This isn’t a manifesto. This is a series of observations in a particular range of time, made on a mode of writing that I love, what on any given day can be called speculative fiction. Manifestos are the literary equivalent of knivings in a dark alley–sharp, fierce, with no hope of reprisal. The Futurists, after all, declared in their own manifesto that “the painting of nudes must be banned for 10 years.” Picasso, a few years later, said (pretty much ending debate on the subject): “When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her arms and limbs.” So much for the Futurists.
Still, an articulation of a movement needs teeth. These are loose clusters of thought, strung somewhere between the aphoristic and the essayistic.
Two quick points: One is that, if you are a neophyte to science fiction and are wondering why I’m bothering with it in the first place, you might want to read my essay Why I Science Fiction: An Apology first. Then go read some science fiction. Then go read this.
Secondly, these petals don’t touch on fantasy. That is its own basket of wool, although sometimes sweaters are knitted with wool from both baskets. (Of course, that metaphor is shot to pieces: SF is only a particularized subset of fantastic literature anyway). I write fiction that incorporates SF, fantasy, or both, but I decided to limit myself to SF with this work, although a lot of it may be applicable to other genres; other ratbastards, no doubt, have their own specific incindiaries regarding fantasy.
We’ll see. By all means, I’m interested in what other people have to say. There is a spectrum of thought on this; after all, other Ratbastards might not have an exactly similar “ideology” (whatever that is), but we’re able to have a collective, broader vision on changing science fiction and fantasy. If we disagree somewhat, that’s fine; we can still write and have a few beers together. People get jumpy around this subject, like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Feel free to do something about it, or not.
I would prefer that you did, of course…
Stories are smarter than us, more clever than us, and they’ll do what they want to our sensibilities.
“Be regular and orderly like a bourgeois, that you may be violent and original in your work.” —Flaubert
chips with that?
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.
trouble: kissing cousins with insight
Although the content of Golden-age storytelling has been largely debunked (vast combines of analysis; inexorable, stifling logic; gee-whiz methodology under the veneer of ‘progress’), this has still been the process used by many writing science fiction. Sure you can have wierd planets, but make sure your writing isn’t too weird. Follow logical conclusions (just like the John Doe scientists of yesteryear) and don’t stray off the path. Hem the imagination. Make sure your characters develop, but only in certain ways. Make sure your plot has pivot points. Don’t rock the boat too much.
But the boat will always rock. Fiction is an artificial construct, not an 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. 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.
gain, cheer, all, tide, brisk
It’s the exact same scientific will to churn out a product that is the whole problem in the first place. A science fiction aesthetic (if that word can even be used) that is only interested in product instead of process has nothing new to say, nothing relevatory to give us, because we live in an era inundated with products jammed down our eyes, throats, and underarms. 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.
and then we will die, because we are short
This isn’t fucking around with “literary” tropes for its own sake, a masturbatory dalliance, as those who hate literary values would propose. 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.
we are transparent
Grappling with confusing material and style provides internal clarity. Overearnestness is one of the least important values for a writer.
Worry more about the how and not the what. Then the real content of the story will come through–what you always wanted to say in the first place, but never knew about.
watch your head
A difficult story, one with a low “threshold,” often teaches the reader how to read it on the fly, through hints, clues, diversion within the text itself, rather than with knowledge of an external canon (the thick book of “what science fiction ought to be”). See the dovecoat. This process can be gentle, playful, volatile, or all three, inviting the reader to improvise meanings, allowing indeterminacies to exit without shoving the story into a small box, and slamming down the lid.
If all tropes of science fiction are laid upon the table, and rearranged, then no single trope can be considered more “sacred” than another. It is only in the relationship of these tropes (and, let us be frank, ideologies) through cogency, force of language and style, and surprise, that a writer produces important SFnal effects. For example, there is nothing sacred about the “sense of wonder.” An author might use a “sense of wonder” as a culture’s euphemism for death. Every other unquestioned “truth” about what science fiction is, or needs to be, must be questioned. In other words, science fiction is needed that questions the very purpose of science fiction. 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.
If I grew up on a farm, I might write a lot of fiction about farm life, because its central metaphors have shaped me in a certain fashion, and either nurture or haunts me. Maybe both. On the other hand, if there isn’t a community to write the best farm stories possible, I might react against these metaphors, and either write about something completely different, or not write at all. Similarly, I did grow up in an environment where science fictional tropes floated around–Star Wars, Yar’s Revenge, Beserker, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. Born in 1973, introverted, in America, this could not be escaped. It’s these tropes, and not science in of itself, that nurtures me and haunts me. Part of me is written in their codes. It’s my version of the farm. However, how many people moved onto other, more satisfying things, because there wasn’t a community of innovation in science fiction? That the tropes themselves seemed so tied to tenets that no longer spoke to why we invite stories into ourselves in the first place?
shore, craft, coxswains
There has been talk about a “next wave” of science fiction. But a wave needs a constant shore, a constant body of water. A wave on a beach-head is going in (mostly) one direction. But we can’t assume we’re on the same shore anymore. What is needed is a more diffuse movement that moves, not towards the center of the genre (as the resuccitation stylings of cyberpunk attempted), but away from it, towards the ratty edges and fringes. Ratbastardism is a part of that. There are probably others. Go ask people.
taut cloth dyed
To quote from Wallace Steven’s “Adagia,” then: “The poet makes silk dresses out of worms.” The science fiction writer’s task can be even more daunting, as she or he often tries to make worms out of silk dresses.
