf, not to mention Tolkien) will be written off as ‘not literature’. Challenge authority is the name of the game, but the authority of the liberal, middle-class, haut bourgeois literary profession is sacrosanct, as my colleague John Carey pointed out (see p. 4, above). And so on.

By contrast, sf authors really mean it. They do not think that things have to be the way they are, they are quite sure they are not going to stay that way, they enjoy stepping outside their own habitus and trying to see it from outside. All this means that the definitions of terms like ‘textuality’ and ‘différance’ – drawn up by literary scholars without reference to or awareness of sf – often fit sf much better than mainstream, or canonical, classics. It is one reason why I kept waving things during the 1996 lecture, as indicated in the text here by remarks within square brackets. I understand what is meant by saying ‘everything is a text’, and it is quite easy to demonstrate it, though in sf one would probably say, more accurately and less literarily, ‘everything contains information, if you know how to process it’.

(p.122) Something I did not say in the lecture, but which becomes obvious in the context of this volume, is that the ‘alternate history’ sub-genre clearly relates to the ‘change-the-past’ sub-genre discussed in item 4, above. In ‘alternate history’ the past has been changed, but writers of ‘alternate history’ have taken up a position well towards the plus end of the ‘possibility’ axis of Figure 1, above. They all motivate the change that has taken place by some seemingly trivial or accidental event, or non-event, in the past, which like the points on a railway line has sent history spinning down an ever-diverging track. They may be all over the place as regards the ‘desirability’ axis, however, and this is one of the tricks that Kingsley Amis plays on his readers: the world of Hubert Anvil seems artistically immensely superior to anything we have, as well as much more peaceful and harmonious. Later on in the story the price of it all is betrayed (baffling and upsetting inexperienced sf readers, as explained in detail in item 8, below).

So, ‘change the past’ relates to ‘alternate history’. ‘Alternate history’ further relates to the ‘world-changing invention’ story, as well as the ‘time travel’ story (which has its own further logic and further subdivisions). It is connections like these that make me think that maybe there is some meta-frame or overall structure within sf which could be revealed by the structuralist approach abandoned by critics for the past fifty years. One reason for abandoning it was that it seemed to be robotic, but in sf that is clearly not the case. The ‘alternate history’ sub-genre offers a clear instance of sf authors arguing with each other. If one of them picks x as a change-point, another will think of y. Or if they pick the same change point (several writers ever since Winston Churchill have picked the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War) then they will give different views of what would happen, what would have happened, next (and my uncertainty about which tense to use takes us back to the comments on Qualified Reality in item 3, above). And they take different views about ‘steamboat time’ or the unstoppability of technology.

In fact, as said in this piece, if sf is its own language, it is like a real language: there are set rules of grammar (or we wouldn’t understand each other at all), but there is perfect freedom to invent new words, though there is absolutely no guarantee that they will keep the meaning the inventor intended. Language is both neater and more complicated than non-linguists imagine – and most critics these days are non-linguistic to a shameful degree – and, mutatis mutandis, the same is true of sf. The roboticism here comes from literary theory (see Terry Eagleton’s dehumanising attempt – which, to be fair, he has since abjured – to cut authors down to size and replace them by social forces, as cited below). The late Iain Banks could have told him differently (p.123) (and, no doubt, would have, as you would realise if you had ever met Iain Banks; see his remark, quoted on p. 87, above).

Perhaps I could sum up authorial interactions in sf by saying that while it is communal – cue for long definition of ‘intertextuality’, which I will skip – it is also unpredictable, or, to go back to the French word I keep using in defiance of Gustave Flaubert, imprévisible. If the plot was not unpredictable, there would be no fun in it, but the fun is increased if the unpredictability takes place within the genre frame. And if you do not understand the genre frame, you cannot read the plot at all (see next item!). I should add that I learned an awful lot about all this by working with Harry Harrison, on both the alternate history trilogy mentioned here and his preceding one, the West of Eden sequence. All critics should go to school with an author.