On Books

Outside The Envelope

by Norman Spinrad


by Jeff Noon,
Angry Robot, £8.99

by Michel Houellebecq,
Vintage, £8y Blou.99

by Boualem Sansal,
Europa Editions, $17.00

Aircraft test pilots talk about flying at the edge of the envelope, knowing just how fast and how high a plane they are test flying has previously gone, its currently known flight envelope, and then trying to see if they can push it a little over the edge without losing control or crashing it out. Ball players talk about playing within themselves, but trying to push the edge.

What does this have to do with speculative fiction in general and what is called science fiction in particular? Think of the SF genre. What makes it a genre? It’s a literary envelope, a set of requirements and limitations.

Back in the day when this commercial and story-telling envelope was coalescing around the sci fi magazines and the post-World War II paperback science fiction novels, the requirements were a speculative element, usually scientific or technical, a standard “plot skeleton” in which a sympathetic “hero,” with whom the reader could identify, confronts a “villain” or physical dilemma or both and triumphs in the end. The limits were keeping sexual description and a list of “dirty words” (now the so-called Carlin words) out of it, and sticking to standard so-called “transparent prose,” meaning no idiosyncratic style at all.

The SF genre envelope.

In those days, there weren’t many SF genre novels pushing at its edge simply because the genre SF publishers didn’t want to publish them. But there were always a few writers who managed to escape the envelope entirely by being published outside it from the git-go while still writing what was science fiction, or at least speculative fiction, by any coherent literary criteria.

Think of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and later science fiction novels. These were science fiction novels by writers who had never been circumscribed within the SF genre envelope in the first place. Consider most tellingly Kurt Vonnegut, who began his literary career within the genre envelope because that seemed to be the only way that what he was writing could be published, but ruthlessly fought his way out of it and finally broke completely free with Slaughterhouse-Five. He made his contempt for the SF envelope and those within it all too clear ever after.

For a long time, this was the general situation. If you had never been pigeonholed inside the genre envelope, you could publish what was science fiction, or at least speculative fiction, by publishers likewise outside the genre envelope, the only criterion being literary excellence, or at least what such publishers deemed literary excellence and/or general marketing viability.

This is not to say that fiction of literary excellence was not being written inside the envelope and within its parameters. Or that there weren’t writers in there pushing at the edge—Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, and so forth—expanding the envelope to some extent by doing it, but still constrained by the realities of genre publishing. Science fiction was a commercial backwater with a limited readership, or at least that was the way it was published.

But there was a literary upside. That limited readership was an educated readership, cognoscenti as it were—you didn’t have to play to a general audience, you weren’t expected to do that. So while there were limitations, as long as you didn’t want to write for a general mainstream demographic or didn’t try, there was a degree of intellectual and speculative freedom not to be found trying to write the same sort of literature as so-called “mainstream fiction.”

Then more or less simultaneously came the New Wave and Star Trek (indeed, I was writing Bug Jack Barron and “The Doomsday Machine” at the same time). Among other things, the New Wave was an attempt to break SF free from the genre envelope in the direction of serious artistic literature. Star Trek (and Star Wars afterward) broke science fiction out of its commercial ghetto and into the demographic mainstream by introducing its previously secret alphabet to the culture at large via television and cinema.

For a while this seemed symbiotic. The requirements and limits of the genre envelope were broken down for those who wanted to write literarily adventurous speculative fiction and the demographic commercial limits of SF publishing were greatly expanded. This, in the 1960s and well into the 1970s and perhaps even into the 1980s—not the 1930s—was the Golden Age of Science Fiction, economically and creatively.

Or so it seemed.

Cut to the present.

The visual media—television, film, video games, etc.—haven’t conquered science fiction, or more properly “Sci-Fi.” Sci-Fi has conquered the visual media, rather, in large part because in the twenty-first century when FX allows the visual media to create whatever eye candy it can dream up on one screen or another or all of them at the same time, Sci-Fi wars, aliens, space battles, strange new worlds and futures and so forth, can’t be beat for sheer visual excitement—story telling and emotional complexity being ipso facto secondary to the bottom line.

However . . .

