Apoplocalypse! 2 – Der Zeitgeist

Thanks to last week’s commentators for all their input on apocalyptic fiction after the last post. There certainly seems to be something about the genre that appeals to people. It might be that, as J.G. Ballard said, it’s no longer possible – in the long lunar shadow of the moon landings – to create serious fiction without reference to science fiction. And as stroke blokes all over the world will know, you don’t get much more serious than the issue of continued existence.

1m 36s on continued existence in a long lunar shadow right here, buddy.

And it turns out I’ve not been the only Green-leaning Scottish lyricist and writer mulling the role of science fiction in our culture over this past week. Admittedly, Pat Kane’s got more form and success (and seriousness) in these fields than your blogger, but I’m linking across to his piece, anyway.

Pat’s musings for Saturday’s National were sparked by a recent viewing of Disney’s new movie Tomorrowland. Which, as it happens, was one of the films maybe a little incongruously trailed during my trip with Longsufferinggirlfriendofhteblogbeth to see Mad Max: Fury Road. The article reflects on a question that has exercised me previously

Why is sci-fi good, and fantasy shit?

OK, calm down! He didn’t put it like that. That’s just me.

The column,“Tomorrowland” – SF gets optimistic again, offers a potential explanation:

For me (and it’s fighting talk, I know), fantasy subverts our confidence in our ability to plan and shape our lives.

Certainly, if one looks at the timeline of the creation of Britain’s perennial fantasy favourite, The Lord of the Rings, it’s notable that it was written between 1937 and 1949. As such, The Shire might be seen more as nostalgic of a way of British life under threat, than the base from which occasionally outward-looking Hobbits strike out. No doubt TechadvisoroftheblogNeal would include it as an exhibit supporting his case, Neal v. R., In re: All British Fiction is About The War (2010).

Inward-looking Hobbit and chums embark on a quest

The main problem with the Tolkien’s version of fantasy is the interminable elvish singing. Long-suffering readers of the blog may recall that the actual distinction between science fiction and fantasy is most accurately presented as follows

One of these isn’t as good as the others

Considering the suggested difference between sci-fi and fantasy says something interesting to this Whovian about Russell T. Davis’s and Steven Moffatt’s versions of Doctor Who. RTD’s Doctor certainly falls into trouble when, for example, he goes all Magic Dobby Jesus Doctor. Nevertheless, his stories which age best are outward looking (think World War ThreeThe Sound of Drums, or Midnight). The Grand Moff’s Doctor gets in a pickle when he engages with the real world (think Kill the Moon, but compare the success of Vincent and the Doctor), but his fantasy stories about the power of memory and friendship, with their Harry Potter colour palettes, tend to hit the mark. Even if the era’s explorations grounded in contemporary science, like Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver and Moffatt’s own Dark Water, are highlights for the buff.

I think you’ve stumbled into the wrong genre, pal

Speaking of Gaiman, his work seems to me to be a challenge to Pat’s thesis. Across the Sandman chronicles and into the recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his stories – dense with allusions to religion, the occult, and mysticism as they are – are primarily stories set in the realm of magic and fantasy. Key and recurring characters include Death, Cain and Abel, a family of witches called the Hempstocks, and in Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, an angel, a devil, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

“I don’t even get a mention?”

Notwithstanding, these stories run across important grounds in allowing us to plan and shape our lives well – “powers” and “forces” like memory and empathy and companionship, the perils of forsaking them, and the rewards of fostering them. Good Omens, I think, is particularly pertinent. Gaiman wrote it in collaboration with Terry Pratchett, some of whose thoughts on the fantasy genre as usefully collected here. In particular, he said of the importance of being open to new perspectives (in accepting his Carnegie Medal)

Fantasy isn’t just about wizards and silly wands. It’s about seeing the world from new directions

I’m no Pratchett expert, but I did read the first installment of the Nomes trilogy with my daughter when she was very young. Reading it for the first time myself, it seemed to me to be – as well as an enjoyable book – as useful, non-didactic, meditation on certain aspects of religion and capitalist society for the young reader.

But I’m sure my phone only exists in a parallel dimension

I suppose this suggests that writers and their works are as varied within their own little segment of society (and further, within genres) as the population at large is within society at large. Pat’s article notes that

SF giants Cory Doctorow and Neal Stephenson want to (occasionally) harness their fellow writers to a useful task. How can their fictional talents make plausible and human a future we might want to live in or bring about, rather than luxuriate in the despair of the “toxi-cosmos”?

A nice idea, I’ll grant, and as a former member of National Collective, I’m inherently a fan of artists harnessing their talents to improve the lot of their audience, their locality, their society – heck, whoever will listen. But it does feel that maybe Doctorow’s and Stephenson’s idea puts artists on a kind of pedestal that echoes many people’s instilled beliefs that their particular activity is of particular importance in advancing human endeavour.

I used to be one of these, so I know how delusional we can be about these things

So, yeah. I suppose I need to keep thinking about what I can usefully do. And as I write I write here, I suspect that localism may be at the core of it. But in the meantime, I’ll pop over to Neal Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph cited in “Tomorrowland” – SF gets optimistic again and see what thoughts that inspires….

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