BEING THE OTHER, THE OTHER BEING: MASCULINE INSECURITIES IN MATTHEW HAIG’S THE HUMANS AND BLAKE CROUCH’S DARK MATTER

This is the ten-minute talk I gave last week at the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, of which I spoke in my last post. Since we had been given such a short time, I used no secondary sources and focused directly on the two novels I discuss. I was a bit nervous that the paper would seem too informal but nobody complained. So, here it is, with a warning about spoilers.

The exploration of gender in science fiction mostly focuses on women and the LGTBI collective, overlooking heterosexual masculinity, even though most authors have that identity. I consider here what men’s recent science fiction says about this type of masculinity from a critical position informed by Masculinities Studies, though I’ll leave my theoretical framework aside because of time constraints. My focus are two novels set in the present: The Humans (of 2013) by English author Matthew Haig, and Dark Matter (of 2016) by American novelist Blake Crouch. Haig’s novel is a satire and Crouch’s a thriller but, despite their differences, both address a key issue for contemporary masculinity, namely, how to successfully combine the demands of an ambitious career with a pro-feminist family life.

These novels could be Gothic horror about the wife and teen son who gradually realize their husband and father is a stranger. Yet, both are first person narrations that use science fiction (in a light vein) to portray a male individual who needs to understand how men function in the contemporary world. In Haig’s novel, a nameless alien learns to be a caring human man by rejecting the behaviour of the uncaring workaholic it replaces. The family man in Crouch’s novel must defend his well-balanced masculinity from the assault by another uncaring workaholic, his own doppelgänger. Alien and family man have little in common but the authors’ message is similar. Both use science fiction to endorse a positive masculine model, focused on caring for women and children. Neither author explains, though, why a happy family life should involve sacrificing personal careers. In each case, the birth of a son transforms the lives of at least one parent into a less publicly rewarding existence. Arguably, both novels resist above all the impact of parenting on personal life.

In each novel, there is a talented woman who has chosen motherhood over her career but the situation of the husband, both gifted scientists, is different. In The Humans top Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin is a selfish career man, and a disappointing husband and father, who cheats on his wife Isobel and lacks any empathy for his literally suicidal teen son Gulliver. In Dark Matter, Chicago physicist Jason Dessen is a happy family man, in love with his wife Daniela and in syntony with their son Charlie, unconcerned by having ditched his promising career. Each from their angle, Haig and Crouch are very critical of the workaholic career model that makes family life dysfunctional (or impossible) and that relegates women to a supporting role. In The Humans, workaholic Martin is killed when the alien narrator snatches his body. In Dark Matter Jason2, the doppelgänger, is dispatched for stealing Jason’s family life. In his gentle satire, Haig hints that an alien could be a better English family man than a human male, whereas Crouch has his happy American family man kill in a vicious way the workaholic he might have been.

Neither Haig nor Crouch, however, imagine their scientific male geniuses, for this is what Martin and Dessen are, combining their professions with a rich family life. For both, the arrival of a child at an early stage in their careers is a major crisis which forces them and their partners to make crucial choices. Andrew’s wife Isobel abandons her career as a historian to be a mother and to support her husband’s career, later taking up teaching. The unexpected pregnancy of Jason’s girlfriend Daniela makes them abandon their dream careers –hers as an artist, his in quantum physics–to become teachers, too. When each novel begins, the two couples are in their early forties and have been in their relationships for long: 20 years in Andrew and Isobel’s case, 15 in Jason and Daniela’s case. The novels narrate, then, a sort of mid-life crisis.

To give some more detail, Haig’s novel narrates the efforts of a Vonnadorian sent to Earth to stop Professor Martin from announcing his resolution of the Riemann Hypothesis, as this would fast-forward human progress in ways the aliens mistrust. Martin’s identity is wiped out and his body occupied by the nameless alien, who cannot easily adapt to his new life. The professor’s new oddball behaviour is, of course, attributed to a breakdown caused by overworking. On its side, the body-snatcher resists its orders to kill all who might know of Martin’s mathematical breakthrough. The alien refuses to kill Isobel and Gulliver, though he does murder the rival to whom a boastful Martin communicates his discovery. Taking a look at the many certificates of distinction in this man’s office, the alien feels “thankful to come from a place where personal success was meaningless” (89).

