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On Books: Movements by Norman Spinrad
In the process of writing a piece for the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (of which as I write this I am currently president) it suddenly struck me that "SF" (meaning in this context both science fiction and fantasy) has not really experienced a true literary movement since the advent of Cyberpunk in the 1980s.

What, you may well ask, do I mean by a literary movement, and do we, you may well demand, really need one?

Well, I would make a distinction between marketing attempts to create phony literary movements, of which we have many and which we can well do without, and genuine literary movements, which, it seems to me, if perhaps not essential to a mode like speculative fiction, have certainly proven to be watersheds that have evolved the literature upward and onward from time to time.

By a genuine literary movement, I mean a group of writers, however large or small, sometimes including one or more editors, sometimes not, who collectively seek a transformation in a literary mode, sometimes conscious of their collective enterprise from the beginning, sometimes awakening to the realization that that is what they are doing in the middle of the process, or perhaps even after it is over.

There are and have been all sorts of literary movements, and of course the phenomenon is hardly confined to speculative fiction. Sometimes they are centered on questions of content, sometimes on questions of form and/or prose style, sometimes they are centered on an ideology or a shared mystical vision, assuming there is a difference, sometimes on some combination of these elements.

But speculative fiction is a peculiar and special case, for it is the only literature whose essential nature requires it to evolve.

Historical fiction may or may not evolve different forms, styles, angles of attack, philosophical viewpoints, political ideologies, and so forth, with which to treat its subject matter, but the subject matter itself is fixed in the past and so such evolution is not necessary or inevitable. Likewise contemporary fiction, dealing as it does with what its practitioners at least conceive of as "the present" is also concerned with content that is a fixed given.

But while by their very natures historical and contemporary fiction describe pre-existing realities and their stories take place within them, speculative fiction, by its very nature, must take place within non-existent realities, fictional worlds that its practitioners must create.

If they do not, it is just not speculative fiction. Whether science fiction or fantasy, the writers thereof must create their fictional universes entire.

Fantasy, of course, is a much older mode than science fiction; indeed, since most of this planet was terra incognita to its disparate and isolated cultures for most of our species’ existence upon it, and since the nature of the physical universe and the laws that govern it did not really begin to become elucidated to a literarily useful degree until, say, the turn of the nineteenth century, fantasy may arguably be said to be the Ur-literature.

Who really knew what was possible beyond the bounds of the then-cur-rent local maps? Could the Greeks who listened to Homer’s epics when they were first composed really know, for instance, where the Iliad, a recounting of what was apparently a real war, stopped being historical fiction and became fantasy when the doings of the gods were factored in? Might the audience for the Odyssey not have taken it as a series of travel tales? Even today, there is still argument as to whether Plato’s Republic was pure speculative non-fiction, or whether he was setting it in a real lost Atlantis that once existed out there somewhere.

So fantasy always created its own fictional universes and what we in our current hubric wisdom are pleased to consider "realistic" or "mimetic" fiction could hardly exist until the globe was well explored, the blank spaces on the maps filled in, and the laws of mass and energy became at least roughly known.

Science fiction, on the other hand, by its very nature, is a comparatively new literary mode, a child of the twentieth century, or the mid-nineteenth at the very earliest.

For, being the literature of the presently non-existent possible, such a literature could hardly exist without a general understanding–at least on higher intellectual levels and certainly among those who would seek to write it–of what the laws of the physically possible were sufficient to enable its creators to extrapolate altered or evolved worlds and realities that transcended the present consensus reality but were possible within them.

This is the essence of extrapolation, and extrapolation is the essence of science fiction. Indeed, extrapolation, as the relationship between the two words implies, is the essence of the wider realm of speculative fiction itself.

The wider realm because the name "science fiction" is an historical accident, a misleading term hung on what has always been a more inclusive form, even from its early beginnings as Hugo Gernsback’s "scientifiction." For this mode, in theory and from its very beginnings in practice, has never required that its extrapolation or speculative element be a scientific or technological one, only that, whatever that speculative element–scientific, technological, political, cultural–the story itself takes place within the universe of the scientifically possible.