However, as far as publishing SF books is concerned, the far more lucrative visual industry—show biz, that is—rules. How can it not? Even flop films and TV series are in effect enormous free advertising for tie-in novels. And the ones that succeed generate film and multimedia franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and, even better, the vast cornucopia of Marvel franchises.

And of late, the SF genre publishers have gotten it into their commercial calculations that they can publish novel franchises that are not tie-ins to anything but themselves. Unless, of course, they luck out and film or TV or game rights to them get bought by the show biz giants instead of the other way around.

Such is the twenty-first century Sci-Fi bottom line. It is now easier to sell a first novel franchise to SF publishers than to sell not just a first novel, but any of what is now openly called a freestanding or stand-alone novel. This is not a joke. I am not making it up. More SF publishers than not are openly admitting this and welcoming it.

So where does that leave writers who choose or have chosen to write speculative fiction for literary, political, cultural, visionary, scientific, or idealistic reasons, writers who have to make a living, but refuse to bow down to Mammon?

Up shit’s creek, that’s where.

Mea culpa, as a critic during the beginnings of this transformation I was in retrospect not giving enough credit to true and sincere science fiction written by talented novelists in the center of the SF envelope who were more or less content to remain there. Writers like Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Hal Clement, and so forth, even the early Frank Herbert. And newer writers with the ambition to be like them. As was I in the beginning. The center of the envelope was the core, the heart, by definition—how could it be anything else? How could anything else be the core?

And that is what is being lost, if it has not been lost already. Not only is the economic pressure to write the first novel of a franchise instead of a stand-alone first novel enormous, not only is creating a franchise overwhelmingly tempting to already established writers, too—it is becoming more and more difficult to do anything else.

The center cannot hold. The heart and core is dying. One way or another, the literarily committed speculative fiction and the people with the ambition to begin writing it, as well as those who have been writing it all along, are being driven not so much to the edge of the commercial SF publishing envelope but well outside it.

Take a writer like Jeff Noon and a novel like A Man of Shadows, for example. Noon was a literarily adventurous writer from the beginning with his first novel, Vurt, published in 1993 in Britain where it nevertheless won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel and only later in America where it was well received as such. Not surprising, since he is English, but germane because in those post-New Wave days, speculative fiction that transcended the SF genre envelope could more readily be published by central SF publishers in Britain, and win a major science fiction award, while still being regarded as also avant-garde.

Noon’s next few novels were published in more or less the same manner, but while being greeted as much the same thing in Britain, were greeted with dwindling enthusiasm within the SF genre publishing envelope in America, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century in Britain, too. For by then it was already easier to write such fiction outside the edge of the envelope than to get the result published within.

His latest novel, A Man of Shadows, was published by Angry Robot books, a small press in England, available in the United States through major publishers acting as distributors but without an American edition—a common small press arrangement. The one before that, Mappalujo, written with Steve Bear and, uh, what Noon calls “the Mappalujo engine,” was published by something called rEvolution SF, which may or may not be a self-publishing device.

Mappalujo is something outside of any conceivable envelope, literarily, formally, and even literally, being the product of two humans and a semi-randomized algorithm. It is hard to even describe, let alone commercially publishable by anything other than an extremely literarily revolutionary small press, and maybe not even that.

A Man of Shadows is also way beyond the envelope of even entirely mimetic anything, let alone Sci-Fi. Although it is billed as the second “Nyquist Mystery,” it appears to be the first in the series. About the only thing that seems to make it part of a “Nyquist Mystery” franchise is the ongoing central detective and the ongoing venue he works in, an ancient detective novel tradition. Nevertheless it has had to be published by a fringe small press, would-be open-ended franchise novel or not, and certainly not because Jeff Noon’s depth, style, and imaginative puissance have at all deteriorated—indeed in a certain sense because they have not.

A nameless city somewhere not in any recognizable geographic or temporal nonfictional reality is divided into Dayzone, where there is never any night, and Nocturna, where there is always night, and Shadow, which is something nebulous and sinister and sort of a magical inbetween. Private detective John Nyquist lives in Nocturna, but works also in Dayzone. And when he is hired to retrieve Eleanor Bale, the runaway teenage daughter of a man of power, he finds himself becoming more and more involved with surrealistic doings in Dusk, the shadowy region between, becoming more and more involved and influenced with this peculiar realm that does not exactly exist in the same literary reality of Dayzone and Nocturna. Hence the title of the novel.

