I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about this quote from Nick Hornby’s interview with David Simon, from The Believer:
“Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way. I think it is rooted in the absolute arrogance that comes with standing up at the community campfire and declaring, essentially, that we have the best story that ought to be told next and that people should fucking listen. Storytelling and storytellers are rooted in pay-attention-to-me onanism. Listen to this! Iâ€™m from Baltimore and Iâ€™ve got some shit you fucking need to see, people! Put down that CSI shit and pay some heed, motherfuckers! Iâ€™m gonna tell it best, and most authentic, and coolest […]”
What a relief. Even David Simon is afraid that he’s going to be found out â€” caught being somehow inauthentic or wrongly inventive. And this is the David Simon who wrote Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, a book that isn’t just authentic and true but also dramatic and good. (It is one of my favorite books, no doubt, and I hate picking favorites.) But this is also David Simon, a journalist (and hyphenate), for whom the truth matters not necessarily less but differently than it does for a writer of fictions. Do we SF and fantasy writers care about getting found out?
If you’re like me, you’re just afraid that any successful author is going to out you in their blog, exposing you as a feckless nudnik by revealing that you sometimes use the phrase “He began to” when you’re not setting up an interruption, or that you misuse that and which a whole damn lot. “He wrote that book, sure,” the Real Writer declares, “but he did it wrong!” But that’s not the kind of general creative self-doubt I’m talking about.
What I mean is, should SF and fantasy (et al) writers worry about being declared inauthentic?
Over at io9, I saw that Charles Stross says writing near-future fiction is pointless, now. When Charles Stross says something like that that, I pay attention. On his blog, he wrote:
Put yourself in the shoes of an SF author trying to construct an accurate (or at least believable) scenario for the USA in 2019. Imagine you are constructing your future-USA in 2006, then again in 2007, and finally now, with talk of $700Bn bailouts and nationalization of banks in the background. Each of those projections is going to come out looking different.
My immediate, contrarian, but-I’m-working-on-near-future-SF-right–now reaction is this: Is accuracy the point of near-future SF?
Seriously. I get the appeal of sweaty authenticity and humid verisimilitude, of an imagined future that smells like a busted light bulb or is so damp that your shirt sticks your back, I do. But is it an inherent and automatic goal of near-future SF that it must also be a savvy predictor? Is accurate socioeconomic extrapolation the steel skeleton of any good skycraper twenty minutes into the future?
What if your near-future story is a serious imaginary culture study of what happens when an alien spacecraft crashes on Earth in the early days of an Obama or McCain administration? Is it obsolete by May? What if your story is about the societal backlash against an unbelievable breakthrough in genetic medicine? Is that story no good if the breakthrough doesn’t happen when the novel says it would?
Obviously not. And I know where Stross is coming from â€” I have a novel started that’s set in a near-future Iraq, and every week my take on the Iraq of Tomorrow seems to shift out from under me â€” but I think he’s wrong. I don’t think accuracy matters nearly as much as a great conceit does.
It seems to me, the eerie (possible) accuracy of (lucky) speculative fiction works either by design, when marketing a work, or by happenstance (likely or unlikely) after the book’s been published. Last night I saw The Army of the Republic, by Stuart Archer Cohen, on the shelf at the book store. That book has a great back-cover quote that says something like, “Read it while it’s still fiction!” The book seems primed to be a sexy attention-getter now while it’s ballsy and topical, but will that be true in a year or ten? (I haven’t read it, so I’m at the outside edge of my opinion of it, now.) Since it’s 2008, can we stop reading 1984?
Look at Neuromancer. (While we’re on the subject of my very favorite books.) On his blog, William Gibson wrote:
(One of the things I sniggered over, as I wrote Neuromancer, was that it would be impossible to prove, from textual evidence, that the USA still existed as a nation-state. It never even occurred to me that the USSR might not.)
Are we done with Neuromancer because of the ways it seems dated?
No matter when you make something, it’ll reek of the time when it was made. No matter when you set your science fiction, readers have the ability to pull the rip-chord if they don’t want to accept your conceits. I know that I, for sure, am not more likely to accept the premise of a novel just because I think it’s a prediction instead of a conceit.
Worst-case scenario, I guess, is that a near-future novel goes from being SF to being fantasy (or alternate history or what the hell ever) when its dates pass and it seems unrealistic. No doubt that’s a major issue for some people, and there are days where I could get worked up about it, too. But that’s still secondary to the quality of the book, right?
A reader, I think, finds it easier to get into a work of SF or fantasy when she believes the author believes in the work in a big way. Near-future visionaries bring a passion to their work that’s infectious. It’s also a good shortcut to perceived passion â€” this writer thinks this might actually happen, so you’re sort of seeing the world as he sees it, now. It’s like the appeal of a movie “Based on a True Story,” except the timeline’s all out of whack; the hope is that “The Truth May Be Based on this Story,” I guess. That’s exciting, that grabs you, that helps define your relationship to the work. Right on.
But Tolkien presented Middle-earth as though it were a section of Earthly history, and of course that’s nonsense. The Lord of the Rings is a brilliant work of imagined culture and homage to mythic traditions, but it’s a pretty lousy extrapolated history. More to the point, it’s a pretty lousy extrapolation of literal history. That wasn’t the point, though, right? The fantasy genre didn’t exist, per se, when Tolkien wrote those books, and we wanted us to engage them as he engaged the historical and fantastic elements of the sagas he studied. The sagas aren’t literal histories, either, but they can be compelling and sometimes provocative works even now.
Why can’t it work going the other direction, into the future?
Some great works of futurism succeed later in their lives because their predictions take on metaphorical power that the author may never have intended. An author’s literal prediction of a victorious Soviet Union becomes a symbolic conceit to the future reader.