This is one reason that science fiction, if you prefer, or speculative fiction if you don’t, is a literature whose nature requires it to evolve. For over the past three quarters of a century or so since Gernsback created the commercial genre, our knowledge of physical reality itself has widened and deepened and become much more subtle and the technosphere that knowledge has allowed us to create in the real world has mutated and proliferated exponentially. And science fiction has therefore had to evolve to remain within the curl of this wave as it moves into the future.

Ironically enough, the commercial tag "science fiction" under which this literature has so long been ghettoized to its detriment may also in retrospect be seen as a kind of evolutionary engine in itself. Gernsback conceived of "scientifiction" as an action adventure sugar-coating for the scientific education of the callow masses, but the "science fiction" that it swiftly became even in Amazing Stories did not fit the happenstance label. And that dichotomy created a confusion that, viewed positively as a dialectic, helped to create the series of movements that have shaped and evolved the literature ever since.

It didn’t take long for writers of general pulp adventure fiction to take advantage of the new market, and that could be said to be when "scientifiction" became "science fiction," and soon enough "space opera," as the action adventure story element became the central raison d’être while the scientific and technological extrapolation was reduced to becoming the necessary trappings.

One might not wish to dignify this development as a "movement"–indeed one might wish to consider it a schlocko devolution, as Gernsback did. But soon thereafter came John W. Campbell, Jr.’s, counter-revolution in the pages of Astounding and this, being based strongly on Campbell’s literary theories and ideologies, surely was a literary movement that transformed the mode.

Like Gernsback, Campbell eschewed, or tried to eschew, science fiction that was simply action adventure in science fictional drag, and he was certainly centrally concerned, one might fairly say obsessed, with scientific and technological speculation. But he was no aficionado of using simple action adventure to walk readers through it.

Instead, what he wanted was fiction where the speculative scientific and technological elements were the McGuffins that created the stories, where they created the dramatic tensions and were integral to their eventual resolutions, or stories centered on the cultural and/or psychological effects of scientific and technological evolution, and ideally stories that were both.

This was the so-called "Golden Age," and it was Campbell and the writers around him who formed the movement, science fiction’s first true literary movement, that created it–Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, Simak, Del Rey, Sturgeon, to name just a few. And merely to name them is to make clear how much the transformative effects of this movement still resonate today.

In the post-war era, the next literary movement, centered on H.L. Gold’s Galaxy, where there was an opening to the "soft sciences" like psychology, cultural anthropology and sociology, and Anthony Boucher’s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where the new emphasis was on more sophisticated style, was perforce more diffuse.

But the writers who evolved through it–Dick, Pohl, Kornbluth, Leiber, Budrys, Bester, to name a random few out of many–transformed the mode so much that its practitioners had evolved to the point where they were ready to create perhaps the greatest evolution science fiction has ever seen when paperback novel publishing, pioneered by Ballantine Books, opened the commercial door–the transformation from a literature in which short fiction dominated to what we have today, a science fiction whose dominant form is the novel.

The next two transformative moments occurred at roughly the same time, the 1960s. One was very prominent and the subject of much loud public controversy, and the other, in retrospect, may have been hidden in plain sight.

The "New Wave," centered at first in Michael Moorcock’s British magazine New Worlds and championed in the United States by the critic Judith Merril, ended up being several literary movements in the guise of one, but all of them were subsets of the cultural war of the time.

Moorcock’s vision was twofold. One aspect was a complex theory of the possibility of mutated relationships between storyline, form, and prose style too recondite to go into fully here, except to say, as will be relevant later, that Moorcock’s thesis was that the prose line itself did not have to follow or slavishly serve the story line but could dip and glide around it in the manner of poetry.

But the other aspect was that "establishment" contemporary mimetic literature had reached a dead end in terms of content and science fiction was mired in pulp conventions in terms of prose and angle of attack, and a cross-fertilization was necessary in order to revivify both.

Thus the British New Wave was an attempt to create a literary fusion between, as I myself was saying at the time, an establishment literature applying puissant techniques to the contemplation of the lint in its own belly button and a science fiction treating themes and material of cosmic import in a trivial manner.

