The Dream of the Unified Field

Alan DeNiro

There has been much discussion of late on ways to invigorate science fiction. Many people I have talked to have expressed a malaise in the field, a feeling that something is “not quite right.” The dolor is not something easily pinpointed, especially when concerned with a diverse community of writers and readers. There has also been much discussion of remedy. Many profess that somehow science fiction has lost its way from the “Golden Age,” that the bedrock values of that era has been tainted by experimentalism—a vaguely defined set of literary values, whatever they might be—and that if we all just regressed to a previous state of grace, we’d all be much happier.

Naturally (can you see where this is going?) I believe that a series of evolutionary tendencies in science fiction, as a particular nexus of written literature, need to be further developed, not scaled back, and that this can be helped along by creating some kind of larger, if loose, identity. If science fiction cannot be defined, then—as Delany once said—it can perhaps be described. Or what we want it to be can be described. But before this can happen, the very urge to codify, calcify, and compartmentalize science fiction into a neat little box has to be given up as an adolescent figment.

Creating the sense of a writerly movement is always an active process, never a passive one. Sometimes it’s only when “we declare these truths self-evident” that they become, in fact, self-evident. Attempts at forging collective identity usually involve drawing together writers, themes, and trends that—if not entirely disparate—don’t necessarily have commonalities that leap off the tongue. (It would be overstating the case to call cyberpunk a concoction born out of a zine and an anthology, rather than an aesthetic per se, but not by much.) We’re far past the age of 18th century salons in which a small cadre of upper class ne’er-do-wells with access to elite printing technology can dictate the terms of the game in exclusive fashion. That’s a good thing, and SF is an egalitarian form of literature anyway. So there’s a certain level of skepticism about creating manifesto-like documents. Good. The Futurist painters got burned on this count when they declared that the painting of the nude “should be banned for 10 years.” Now that really worked out well for them.

Still, I think something is underneath the surface. We could call it slipstream, or post-SF. To an extent it doesn’t matter—but then again, the very act of naming creates certain expectations, observations, and articulations.

What must be done next, then? There are two basic tenets, from which all else springs.

First of all, every unquestioned “truth” about what science fiction is, or needs to be, must be relentlessly scrutinized, and then either reinvented or subverted if a particular story calls for it. In other words, science fiction is needed that questions the very purpose of science fiction. (As Marjorie Perloff says with poetry: “At the microlevel, poetic knowledge involves the interrogation of words, images, or metaphors.” And I’ve always believed that science fiction is a peculiar species of poetic knowledge). Out of this seemingly paradoxical act, truly new forms will arrive, forms that we can’t expect or anticipate at this moment, but will be eventually seen as necessary as a blood count.

This is a science fiction not necessarily rooted in scientific extrapolation, that doesn’t even necessarily pay lip service to the cultural assumptions that SF brings to the table. Before the death knell across the countryside is sounded, however, it must be remembered that this isn’t a call for a lack of rigor in writing. It is so easy to write blobby, superficially funky prose that seems experimental, but gives experimentalism a bad name. (There is also the danger of codifying another slipstream “genre.” But creating another genre, another little category, is falling into the same recursive genre trap. What this essay is about is looking for ways to disassemble the very idea of genre.)

Second, it is crucial to understand that stories are smarter than us. They will do what they want to our sensibilities. The problem isn’t bad, putrid fiction anymore—even the most hard-boiled cases of crotch-rocketry disguised as SF make at least perfunctory nods to characterization—as much as the merely competent stories that are good enough to be published, but do not have feck, vision, and grace. The McStories, in other words, teem. Although the content of Golden-age storytelling has been largely debunked (starched-collar analysis; inexorable, stifling logic; gee-whiz methodology flaunting “progress,” an unquestioning belief in science), this has still been the process used by many writing science fiction.

In this context, for a long period of time—despite the contrary examples of such brilliant stylists as Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, and James Tiptree—it has been assumed as orthodoxy that the best style is no style at all. Follow logical conclusions (just like the John Doe scientists of yesteryear) and don’t stray off the path. Hem the fabulist possibilities in the language itself. Make sure your characters develop, but only in certain ways. Make sure your plot has pivot points, has a happy ending. Make sure your character makes a life-altering choice about 500-700 words before the conclusion. Don’t rock the boat too much.

