The notion that contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance for us because it talks of the Internet or supermodels or familiar brand names is ridiculous. We can see ourselves reflected more clearly in Balzac's Parisians than in a modern American who goes into raptures when his daughter says "Toyota Celica" in her sleep.
I'm going to be quoting a great deal from Meyers's excellent essay (even better in its full-length book-sized incarnation) in the near future, but I wanted to start with this particular snippet.
"Relevance" is a buzzword, and I sincerely wish it wasn't. When we say this or that work of fiction is "relevant", we typically leave off the phrase to our lives as they are now or something of that ilk. We tend to think of Gravity's Rainbow or better yet something like Charles Stross's Rule 34 as "relevant" because they are about things that are immediate or of our current moment in time. It's reassuring to read fiction (or anything at all, really) that understands what kind of world we currently live in and makes some attempt to address its vagaries and difficulties.
This is a valuable impulse to serve as the underpinning for any book. What it comes at the expense of, all too often, is some sense that a story can convey the feeling of the world being larger than the reader's moment in time and space. All that Brat Pack fiction of the Eighties (McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, etc.) was quite obviously a product of its sophisticated urban environment, but it hasn't aged well, and today it just seems narrow and provincial instead of incisive or revelatory.
SF&F almost always start from the built-in premise that we are reading about Something Else, Somewhere Else. (The fact that the world of David Copperfield is not our time or place is a positive by-product of the book's existence, even if not one of its explicit goals.) That gives it a head start in terms of being unchained from the moment, of being able to see beyond and above. But it all too often falls right back into the here and now by dint of who wrote it, under what circumstances, and for what audience. The best SF ameliorates this or makes it irrelevant: we don't particularly care that the technology and science in The Foundation Trilogy are downright quaint by today's standard, because of the era of its production and the fact that there's so much else good about the story.
That said, it's hard to get to that point. Whenever I read SF that invokes ideas of what the Internet will be in a few years or some other 20-minutes-into-the-future conceit, the vast majority of the time I feel I am reading something that passed its sell-by date in the conceptual phase. This disdain typically takes the form of two questions:
- How is this not going to seem horribly dated in a few years? More to the point, what's to keep it from seeming dated right now?
- Why is there no one in this story worth giving a damn about?
The second problem, as you can guess, exacerbates the effects of the first. If you think you have a great idea, it becomes easier to let the halo of that idea crowd out everything else in the story. I've mentioned before that Asimov has been panned for his thin characters, but hell, at least his characters have a Dickensian energy that makes them worth hanging around for.
It's possible to knock the first question for being besides the point. If a story is written to address some present, pressing issue, one should not deride the author for not creating a timeless masterpiece, etc. Fine. But that in itself is a reflection of where the goals really lie in such work. If we aim low, we hit low, and it becomes harder to understand why aiming high reaps such rewards. I can no more pan Stross for writing Rule 34 than I can slam, say, Harriet Beecher Stowe for writing Uncle Tom's Cabin (not that I'm paralleling the two works directly), but I also can't ignore how it seems a sin against the very talents of SF to use it mostly as a way to jab at things that are too much of the moment. I'm reminded of one of my central problems with Firefly: why go that far into the future, just to recapitulate all the dead clichés of oat operas?
A contradiction seems to be presenting itself. On the one hand, I speak constantly of how any work cannot be written except as a product of its moment in time and space. We are doomed to create nowhere but in the here and now. On the other, I invoke — and celebrate — its ability to provide the reader with a sense of their universe being larger than the moment they are trapped in and the spaces they are forced to navigate. Both the past and the future are part of such a process. When I read Dom Casmurro or Wolf Among Wolves, other times and places come alive, if only briefly or in varying levels of detail. (The Brazil of the former is less vividly and meticulously depicted than the Germany of the latter, but that does not mean the first book is a failure. They aim for different things.)
What I want more than anything else from SF&F is not just to escape, not just to see something new, but to feel as if I have escaped into and among the company of others who are genuinely worth my time, who can make my experience of the new all the more resonant and meaningful.
Tags: B.R. Meyers Bret Easton Ellis Charles Dickens Charles Stross Flight of the Vajra Hans Fallada Harriet Beecher Stowe Isaac Asimov Jay McInerney literature Machado De Assis science fiction Thomas Pynchon writing