Saturday, December 10, 2005


The Fifth Wave

Paul McAuley is one smart cookie. I first discovered his stuff a few years back, when I started reading his Dr. Pretorius stories in Stephen Jones's annual Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series, and went from there to read the collection The Invisible Country. At WorldCon this year, Kim Newman introduced me to Paul, and I had the opportunity to have quite a few drinks in the Moathouse bar with him. He's definitely a class act.

More than that, he's just summed up my thoughts about science fiction in his interview in the most recent issue of Locus:
"All the tropes we're using now come from science fiction's deep history. Since cyberspace, I don't think there's been a brand-new trope, with the possible exception of the singularity. But the problem with the singularity is that it is the end of science fiction. After all, if the singularity is going to happen, it won't be possible to imagine what comes after it, and it isn't possible to write fiction there. It's a kind of anti-trope. Meanwhile, we're left with a large amount of often very good commercial science fiction that furnishes new plots for secondhand tropes and received, unexamined notions, and a small amount of the kind of stuff I find really exciting--stuff that re-examines classic tropes from the ground up, tries to make them fresh again. Ideas like time travel, alternate history, aliens, and so on have been around a long time now; in fact, they've been around so long that novelists outside the field make sue of them, as in Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, or David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. But that doesn't mean you can't think of new ways of using them, or of re-imagining them.

"The story of genre seems to me to be rather like the story of colonization of a new land. The first explorers make landfall and everything is strange, weird, off-kilter: 'Where the hell are we? Look at those trees! Look at that odd animal hopping away! These things look like mammals but they lay eggs! These have pouches!' And so on, and so on--a babble of pure wonders without attempt at analysis, beyond the fact that all this strange stuff is out there in a strange land where people can have new kinds of adventures. Then the second wave comes along, and they start building homes and establishing settlements--making the exotic more human along the fringes of the coast, committing all kinds of horrible crimes against the native ecology and trying to force the indigenous inhabitants to give up their worthless culture, and generally asserting the superiority of Western values over everything else. The third wave brings industrialization and sticks railroads everywhere--the vast interior is mapped and colonized, just as we imagine the planetary systems of near stars can be turned into a kind of arena for human story. Aliens are no longer weird for weirdness's sake; nor are they there to be conquered or made into object lessons; now we trade with them. The fourth wave is full of post-colonization guilt and regret. We've used everything up or destroyed it. Everything seems like a secondhand copy. The aliens are dispossessed, and live in squalid slum quarters in cities which could be anywhere, really. Their art and their knowledge about plants and animals is used to sell shampoo. I guess we're somewhere between the third wave and the fourth wave in science fiction right now. I want to get on to the fifth wave, a sort of reconstruction project that goes back to the beginning, but explores the raw stuff of wonder and weirdness without preconceptions, with a modern properly scientific sensibility that doesn't impose ready-made patterns and doesn't flinch from dealing with alienness of aliens, the nonhuman exoticism of other worlds. I think there's some of this in novels by people like Gwyneth Jones (who wrote three of the toughest and best first contact novels ever), Stephen Baxter, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, and Ken MacLeod. I'm still excited about this kind of science fiction and I think there are all kinds of wonderful things that can be done. It turns out that we haven't used up the old tropes. They are still there, in their Platonic form, ready to be rediscovered all over again."
This is a better summary of my thoughts on science fiction than I've ever been able to manage. This whole notion of re-examining "classic tropes from the ground up," of trying "to make them fresh again," is precisely what I've been hoping to accomplish with my most recent projects, and is the element I find most appealing about a number of my contemporaries. I see something of this kind of ethos at work in Kage Baker's Company sequence, in John C. Wright's The Golden Age trilogy, in John Scalzi's Old Man's War. I always tried to describe it as "inhabiting archetypes and revitalizing them," but I think "rebuilding tropes from the ground up" is probably a more apt description.

I used to feel guilty that so much of my work involved revisiting tropes that have been around since the earliest days of science fiction. My feeling was that my work was too backwards looking, and that the job of science fiction should be to look forward. But I've come to understand that what my stuff isn't nostalgia--or rather, it isn't just nostalgia, though there are definitely elements of sentimental call-backs to classic sf in what I do--but is more an attempt to build something new, using novel elements as well as bits and pieces borrowed (or stolen) from past masters. Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, for example, isn't a pastiche; instead, it's a story that in profile looks like a Burroughs space fantasy, but on closer examination is actually constituted of elements which are new, contemporary ideas. In the same way, I don't see Scalzi's Old Man's War as a pastiche of Heinlein, per se; it clearly draws inspiration from things like Starship Troopers, but while the skeleton of the story, "space war," might be built on a blueprint borrowed from Heinlein, Scalzi has fleshed it out with ideas that are purely his own (even things as seemingly inconsequential to the plot as his FTL drive, which is I think the first completely novel approach to faster-than-light travel that I've seen in years, if not decades).

