A FEW THOUGHTS ON SF (AFTER A PHD DISSERTATION)

One of my doctoral students, Rafael Miranda, has just passed his viva (or ‘defensa’) after submitting a brilliant doctoral dissertation on cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. I am personally VERY proud to have helped him make such an interesting contribution to the field of Science-Fiction Studies. Particularly because that field is so tiny in Spanish English Studies that you can count the specialists with the fingers of one hand. There’s Pere Gallardo in URV, Ángel Mateos in UCLM, Rocío Carrasco in UHU, myself at UAB… and that’s only the proverbial ‘four cats’!! Of course, outside English, I must mention Fernando Ángel Moreno from UCM, and the names gathered together in the monographic issue published in Quaderns de Filologia (vol XIV, 2009). But that’s about it. I’m not quite sure, but Fernando Ángel might be the only one SF specialist full time. Excuse my ignorance, just in case I’m overlooking someone (Miquel Barceló from UPC, um, yes, but he’s doing something else, not Literary, Film or Cultural Studies).

I love SF. Not all of it, not at any time. Yet, I find myself going back for more, novels preferably, rather than films, which, in my mind, absolutely miss the sheer richness of literary SF. There’s very well written SF (William Gibson’s Neuromancer and many others) and SF which cares more for thrills, gadgets and technoscientific data -or babble- than for literary prose. I realise that, in any case, what draws me to the genre again and again is a) the density of ideas per page; b) the scope by no means limited to just one individual but ambitious enough to encompass whole worlds; c) the pleasure of being taken to my limits both as regards visualisation and my understanding of the impact of science and technology in our world. Those of us who read SF can’t simply understand how the rest copes with the world, ignoring as they do how we’re placed in our mystifying universe and within our fast-evolving technocrazy world. One of Iain M. Banks’ characters, thinking of these deep ontological matters in one of his novels –I forget which one– says that he “gets swim.” So do I, and I love the feeling. Give me a mid-life crisis novel about a middle-class individual and I choke.

I see, however, this is not a feeling easy to transmit. We tend to teach SF covertly, within subjects with unthreatening titles (Short Fiction, Contemporary Novels, War Narrative, Cultural Studies…) because students don’t quite manifest an interest in being taught SF overtly. Or maybe they would if we were bolder. In 2010 Pere Gallardo invited me to teach SF within an MA degree in Tarragona and one of the students told me precisely that: “it’s your collective fault for hiding.” Perhaps the key question is that when you teach Literature, in the general sense of the word, or specific genres, whether they are Victorian Poetry or Post-colonial Indian Fiction, you’re backed up by cultural or literary respectability and also by the idea that you’re doing something socially relevant (I mean here in relation to Post-colonialism). If students encounter difficulties when dealing with the texts, that’s part of the package –they must put up with them. In SF it’s quite the opposite: lacking this cultural respectability, as SF is still considered a silly genre for teen males lacking basic social skills, we can hardly put students through the difficulties of reading any major writer –and believe me, SF is difficult. Greg Egan and Thomas Pynchon are not really that far from each other. I wouldn’t like, either, to end up force-feeding students which is why, in the end, we keep SF for our lonely pleasures, publishing research now and then and trying to keep up with a field that often feels as vast as the universe.

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