As the alien starts valuing Isobel and Gulliver, it discovers that Martin was totally focused on his career, that his wife was unhappy but unable to divorce him, and that Gulliver cannot cope with being the son of a genius. Enjoying the pleasures of caring for the boy and of being cared for by Isobel (since in its genderless home planet, family and love do not exist), the alien decided to become fully human. The attack of a second murderous alien, however, forces the alien to disclose its real identity. Gulliver takes the revelation well, even with relief. As the alien writes, there was no sentimental scene but the boy “seemed to accept me as an extraterrestrial life form far more easily than he had accepted me as a father” (264). Isobel, though, is shattered by the loss of her new happy family life. After this episode, Haig sends the alien abroad, still posing as Martin. But, being comedy, The Humans ends happily. When Gulliver invites his fake Dad back home, claiming that Isobel misses their life, the alien asks whether she misses the original or the alien Martin. “You,” Gulliver replies. “You’re the one who looked after us” (289). No more is needed.

In Dark Matter, Jason2 comes from the universe where Jason rejected fatherhood, and Daniela aborted. He built there the box that gives access to the multiverse. Successful but lonely, Jason2 starts seeking the life that Jason and Daniela enjoy with Charlie. As Jason comments, “If I represent the pinnacle of family success for all the Jason Dessens, Jason2 represents the professional and creative apex. We’re opposite poles of the same man, and I suppose it isn’t a coincidence that Jason2 sought out my life from the infinite possibilities available” (265). Jason2 kidnaps Jason and, wrongly assuming he will be thrilled to take his place as a single career man, swaps lives with him. In fact, Jason is shattered and only uses the box to get back home and terminate his usurper. Daniela and Charlie take Jason’s eventual revelation that they have been living (for a month) with Jason2 just with mild puzzlement. Yet, despite the reassurances of wife and son that Jason2 was not better than him, a certain doubt lingers. Since Jason’s family never really distrusts this other man (Daniela is, in fact, thrilled with their renewed passion), it appears that Jason is replaceable. Jason is robbed of his life but Jason2 is, on the whole, a good enough replacement, as if Jason’s roles as husband and father were just performances and not an expression of a deeply-felt identity.

To sum up, Haig and Crouch use science fiction to reject the workaholic male genius who refuses to be a good family man. Martin is flippantly replaced by an alien who is better at performing human masculinity than he ever was. As for Jason, by killing Jason2 he eliminates his workaholic self and regains his lost happy family life. Crouch, though, cannot wholly erase the impression that this man is replaceable because he can never prove that Jason is unique. Ultimately, whether a man is selfish or caring, his choices may make him vulnerable. In Haig’s and Crouch’s novels, the ‘other being’ embodies the choices not taken and men’s struggle to combine professional ambition and rewarding family life. It is, therefore, important to highlight science fiction’s contribution to the discussion of these male anxieties. I hope you agree!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IS SCIENCE FICTION RESPONSIBLE FOR IMAGINING THE FUTURE? POSSIBLY…

I’ve been attending these days in fits and starts the Science Fiction Research Association’s international conference, conditioned by the six-hour difference with Toronto, where the hosting institution (Seneca College) is located. Fifteen months into the pandemic I needn’t say how impossible it is to listen to anybody speak on Zoom, or similar, without either multitasking or disconnecting after five minutes. I may doodle like I’m possessed when I listen to papers delivered in person, but it is just beyond me to get used to streaming. I pity our poor students! And, no, unlike what you might expect, science-fiction conferences do not happen in an advanced virtual reality environment where we can project our ultra-realistic yet fantastic avatars, as if this were Ready Player One’s immersive universe OASIS. At most, you get funny backgrounds. A keynote speaker had chosen, for mysterious reasons, a gorgeous photo of a process of in vitro fecundation. Another was floating in outer space.