In the United States, via Harlan Ellison’s landmark anthology Dangerous Visions and the novel editorships of Terry Carr and George Ernsberger, the New Wave became also a breaking of the taboos that had restricted what publishers considered a "young adult genre," a kicking out of the jambs to admit sex, drugs, rock and roll, altered states of consciousness, radical politics, "dirty" language, experimental prose.

For the first time, speculative fiction had a literary movement that sought to relate the literature to what was going on in the macroculture on the one hand, and sought to bring its speculative vision to the great world outside its ghetto walls on the other.

The writers associated with this movement (willingly or not)–Samuel R. Delany, Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, Barry Malzberg, Harlan Ellison, Thomas M. Disch, Philip José Farmer, myself, Brian W. Aldiss, among many others–along with a few courageous editors, utterly transformed the mode into what it now is. The New Wave was never any great commercial success, but perhaps a third of the SF novels published today could not have seen print before it opened the door to anything.

But there was another movement going on at the same time that, though not really perceived as such, in the end created an even greater transformation.

It is hard to imagine today, but before J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy achieved its great commercial success in paperback, virtually no original fantasy was being published in the United States. Seeking to cash in on the Tolkein phenomenon, Betty Ballantine commissioned Lin Carter to dig deep and come up with pre-existing old fantasy titles that Ballantine Books could reprint in paperback.

When this line of reprints proved commercially successful and the vein of pre-existing fantasy novels began to peter out, she took the next obvious step and sought to commission the writing of original fantasy novels. Since science fiction was Ballantine’s strong suit and she was well-connected to the people who wrote it, Betty Ballantine persuaded science fiction writers to write fantasy as well, and published the results in the same genre line as Ballantine’s science fiction.

Voila, the "SF" genre encompassing both science fiction and fantasy as more or less the same thing, at least in marketing terms, in which the latter is now dominant over the former.

The next literary movement within the field was of course the Cyberpunk Movement, the first one to be proclaimed a Movement by its core practitioners–William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Rudy Rucker, Pat Cadigan, etc.

Cyberpunk was many things to many people, but in terms of its transformative literary effect, the key concept was the name itself and Gibson’s famous catchphrase that "the street finds its own uses."

The New Wave Movement was born during the Countercultural Revolution of the 1960s, which itself became heavily enmeshed in the politics of the Viet Nam War. Because technology was seen as the servant of the military, and therefore the instrument of the Establishment, the techie mindset came to be seen as an outmoded style of consciousness, and so both the Counterculture itself and its New Wave avatar were basically technophobic.

At the time, few people saw the irony in the fact that both were boogying and protesting evil techno-philia to rock and roll, a relentlessly technological music whose very existence was based on the electric guitar and the synthesizer.

But the children of the hippies became the punks of the 1970s and 1980s and were in rebellion against, among other things, the technophobia of the previous generation of rebels. They were "the street" that would "find its own uses" for technology when Gibson and the Cyberpunks pointed them toward computers, the then non-existent Web, hacking, and virtual reality.

Thus was the gap between technology and the eternal underground demi-mode bridged, the gap between "cyberspace" and the technosphere and the "punks," and voila, cyberpunks, the first technophilic outlaw rebels.

And after the Cyberpunk Movement there came . . .

There came . . .

There came a lame series of marketing attempts to create artificial "movements" to cash in on the commercial success of "Cyberpunk" as a marketing label and a self-proclaimed literary movement in the macroculture. "Splatterpunk." "Steampunk." "Elfpunk." "Punkpunk." Whatever.

This is not to say that these attempts at hype were mainly the creation of the writers involved nor that some of them were not playing ironic games nor that the books published under the labels were necessarily without merit. But since none of these ersatz "movements" either arose out of the zeitgeist or truly championed any sort of new literary modes with which to express it, they generated no evolutionary transformations. And there has been no coherent collective literary enterprise within "SF" since the Cyberpunks, no real sense of collective literary mission.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? After all, many fine novels have been written during its long absence. Perhaps the age of movements is over. Perhaps in the end its passing is a liberation.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps a long fallow period was not only inevitable but necessary. And perhaps, just maybe, something new is barely beginning to happen.

