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“Realists of a Larger Reality”

On New Science Fiction

Amy Schrager Lang is an emeritus professor of English at Syracuse University. Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky is an activist, artist, and writer based in Brooklyn.
Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2015), 308 pages, $26.95, hardback.
adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, editors, Octavia’s Brood (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2015), 285 pages, $18, paperback.
Dave Eggers, The Circle (New York: Knopf/McSweeney’s, 2013), 497 pages, $15.95, paperback.
Nalo Hopkinson, Falling In Love with Hominids (San Francisco: Tachyon, 2015), 240 pages, $15.95, paperback.
Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is undoubtedly right about resistance in the “real” world, but in reading, only some books offer a call to resistance and the possibilities of a new reality. Among the books considered here, some come to us as “literary fiction”; others are marked as belonging to another, historically denigrated, form, “science fiction” or “fantasy.” This could be a distinction without a difference: two are near-future dystopian novels about corporate capitalism in the United States (both by well-established white authors); two are collections of near-future short stories that set out to critique the human powers that structure our world (written by both established and new voices, primarily writers of color). But the books that embrace rather than evade their status as science fiction or fantasy are the ones able to imagine the resistance and change that Le Guin invokes.

Dave Eggers’s The Circle recounts the rise and triumph of a corporation that fulfills the aspirations of Google and Apple to an eternally “cutting-edge” hipness and electronic omniscience. The Circle takes the travails of the “newbie,” Mae, as its center. A small-town California girl loaded with student debt, the only one of twelve college-bound students in a high school class of eighty to go east of Colorado, her best option on graduation is to “come back and work at the local utility” (9). But she is not doomed for long to the “tragic block of cement” that houses the gas and electric company: fortuitously, her wealthy college roommate pulls strings to get her a job in Consumer Experience at the Circle, where “a million people, a billion, wanted to be” (3). Mae’s luck makes her an exception in Eggers’s America, but everything else about her is presented as utterly typical of a citizen of a consumers’ republic. Despite the book’s vivid account of her economic precarity, the power to ensure or prevent the final “Completion” of the Circle’s project of total social and political control is made finally to rest in Mae’s hands. Eve-like, her fall—both a free choice and an irresistible destiny, as Eggers tells it—brings us all down with her. The disorderly old world, in which one can disappear into anonymity, is “replaced by a new and glorious openness, a world of perpetual light” in which all the “messiness of humanity until now, all those uncertainties that accompanied the world before the Circle, would be only a memory” (497). This clean, bright world, needless to say, in no way guarantees such “certainties” as food, shelter, or health care, except to those employees who remain in the corporation’s good graces.

The Circle deliberately translates Orwell’s 1948 dystopia, 1984, from the totalitarian state to the monopoly corporation—from wall screens and human snitches to a barrage of branded technologies, including SeeChange micro-cameras and drone swarms, TruYou identity software, and InnerCircle/OuterCircle corporate and social reputation rankings based on “participation.” Where Orwell’s state insists that “War Is Peace,” “Slavery Is Freedom,” and “Ignorance Is Strength,” Eggers’s corporation declares that “Secrets Are Lies,” “Sharing Is Caring,” and “Privacy Is Theft.” In Orwell’s Oceania, the omnipotent state defines truth and deploys its enforcers to guarantee that a beaten-down populace will not dispute that 2 + 2 = 5. In The Circle, the omniscient corporation needs no special enforcers; instead, an enthusiastic public embraces the regulatory role—adopting both the Circle’s ethos that “all that happens must be known” and the Circle technologies that assure that it will be.

So far so good, but the familiarity of Eggers’s Orwellian scenario marks the limits of The Circle‘s political imagination. Despite its quasi-Silicon Valley setting and its invocation of contemporary tech-world cool, the book’s bone-deep misogyny, thin and outdated political economy, and libertarian leanings could have been imported directly from 1948. The Circle likewise mimics 1984′s airlessness, hinting nowhere at the possibility that another world is, or could be, possible. So, too, unfortunately, does Canadian “national treasure” Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, unlike her previous exploration of the future, the MaddAddam trilogy (2003–2013). This book centers on an institution as total as Eggers’s Circle, though at a smaller scale. The town of Consilience (in natural science, the convergence of evidence attained through different methods) and the prison named Positron (in physics, the positively charged antiparticle or antimatter counterpart to the electron) together form a complete corporate enclave walled off from the world, whose occupants alternate monthly between the roles of citizen and inmate.1 Stan and Charmaine, a pair of strivers who have lost their middle-class status amid economic and social collapse, sign up to move from the car in which they’ve been living into the suburban comfort of 1950s-themed Consilience (think Celebration, Florida). As we follow them through Consilience and the Positron and back out into the rest of the world, Atwood leads us through the nightmare of contemporary neoliberalism, complete with privatization, outsourcing, and a dead-end service economy.