I think that McAuley is right when he says that there have been no new tropes introduced in a great long time. I might take it one step further, and suggest that we may have exhausted the potential supply of all new tropes, and we're stuck with the ones that we've got. But the future is bright. I can't help but associate the "fourth wave" McAuley references as a kind of deconstruction. (I was an insufferable post-modernist in college, so this may lapse a bit into dimly remembered and misremembered theory, for which I beg your indulgence.) In the broadest terms, as best as I can recall, deconstruction is one of the key tenets of Post-Modernism. The idea is that, in the Modernist phase, forms which were initiated in a primitive phase, codified in a Classic phase, refined in a Renaissance period, and corrupted in a Baroque period, are restored to what to the Modernist sensibility is their ultimate, essential forms. In other words, once the Modernist phase is over, everything that could be done has been done. The role of the Post-Modernist, then, is to revisit the past, deconstructing what has already been built, in the search for new forms of meaning.

The question that I've been coming back to, again and again in recent years, is What follows deconstruction? The answer, naturally, is reconstruction. I think that's what the "fifth wave" McAuley mentions is all about. I always saw Post-Modernism as essentially reactionary, since it was defined entirely by its relationship to Modernism; even if it rejected every tenet of Modernism, it was still defined by its reaction to those very tenets it rejected. A fifth wave, involved with going back to classic tropes and re-imagining them from the ground up, then, seems to be more forward looking than works built upon the rejection of those classic tropes all together.

There's a lot of talk online recently about definitions of sf, and I've no interest in sticking my nose in that farrago. And there's the perennial crop of new movements that spring up like mushrooms, from time to time, and I'm don't think that's what I'm talking about, either. Unless, of course, a "movement" can be descriptivist and not prescriptivist, composed of individuals who don't even know that they share a similar ethos, much less a movement label, in which case, yeah, maybe I am.

I think we're entering an exciting period in science fiction, personally. I'm reading more and more books from new (and relatively new) writers that bring together the best of what has gone before: as much "sense of wonder" as the best of the golden age, healthy doses of action and adventure, the literary sophistication of the New Wave, and what I can't help but term the "Fuck Yeah!" factor of seeing something seemingly familiar being recast in an entirely new light.

That's the kind of science fiction I like to read, and the kind of science fiction I'm trying to write. A Fifth Wave. It's as good a name as any. Thanks, Paul.

You're right about those Gwyneth Jones novels, Chris - good grief, they were some of the toughest sf I've come across, and all the better for that!

I just watched the low-budget time-travel film Primer last night (don't know if you've managed to see it - I recommend it). A convoluted and difficult film that really really demands your absolute attention (although that probably won't be enough - repeat viwewings are a necessity, I think - but I digress!), my wife, on the other hand, a resolute non-sf fan, although with a good brain and decent understanding of science, hated it. She thought it was dull and opaque and ultimately nonsensical, whereas I thought it was intriguing and intelligent, a puzzle that needs cracking.
Perhaps that's something of the difference between non-sf and sf readers...?
Those were actually Paul McAuley's comments about Jones's novels. I've not yet had a chance to check them out, but they're on my to-read list, most definitely.

I have seen Primer, and blogged about it at some point. I think it's one of the best SF films in years, but it's definitely "hard" sf in the purest meaning of the term. Lots of scenes of guys standing around talking about science. I loved it, but it was days after I saw it before I finally worked out exactly what had happened (with help from Ted Chiang).

As an interesting corollary, I just watched the director's cut of Donnie Darko last week. Non-sf folks who heard that I liked Primer told me I simply had to see Donnie Darko. I didn't care for it in the least. Where Primer was a complex story that unpacked slowly, rewarding careful examination and thought, Donnie Darko was just a needlessly complicated story that, on closer examination, is actually meaningless, if not even nonsensical. To the "lay" viewer, though, both are complicated, time-travel stories that confuse them. An intelligent SF fan, though, can tease meaning out of Primer, while they'll only be frustrated by the perambulations of the Donnie Darko plot (which, as near as I can tell, is about a time travel paradox that exists only to exist, if that makes any sense; and I won't bother to rail against the "science" that is quoted throughout. Yeesh!).

I don't know, to be honest, whether Primer is something that a non-sf fan could appreciate or not. Or, if they appreciate it, are they just responding to the perceived complexity, in the same way that they might react to something like Donnie Darko? Without really understanding what is actually happening in the plot?
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