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Postmodernism and SF

Entry updated 5 February 2024. Tagged: Theme.

"Modernism" is a useful term for the literature that emerged at the of the twentieth century to challenge the mimetic conventions of bourgeois fiction, but Postmodernism is not simply its more recent replacement. In fact, most contemporary serious writing remains insistently Modernist. The relationship between Modernism and Postmodernism (see Modernism in SF) is difficult to discuss, not least because the term "Postmodernism" has been used to point to significantly different phenomena. Perhaps the only assertion that can be made with confidence is that Postmodern literature does not enjoy anything like the adversarial stance toward Modernist literature that Modernist literature had toward its predecessors.

1. Postmodern Fiction

In literature, Postmodernism is usually held to connote playfulness, genre-bending, and denial of neat aesthetic or moral wrap-up; above all, writing that knows and presents itself as writing, rather than as innocent portrayal (see also Equipoise). In all of these (save perhaps for its frequent unconcern with artistic closure), Postmodernism resembles Modernism, and indeed most writers of mainstream Fantastika or of Genre SF who have been identified as Postmodernists write fiction that could also be called Modernist. Mainstream authors include Margaret Atwood, John Barth, Madison Smartt Bell, Jorge Luis Borges, Christine Brooke-Rose, Italo Calvino, Robert Coover, Angela Carter, Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco, Jennifer Egan, Raymond Federman, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, David Foster Wallace and others in the first camp (but see Mainstream Writers of SF, where "mainstream" is more restrictively defined); authors not normally defined as mainstream in any significant sense include J G Ballard, Samuel R Delany, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Moorcock, Joanna Russ, Rudy Rucker, John T Sladek, Robert Anton Wilson and Pamela Zoline. As some genre writers (such as Brian W Aldiss, James Blish, Thomas M Disch, Gene Wolfe and the early Roger Zelazny) can be called Modernists but not Postmodernists, one might suggest that Postmodernism is encompassed by – and represents a special type of – Modernism. This would explain how the works of Blish and early Zelazny, both published before 1974 (a date sometimes cited as approximating the watershed year) could be confidently called one and not the other.

The fact that Jean Renoir's film Boudu sauvé des eaux ["Boudu Saved from Drowning"] (1932) perhaps presages the director's later Modernism – while Donald Barthelme's "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning" (New American Review, anth 1968, ed Theodore Solotaroff) seems more Postmodern than Modernist and Barry Malzberg's "Emily Dickinson – Saved from Drowning", (Chrysalis 8, anth 1980, ed Roy Torgeson) is certainly Postmodernist – allows a further tentative conclusion: a story that alludes either solemnly or blasphemously to some work of antiquity – as works by James Joyce (1882-1941), Jarry, and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) variously do – is likely Modernist, while a work that alludes irreverently to a Modernist or Postmodern work (as Barthelme's and Malzberg's both do, however one categorizes Barthelme's) is almost certainly Postmodern. Similarly, "la Passion considérée comme course de côte" ["The Crucifixion of Christ Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race"] (in Le Canard sauvage, coll 1903) seems clearly Modernist while J G Ballard's "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (Autumn 1966 Ambit), notwithstanding its early date, seems to partake of the Postmodern in that it is riffing off a Modernist work.

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. For McHale, sf is "perhaps the ontological genre par excellence. We can think of sf 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". Since Fantastika is, of all the genres, the one that constructs "realities" as a matter of course, it would thus prove amenable to Postmodernism as (McHale would perhaps argue) it never quite did to Modernism.

Notwithstanding this, McHale notes that while Samuel R Delany's Dhalgren (1975; rev 1977; rev 2001) is Postmodern in its subversion of any "epistemological explanation for the impossibilities" of its topos, his Triton (1976) "couples science fiction with modernist poetics, exploiting science fiction's ontological motifs yet holding them in check by means of a modernist epistemological frame". This may explain why Brian W Aldiss, although his large body of sf extends from the mid-1950s to the present day, can be plausibly called Modernist but not Post-Modernist. Report on Probability A (1968) is manifestly about "knowing" and its limits, as is Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (fixup 1969), Brothers of the Head (1977), the Helliconia trilogy (1982-1985) and The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia (1999) with Roger Penrose. While Aldiss's most famous story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (December 1969 Harper's Bazaar), seems to concern ontology (the artificial nature of the protagonist falling short of genuine humanity, an element further emphasized in the Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence [2001]), it is in fact essentially a tale of epistemology (the protagonist cannot learn how to behave like a human, while humans are learning how to create more effective robots).