Who will be our cross between Lenny Bruce and Joan of Arc? Who will be our darkness in the darkness?
the realm in the coin
The old saw “Money should flow TO the writer” 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. Often, money and the transfer of capital (with large infrastructures) has expedited this process (in other words, this isn’t an anti-digest magazine rant). But this is becoming less and less the case, which isn’t a bad thing at all. A DIY attitude in publishing, combined with a network of like minded zineish SF and cross-genre publications, small presses, and bigshots sympathetic to progressing the art, can provide a framework of longstanding health in a community of freaks.
Some great science fiction writers–Delany, Tiptree, Cordwainer Smith–have used future-leaning tendencies of experimental syntax itself as an extrapolative element. If we are dealing with an unknown person or “alien”, or a strange matrix of societal relations, then the language itself must bend towards the unknown and strange. This is one of SF’s innate strengths. How sad that it’s used so little. 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.”
We 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 freeverse poem one day and a sonnet the next, depending on subconscious circumstances, mood, and imagistic persuits, so to 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. No matter what mode of story, the science fiction writer should use the unique conceits of the field to envision new ways of reading a story.
“Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire.” —J.G. Ballard.
giddy up, retraction
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 after World War II, and began a slow and inevitable decline. Today, it is practically invisible as a genre. Part of this has to do, of course, with the closing of a literal frontier, but I think it had more to do with the fact that Western writers refused to give up their time-worn formulas. Today, a few pulp writers dog on, battling with decades-old reprints. But elsewhere, authors have been injecting literary values into novels that may or may not be considered Westerns at all, trandescending the commercial constraints of genre. They may work in some recognizable forms, while subverting or even exploding those forms when needed (Larry McMurty, 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 involiate. Clyde Milner stated:
“The modern popular Western, like its early predecessors, views the American West as a golden age which did not allow spiritual or physical weaknesses among the survivors.”
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.
in this corner
Paraphrasing Delany, if science fiction can’t be neatly defined, then there are some properties that can be aptly described.
heap of trouble and pearls
These moves towards the edges will also occur, hopefully, in a literal, geographical sense as well. As globalization decentralizes the traditional matrices of information-sharing, more and more writers from non-Western, non-English speaking cultures will transfigure science fiction. In fact, science fiction has a lexicon and set of tropes perfectly poised to explore the ambiguities of the globalization itself. If translators are up to the task, this might be a crazyquilt groundswell that will revolutionize SF from the ground up. The greatest American poet of the 20th century, after all, was Pablo Neruda. Influenced by Whitman, his own work translated starting in the 50s and 60s into English, he influenced generations of American poets, perhaps more than any poet within the bounds of the U.S. Similarly, great science fiction writers of this century will come from, say, Ghana, or Thailand. Perhaps this is already happening; the diversity in the North American field is slowly beginning to increase. Science fiction needs this cross-fertilization to thrive. People have to be prepared, and excited by, the storytelling differences inherent in these changes.
“Uncommited people don’t hold my interest, period. Now that I have some knowledge, even some readership, I’m hungrier; I don’t want to break bread with the word unless I’m convinced I have something in the mix that bears kneading. And someone to finish off the wine with, who is listening. Who is intent. Who’ll read me the riot act when I shut up.” –-C.D. Wright
To use another example from painting: Titian and the old masters, of course, can teach us things–but we need to process those lessons from the lens of a contemporary, hell, even postcontemporary, idiom. This idiom has to include the fragmentary, jumpcut of our everpresent now-language. The SF writer might not always agree with this fragmentation of genre, might present a case against it. But he or she will have to come to terms with it, and wrestle with it, to create any work of value. Otherwise, we risk making mere jaundiced copies of Titian.
What else do I have to offer? What will happen to me? Once I was on another planet, but that passed, I came home, and I find myself wanting to write about my experiences there. I’m not sure if it would qualify as science fiction, however. I’m not very good at extrapolating what I saw. Instead, I write science fiction because I’m quite pleased with the existence of rats. Let me tell you, there aren’t that many rats on other planets. Their beady eyes and garbage sifting have gotten many of them killed. They love to read implausible autobiographies of imaginary people, and travelogues to cities that never existed.
By the way, I’m scared and overjoyed as I’m writing this, because I’m still learning who I am, really, and I don’t know what this language-vortex of a “mirror on society” called science fiction says to me. I can’t extrapolate it, scientific-method it. I can only offer rough translations, and me, Alan “human being that will die as all animals die” DeNiro, can only offer them to various members of the populace who want the vortex too, to eat the vortex, and then we can all move and be moved somewhere, and I will be lucky and blessed by those who read what I write and gain a little piece of themselves back from the knowledge of our eventual dissipations.
Rats, they understand this. They are desperate and will struggle to take this language onto themselves. Everyone craves what the rats desire, but few understand. When they travel to other planets with the flicker of an eye, I struggle to keep up, especially on planets with no atmosphere whatsoever. Those wily rats.
I’ll keep following them, making loose notes of the terrain, transcribing what cannot be said, except in those secret planes of solitude, landscapes inside of us, where we’re most alone and alive.
Petals of the Rat was originally published in 2001 and represented at Bookspotcentral with Alan Deniro’s permission. All rights remain with the author.