The main theme of the conference has been ‘The Future as/of Inequality’, so you can be sure that there has been much talk of class (in my case of middle-class men’s fears of not doing well as family men). Even so, I would say that the main keywords, or buzzwords, in the sessions I have attended were ‘race’ and ‘dystopia’. I wish the papers had dealt with how utopia will be reached in a post-racial future civilization, but most dealt with the extension into a long-lasting dystopia of the same racial issues negatively affecting so many people today. The number of authors and main characters other than white has grown spectacularly in recent science fiction, but many (or even most) are battling conflicts so deeply rooted in current racism that no utopian horizon is emerging for anyone of any skin colour.

The most interesting panel I attended had contributions by two of the most admirable scholars in science fiction (yes, I said admirable because I admire them): Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. This came after the keynote lecture by Lars Schmeink in which he described the connections between the current theorization of capitalism–such as surveillance capitalism, the concept popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her eponymous book, and others, such as Susan Lettow’s biocapitalism–and current science fiction. I had a feeling of déjà vu, having heard plenty in the 1980s about how corporations might replace nations in the 21st century as de jure and de facto global organizations. William Gibson ranted all he wanted in his cyberpunk novels about the boundless power of zaibatsus, when it seemed that Japan would soon dominate the world (whatever happened to Japan?). And if I recall correctly, in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) the characters’ citizenship was granted by the corporations they worked for (as if I were an Autonomous University citizen rather than a citizen of the Spanish kingdom). But back to Bould and Vint: they discussed whether science fiction should and could operate beyond capitalism both in its means of production and the content of the stories. Their views were similar yet quite different. You’ll see.

There is something definitely hypocritical, I think, in telling tales of corporate dystopia while being published or broadcast by immense corporations. As Mark Bould insisted, science fiction should be free of commodification in order to be a true contributor to a future which could imagine life beyond corporate dystopia. Schmeink quoted Ursula Le Guin’s famous saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words”. This optimistic view appears to agree with Bould’s faith in science fiction but, of course, Le Guin does not explain how ‘the art of words’ can undermine the corporate monster from inside. We know that capitalism, in fact, can turn anything into a commodity, including resistance (the first example that has come to my mind is the fortune someone must have made selling t-shirts with the photo of Che Guevara).

Bould suggested something along the lines of perhaps turning science fiction into a kind of “collective folk art” as, to name an instance, ballads once were. Bould, who co-edited with British author China Miéville the volume Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), is surely aware of Miéville’s alternative proposal that authors are paid a salary by the state, which has always raised many eyebrows but seems fairer than having another job as you produce fiction in hippie-folkish (or Elizabethan aristo) style. Being myself an author paid by the Spanish state to write (also to teach, of course), I see Miéville’s point–though I wonder how authors would be selected, and if writing science fiction would be considered a merit. Anyway, Bould complained that “science fiction is everywhere but not evenly distributed” and called for an end to its commodification. My view, however, is that this goal is as difficult as making academic work truly open access, and not yet another corporate product (or what did you think it is?).