THE LAST HOT TIME
by John M. Ford
Tor, $12.95
ISBN: 0312875789

Take a writer like John M. Ford, who has written science fiction, and who has written fantasy, and who, in The Last Hot Time, has written a novel that is both . . . that is neither . . . that, frankly, Scarlett, doesn’t seem to give a damn.

Here Ford has created a fictional world in which science and a kind of magic, elves and gangsters out of roman noir fiction, mingle seamlessly in a "City" that is part dark fantasy and part a transformation of Al Capone’s Chicago, yet is entirely itself and entirely "believable."

Somehow the magical realm of the elves has broken through into our own reality (among other things a metaphor for the breakthrough of fantasy into science fiction) and transformed it into a crazy-quilt of realms in which magical and technological powers apply in varying degrees at different times in different places and the borders between these supposedly disparate realities continually shift and mutate as humankind contends with dominant elfkind.

Yet this conflict is presented in a curious manner as a kind of old-fashioned gang war out of the 1920s and 1930s. Elf gangsters and human gangsters form alliances. And these are strange elves, who may behave like medieval magical hierarchical creatures in their realm, but seem more like Mafia dons, their consiglieres, and soldiers in ours.

Understand that this is not at all a comic or satiric novel. Far from it, it is a bildungsroman of the coming of age in the City of a kid named Danny from the boonies who rises to become Doc, a gangland power in both realms, and it is a dark tale rendered elegantly with deep psychological realism.

So what sort of novel is this really and what does it begin to portend?

Well, the critic Alexei Panshin once wrote of "science fiction that knows it’s science fiction," meaning, roughly, that the writers thereof know that they are playing a literary game, are utilizing certain literary techniques to create a suspension of disbelief on the part of the readers to create the illusion that what they are experiencing is a mimesis of some future or parallel possible reality, when actually the story is a kind of fantasy.

The Last Hot Time carries this a step further and in a somewhat different direction. Here Ford gives us a City that has the feel of Nelson Algren’s Chicago or the realm of a Harlan Ellison story in his contemporary street mode, but throws in elves and their magic while using his literary powers to mix it all together so that the reader experiences it all on the same reality level.

A science fictional reality level, somehow. The world of The Last Hot Time has more of a feeling of mimetic reality on psychological and esthetic levels than almost all space opera and much "hard SF."

It is interesting, amusing even, that Ford chooses to call his non-human creatures "elves" even though the techniques he applies and the qualities he gives them would easily enough allow him to present them as aliens from another world or time or dimension. It is as if he is challenging himself to make such a thing work, or telling the reader what he is trying to do as he begins to point "SF" in a strange new direction.

The Last Hot Time is not science fiction, it is not exactly fantasy, it is not even quite a melange of the two. Rather it is a kind of provisional synthesis, a successful attempt to take a marketing label, "SF," under which both science fiction and fantasy are published, and transform it into a new literary mode that may some day transcend its origin as a mere commercial rubric.

PERDIDO STREET STATION
by China Miéville
Del Rey, $18.00
ISBN: 0345443020

China Miéville takes it one step further in Perdido Street Station. Miéville, for my money (and in this case it really was my money, since, having read his previous work and having not been sent a review copy, I eagerly shelled out for this one myself) is one of the most interesting and already accomplished writers to have entered the extended "SF" genre in the past few years, and in this novel he extends the sort of thing that Ford toys with in The Last Hot Time in a kind of converse direction.

Perdido Street Station is set in the City of New Crobuzon on an unnamed planet somewhere and/or somewhen inhabited by humans as well as a profusion of other creatures of varying degrees of sentience. The novel is enormous–867 pages in the British paperback edition that I bought in Italy–and it gives the impression that there is an immense and variegated fictional world out there beyond the limits of the vast, sprawling, and variegated city where most of the story takes place, whether Miéville intends to explore it in a series of sequels or not.