While Eggers fixates on the dangers of single-corporation monopoly, Atwood, noticing that capitalism has changed since the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, describes a familiar and intricate web of corporate oligopoly, government bureaucracy, and small-time entrepreneurship that constrains Stan and Charmaine as completely as the Circle does Mae. Their nostalgia for a prelapsarian United States and the sentimentalism supporting it give the title its resonance, but also propels the book to an ending as airless as that of The Circle. Charmaine, like the true believer Mae, is in the end offered a form of knowledge, though its truth value is unclear: accepting it will make her “more free, but less secure”; refusing it, she will remain “more secure, but less free” (305).

In this seemingly similar conclusion, however, lies the most striking difference in the political imaginings of Eggers and Atwood. For the former, complete transparency ensures perfect security but extinguishes all freedom by removing the “barrier between public and private,” a barrier which should be “unbreachable” (490). For Atwood, security and freedom similarly stand in zero-sum relationship to one another, but for her the private and the public spheres constantly bleed into each other. And this makes a difference: the barely masked longing for a Jeffersonian democracy of independent, self-reliant men in Eggers’s tale of the high-tech New Woman is absent in Atwood’s deeply acerbic account of Charmaine’s yearning for home, family, and effortless monogamy.2 Charmaine’s sentimentality and nostalgic desires are carefully cultivated by the operators of the patriotic Consilience/Positron experiment, in which the “heroic” few, will, “like the early pioneers…[clear] a way to the future,” a future “more secure, more prosperous, and just all-round better,” though suspiciously like the already mythologized past (37).

These two novels come to us as “literature”: with cover blurbs from The New York Times and The Washington Post, they are accompanied by rafts of reviews and interviews; bookstores are instructed to shelve them as “fiction.” Their publishers and authors alike eagerly disavow the tropes of the books’ form and content—robots, advanced surveillance technologies, near-future dystopian settings—that might consign them to the science fiction section. Lest she be associated too closely with what she calls “the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities” of science fiction and fantasy, Atwood, for example, calls her books with future settings “Ustopias”—a combination of utopia and dystopia, as she explains—renouncing the established term for the same thing, “heterotopia,” with its roots in science fiction.3 Eggers, his literary credentials firmly in place as the founding editor of McSweeney’s, has apparently felt no similar need to distance himself; in no interview we found was the question of classifying The Circle as science fiction even raised.

Writing about Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent venture into swords and sorcery, The Buried Giant, Ursula K. Le Guin observed that “No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre—far less its profound capacities—for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?'”4 Unfortunately, Atwood and Eggers would seem to be tight-rope walkers on the verge of landing in the sawdust. By contrast, two recent short story collections announce themselves as belonging to the world of science fiction and fantasy and, what is more, take pains to clarify where in that world they stand.

Acclaimed Caribbean-Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson’s stories, collected in Falling in Love with Hominids and written over the last fifteen years, feature alien spacecraft (“Snow Day”), genetically modified plants and animals (“A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog”), plague zombies (“The Easthound”), and an array of creatures and settings terrestrial, extraterrestrial, mythical, and mystical. Unbound by the demands of “literary” realism and fully cognizant of the “profound capacities” of science fiction and fantasy to create apertures into that “larger reality” in which human beings effect change, Hopkinson willingly and successfully uses the genre’s “surface elements” to imagine not only the repressive uses of nominally liberatory forms—as in The Circle or The Heart Goes Last—but the liberatory uses of the allegedly repressive. The literary inversions in “Blushing” and “Shift,” the transformation of mythological sources in “Delicious Monster” and “Ours Are the Prettiest,” the communal life of “Old Habits” and “The Smile on the Face,” all open up a changed vision of what is possible in our world.

