Arguing By Example

The ripples around the blogosphere caused by John Gray’s New Statesman article have been rather interesting, though a little depressing.

Laurie Penny’s original response was spot on when it said that Gray had completely ignored women writers. That’s a valid point regardless of what you might think of Gray’s argument.

Some of the follow-up on Twitter (necessarily limited by the format) appeared to ignore Laurie’s points about women and instead cast her piece in the form of “ignorant outsider dares to write about SF and is slapped down”. That’s terribly fannish, but not very helpful.

The debate has now been taken up by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. Much of the discussion is, I think, being carried by Socialists who are upset with Gray for suggesting that it is no longer possible to speculate about a better world to come. That’s understandable, and it is a valid political discussion that the Left has been having with Gray for some time. However, it doesn’t necessarily address the point about science fiction.

The trouble is that everyone is arguing by example. To a large extent that’s Gray’s fault because his reading in SF appears rather thin, and by relying on a few high profile writers to make his point he opens himself up to citation of counter-examples by those better versed in the field. But none of this makes any sense. Gray points to a few writers and says “science fiction has developed in this way”. Other people point at different writers and respond, “no it hasn’t, you are completely wrong.” It is the old blind men and the elephant story yet again.

Instinctively the point that Gray makes has a certain validity. Science fiction no longer routinely points to a glorious, gleaming chrome technological future in the manner so beautifully parodied by Donald Fagen’s song, “IGY”. That doesn’t mean that no SF writer predicts a better world to come, but equally the fact that some do doesn’t make the general trend wrong. Of course to prove the point you’d have to make a fairly comprehensive survey of the field, and that’s something that neither I nor Gray have the time to do.

Still, at least this discussion is generating lots of mentions for interesting political SF.

4 thoughts on “Arguing By Example

  1. It’s a long, long time since science fiction was describing chromium perfection. Utopias have always been rare beasts – because Looking Backward and Ralph 124C41 are basically dull.

    The possibility of human progress is no more unlikely now than it ever was. We no longer think that technological advance is all that is necessary, that’s all. Iain Banks, Charles Stross and Ken McEwan are all looking for better ways to organise ourselves.

    The basic flaw is in the idea that Science Fiction _is_ anything, or even more absurdly, it used to be one thing and now it’s something else. When people write articles like that, they usually describe how their own ideas have changed. Science Fiction will continue to be just a blanket description of a vast array of very different work.

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  3. I don’t expect Gray to “make a fairly comprehensive survey of the field”, but seriously, for a man who’s spend much of his four decades cheerfully pulling the wings off policy-makers and political pundits who can’t be arsed knowing what the hell they’re talking about, I was hoping he’d be a little more deeply informed about science fiction before turning to literary criticism. Especially after reading a wonderful piece he wrote in 1984 about the neo-con right claiming Orwell as “one of us” on the basis of reading that could most politely be described as tendentious in the extreme.

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