By the time of Constructing Modernism (1992), however, McHale had come to feel that he had not adequately emphasized that "any accounts we choose to give of the relations between modernism and postmodernism are only constructs, and that there can be no strictly objective criteria for preferring one construct over its competitors." His belief that constructing these models necessarily excludes discordant data (and which can be justified only on the "strategic" grounds that such models might aid in "the generation of new insights, new connections and groupings") should perhaps be taken as precautionary, because no generally-accepted distinction between Modernism and Postmodernism has been proposed in the twenty years since. As Theophilus Savvas observes in American Postmodernist Fiction and the Past (2011), "postmodernism's relationship to modernism [remains] a long, heated, and unresolved one."

2. Postmodern Theory

In cultural studies and literary theory, the concept of Postmodernism "covers widely disparate phenomena and is by no means universally defined, applied, or agreed on", as Jeffrey Ebberson notes in Postmodernism and its Others (2006). Postmodernist literary studies are by no means restricted to the study of postmodern fiction, although studies of twentieth century or contemporary fiction commonly employ some form of postmodern theory.

Numerous critics have joined McHale is positing an affinity between postmodernism and sf; Andrew M Butler is far from alone in noting that "much postmodernism reads like sf" ("Postmodernism and Science Fiction" in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, anth 2003, ed Edward James and Farah Mendelsohn). Interestingly, those studies that take note of sf focus almost exclusively on works published since Dhalgren (1975), with a particular fascination for the Cyberpunks.

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984), famously defines postmodernism as a skepticism toward grand narratives. A grand narrative (or "meta-narrative") is identified as an abstract idea that offers a comprehensive explanation of some historical or social phenomenon, such as the Enlightenment (a concept Lyotard regarded with particular suspicion), the Marxist narrative of growing crisis and eventual revolution, or the opposing narrative of economic competition as the flywheel of human progress. Since much Genre SF and Fantasy relies uncritically on some grand narrative – e.g. the necessity of humanity's mission to reach and settle other worlds; the now-lost authenticity of a vanished Arcadia [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] – the term is useful in shaping a critique of the genre's various unarticulated assumptions.

In his Simulacres et Simulation (1981; trans Sheila Faria Glaser as Simulacra and Simulation 1984), Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) proposed "the precession of simulacra" as a condition of modern society, which has replaced authentic meaning with a series of symbols and signs which he calls "simulacra". The five-stage process of this "precession" is significantly more complex than the "truth behind the mask" model of much sf Paranoia, which for Baudrillard constitutes merely the process's second stage (the first being of a sign that faithfully conveys the nature of "a profound reality"). In the late stages of this precession, the sign disguises "the absence of a profound reality", becoming a copy with no original; and ultimately possesses "no relation to any reality whatsoever" and ends as "its own pure simulacrum."

Baudrillard's book had its single greatest influence in the passage where he distinguished between the "real" (simulation) and the referential map. He notes that "It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself." The final term is taken up by the character Morpheus in The Matrix (1999), directed and written by Andy (now Lilly) and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski, when he says, "Welcome to the desert of the real", which has since become a Postmodernist catchphrase.

Perhaps the best-known critical account of Postmodernist fiction is the Marxist Fredric Jameson's. In "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (July/August 1984 New Left Review), he identifies Postmodernism as a symptom of late capitalism, which produces a postmodern aesthetics just as the conditions of earlier capitalism produced realist art. Jameson finds "a flatness or depthlessness" to be "perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the Postmodernisms", and suggests moreover that a waning of feeling can be linked to the 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 end of 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 of Gothic rapture (see also Macrostructures; Sense of Wonder).

These qualities often characterize not only the arguably Postmodern environment in which we live but also sf in particular, as Jameson himself has recognized in the essays – many of them first published in Science Fiction Studies – assembled as Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (coll 2005). 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 expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself".

In addition to McHale's books and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, works that discuss Postmodernism and sf include Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide (anth 1986) edited by Larry McCaffery and Alternate Worlds: A Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction (1990) by John Kuehl (1928-    ), which 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 (volume 1 #4 1988). The Postmodernism issue of Science Fiction Studies (November 1991) has translations of essays on simulacra and on J G Ballard by Jean Baudrillard [see above], along with other interesting material including Ballard's enjoyably intemperate response. [DB/PN/GF]

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