Perhaps one of the reasons I think he might is that Perdido Street Station somehow reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, which began with one huge novel set entirely in a vast, crumbling, seemingly infinitely-roomed gothic mansion and exfoliated into a trilogy.

Just as the mansion of the title seemed to be the central character in Gormenghast, so does New Cro-buzon seem to be the central character in Perdido Street Station, though the human and non-human characters in Miéville’s novel are much more realistically drawn, the pace is far from as glacially slow as the Peake, and there is a well-limned complex story-line. Then, too, New Crobuzon has a somewhat similar gothic feel, a city that has been slowly decaying for a millennium or so.

Or perhaps "Dickensian" is closer to the mark, for New Crobuzon also has the feel of a kind of Dickensian Victorian London, albeit one in which magic and a kind of retro technology coexist more or less seamlessly, a strange melange of fantasy, "steampunk," and an elusive something that makes it akin to Michael Moorcock’s Mother London.

So far, this no doubt sounds like a description of a fairly familiar kind of fantasy, and perhaps of a identifiably British sort. However . . .

However, the book is prefaced by a quotation:

"I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that."

Well, this quote would seem to be a lot more relevant to Miéville than it is to me, since the characters in Perdido Street Station never lose contact with the city, but rather, with one or two exceptions, are utterly immersed in its reality. Or perhaps this reversal is Miéville’s point in giving us this quotation.

But given the nature of the novel it precedes, the source of the quote is surprising and enigmatic–We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick, a thoroughgoing science fiction novel by a writer hardly known to even dabble in anything like "steampunk fantasy."

However, just as Dick, the greatest metaphysical novelist of all time, was more than a science fiction writer in any conventional sense, so is Perdido Street Station more than a conventional "steampunk fantasy," even though Miéville might be said to be creating such a genre therein, and perhaps Miéville is justly proclaiming a kinship to Dick by prefacing a novel totally unlike anything Dick ever wrote with an homage to him.

And perhaps that is a key to something important.

No writer’s work has ever been more thematically centered on the metaphysical and psychological and moral exploration of not only altered states of consciousness but the multiplexity of reality than that of Philip K. Dick. Indeed, in the Dickian weltanschauung, there is no such thing as a "base reality," our consensus reality in which the well-known scientific laws of mass and energy determine the boundaries.

In this sense, there is more "magic" in the oeuvre of Dick than in any thousand-foot shelf of conventional commercial fantasy. And yet I have never heard of anyone seriously contending that Dick did not write science fiction.

This, I would contend (and I can conceive of no other explanation) is because Dick not only applied the techniques of the science fiction writer to his material, but viewed it with a kind of science fictional sensibility, and sought, successfully more often than not, to convey this effect to his readers. However outré, however metaphysically transformed the states of reality portrayed, Dick portrayed them with the literary tools and angle of attack of the science fiction writer, persuading his readers and perhaps himself that they were aspects of the same extended multiverse they in fact inhabited. From a certain constipated point of view, Dick could be said to have written fantasy and conned his readership into accepting it as science fiction.

Miéville does something rather similar (but with a significant difference)in Perdido Street Station, and perhaps that is what he is cryptically proclaiming. Here magic and technology operate on the same creaky problematic retro level, both vaguely Victorian, rather unreliable, and somehow past the peak of his world’s previously higher level of more assured competence. And the feel of it is rendered somehow science fictional by that very rusty nuts and bolts approach to both magic and technology.

But Miéville makes not the slightest pass at convincing the reader that the world of Perdido Street Station is in any way connected to the universe or the consensus reality they inhabit. This novel forthrightly takes place in an entirely fictional reality. There is no connection to the planet Earth or its denizens; either to the imagery, tropes, or cultural myths used by writers of conventional fantasy to create psychological resonance or to the methods used by science fiction writers to transport readers from the here and now to the there and then while convincing them that they remain within the multiverse of their personal possible.

Whether Perdido Street Station is "science fiction that knows it’s science fiction" or "fantasy in science fictional drag" is irrelevant. This is fiction that not only knows but proclaims that it is fiction.