Sherryl Vint’s argumentation was more anti-corporation in the sense that she not only questioned how corporations force everything, including sf, to be commodified, but also how the nightmarish world that corporations have created has colonized sf’s imagination of the future and also our present. Her main target were the white, male, US billionaires whose visions of an ultra-monetized future we are all following like sheep to the slaughter, and how they are presenting those visions not as the opposite of the future science fiction has imagined but as its realization. To give you an example, Elon Musk is selling Neuralink–a project to connect human brains to computers–as the realization of Iain M. Banks’s neural laces in the Culture novels, calling himself a fan. Conveniently, though, Musk forgets that the Culture is a post-capitalist, post-scarcity civilization where guys like him would be socially ostracized. So, yes, I’m with Sherryl Vint in this urgent need to vehemently deny that the future to which Musk and company are dragging us is a utopian science-fictional future, and the only possible one. We must “resist the occupation of sf by all these corporations and alt-right groups”, she said, and reject all the “bad forms of using sf”. These are, I believe, dominant in the stylish but trashy sf served by the streaming platforms, cinema and videogames (less so in print fiction), overwhelmingly at the service of convincing earthlings that despite the unstoppable onslaught of climate change and other man-made disasters they must buy the latest i-phone and change their gas-powered car for a Tesla.

I have already expressed here several times that as academics we can contribute to altering the path of science fiction by writing about the works that promote positive change, and eschew the dystopian texts. I am, however, in a minority of one (or of very few), and run besides the risk of having nothing to write about if the sf I am reading and seeing these days continues in this dystopian vein. As plain consumers and as academics we can make demands on writers, showrunners, filmmakers and videogame designers to move beyond the ‘strong-hero-battles-corporation’ scenario, as we are managing to get better gender and racial inclusiveness. I’m sure that corporations are to blame a great deal for their insistence on destroying the planet as they sell us parasitical, useless objects and services but each of us contributes their share. Including myself. For instance, have spent this morning twenty euros to buy from Amazon Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry of the Future, hypocritically ignoring that this contributes more to enriching Jeff Bezos than to furthering Robinson’s crusade for utopia (I don’t think, however, that Robinson would appreciate the idea of sf as a folk product).

I am working on something completely unrelated to sf, connected with recent American politics, and listening yesterday to Senator Cory Booker speak to Jimmy Kimmel, I realized what we’re missing and this man has in great quantities: positivity. Someone commented on YouTube that listening to Booker and to Donald Trump made you wonder how they could belong to the same species. Well, Trump is a main generator of dystopia whereas Booker has made a point of turning his personal sunniness into positive politics aimed at increasing US citizens’ welfare. I am not saying that Booker should write science fiction (or perhaps he should!): what I am saying is that science fiction has lost all its optimism and that generally speaking optimism is defended by very few (like Booker). Because of this science fiction is now an almost useless tool to fashion not only utopia but even a workable plan for the next decade. Hearing my twelve-year-old niece say recently that she does not want to have children because she herself has a very difficult future ahead breaks my heart. I wish I could tell her ‘don’t be silly, your future will be great!’ (I would never tell anyone ‘do have children’, that’s their choice!) but I just cannot illustrate this promise with any text, science fictional or otherwise. We seem to have lost in the attack against the false universalism of traditional sf the ability to build new worlds without inequality.

I’ll finish with a remark someone made in the conference: the problem is that we, middle-aged white baby boomers, do not want to give up our privileges and share our wealth with other generations and other nations. This is not a new discourse, but I was dismayed to hear it in a science-fiction conference because it is divisive and because Earth has resources to make everyone’s lives better, if only we get rid of the billionaires. I don’t mean killing them and using them for compost, as someone’s bad joke went, but putting a cap to personal earnings. One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that without the incentive of making money individuals do not exert their best talents–the defunct Soviet Union is often quoted as an example of how lack of personal gain-based initiative undermines nations. Yet, as long as the world is run by a cadre of billionaires (American or Chinese, I don’t care) and their corporations the future will be dominated by inequality. As for Le Guin’s words, someone did imagine what the future would be like without the absolute right of kings, but the problem is that we cannot imagine, having horrendously failed with communism, what will replace capitalism. She suggested smaller, rural communities with limited technology based on mutual aid, but I don’t quite see that. I see full automation generating income that guarantees universal freedom from the worst kind of jobs–but that for many is dystopia.

Let’s ask science-fiction writers to come up with new ideas, and help them to rethink the future. It is our duty, as much as theirs.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE FEMINISATION OF LITERARY FICTION: IS IT HAPPENING?

