HOW MANY LAYERS TO THIS CAKE?: CONSIDERING SF WRITERS

I am spending a good deal of my holidays reading SF, this time not so much at random and for pleasure but, rather, trying to update my (always tottering…) knowledge of the field in a more systematic fashion. Like any other contemporary genre, SF is fast evolving and it’s very hard to grasp which new names and titles are worth reading –it’s actually impossible to keep up to date. Whenever two SF fans meet, we swap reading lists and, yes, I also receive the corresponding bulletins from the SF Site (http://www.sfsite.com/). Still, there is no way around: I have spent long hours reading SF, studying, checking endless database and Wikipedia entries and finally making overlong lists of what I should read asap (thinking also of how to combine my personal interest with the research project on US masculinities I work for, and wondering whether SF is as advanced gender-wise as I hope it is). It’s been GREAT fun, dear students, believe it or not. And there’s SO MUCH MORE to come!

A genre is never completely mapped out and with SF one of the obvious problems is that many writers tend to combine this genre with others, mainly fantasy and horror but also, to my surprise, detective fiction (and children’s fiction). From a Gothic Studies point of view, this should be no surprise, as all these contemporary genres descend from, well, gothic romance. The main awards do distinguish particular novels by genre (clearly, the British Fantasy Award is not the same as the Arthur C. Clarke Award), yet even in that case curious overlappings happen. You might think that because SF is a (so-called) popular genre, sales are the principle on which canonicity (the list of the best) is organised, but this is very wrong. The awards are what matters: the Nebula, the Hugo, the British Science Fiction Award, the Locus Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial, the Philip K. Dick and the Arthur C. Clarke. There are others, of which I am considering for research purposes the James Tiptree jr. Award “to the work of science fiction or fantasy published in one year which best explores or expands gender roles” (www.tiptree.org).

If you check the website World Without End, you will see that the awards, precisely, have been used to establish a list (a canon) of the best SF/Fantasy/Horror writers in English born in the 20th century (yes, all combined) (see: https://www.worldswithoutend.com/authors.asp). It has 62 names: 61 are white, 9 are women, 20 are British and 3 Canadian (the rest American), 5 are dead… They are all also part of the website’s database, which contains exactly 1,115 names (62 is 5’56%). Just take the letter A, as I did, and see how its 49 names defy classification by, let’s say ‘relevance’ to the genre rather than ‘quality’. Yet, check GoodReads or Amazon and you’ll see that a good guesstimate is that perhaps 80% of those names, major or minor, have found a reader willing to leave an opinion. It’s mindboggling. Particularly so if you consider that SF/F/H writers tend to be VERY prolific. Just take patron saint Philip K. Dick and consider: he published 44 novels and 120 stories, a not so uncommon average, and multiply that by, let’s say, 62. Who can claim a command of this field? You need a super-reader, like John Clute, to barely understand what’s going on.

Some thoughts: 1) I know nothing, as usual. 2) The whole scholarly construction of any contemporary literary genre is based on a very superficial collective knowledge of the field (5’56% sounds about right). 3) We cannot understand popular fiction well enough because of the sheer prolificness of the authors. 4) I simply cannot make sense of the market. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (founded 1965), which awards the Nebula, “has over 1,500 members” (http://www.sfwa.org/). The SFWA distinguishes between active members (“Established authors with three qualifying short story sales, one qualifying novel sale, or one professionally produced full-length dramatic script”) and associate members (“Authors with at least one qualifying short story sale”). There’s no expectation, then, that all members are PROFESSIONAL writers. Yet, even so, how can the US market stretch so far?

How many layers are there to this cake? (Please, see the comment sent by Patti to my post of 10-III-2012, on the pulp magazines…)

1844 AND 1902, OR BETWEEN ENGELS AND LONDON: WHAT GOOD IS CAPITALISM?

NOTE: This post was written on 26 July

Preparing for my Victorian Literature subject next semester –in particular for Oliver Twist– I read back-to-back Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (published 1845 in German, 1887 in English) and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1902). Each is a fascinating account of the stay of the author (complete with proletarian disguise in London’s case) among ‘the other half’ as Jacob Riis would put it, or the other ‘nation’ in Benjamin Disraeli’s lexicon. I’ll grant that I have not read these books just to better understand what Dickens fictionalised in Oliver Twist (1838) and then again far more bleakly in Hard Times (1854), but to find some kind of spurious comfort in the idea that rich Victorian Britain failed worse than current poor Spain in protecting her weakest.

Reading Engels’ thorough account of the misery brought about by the first tides of the Industrial Revolution I have a feeling not dissimilar from what I felt when reading Roger Casement’s Congo Diary (1902) and comparing it to Heart of Darkness (1897): I’m quite annoyed that not even the best Victorian fiction was up to the task of representing the horrific reality of the poorest, whether in central England or Africa. It irks me that in Oliver Twist Dickens can so rely on a shameless sentimental plot to save the angelic Oliver from a worse-than-death fate. Likewise, it irks me that Conrad’s prose poem focuses on Kurtz rather than on his victims. Then I pause to think that Dickens, not Engels, has left us the most vivid portrait of the tyrannical abuse that the workhouse system heaped on the poor. Again likewise, Conrad, not Casement gave us the most crushing portrait of colonialist greed. Yet, and this is a big yet, for a moment I’m tempted to simply drop Dickens and teach Engels –not to worry, I’ll just use Engels’ criticism of the workhouse as a bitter side dish.

Jack London was roughly the same age as Engels (around 25) when he reported on the horrors of the East End, where tomorrow the 2012 Olympic Games will finally allow the Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, to chuck out the proles and make room for gentrification. Engels and London, both foreigners curious about the richest empire of their time, found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer squalor they met. Engels was writing at a time when children could still be employed up to 10 hours a day (there was no state-sponsored primary education until 1871); he wonders how far the degradation of human life will go in an England subjected to periodical economic crisis. London visited his namesake city almost 60 years later, at the time of Edward VII’s coronation, to report on the effect of that terrible squalor on subsequent generations. He stresses that this is a prosperous time for Britain; still, the systematic abuse that Engels described prevails with little improvement.

Surely I’m not the first reader to be upset by London’s last chapter, in which he wonders whether “Civilization [has] bettered the lot of man”. He compares the Inuit folk of Alaska, a “very primitive people” who are “healthy, and strong, and happy” except at times of occasional famine with the citizens of London’s East End. His conclusion is that whereas the Inuit suffer only in “bad times” East Enders “suffer from a chronic condition of starvation.” He notes that “each babe (…) is born in debt to the sum of $110. This is because of an artifice called the National Debt,” which rings a bell here in Spain. London is sharp: “Since Civilization has failed to give the average Englishman food and shelter equal to that enjoyed by the Inuit, the question arises: Has Civilization increased the producing power of the average man? If it has not increased man’s producing power, then Civilization cannot stand.”

Indeed, it doesn’t –just replace ‘Civilization’ for ‘Capitalism’ and you’ll see how 110 years later, although the extreme squalor is gone from the streets of Western Europe (at least, I assume so), the same truth stands: not even the richest countries in the world, whether the United States or China, can prevent their poorest citizens from suffering much –indeed, they don’t care. Here in Spain we were satisfied, believing we had managed to strike a happy medium but, sadly, this has proved as delusional as the idea that Victorian Britain got ‘Civilization’ right.