POSTMODERNISM AND SF


POSTMODERNISM AND SF
   "Modernism" is a useful umbrella term for the art that followed the collapse of Romanticism, especially in the first half of the 20th century, but Postmodernism is not simply its more recent replacement. In fact, most contemporary serious writing remains insistently Modernist. The term "Postmodernism" implies a theory of both writing and the world, and ashift in emphasis and method.In literature, Postmodernism is usually held to imply showy playfulness, genre-bending, and denial of neat aesthetic or moral wrap-up; above all, writing that knows or even struts itself as writing, rather than as innocent portrayal. John BARTH, Jorge Luis BORGES, Christine BROOKE-ROSE, Italo CALVINO, Angela CARTER, Don DELILLO, PhilipK. DICK, Umberto ECO, Raymond Federman and Thomas PYNCHON are all Postmodernists whose inventions edge close to sf. Within the genre one might name J.G. BALLARD, Samuel R. DELANY, William GIBSON, Michael MOORCOCK, Rudy RUCKER, John T. SLADEK, Kurt VONNEGUT Jr, Robert AntonWILSON, Joanna RUSS and Ian WATSON as well as Norman SPINRAD (sometimes), Lucius SHEPARD (maybe) and even A.E. VAN VOGT (ahead of his time). Sheer novelty, or even quality, are insufficient to qualify as Postmodernists such writers as Brian W. ALDISS, Thomas M. DISCH, Gene WOLFE and the early Roger ZELAZNY - exemplary sf Modernists all, but not Postmodernists. Suchcatalogues, however, may miss a deeper point.Brian McHale, in Postmodernist Fiction (1987), sees Postmodernism as defined by its focus,as ontological rather than epistemological. That is, where Modernism focuses upon "knowing" and its limits, including what we know about others and ourselves as subjects, Postmodernism by contrast asks about "being", the worlds the subject inhabits; it is about objects rather than subjects. This shift reflects a realization that the world of human experience ismultiple and open-ended. The Postmodern condition has an analogy in quantum theory (PHYSICS), where phenomena are modelled by abstract waves in many superposed states, collapsing to a single value or "reality" only in the act of observation.Contemporary sf undoubtedly intersects the Postmodernism of mainstream literature, especially when it follows thekinds of strategy pioneered by Delany in such self-reflexive texts as, perhaps, DHALGREN (1975) and, definitely, Triton (1976). For McHale, sf is "perhaps the ontological genre par excellence. We can think of sciencefiction as Postmodernism's noncanonized or 'low art' double, its sister-genre in the same sense that the popular detective thriller is Modernism's sister-genre." Sf is, of all the genres, the one thatconstructs "realities" as a matter of course.Perhaps the most influential critical account is the Marxist Fredric Jameson's. In "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (July/Aug 1984 New Left Review), he itemizes its stigmata. He finds "a flatness or depthlessness" to be "perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the Postmodernisms", and also awaning of feeling linked to an alleged loss of people's sense of themselves as individuals, and the consequent replacement of "affect" (especially alienated angst) with "a peculiar kind of euphoria"; the endof personal style and a sense of history (and memory) and their replacement by pastiche (not parody, but the transcoding of Modernist styles into jargon, badges and other decorations) and nostalgia; a schizophrenic fragmentation of artistic texts, marked especially by collage; and, most of all, the "hysterical sublime", in which the alien or "other" surpasses our power to represent it and pitches us into a sort ofGothic rapture (see also BIG DUMB OBJECTS; SENSE OF WONDER). All of these qualities often characterize not only the arguably Postmodern environment in which we live but also sf in particular, which Jameson himself has recognized in his many essays on sf topics in SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES. His theorizing is borrowed explicitly and persuasively for sf by Vivian SOBCHACK in the last chapter of her Screening Space: The American ScienceFiction Film (1987), which projects a "postfuturism".Jameson suggests specifically that today's information networks "afford us some glimpse into a post-modern or technological sublime", which is perhaps what we find in the VIRTUAL REALITIES of the CYBERPUNK writers, where simulation and reality dissolve into one another. Indeed, Jameson later claimed in Postmodernism (1991) that cyberpunk was "the supreme literary expressionif not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself".Innovative sf writers have adopted several of the expansive possibilities of metafiction, MAGIC REALISM and poststructuralist FABULATION (which see for further discussion of issues raised in this entry) in general; but more specific both to sf and other Postmodernisms is a comparable adoption of the language of scientific discourse rather than that of traditional literature, and this too tends to the abolition of Modernism's subjectivity - a common feature in late cyberpunk, as in Michael SWANWICK's Vacuum Flowers (1987). In their emphasis on the technologicalsurround, on the dense new lexicons bursting up especially from the consumer-oriented market productivity of post-industrial science, both sf and Postmodernism give a privileged position to outward context, code and world rather than to a poetic inward "message". They stress object over subject, ways of being over ways of knowing. The Universe itself becomes a text, open to endless interpretation and rewriting.Two generalizing texts about Postmodernism, neither specifically about sf, are The Postmodern Condition (1979) by Jean-François Lyotard and the weird The PostmodernScene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics (1986) by Arthur Kroker and David Cook. A book relating Postmodernism in general to sf specifically is the unevenly useful Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide (anth 1986) ed Larry McCaffery (1946-).Alternate Worlds: A Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction (1990) by John Kuehl discusses many Postmodern authors of marginal, non-genre sf. A good introduction from several perspectives can be found in the special Postmodernism number of JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS vol 1 \#4 (1988). The Postmodernism issue of Science-Fiction Studies(Nov 1991) has translations of essays on simulacra and on Ballard by the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, an important theoretician in this area, along with other interesting material including Ballard's enjoyably intemperate response. Also illuminating is Tom Moylan's Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (1986 UK).
   DB

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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