The plot of the novel is traditional hard-boiled detective stuff—Nyquist’s mission to retrieve Eleanor, and Nyquist himself is superficially your lowdown and personally beaten down private eye, but only superficially. The story has as many physical conflicts and beatings, turns and mysteries, and connections to both the scurviest social levels and higher political levels you would expect in a well-written novel of this genre, a summary of which I will not attempt to elucidate.

But central lead character and detective mission plotline or not, A Man of Shadows is not really a genre detective novel. Nor is it a genre science fiction novel. Nor a fantasy novel. Nor a surrealist novel. Nor a cyberpunk novel. Nor a steampunk novel. It is all of them and none of them.

Would-be second novel in a would-be “Nyquist” franchise or not, A Man of Shadows is primarily a Jeff Noon novel. Meaning that it is written in the Jeff Noon style, full of strange new beings, human or not exactly, that no man has seen before and won’t meet anywhere else and cavalierly indifferent to mixing levels of reality, while at the same time being down and dirty mimetic in the world-building of all of them and stringing them together with plot, schtick, technology, psychedelic drugs, and characters that crisscross them.

In other words, Noon’s formidable literary and imaginative virtues are his commercial vices, and he isn’t the only one in this situation in what twenty-first-century publishing is becoming or has already become. That novelists like Jeff Noon, or say Rudy Rucker, Michael Bishop, or Thomas Disch could be reduced to small press publication or even self-publication, that the best and the brightest and the most literarily venturesome should be so far out from even the edge of the SF publishing envelope is not exactly praise of what remains inside.

On the other hand, this leaves interesting possibilities for writers who, by luck or clever design, have made their literary and commercial bones in the so-called “mainstream,” meaning in initially publishing anything that was anything but SF before writing anything remotely like speculative fiction. A current and central example being Michel Houellebecq.

Houellebecq writes in French, and after reviewing a few books here that were not available in English, including one of his, I was told not to do it anymore. But his latest, Submission, is available in English translation, so it is fair game.

Although his first book was, of all things, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, a work of nonfiction whose topic was so far inside the SF envelope that one would think it would have marked him with the Sci-Fi reputation, if indeed not even “fannish,” Houellebecq escaped that commercially limiting fate entirely. His first novel, Whatever, had no speculative element whatever, was published in France as mainstream literature, made into a movie, translated into English, and introduced him as a “mainstream novelist” and a major one in France.

Paradoxically, or not paradoxically, depending on how you look at it, more of the novels he has written afterward than not are not centered on their speculative and indeed straightforward science fictional elements. But those speculative elements, one way or another, center around a common Houellebecqian weltanshaung from which his stylistic power and notorious and controversial public fame emerge.

Michel Houellebecq is misanthropic, I mean really misanthropic. At least literarily, he despises the human race as a whole, the 1960s counterculture and its human descendants with particular contempt, and even the French culture in which he is a literary lion. And he enjoys it. And makes the reader enjoy it. Think H.L. Mencken. Think a bitter Lenny Bruce. Think Ambrose Bierce.

But Houellebecq takes it one giant step further via the obsessive science fictional element in several of his novels—the replacement of despicable homo sapiens by other and supposedly morally superior beings. It doesn’t get any more misanthropic than that, because it simply can’t.

And if this is not only speculative fiction, but out and out science fiction by literary definition, then nothing is because nothing can be. But Michel Houelle­becq escapes the SF envelope by never having anything to do with it from his very first novel, which had no such element in it even though his first published book was a study of H.P. Lovecraft.

His latest novel, Submission, for once has no such scientific speculation, but boy is this as much speculative fiction as Bug Jack Barron or 1984. The point being that “science fiction” has long been a literary misnomer, and “speculative fiction” does not have to even have a scientific element. A political and/or cultural speculation will do just fine, whether you’ve been tagged an SF writer or not.

In Submission Houellebecq doesn’t overthrow the human race, merely French culture, French democracy, and French Christianity. This is about as mellow as he gets, which isn’t very much, and unsurprisingly it created such an outraged uproar in France that it became a despised number one best seller, and Houellebecq needed body-guards and even became a transnational cause celebre. With it Michel Houellebecq greatly advanced his already impressive position as the writer that you love to hate—and as far as Houellebecq seems to say in the print and media press, the feeling is mutual.