I am reacting here to an article by Johanna Thomas-Corr, published on 16 May in The Guardian: “How Women Conquered the World of Fiction”. The arguments, as you will see, are not 100% new, but they are worth considering (again). The subtitle, by the way, reads “From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?” The keywords ‘buzz, prizes and bestsellers’ reveal that Thomas-Corr is not quite interested in quality but in the public visibility of new authors and novels. The concept ‘literary zeitgeist’, it must be noted, does not refer to genre fiction but exclusively to literary fiction, which is the focus of the article. Incidentally, Thomas-Corr does mention at the end of the piece a longish list of exciting, new male writers. Call me dirty-minded but I very much suspect that her ultimate aim is promoting them (or echoing their promotion by their respective publishing houses).

The main question that Thomas-Corr examines is whether “Men–and especially young men–are being shut out of an industry that is blind to its own prejudices”, meaning that said publishing industry is not treating male writers with the same care it is investing in female writers. The secondary question she examines is whether, in fact, fewer young male writers are currently writing literary fiction. Flippantly, the journalist writes that “Whenever I speak to men in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most tell me they couldn’t give a toss about fiction, especially literary fiction. They have video games, YouTube, nonfiction, podcasts, magazines, Netflix”. I myself am a big fan of non-fiction and fail to see why this genre—in my view far superior in interest to today’s literary fiction—is dismissed like that; besides, my impression is that nonfiction is a very egalitarian genre, with a paritary representation of men and women authors (and readers). I do not dispute that young men read less literary fiction than in the past, and less of everything else than in the past, but I do dispute that what they read is not worth considering as quality writing—particularly in view of how genres that interest women, such as romance, are treated.

But, back to the journalist’s argumentation: young men read less literary fiction, which also means they write fewer books in that genre, and, anyway, when they do write them, their novels are not received with the same eagerness as the novels by young women. The reasons for this, the article claims, are that there is an increasing number of women in key positions in the publishing world, as editors and agents, and that women readers seemingly prefer women authors, which is creating a snowball effect. The more you connect women with literary fiction at all levels, the less men are present in it at all levels. This, of course, is disputed by the many male readers commenting on Thomas-Corr’s article and I am certainly convinced that the number of male readers who avoid women’s writing for misogynistic reasons, or basic lack of interest, has been diminishing constantly. In fact, the issue that Thomas-Corr raises is not problematic in genres such as detective fiction, which is written (and devoured) by absolutely everybody. I do have myself some misgivings that, as Thomas-Carr suggests, men are also giving up in fantasy and science fiction, but I don’t mean that they are writing less—I mean that they are giving up on getting the buzz, the media coverage, the awards, seeing that now all that attention is going to women, partly for the novelty of what they are doing, and also because women’s writing is today, in all fronts, far more self-confident than men’s.

The reasons for that lack of self-confidence are not a great mystery. The ‘big beasts’, as Thomas-Corr calls them of the 80s and 90s—“Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro et al in the UK and Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow in the US”—are writers whose candid explorations of the less wholesome aspects of the male soul and body are far less welcome today. I was a young woman who read many books by Roth with great admiration, and an older woman who until recently believed he had been robbed of the Nobel Prize, but I have changed my mind. I am not dismissing at all these writers’ collective effort to rescue the Anglophone novel from the depressive 1970s, but theirs are stories I am no longer interested in. Besides, I have many new women novelists to choose from, and I think this is a process that many women my age have gone through. Having said that, I remain an enthusiastic reader of men’s fiction, but of the kind that energizes me (what I find in science fiction), not of the kind that depresses me. I have just abandoned recent Booker prize winner by Scottish author Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, requiring no reminder of how dreary the life of an alcoholic woman and her loving son can be. As for Sally Rooney, whom Thomas-Corr mentions again and again as a female writer gloriously capable of generating an enormous buzz, I have already expressed here my extremely negative opinion of her awfully depressing, mediocre Normal People. She simply is not the best woman writer around.

