Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pattern Recognition

It's been a while since William Gibson's Pattern Recognition came out, and I still haven't managed to read it. I enjoyed Neuromancer very much, but haven't been impressed by some of his other work.

Nevertheless, this interview in the Blackbird Archive is fantastic. Most of it, you'll notice, is an extended meditation on what constitutes Science Fiction. This is important. I know I can't give a real answer as to why it is- many more eloquent than me have tried. But I get so tired of the dismissive, "oh, I don't read scifi."

There is an extraordinary body of work that satisfies all the requirements of science fiction but is not marketed as such. The Time Traveler's Wife is about a time traveler, for example, but it's still in the Contemporary Lit section so everyone reads it. Likewise Gregory MacGuire's fairytale re-imaginings like Wicked would be perfectly at home in the scifi section - you wouldn't even have to change the covers. Hundreds of CIA and crime thrillers deal with future weapons and genetic engineering and spy technology - but they have lots of guns, so that's okay.

But more than the tropes listed above, science fiction is a way of thinking.

As the review says;

The next matter to be settled is genre. William Gibson is a science fiction writer, so is this science fiction? The answer is yes and no. Unlike Vonnegut, who goes to some pains to say he's not writing science fiction even when he is, Gibson never shies from the label, even though he's perfectly aware it's not so simple a tag as it once was. Pattern Recognition is set in the present with no aliens or secret technologies. The plot turns on nothing more exotic technologically than chat rooms and posted film clips in a very recognizable Internet. Recently, Neal Stephenson's Cryptomonicon, as fat as Pattern Recognition is lean, was largely treated as a science fiction novel by reviewers, bookdealers, and readers, even nominated for sf awards, though the main action involves the breaking of the Enigma code of World War II and isn't science fiction in the usual sense. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, on another end of the spectrum, seems science fictional even though it takes place in a Dickensian steampunk world with no connection to ours.

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work. A realist wrestling with the woes of the middle class can leave the world out of it by and large except for an occasional swipe at the shallowness of suburbia. A science fiction writer must invent the world where the story takes place, often from the ground up, a process usually called world-building. In other words, in a science fiction novel, the world itself is a distinctive and crucial character in the plot, without whom the story could not take place, whether it's the world of Dune or Neuromancer or 1984. The world is the story as much as the story is in the world. Part of Gibson's point (and Stephenson's too for that matter) is that we live in a time of such accelerated change and layered realities, that we're all in that boat, like it or not. A novel set in the "real world" now has to answer the question, "Which one?"

Via Science Fictional. That post also has a link to this interview with William Gibson, equally interesting.

No comments: