Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Deep thoughts from the political science chair of Handwavia University

Wars, hot or cold, are also missing from standard science fiction versions of the future. Interplanetary wars don’t count, and neither do wars with robots or zombies. I mean wars among nation-states or global alliances or regional blocs. George Orwell’s 1984, inspired in part by James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, imagined a world divided among three totalitarian blocs: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction.

Typically, as noted above, science fiction authors posit a united world under benign or tyrannical world government. How our present divided world came to be united in the future is seldom explained. Science fiction authors are notorious for getting out of plot holes by inventing new technologies like “handwavium.” The political equivalent of handwavium is the World Federation of Handwavia.

Global political unification is becoming less, not more, likely.

Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.

—Michael Lind, The Future of the Future

It’s fair enough, I suppose, to say that a great deal of futuristic sf assumes a one-world government of some sort. But to say, “I can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” seems to beg two questions. 1.) Do you know nothing about sf? 2.) What do you mean by “well-known”?

I mean, 1984 is commonly taught in high schools here in the U.S., and I suspect it’s taught in other English-speaking countries, too. So if by “well-known,” Lind means “part of compulsory education” or “absorbed into common parlance by cultural osmosis,” he still stands on shaky ground.

Let’s consider some counter-examples.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887, probably the preeminent American utopian novel, catapulted its protagonist from the late 19th c. to the end of the 20th., into a Boston that exemplified a nation run somewhere halfway between socialist and fascist principles. Even in that future, where everything was hunky-dory in the U.S., Bellamy is careful to point out that not every nation had reached that height of development, and that America was trying to make inroads through trade and diplomacy. Not many people read Bellamy today outside of academic circles or sf fandom, but Looking Backward was huge in its day. And by “huge,” I mean that it directly impact the shape of domestic politics and served as a touchstone for two generations of political activists and reformers.

Authors who relied often upon the one-world trope still imagined futures where the world was not united. Robert Heinlein’s Moon Is a Harsh Mistress presents an Earth vs. Moon political scenario in order to distill his anarcho-libertarian politics into the pure essence of TANSTAAFL. However, the human-Martian protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land receives help from a cranky old lawyer in leveraging the various governments of the world against each other in order to preserve his own political freedom. It’s probably true that people outside sf fandom have read a ton of Heinlein, but he is unquestionably one of the most significant artists of the genre, and Stranger in a Strange Land was notable for being the first sf novel to hit the NYT Bestseller list.

Another subset of science fiction, one more overtly interested in historiography, presents the sweep of history on such a scale that one-world utopia (or dystopia) is but one part of humanity’s evolution. A particularly trenchant example is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which never once assumes that humanity got over nationalism (or other forms of tribalism). Instead, it presumes that we managed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust not once but twice in the course of millennia. The only visions of the future presented there are of varying shades of provincialism. With this novel, though, we are drifting further and further from the realm of popular literature and more into the depths of sf fandom. Despite its nearly-uncontested status as a canonical work of sf, it is admittedly primarily of interest to academics and genre fans. Yet it seems to me that if Lind is going to contend that the elites have been heavily influenced by sf, doesn’t it follow that he expects them to be somewhat familiar with its classics? No?

Contemporary film and television are probably closer to what Lind means. (Maybe?) While Star Trek is likely the most famous future to feature a utopian one-world government at the seat of a galactic federation, other shows and films are not so sanguine. Defiant depicts a near-future after Earth has been through an alien invasion, and new national governments are in the process of attempting to hegemonize the city-states that have thrived since the fall of the world governments. The time travel series Continuum’s future is (as I recall, though it’s been a while since I watched the pilot) a quasi-corporate police state.