But the boat will always rock. Fiction is an artificial construct, not a rock-riven schematic. The formulas we use to tell the same stories over and over again are like the “serums of wonder” science fiction described with boundless optimism in the past; these formulas cannot save us. They are delusions; at best, useful only as a starting point. The reason that the community of science fiction is fading is that it’s a haven for junkies of these continually injected fictions, similar to the cybernetic dolphin in “Johnny Mnemonic,” roiling inside a sad little tank, hoping for a fix. And that most people have found better things to do with their time.

It’s the exact same will to churn out a product that is the whole problem in the first place. A science fiction aesthetics (if that word can even be used) that is only interested in product instead of process has nothing new to say, nothing revelatory to give us, because we live in an era inundated with products jammed down our eyes and throats. A science fiction based solely on escapism has outlived its usefulness. The commercial spaces, continually encroaching, love people to feed on product, after all. Science fiction’s promise as a subversive literature, only intermittently fulfilled throughout the years, is needed more than ever.

This isn’t fucking around with “literary” tropes for its own sake, a trifling dalliance that will assert a “cocktail party”-lit above everything else. We need different types and modicums of stories for where we’re at now. What matters in writing isn’t what we need to shove into the story (gadgetry, sense of wonder, whatever), but rather what the stories are slipping inside of us; not what we need to say through the stories, but what the stories are saying through us. It is often through grappling with difficult—and even messy—subject matter and narrative techniques that the revelatory can be brought to light in a story. There is also the common fallacy that style is somehow quantifiable, that “too much style” will ruin the broth, so to speak. This becomes code-speak, then, for interesting writing as mere ornamentation, gilding a lily. After all (the argument would go), if a science fiction story is chock full of interesting extrapolations and strong pacing, “being stylistic” would only draw attention away from what a science fiction story is really “about.” But all that we can rely on, as evidence of any great “findings” in science fiction, are the words themselves.

For example, if we are dealing with an unknown person or “alien”, or a strange matrix of societal relations, then the language itself could bend towards the unknown and strange. The common linguistic stylings of classic SF—ensuring that there is no evident style at all—is the ultimate contrived artifice. The seeming absence of a form is the most binding form of all. If one decides to write this way, one must be aware of its artifice. Else, it is used as an ideology. If this happens, elliptical images and syntaxes are somehow seen as being qualitatively “wrong.” Then the McStories enter.

Frankly, science fiction writers who have written ten novels and have “cashed it in,” failing to even try to innovate, bother me less than neophyte, beginning writers who come prepackaged and bland right out of the box. I think that being relatively new myself gives me more, not less, insight into this process, and makes me angrier. And the very fact that I’m angry, by the way, doesn’t mean I’m vindictive, but have hopes that positive signs of change can coalesce into something truly grand.

The problem is one of historicism as well, of moving against the grain from traditional narrative expectations. Hugo Gernsback’s ideas still loom large as the dominant memes of the field. The very first issue of Amazing Stories has emblazoned on the masthead: “Extravagant Fiction Today… Cold Fact Tomorrow.” What has never been fully explained to me, in an almost alchemical sense, is what those dots signify. What process is envisioned as more noble and (most importantly) inevitable than this transformation from fiction to fact? Even those writers who would profess nothing of the sort have to come to a reckoning with this. The “extravagance” that Gernsback notated—the linguistic flights of fancy—are considered raw materials, to be later processed from the metaphysical to the physical. The “coldness” implied by Gernsback has been traditionally its greatest liability for some—and greatest appeal for others. As Ray Davis notes:

That desire for a comfortable familiarity to the game, for the manipulation of worlds and millenia to be as painless as possible, so often climaxing in awe that it skirts spiritual masturbation, can lead to a dismissal of sf as simple power fantasy. Although no branch of fiction can plead innocent to a charge of power-hunger, sf tends to feed the same spurious sense of omniscience as its cousin genre, popular science.

And as M. John Harrison says:

The future’s a discourse. It’s made up, by definition. It isn’t the world…My argument with hard sf nuts has nothing to do with hard vs soft sciences and the way metaphors made from them can “handle” the world: it has to do with sf versus experience. Hard sf isn’t even an act of science: it’s an act of make believe. “Soft” sf just about redeems itself by (a) taking real experience into account and (b) by being a self-admitted commentary on the constructed nature of culture. That’s what writing is about. I can see writing about the cultural phenomenon of futurology. I can see the point of that: although I’d rather write about the constant gallantry of individual human beings facing the problem of their own immediate future. Hard sf is just another fantasy of evasion, trying to borrow authority from genuine acts of science.