“Old Habits,” for instance, adapts the familiar notion of ghosts unable to move from the site of their deaths—”their last true contact with the world” (85). The shopping mall they haunt is rooted in the everyday realities of suburban North American life, as are their deaths—by police violence, an asthma attack, an escalator accident. The mall is familiar, too, as a site of tensions within complicated families—both blood and chosen—of consumer anomie, of the horrors of suburban life (and afterlife). But even here, in the static, restricted state of undeath, “the blackness that is all we can see beyond the mall doors” beckons as a realm of possibility, and leaves room for an unpredictable future (87). Similarly, Hopkinson’s rendition of The Tempest, “Shift,” moves past the now-familiar gesture of rewriting Shakespeare’s story of Ariel, Caliban, and Sycorax as a colonial or postcolonial allegory to envisioning the three many years afterwards, at the starting point of a new understanding of themselves as both distinct and inseparably intertwined.

Hopkinson is part of a constellation of established science fiction and fantasy writers who explicitly work against the genre’s tendency, as she writes in her foreword, “to confirm people’s complacency, to reassure them that it’s okay for them not to act, because they are not the lone superhero who will fix the world’s ills” (3). In her introduction to a new collection of this work, Octavia’s Brood—titled in honor of award-winning science fiction writer Octavia ButlerWalidah Imarisha argues that the commitment of these writers to jarring readers out of a conviction of their own powerlessness has opened a space for new writers of a “science fiction that has relevance toward building new, freer worlds,” writers who, Walidah Imarisha writes see science fiction as “vital for…the decolonization of the imagination…where all other forms of decolonization are born” (4). Octavia’s Brood begins from the assertion that

Art and culture are themselves time-traveling, planes of existence where the past, present and future shift seamlessly in and out. And for those of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us.… [W]e think of our ancestors in chains dreaming about a day when their children’s children’s children would be free. They had no reason to believe that this was likely. (5)

As Imarisha’s reference to the Middle Passage indicates, while not all of the writers in Octavia’s Brood are of African descent, all of these stories participate in longstanding conversations taking place under the rubric of Afrofuturism (and, more recently, Indigenous Futurisms). Ongoing histories of resistance to enslavement and colonial genocide inflect the writing here, as do the authors’ experiences in movements for disability justice (Mia Mingus’s “Hollow”), transformative justice (Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “children who fly”), climate justice (Dani McClain’s “Homing Instinct”), prison abolition (Bao Phi’s “Revolution Shuffle”), and more.

It is impossible to capture the range—in theme, in style, in affect—of a collection of this sort. Some stories, like “The River” (by co-editor adrienne maree brown), use the author’s local knowledge and the suppressed histories of a particular place (in this case, Detroit) to foresee the return of “our city” to the presently dispossessed “people who had always been there…too deeply rooted to move anywhere quickly” (31). Others move between national-scale policy and kitchen-table conversations, or look to moments of decision in distant futures far from Earth. “Homing Instinct” tells of people “greedy for things that likely wouldn’t be around much longer,” faced with an “Executive Order” limiting oil-based travel to twenty miles per month (239). Told to choose a permanent home in the grace period before the restriction comes into effect, some choose “not a place to live, but a way of living” that challenges the law’s premises rather than its aims. While the literary quality of the stories in Octavia’s Brood varies (and not necessarily in accordance with the writers’ fame), what unites them is their attempt to envision radical change. They are “the realists of [that] larger reality” to which Le Guin directs us if we are to resist and transform the structures of our world—structures which are, as she reminds us, made by hominids like ourselves.

Notes

  1. One wonders whether Atwood is deliberately implicating biologist E. O. Wilson, who used the term consilience to title a 1998 summation of his “sociobiology”—an updated social Darwinism deeply influential in U.S. mass media—and claimed to find its roots in an ancient Greek concept of intrinsic order.
  2. In his ascription of all the ills of technologized consumerism and surveillance to his female characters (Mae, the agent of our Fall; Annie, the remorseful Tempter), Eggers echoes a popular strain in the recent European and U.S. left. The Circle could almost be a novelization of Tiqqun’s Theory of the Young-Girl, which has been widely popular among anti-capitalist intellectuals of all strains.
  3. Margaret Atwood, “The Road to Ustopia,” Guardian, October 14, 2011.
  4. Ursula K. Le Guin, “Are They Going to Say This Is Fantasy?” Book View Café blog, March 2, 2015, http://bookviewcafe.com/blog.
2016, Volume 67, Issue 11 (April)
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