Then again, I wouldn’t categorize Defiant or Continuum as “well-known.” Neither enjoys canonical status. Neither is common cultural currency. I would even argue that the most popular science fiction titles tend not to be futuristic. The most well-known are almost all set in a parallel present. Disney’s partnership with Marvel has yielded a juggernaut money-making machine, and films and shows like Agents of SHIELD and the Captain America films are explicitly in touch with the changes superhumans would wreak upon geopolitics. Lind writes elsewhere in his article, “Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness.” That’s simply untrue. Those themes are absolutely part of the Marvel cinematic universe. Other well-known film and TV examples abound. What about District 9? Or Stargate SG-1? Oh, that’s right. They have interplanetary wars with aliens, and those don’t count.

(Almost forgot that part, didn’t you?)

Why don’t interplanetary wars count? Why not wars with robots or zombies? Why does Lind dispense with half the bedrock tropes of science fiction before staking his major claim? What is the point of chastising science fiction as a whole when he’s really only talking about a tiny fraction of it?

Most science-fiction readers would recognize the contours of today’s geopolitics in everything from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s not even taking into account the complicated political worlds of cyberpunk, ranging from William Gibson’s Sprawl stories to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to take-your-pick of anime. All of these are totally typical representatives of sf. Some of them even have cachet beyond sf circles. An argument so contingent upon the particularities of sf ought not, in good faith, frame an argument so as to exclude the vast majority of available evidence.

Yet the only way Lind’s argument makes any sense at all is if he defines his parameters so narrowly that the only science fiction that fits them is not sufficiently “well-known.” That just seems like the essayistic equivalent of reversing the polarity of handwavium. If Lind “can’t think of any other well-known examples of geopolitics in science fiction,” perhaps he’s suffering from handwavium poisoning.

 

UPDATE (19 Oct 2016): After publishing this, I realized that I should acknowledge Lind’s larger point, which is to critique the elitist notion that history will culminate in a universal liberal-democratic government. I understand that, for him, the sf stuff is a means to that end. But it’s a really, really bad choice as a means to that particular end, and just as Lind undervalues the variety and complexity of sf, I suspect he overlooks the variety and complexity of the ways that the elite understand the trajectory of history.

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An obstruction to daily life

Lewis is my earliest influence. I loved Narnia so much, was obsessed with it. And the closest I ever came to being a formal Christian was The Screwtape Letters, which actually David Foster Wallace recommended to me. I found it convincing. I think he found it convincing, too.

For me with Lewis, though—well, it goes back to something I said before, the idea that all these texts perhaps refer to an ultimate reality or gesture toward it. But the question of submitting to one particular cultural response to that ultimate reality? I never understood how I was meant to make that choice. With Lewis, it’s the commitment itself that’s important, the fact that he has made this choice. That is faith. And I suppose what I’m saying is I am a faithless person, who occasionally admires faith in others.

I think Lewis is also the most beautiful writer. The clarity is so fine. And the intimacy. If you’re suffering from grief, to read his book on grief—it’s so direct, so lacking in cant and pomposity and bluster. He’s very clear, and he also has that kind of writerly instinct for knowing your doubts or suspicions. He really has them covered. That’s what Screwtape is, basically; it’s just a series of pre-emptive descriptions of your objections, articulating them before you can yourself and in this manner neutralizing them.

But I guess even from the Narnia books, I always thought that—it sounds ridiculous—that to make good on the kind of belief expressed in them—not to be in bad faith—would be to be enormously lost to joy, so that you wouldn’t be able to go about your daily life. I think maybe that’s one of the frightening things about faith for me, that it would be an obstruction of my daily life, and I like my everyday sinful life.

–Zadie Smith interviewed by Jane Zwart, Only Connect


“He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one.”

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose.

–Tom Bissell, Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20

 


Geniuses and storytellers

“The problem for geniuses writing conceptually-driven fiction (however timely it may be) is that concepts, and the connections between them, are platonically timeless. Human connections, on the other hand, are made of nothing else but time—memory, reflection, the slow accumulation of time shared. Maybe what we need are fewer novels by geniuses, and more stories by storytellers.”

–Jessi Stevens, “Against Realism