Thomas-Corr reports the words of a male agent, claiming that a major problem in the publishing industry allegedly dominated by women is “the lack of interest in male novelists and the widespread idea that the male voice is problematic”, which diminishes the impulse to invest on them. In view of the many difficulties to publish in comparison to their female peers, Thomas-Carr notes, “young male writers have given up on literary fiction” finding “narrative nonfiction (particularly travelogues and nature writing in the vein of Robert Macfarlane) or genre fiction (especially crime and sci-fi)” more accessible avenues toward professionalization. I will not comment again on the disparagement of these genres in comparison to overpraised literary fiction, but I remain baffled by the journalist’s comment that these other genres are “less mediated by the culture and the conversations on Twitter” because it subtly hints that women dominate social media and are using them to police and cancel men’s fiction they dislike. Is this the awful truth??

A (male) reader signing as denisou comments that “People do not need to turn to the newest literary fiction to understand the experience of being a straight man in the world today”, and, anyway, this kind of novel has been offered for decades now. It appears, Thomas-Corr notes, that the only male writer with something new to contribute is the black, gay man, but, obviously, it is absurd to leave outside any kind of promotion and celebration the work of all straight men. “Male writers of colour”, Thomas-Corr writes, “feel they are under-represented” in the lists of thrilling novelties, by which she means straight BAME and Black men. There is, besides, a suspicion that white, straight, working-class men are wrongly put in the same category as their middle-class predecessors. Northern Irish working-class writer Darran Anderson declares, Thomas-Corr reports, that “I have neither the desire nor the means to pick up Martin Amis’s or John Updike’s bill”. Nor should he or any other men writing today.

The issue that may be making all the difference is, in fact, half-hidden in the article. Literary fiction by men became increasingly sexualized from the 1960s onwards, leaving aside the pioneering efforts of D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s. The way many male writers of distinction have been portraying sex is, simply, no longer palatable to women readers. Writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, who is not known for including much sex in his novels (I can’t recall a single scene by him), are thus better candidates to lasting fame than Amis, the above mentioned Roth, or others. Generally speaking, misogyny is no longer welcome—though this does not men that women’s writing is wholly free from this taint—and it is particularly unwelcome in sex scenes. What is happening now is that whereas women writers have found a way to write about sex that satisfies (!) women readers, male writers have not. This is why, Thomas-Corr observes, “Male writers definitely seem to be feeling more reticent about sex” and no wonder about it. Excuse my boutade, but what is a literary novel by a man with no sex scenes except a failure of nerve (leaving Ishiguro aside)? The recipe, then, for men to make it back to the literary spotlight is to learn from women new lessons about how to do sex scenes. I don’t mean they have to copy women, but refresh their own style and offer so much sexiness that women readers will go crazy for them. For, as we know, literary fiction has always been about desire.

I don’t think, to sum up, that men are excluded from literary fiction or excluding themselves for lack of interest or of opportunities. I just think that they need to rethink their own representation, and makes it more engaging. I am very much aware that capturing at the same time the attention of the non-reading gamer and of the female serial reader of quality fiction is an almost impossible task, but some nonfiction and genre fiction male authors have managed to do that. As for the portrayal of intimacy that literary fiction relies on, I do see that women handle it now much better and with greater confidence because they see themselves addressing like-minded female readers, and caring far less for the opinion of male readers. Aspiring male literary writers need to ask themselves, therefore, how to meet the challenge of reattracting a larger male and female audience, not by following a woke scenario (please!!!!) but by reinventing the representation of masculinity for our times, including a non-misogynistic sexuality.

And if any woman reading this is the type who proudly declares ‘I don’t read men’, then, I’m sorry for you because too many men were (or are) of the ‘I don’t read women’ persuasion. Let’s not fall into the sexist trap as readers, writers, editors, agents or teachers and let’s keep the conversation open.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/