Crowley on Disch

by Henry on January 17, 2009

“John Crowley”:http://crowleycrow.livejournal.com/ has a lovely essay on Thomas Disch in the new “Boston Review”:http://www.bostonreview.net. The essay isn’t on the WWW yet (I’ll link to it when/if it does appear), but I wanted to quote this bit about Disch’s _334_ as soon as I read it:

… why did he need the scaffoldings of futurist fiction? We might guess that if he were beginning a writing career now, with dozens of writers taking up and inventing personal worlds in irrealistic modes and nobody minding, he wouldn’t need science fiction. But I think that he was always haunted – and vivified – by the awful and the apocalyptic. In creating the world of _334_, he had the grand sweep of decline and fall, featuring numberless populations and quick-time disasters, that would allow him to admit a competing tendency to generosity and humility in dealing with individual hurt and longing. Posit a future that is cruel enough to be convincingly the future of this bad present – a hard shell for the tender snail of self – and you can bring out from it what matters most to you: the shortened version of things in the world.

When I wrote an “irritated piece”:https://crookedtimber.org/2008/12/16/they-bellow-til-were-deaf/ in response to Benjamin Kunkel’s “silly essay”:http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=1308 last month, I mentioned _334_ as a counter-example to Kunkel’s claims. But Crowley’s summation of Disch (perhaps because it isn’t a polemic or counter-polemic, instead being a sympathetic analysis of a particular aesthetic) says what I was trying to say far better. There isn’t any necessary reason why a particular set of literary tropes and themes _have_ to overwhelm character in dystopian or apocalyptic novels. Instead, as _334_ exemplifies, you can use the tensions between dystopia and the everyday lives of people as a source of art. Which is what _334_ does so well, and why it is a minor masterpiece.

{ 13 comments }

1

lemuel pitkin 01.18.09 at 3:54 am

Which is what 334 does so well, and why it is a minor masterpiece.

Yes. But also very unrepresentative of SF or genre fiction in general, IMHO.

2

bob mcmanus 01.18.09 at 5:25 am

But also very unrepresentative of SF or genre fiction in general, IMHO.

334 felt representative enough at the time, as much as any work can be representative in a period of liberation & experimentation.

Here’s the Nebula nominations for 1975. You can move backwards or forwards. Read Crowley’s early novels?

3

bob mcmanus 01.18.09 at 6:05 am

Here’s the 1971 nominations. If you were comfortable with And Chaos Died by Russ and Fourth Mansions by Lafferty, 334 wasn’t any kind of a shock or surprise.

But I certainly also read Ringworld. I think I took the other side of this argument last time, that applying literary standards to science fiction doesn’t elevate science fiction, but diminishes the genre. Disch is flat out better than Roth. Dick & Disch never I think accepted their roles as genre writers, whereas I think Delany did. Delany liked Heinlein, for what Heinlein was.

The writers in 1971 nominated Russ & Lafferty (the others are fine, also) but gave the award to Niven.When you understand and accept that (you don’t have to completely approve), you are on your way to appreciating the genre for its particular pleasures.

PS:I strongly object to the “minor” in “minor masterpiece.”

4

bob mcmanus 01.18.09 at 5:13 pm

Bah. After reading and re-reading both original pieces repeatedly, I don’t think I am following the argument adequately. I did remember Joanna Russ’s three early novels, (Picnic on Paradise, And Chaos Died, and We Who Are About To), which on a first approximation, seem to be character-based novels deconstructing sf tropes and maybe trying to show that the Romantic conceptions of character are destructive to social conscience. The problem of Character and Social Conscience is at least that old (40 years) in SF. And socialist art is hard, dudes.

I very much doubt that 334 helps Henry’s case. Not an optimistic novel.

In any case, rather than trying to play with the ways Art is reflective of or therapeutic for (or not) society, I think I’ll read Adam Robert’s history, and return to my current project:

Joseph Conrad. I think I could, had I a brain, toss Under Western Eyes in here like a turd into a punchbowl.

5

bob mcmanus 01.18.09 at 6:41 pm

Rather than disputing that SF can be a literature of character, perhaps it would be better to address Kunkel’s question:Does dystopic literature necessarily reflect, project, and encourage an attitude of philosophical pessimism, in the sense that Under Western Eyes is a work of philosophical pessimism?

6

Watson Aname 01.18.09 at 10:39 pm

Yes. But also very unrepresentative of SF or genre fiction in general, IMHO.