Submission was first published in France in 2015, at a time when the paranoia about jihadi terrorism, and the fear of France’s large Muslim population—over five million people, by far the most of any country in Europe—was reaching its apogee.

The real terrorist danger aside, the cultural paranoia was that those five million Muslims and the Muslim refugees from the Middle East would outbreed the “native French,” and, by further diluting France’s already indifferent adherence to its ancient Roman Catholicism, would destroy what these people believed was the Christianity upon which European culture itself was based. And this is the thematic core of Houellebecq’s Submission.

The first-person narrator of the novel is a highly sophisticated, erudite, and educated academic professor of literature—stylistically and intellectually, at least, the voice of Michel Houellebecq himself. He abhors Muslims and Islam itself as undermining true French culture via religion, but being an avatar of Houellebecq himself, also detests the remnants of the revolutionaries of 1968 who have more or less won the culture war in France, and now, as writers, intellectuals, and politicians, have become the cultural and political power elite themselves.

So what’s a poor true conservative professor to do? Unlike Michel Houellebecq himself, who gave it a try that didn’t work, he’s not about to sing in a rock and roll band. What’s worse personally, much worse, is that a cunning and charismatic Muslim politician has led an Islamic party into dominance of a ruling coalition that is not too subtly using its political power to Islamicize academe, too. This rope-a-dopes Houellebecq’s professor into an existential corner where the cost of not submitting to that which he despises would be the end of his academic career.

Without giving away what his ultimate choice is, you can probably see why the publishing of this speculative novel by an already notorious curmudgenly writer who France already loved to hate, was a red hot potato and runaway best seller in France, and an international cause celebre too.

And of course it was essentially a speculative novel, the central speculation not being scientific, though Houellebecq had elsewhere shown his ability to do that too, but political and cultural speculation as surely as George Orwell’s 1984 or my own Bug Jack Barron and Russian Spring.

Orwell made the mistake of setting his future dystopia in the year of the title, by now long past, and converting it to an alternate history, though if he hadn’t placed it in a given year, that would not have happened. I knew better than to be that specific with Bug Jack Barron, but I had already written two drafts setting the time frame some years past a Bobby Kennedy presidency and the book was already being copyedited when he was assassinated. Fortunately it was not yet published, so I could write out his presidency. With Russian Spring, with a near-future Soviet Union front and center and no specific temporal future setting, the book had already been published first in the Soviet Union. But by the time it was published in the United States, the Soviet Union was gone, and the novel became, particularly in post-Soviet Russia, a nostalgic and alternate history of a better road not taken.

With Submission, Houellebecq made the worse mistake of specifically setting his novel, which was first published in 2015, in 2020, after François Hollande was reelected President of France. But Hollande didn’t even run for a second term. And there is no Muslim party in France. The likelihood that there will be one by 2020 is slim to none, and even if it were to come into being, given the reality of French politics, its chance of joining a coalition government, let alone dominating it, is zero.

Worse still for the posterity of this speculative novel is that Houellebecq put real politicians, writers, and intellectuals of 2015 into speculative future positions, and not exactly in order to praise them. Taking the piss out of such personally detested luminaries no doubt was great nasty fun for Michel Houellebecq and for the many readers who agreed with him, and no doubt sold additional books.

Thus in some ways the near-future speculative future novel, and particularly one set in a specific future year, borders on speculative journalism, of which I have written plenty. But the difference between fiction and journalism is that fiction is hopefully meant to endure, while journalism and particularly political journalism, is meant to influence the present and thereby the future, and therefore ephemeral by choice.

Literary success and value aside, unlike far-future speculation or avowed alternate history, near-future speculation can be wrong, even very wrong, even very wrong before it is even published, and this is the chance you take when you write it.

And right or wrong, it can get dangerous. Very dangerous. Even personally dangerous.

Boualem Sansal is an Algerian novelist writing in French. His 2084 The End of the World won the French Academy Grand Prix and has now been published in English by a small press, Europa Editions, but not in Arabic. And if you read it, you will understand why no publisher in a Muslim state is likely to do so, and perhaps Sansal himself, passionate would-be reformer that he seems to be here, knows better than to try. Some chances really are too dangerous to take.

