I’m always on the lookout for groups or schools or clubs that might, if they knew of me, have me as a member, so that I might Marxily walk away before they think to ask; so when the Millions teased the heralding of a New Modernist age (with a parenthetical invocation of Josipovici), well—I had to go take a peek.
More recently—say, in the last 20 years or so—numerous so-called postmodern novels have contained this distinctly non-postmodern quality—not that the characters feel so much as the reader. The cumulative effect isn’t necessarily a fully fleshed-out character but a fully emotional experience. Think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s strong sentiments in the face of the Holocaust and 9/11; think of the alligator-wrestling family at the heart of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; think of the way Ali Smith works her linguistic magic in order to convey the complexities of love and relationships; or the heart-breaking wallop of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary; think of Reif Larsen’s I am Radar, of Zadie Smith’s NW, of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Can these books truly be considered postmodern when the most prevalent aspect is emotion rather than thought?
Consider the way even genre fiction has been infiltrated by humanity and feeling. Science fiction is no longer merely speculative, adventurous and pure fabulism. Now we have Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and myriad others. Fantasy is no longer characterized simply by lengthily described worlds and political intrigue; now we have Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles and almost everything David Mitchell has written. These so-called genre books now aspire to human heights.
So, well, yes—careful with that cricket bat, Eugene—not so much of a there there. —I drew what amusement I might from the idea of a return to modernism’s warm emotional core, a repudiation of the chilly formal games of postmodernism, but it’s weak tea at best, and then there’s the evocation of Franzen. (Turns out postmodern tropes are like thermal curtains: not as embarrassing as one first thought.) —I mean, I did then pick up the Attebery I’m leafing through, for reasons, turned the page, and laughed at the juxtaposition of the previous with this paragraph—
John Barth has described the reductio ad absurdum of the Modernist movement in his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”: “Somebody-or-other’s unbound, unpaginated, randomly assembled novel in a box.” According to Barth, Modernism’s program of “disjunction, simultaneity, irrationalism, anti-illusionism, self-reflexiveness, medium-as-message, political olympianism, and a moral pluralism approaching moral entropy” was accomplished by the middle of this [past] century. Readers had been educated, had grown wary of literary illusion, could no longer take narrative or narrator for granted. Nothing remained for Modernist writers to exercise their irony upon, and so Modernist fiction had nothing more to say.
—but that smacks entirely too much of pulling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a fern, and anyway, a page earlier Attebery was summing up Edmund Wilson’s take on modernism as “essentially mimetic reporting striving to turn into lyric poetry,” and would you look at that? I’ve been a modernist all this time.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too unkind—charity, and resounding gongs, if nothing else. It’s understandable that modernism and postmodernism are so easily confused: postmodernism’s merely what modernism gets up to in our bedroom after the war, and you know me: I’m a partisan of that small country, mindful of death, disinclined to long journeys, ever since the war and all, you know. —Which may not explain to you why I eagerly clicked on the link to an article titled, “For the future struggle: what is science fiction?” but trust me, I was eager to read something with a tagline that read, “The science fiction that is most important is that which situates itself at a point of struggle.” (—I want to be wrong. —Doesn’t everyone?)
I was eager, but I read it with a deepening frown, a weightening sigh. It isn’t so much a paean or a how-to or even a why-we-must on revolutionary SF; it’s just a minor jeremiad against utopia, which, I mean—
The originating Utopia of Thomas Moore’s 16th century novel was founded by King Utopos, who cut off the peninsula from the mainland, making it into an island. Utopias are, like their primary ancestor, closed systems, functioning perfectly without class, oppression or struggle. As islands, cauterized from the world, proper utopias are resided in by unchanging, eternal societies, a conception which is both absurd and bordering on fascism in its undemocratic and unquestioning existence.
Utopias then are in fact antithetical to science fiction. They are more like a blueprint of a future society, instructions and pictures of a post-revolutionary world rather than stories set in those worlds. Narrative relies on change, process and struggle, all things that cannot happen within a utopia in which struggle, need and desire have been banished.
—sure, if you define it like that. —Utopia is when our lives matter, dammit, and if you can’t make that storyable, God help you. —Inept utopias are bad, to be sure, but these future worlds the mode demands as backdrops for its narratives and struggles—when the action pauses for a moment, and you take a breath, and look around, and see just how it’s different, the then and there, from the here and now, that such difference is imaginable, possible, that it’s amazing, frightening, thought-sparking, utterly uncanny, the home you never knew you could have—this is what breaks hearts, cracks heads, keeps Plato up at night. (It’s also what can bring on the abjunct, yes. I mean, I know I’m wrong. It’s impossible. Look around you.)
So maybe we wouldn’t disagree, Stupart and Dillon and me, ends and means, broadly speaking and all that, it’s just how we marshal our arguments, but still, details matter, I mean theirs or to again be charitable the constraint of wordcounts or something leads to a tendentious misreading of Delany’s Triton: Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part One—
On this heterotopia on Neptune’s moon, Triton, the lead character Bron attempts to live in a post capitalist world where anyone can change gender and sexuality at will and structural oppression appears to no longer exist. However, despite living in a world ruled by individual freedoms, religious mania, the threat of war and violent subjectivities still exist, as typified in the main character themself.
—by way of demonstrating that Triton is one of the good ones, the not-a-utopias, see? Struggle! —But Triton is a utopia, where all our stupid petty bullshit misunderstood and -standing lives matter. —The war, the very real and not at all threatened war, comes from outside Triton, from way back down on Old damned Earth, and maybe I cling to this because these days when I think of the book it isn’t Bron’s shaggy-dog of a story that sticks, or the New York City I can see in it now that I’ve lived there (once, and long ago), or even the game of vlet; what looms over everything else in the book now comes at the very end, Appendix B: Ashima Slade and the Harbin-Y Lectures: Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part Two, the part that begins:
Just over a year ago, at Lux on Iapetus, five million people died. To single out one death among that five million as more tragic than another would be monumental presumption.
One of the many, many to die, when gravity and atmosphere were stripped away from the city by Earth Intelligence sabotage, was the philosopher and mathematician Ashima Slade.
And, I mean—