For those of us more than content to noodle around in the realm of the metaphysical, then, that other paradigm appears as a daunting, and rather pointless, undertaking if it occurs without critical inquiry of any sort. The “softer” and “warmer” fiction becomes an extrapolation of self, and the self’s interaction with the larger world, in the here-and-now. And again, it’s the lack of most hard SF’s awareness as a discourse—filled to the brim with cultural assumptions—that is problematic. With that awareness comes greater opportunity for texture, nuance, and insight.

It’s important to realize that, in the middle of these somewhat mutable poles, is the large bulk of science fiction produced over the last 75 years: adventure, escapist fiction. Some stories might veer towards one pole or another, but “fun fiction” is the silent majority of the field.

Can there be an aesthetics of fun? And when does escapism become a burdening weight in of itself? I would argue, first, that adventure fiction can be written for good or bane (as with any set of tropes). None of the hallmark qualities of a good story as such are necessarily obviated by the use of certain genre tropes and pacing styles. The proof is always in the pudding. More importantly, though, is the way that escapist fiction—and the sensibilities of a community that seeks to advance this form of writing above all others—co-opts other types of fun. (We can all call it “readerly pleasure” if that would make the whole discussion feel more adult.) That is, work that is viewed as “difficult”—work created that requires sustained, multiple, and even confusing reading strategies—is considered willfully and needlessly incommunicative, even though it might bring more readerly pleasure to the table over the long run. Rather than being taken on its own terms, these works are thought to be writ with a code of obscurity, where (as discussed above) idiosyncratic stylistic choices are seen to be “problematic.” This attempt to deem the parameters of which readerly pleasures ought to be allowed is the equivalent of moving to a single currency, so as to achieve greater market efficiency.

Now, this attempt at monoculture might seem sensible at first glance. Except for the fact that fiction, though it might at times dwell in a market, is not the market itself. It is not a commodity, though it is often commodified. The writers who will endure will always resist the marketing of the mind, and cannot help but subvert this assumption—simply because it is an assumption, and assumptions have already left the field a certain amount of disrepair.

The relationship a “difficult” writer might try to forge with a reader might appear bewildering at first glance. But it is a relationship. The attempt to paint it as a mere exercise in obscuration (with the implied lack, however subtle, of the movement towards the “cold fact of tomorrow”) is missing the boat. Science fiction is a mode of writing that often, but not always, intersects with genre expectations, and in fact existed before the creation of a genre. In the last 5 years or so there has been more of a deliberate (if not organized) attempt to foster motion away from these very expectations.

With this in mind, there is a place for “classically” SF’nal SF. But it can only be a part of the panoply, one more tool for a writer’s toolbox, one that carries the awareness of other possibilities. As an analogy, one couldn’t imagine the 20th century, much less modern painting, without the radical disjunctions of Picasso and his cohorts. Yet such experimentation was never a given. It took fierce vision and courage not to listen to naysayers, not only in the service of new paintings, but to create new relationships between viewer and artist. And yet, when he had gone to the image’s brink with radical cubism, Picasso was capable of creating work of “classical” beauty, works of representational human figures, and so on. But all of his paintings thereon were imbedded with those earlier edges. Just as a poet should be free to write a free-verse poem one day and a sonnet the next, depending on subconscious circumstances, mood, and imagistic pursuits, so too should a science fiction writer feel free to use any form conceivable, traditional or no. The hope should be that in using traditional forms, like Picasso, the writer has been to the edge first. Or uses classically trained values as a starting point, not the endpoint.

Finding little nourishment in the center of the genre, people have begun to make forays to the edges and peripheries, and discovering that it’s quite rewarding. The commonalities that eventually draw us together might not be what we now consider science fiction. New touchstones might be created. (Why can’t there be a slipstream that uses hard sciences? All it takes is a willingness to try.) Creating better-written stories will create better stories.