The awkward double title is meant as a tribute to Orwell’s 1984, and its dim and distant memory plays a certain part in the ending of Sansal’s novel. But it is not an insult to George Orwell to say that Sansal’s novel is far deeper, far more sophisticated, and even more ruthless, and much more dangerous, both to the author and to his target. Which is not only extreme Salafist Islam, but arguably Islam itself, and indeed even the political fascism via its inherent mind control of the population at large of mono­theistic religion in general.

Boualem Sansal doesn’t attack Islam directly; that would generate a fusillade of fatwas against him personally. But few Muslims would not realize that his self-contained empire of “Abistan” represents Islamic rule, that the prophet “Abi” represents Mohammed, that his “Gkabul” represents the Koran, and “Yolah” represents Allah. This is glaringly obvious in the English translation and no doubt in the original French, and I suspect perilously close to obvious blasphemy in Arabic, and intended to be so.

2084 The End of the World is openly revolutionary in intent and a devastating attack on cultural and political Islam, but not a mere propagandistic screed. It is a full-fledged novel with a central character, Ati, who serves as a psychological and spiritual viewpoint, a kind of Candide traveling through Abistan on a vision quest, the nature of which he only slowly comes to understand.

And this is not only a politically speculative novel—it is a genuine science fiction novel, if you grant sophisticated technological and psychic mind control as a science, and it goes much further in that direction than 1984.

Abistan is not merely a theocratic totalitarian dictatorship, it presents itself as total reality itself, permanently ruled by the unseen immortal Abi, and entirely controlling the very consciousness of each and every individual as prescribed and proscribed by the Gkabul as the eternal and complete will of Yolah. There is not merely no hope of physical escape, there is no conscious thought of escape.

Abistan is the total perfection of absolute religious fascism. The media are technologically advanced and under complete control. Various kinds of mind and religious control police are everywhere. Anyone who so much as hints at having a different consciousness ends up in a stadium as part of a mass horrible torture and execution show for the delight of the audience commanded to attend. The very language, abilang, the only language permitted, is artificially created as a weapon of consciousness control, with an official prescription of words and meanings so that any thought against the permanence of the official reality of Abistan becomes virtually impossible.

But for the better in terms of hope, the possibility of revolution within this perfected nightmare of conscience control, if not literarily and politically logical, Boualem Sansal can’t quite bear to leave it there.

In The Solarians, my very first published novel, the story logic demanded that it end with the human race saved by the necessary sacrifice of billions of innocent humans—not only the dramatic denouement but the thematic epiphany. In the first draft, I wrote those mass deaths in, but in the final novel, I wrote them out. Just a novel, I wasn’t really killing any real people, but I just couldn’t do it. Many novels later, I came to the realization that, allowing for certain dystopian exceptions, I saw no point in writing novels designed to make the readers feel worse for having read them.

So I can sympathize with Sansal creating a revolutionary underground in a lumpenproletian underworld that may or may not overthrow his perfect eternal dystopia that, at least for me, weakens the literary impact. I couldn’t kill those fictional billions; he couldn’t leave his viewpoint character and the denizens of his perfected dystopia—and hence the reader—with nothing but despair.

Nor do I really want to leave the reader of this column with nothing but despair for the future of speculative fiction. Indeed, if you want to find hope for the literary future of speculative fiction, look outside the genre envelope to writers on the edge like Jeff Noon, to writers like Michel Houellebecq and Boualem Sansal, for whom it has never even existed.

Two of them writing in French and none of them American.

Speculative fiction, even genre science fiction inside the SF envelope and certainly outside it, is no longer as totally dominated by American writers or even the English language as it once was. Indeed, in part because in the rest of the world, science fiction, speculative fiction, whatever it might be called, was not born, and did not always and everywhere evolve within a genre envelope.

Long ago, Ray Bradbury wrote a very short story in which the United States has been nuked and Americans are driving home from Mexico in panicked hordes. One car stops at a gas station, and two Mexicans ask the driver what’s happened.

“Haven’t you heard, it’s the end of the world!” the driver tells them and boogies north up the road.

The Mexicans look at each other.

One of them shrugs.

“What do they mean the world?”


Copyright © 2018 Norman Spinrad