Thus, ironically, while fantasy has first infiltrated science fiction and then become commercially dominant over it within the "SF" genre, here we have an example, and The Last Hot Time is another, of the tropes and techniques of science fiction infiltrating fantasy, and perhaps in the end coming to dominate it on a literary level.

Perhaps this is why Miéville does not quite take the next step and abandon the illusion of mimesis for the realm of unabashed literary surrealism, where the skein of events, and perhaps even the style, follows a purely literary logic, where questions of reality levels become irrelevant, where the illusion of verisimilitude is not even a goal.

NO COVER AVAILABLE

Voyage à l’envers
by Philippe Curval
Millénaires, EUR 12.94
ISBN: 2290307270

In Voyage à l´envers, Philippe Curval comes even closer, albeit from a different direction. Curval is one of the deans of French science fiction, he’s been writing it for decades, and so, in terms of the new trend that seems to be emerging, it’s interesting to see something like this coming from such a veteran.

Curval is a fellow critic of SF on the side, and intellectually sophisticated in general, but on the other hand has always been deeply involved in science fiction, so it’s difficult to walk the line between assuming that he intended doing just what I believe he’s done or supposing that this novel is a kind of "failure."

What he’s done in Voyage à l´envers (roughly translatable as "Voyage to the Inverse") is thrown together an incredible number of science fiction tropes, schticks, notions, ploys, in the same novel. SETI. First contact. The interstellar voyage. Time-dilation effects. Time reversal. A subtle form of mind control. Reality control. Alien invasion. Strange alien technology. Strange alien psychology. And more.

Nor does it all seem to be taking place on the same reality level. Some of it is psychologically realistic. Some of it is rendered from a dryly sophisticated and gentle sardonic viewpoint. Some of it is finely rendered hard science fiction. Some of it is almost parodically "sci-fi."

It would be facile to conclude that Voyage à l´envers is a failed hodgepodge, where Curval threw in everything but the kitchen sink and stirred with a swizzle stick, a wry grin, and a Gallic shrug, except for two things:

"Voyage à l´envers" could just as well be translated as "Voyage Backwards," and Curval, as fiction writer and critic, has a long and intimate relation with and knowledge of the literature of science fiction. From that perspective, this novel appears as both a voyage backward through the tropes of that literature, and a kind of voyage backward to the future thereof, wherein Curval deliberately digests it all, and then regurgitates it in a not unsuccessful attempt to free it not only from its history but from its historical pretense at mimesis to create a science fiction that not only knows that it’s science fiction but knows and proclaims quite loudly that science fiction is and has always been a series of literary games.

And curiously, very curiously indeed, toward the end of his long and successful career, that most emblematic of hard science fiction writers, Robert A. Heinlein, attempted very much the same thing.

Heinlein’s later novels–I Will Fear No Evil, The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Job: A Comedy of Justice–in which he threw together hodgepodges of characters and tropes from his previous work somewhat in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, Breakfast of Champions, only more so–have generally been dismissed as the rantings of a great writer who had simply lost it toward the end of his life.

But maybe not. In light of what Curval has done decades later with the genre entire–and remember that Curval is also a sophisticated critic–it could be argued that, far from mining his own backlist to produce paste-ups verging on gibberish, Heinlein, that most mimetic of science fiction writers, was struggling at the end of his career, albeit not quite successfully, to make the transformation that the field seems to be approaching today–to abandon mimesis, to free himself from the need to create the illusion of verisimilitude to write a kind of meta-SF in which "science fiction that knows it’s science fiction" becomes the subject for a fiction that transcends its previous connection to consensus reality to become a self-referential visionary fiction that exists entirely within a forthrightly and unabashedly fictional universe.

APPLESEED
by John Clute
Tor, $25.95
ISBN: 0765303787

John Clute is also a critic, and an exceedingly erudite one, so erudite, some would contend, that his criticism sometimes verges on being truly comprehensible only to himself. He loves complex sentence structures, obscure words, prose rhythms, to the point where his criticism sometimes seems to have an almost musical focus.

Clute, it would seem, values prose for its own pleasures over what it is conveying. Interesting, then, that in light of the foregoing, after all these years writing criticism, he has chosen to write his first novel, Appleseed.

