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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

...genre fiction doesn’t exist in contradistinction to literature merely because of stale language, secondhand insights, or hackneyed plots. The larger difference is a failure or—less judgmentally—a simple setting-aside of the moral imagination. The literary novel illuminates moral problems (including sometimes those that are also political problems) at the expense of sentimental consolation, while genre fiction typically offers consolation at the expense of illumination. It doesn’t alter this proposition that science fiction and especially crime novels sometimes traffic in the idea that all people are at bottom equally evil and all history in the end equally nightmarish, since this sort of nihilism moots moral judgment altogether and is therefore its own kind of consolation.
Other people quicker on the trigger have already covered much of the necessary ground on Benjamin Kunkel's provocative but incredibly frustrating Dissent piece on "Dystopia and the End of Politics." What's good about this article is largely masked by Kunkel's strange decision to rehearse for the millionth time the high/low culture divide in the context of works (Children of Men, Oryx & Crake) that plainly obliterate it. (Just for starters: In what sense is the father of The Road best described as a primarily instrumental character? The Road is not a perfect book, but that is not among its flaws. And so it goes through the entire essay; in nearly all cases Kunkel's classification of a work as science fiction inevitably determines the discovery of its asserted essential generic flaws.) Kunkel briefly pretends to take SF seriously so that his later refusal to take it seriously will carry more rhetorical weight—but he never means it, and his contempt for SF is palpable, and annoying, throughout.

I'm also not fond of arguments of the form "All X are essentially Y. Here are my three examples." Kunkel, in contrast, appears very fond of such arguments.

All that said, when Kunkel does get down to business and takes dystopian and apocalyptic fiction seriously, he does rather good work, worth quoting at length:
In short, the contemporary apocalypse pits family values against the cannibal universe—the good guys versus the bad guys, in McCarthy’s unironic terms. And so, with the end of civilization, the age-old conflict between sexual love (eros) and love of one’s neighbor (caritas) also disappears; and the grown-up Jesus’ exhortation to his followers that they leave their families if they wish to pursue righteousness is as little remembered as among Christian fundamentalists today. No one pauses to reflect that in our civilization, pre-collapse, it was invariably the defense of the individual household that justified a nation’s warlike international posture or its profligate use of energy. Nuclear war might be averted, went the insipid Sting hit of the late cold war, if the Russians love their children too. But if global warming is not arrested, it will be because we (and the Russians) want for our children everything we have and more.

To be as schematic as possible: in the neoliberal dystopia a totally commodified world transforms would-be lovers into commodities themselves and in this way destroys the possibility of love. In the neoliberal apocalypse, on the other hand, the wreck of civilization reveals the inherent depravity of mankind (excepting one’s loved ones) and ratifies the truth that the family is a haven in a heartless world. Both the neoliberal dystopia and the neoliberal apocalypse defend love and individuality against the forces threatening to crush them; the difference is that the clone novel sticks up for humanity from the standpoint of an implied or explicit critique of neoliberalism, while the apocalypse narrative (whether in prose or on film) tends to reflect the default creed of neoliberalism, according to which kindness may flourish in private life but the outside world remains now and forever a scene of vicious but inevitable competition.
That's a good and interesting binary absolutely worth thinking about. It's just too bad he felt like he had to take a shower afterwards. And worse that he had to let us know he was going to take the shower after, that he was about to take the shower, really, just as soon as he stopped writing, because obviously he felt as dirty writing about SF as we must have felt reading about it.