The genre’s new shape might be less of a centralized state and more of a Hanseatic League, a confederation or constellation of different styles, techniques, and even audiences. This is not quite as scary as it sounds; it’s a different but more realistic model for the way the field is already going. The larger magazines will have the central place at the head of the table, but there will be a lot more activity at the side tables—or better yet, in the kitchen amongst the help. There may not be a Next Wave, implying a stable shore, a body of water, and a singular undertow. There might be lots of little waves. The audiences will be more mutable, but this audience has every potential to grow as well. The decentralization of the genre—accelerated by the Web, easy access to desktop publishing, and maybe print on demand—is both a reflection of larger trends (all sorts of modes of information are decentralizing, after all) and a growing hunger for something different in the field. Or by people who aren’t even in the field, but who are clearly interested in the kind of complex, readerly satisfactions that science fiction can provide. It’s already happening with zines of all sorts burgeoning in the science fiction field during the last 5 years or so by publishing high-quality stuff, taking their publishing models more from indie rock labels than a Silver Age publishing model. And I see stories with rich SF content peppering experimental literary magazines all the time. Writers like Ben Marcus, Colson Whitehead, Rikki Ducornet, and Adam Johnson are living proof that there is not, really, a mainstream—at least not in the way that many genre folk refer to it. There are plenty of writers—published by literary presses—who cleverly disavow the strictures of modern American realism and sincere-lit as well. The fact that the science fiction hegemony, for the most part, denies that these writers even exist is symptomatic of the willful compartmentalization that takes place within the genre.

Either the SFnal audience will rise to the occasion of more complicated fictions, or the tide will go out, leaving all (writers, readers, editors) in its wake. It is a symbiotic relationship between the three. It is not impossible for science fiction to go the way of the Western. The Western as a commercial genre—obsessed with the Frontier as one of its involiate tenets—had reached a point of exhaustion. Shelf space shrank until today, where it is practically invisible. A few pulp writers dog on, but elsewhere the injection of literary values into the Western trandescends the commercial constraints of genre—working in their forms, but cleverly subverting them as well (Larry McCurty, Carol Emshwiller, Cormac McCarthy). And yet, 75 years ago, the existence of the Western as a genre—to writers, readers, and editors, with certain steadfast rules—seemed inviolate. People would always want their cowboys and Indians, right? That didn’t prove to be the case. Substitute, for example, “sense of wonder” with “cowboys and Indians” and you see history repeating itself in 10 or 20 years.

The prime commonality that we share might be the simple willingness to discuss our differences, and a determination to neither wallow in nostalgia nor circle the wagons in fear—if the end goal is to create superb stories. Now, if the end goal is not to create superb stories driven by inner need and vocation, if the end goal is simply to acquire publishing credits for their own sake, to get paid for its own sake, then we are talking about two uses of writing altogether. But I think that there are enough writers in the field who do treat it as a vocation rather than a career—whether or not the checks are coming in. And this allows for an eclectic swath of stories.

The old saw “Money should flow to the writer,” then, is missing the point. The only thing that matters is that the best stories find their ideal audiences. That’s all. That’s all we can hope for as writers, and that’s all an editor can pray for. In the past, money and the transfer of capital with the requisite large infrastructures has expedited this process, and will continue to do so to a certain degree. But this is becoming less and less the case, which isn’t a bad thing at all.

I don’t necessarily think that a Unified Field is in the future; indeed, if there ever was one. Far from siphoning energy away from the genre, I think this attention to the edges can paradoxically give this quirky, necessary mode of writing even more strength, more vitality, more presence in the larger culture’s discourse. Community will become even more important. We will have no choice but to listen to each other. We will have to reach out and trust new audiences, or die. We have to allow stories to have edges that we don’t see, images that we don’t understand but are able to intuit, or die.

Because time is short. We all must think about what this all means in the long run. What does this all matter? All literature hangs in a state of existential suspension; or rather, the “we’re all going to die” clause that’s built into all of our genetic contracts. We like to think that the very act of inscription will provide us with some sort of immortality, but in most cases, it will not be so. Time, our time, is ephemeral.

So why not shoot for the moon? Science fiction writers are taking the extravagant ellipses that Gernsback himself provided, following them into the furthest fields of the unexpected. Into the terra incognita, where there is not necessarily a destination at all: no center, no single canon. In this constant flux, though it may appear terrifying at times, are small moments of unexpected redemption. The dream of the unified field can be put to rest. The ellipses can veer off the safe, straight lines to—well, who knows?


Alan DeNiro’s fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Fence, and elsewhere, and has been shortlisted for the O. Henry Award. He is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi, and is a correspondent for the weblog Ptarmigan. He is a member of the writers’ co-op the Ratbastards, which released their first chapbook, Rabid Transit, in May.

Copyright © 2003 by Alan DeNiro.