This seems to me to be the standard, and fairly hapless, response to the mention of any such book: “Oh, that’s good, but it’s not [really genre| representative of the genre]”. What does representative really mean here? In practice, it seems only to be used (and useful) to those who wish to dismiss a genre as “not serious writing” or some such rot. Identify tropes and trends, pretend this delineates the genre, define away all the pesky cases of good work. The same approach could be used in any subgrouping you want:: 90% (or whatever) of everything being crap works for you, here.

7

Watson Aname 01.18.09 at 10:40 pm

“a standard”, not “the standard”

8

bob mcmanus 01.19.09 at 12:48 am

a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficient conditions
are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main
device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

…Darko Suvin’s definition (Are Melville & Conrad progenitors of SF? Nova, Bear’s Beyond Heaven’s River)

If estrangement/alienation are the necessary condition of SF, should we be surprised that most SF devolves into dystopic philosophical pessimism, technocratic liberalism (Heinlein), or eschatological mysticism (Childhood’s End, Matrix)?

I suppose that technocratic liberalism would be the most attractive of these, but Heinlein is the exemplar exactly because technocratic liberalism with its emphasis on the individual & character must itself devolve into Romantic heroism/Messianism or elitist vanguardism.

But anyway, Kunkel’s point about the problems of depicting individual freedom in a dystopic fiction of catastrophic contingency is exactly right. It assumes the futility of politics. Save us, Neo/Obama.

9

lemuel pitkin 01.19.09 at 4:33 am

This seems to me to be the standard, and fairly hapless, response to the mention of any such book: “Oh, that’s good, but it’s not [really genre| representative of the genre]”. What does representative really mean here? In practice, it seems only to be used (and useful) to those who wish to dismiss a genre as “not serious writing” or some such rot.

Watson, let me assure you, I’ve read way too much SF to be dismissing it. (For instance, I’ve read most of the books on the lists Bob McM. links, even tho they were published before I was born.) And precisely because I’ve read so much of it, I feel comfortable pointing out some general qualities it has, as a genre. And the fact is, the virtues Crowley and Henry point to in 334 are just not widely shared in SF writing.

I mean, I subscribe to Asimov’s, and I have the last 10 or so Gardner Dozois anthologies sitting on my shelf here. And while this stuff can be satisfying in various ways, very little of it goes very deep into how human beings exist in human societies.

10

lemuel pitkin 01.19.09 at 4:34 am

This seems to me to be the standard, and fairly hapless, response to the mention of any such book: “Oh, that’s good, but it’s not [really genre| representative of the genre]”. What does representative really mean here? In practice, it seems only to be used (and useful) to those who wish to dismiss a genre as “not serious writing” or some such rot.

Watson, let me assure you, I’ve read way too much SF to be dismissing it. (For instance, I’ve read most of the books on the lists Bob McM. links, even tho they were published before I was born.) And precisely because I’ve read so much of it, I feel comfortable pointing out some general qualities it has, as a genre. And the fact is, the virtues Crowley and Henry point to in 334 are just not widely shared in SF writing.

I mean, I subscribe to Asimov’s, and I have the last 10 or so Gardner Dozois anthologies sitting on my shelf here. And while this stuff can be satisfying in various ways, very little of it goes very deep into how human beings exist in human societies.

11

skidmarx 01.19.09 at 2:31 pm

“Identify tropes and trends, pretend this delineates the genre, define away all the pesky cases of good work.”

I am reminded of John Berger’s “Ways Of Seeing”, in which he says that the great works of European oil painting are wholely unrepresentative of the genre.

“And while this stuff can be satisfying in various ways, very little of it goes very deep into how human beings exist in human societies.”

This reminds me of the story “Once You’ve Sat On The Log At The Centre Of The Universe, What Is There Left To Do?” from 100 Great SF Short Short Stories. Deep and meaningful aren’t necessarily synonyms.

While sticking to genre rules may not be necessary, it often adds to readability. Give me Harry Harrison over Marge Piercy or Margaret Atwood any day (the latter’s use of Capital Letters Everywhere could well be one of the targets of Vonda N. McIntyre’s “The Straining Your Eyes Through The Viewscreen Blues” in Nebula Award Winners 15).

12

Will 01.21.09 at 4:28 pm

John Crowley’s piece on Thomas Disch is online now: http://bostonreview.net/BR34.1/crowley.php

13

Hob 01.21.09 at 10:51 pm

That really is a wonderful piece. Thanks.

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