Appleseed is a kind of space opera. Or, better, all kinds of space opera. Clute’s fictional universe is so relentlessly strange, so crammed with fictional aliens far more bizarre than anyone has attempted to create before, takes place on so many utterly outré levels and flavors of reality, that it is not only impossible for anyone but Clute to begin to describe, but impossible for anyone to suspend their disbelief long enough to take it on a mimetic level.

Indeed, toward the end, it becomes so complex, so metaphysically strange, so detached from anything even minimally comprehensible to mere human consciousness, that Clute himself, attempting to describe the indescribable, to elucidate the unelucidatable, seems to lose it entirely–or at any rate loses this reader entirely–to become gloriously but incomprehensibly lost in a beautiful sea of words and increasingly elusive images.

But along the way–and indeed for about three quarters of the novel–he accomplishes marvels.

It is hard to believe that Clute can possibly mean this space opera universe to be taken by anyone, himself included, on the level of mimetic reality, to have even the most tenuous connection to consensus reality, to exist in the realm of the possible.

But on another level . . .

On another level, what Clute seems to be doing here is positing a universe created not out of any attempt at extrapolation, or even true science fictional speculation, but out of the literary palette of nearly a century of science fiction.

If the future galaxy were to be filled with a profusion of alien races and cultures as so much space opera has always taken as a given, if this is the literary assumption, then it is going to be really strange, Horatio, far stranger than anything in your science fictional philosophies.

Strange? You want strange? Clute seems to say. I’ll give you strange!

The universe of Appleseed is certainly the strangest one that I’ve ever encountered, so strange that one struggles to comprehend it, so strange that toward the end Clute begins to lose the magical ability to make it comprehensible.

And yet, there is a new kind of esthetic and even psychological realism to Appleseed. Forget about mimesis, forget about scientific rigor or conventional speculation. If the universe really is as generations of science fiction writers have wished it to be, have therefore imagined it in order to play their literary space opera games–filled with advanced elder races, mutated human clades, artificial intelligences–it’s going to be a lot stranger than space opera has ever imagined.

On a psychological and metaphysical level, it’s going to be chock full of the humanly incomprehensible. Humans who get out there, whether in hypothetical reality or in the pages of a novel attempting to render that reality, are going to find themselves awash in a sea of not merely conventional science fictional wonders but wonders that really do transcend human understanding.

Clute succeeds in creating in the reader this psychological state of metaphysical befuddlement. He does it with the power of prose alone, not true extrapolative speculation. In the end, he fails to make the incomprehensible fully comprehensible.

But for all I know, that was his intent, for after all, by definition the incomprehensible cannot be rendered comprehensible. And thus, in purely literary terms, in purely psychological terms–and this is a "science fiction novel" whose existence is purely literary–Appleseed is a "realistic" novel.

The alien will be truly alien. It cannot be rendered mimetically and comprehensibly, it can only be "realistically" approached asymptotically in a kind of poetic manner, in a "spaceship" built entirely of words, leaving the reader with esthetic affect rather than intellectual understanding.

Is this the transformation that "SF" is approaching? Where, paradoxically, its "fantasy" branch uses the techniques of "science fiction" to create the illusion of connection to consensus reality, while its "science fiction" branch abandons speculative mimesis, abandons its game of imbuing its fictional universes with the illusion of verisimilitude, abandons in a sense those very same techniques, to become a "science fiction that knows it’s science fiction," to play a purely literary game?"

No doubt both these trends will continue to expand and exfoliate at the literary cutting edge while more traditional modes of "fantasy" and "science fiction" continue to be written. Perhaps out of this dialectic will emerge something that is neither and both, a new form of literature as presently impossible to comprehend as the end-point of Appleseed, a literature that, having broken the bonds of both science fiction and fantasy, will become the characteristic literature of the twenty-first century.

It’s been a long strange trip.

Sure to get stranger still.

Stranger than we can presently even imagine.

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"On Books: Movements" by Norman Spinrad, copyright © 2002 with premission of the author.


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