Monday, 2 November 2009

"The Secret History of Science Fiction" ed. Kelly and Kessel. "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon

I am not normally a huge fan of short stories, but I really enjoyed this anthology, partly because it is much more than merely a collection of short stories, also debating the question of to what extent Science Fiction and mainline fiction are really separate entities at all. I found this fascinating. How many mainstream writers have actually written Sci Fi? I could think straight away of E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops), Anthony Burgess (The End of the World News), Lawrence Durrell (The Revolt of Aphrodite, originally published as Tunq and Nunquam) and of course George Orwell (1984). Maybe readers can suggest some others?

The real point is to what extent Sci Fi is under-estimated as fiction simply because of its label. This is a debate I have considered previously in writing about Philip K. Dick, and I tend to agree with Kelly and Kessel. Asimov's Foundation series, for example, can be read as good serious literature, while Dick is almost certainly a neglected genius by anyone's standards. Similar issues arise with various "historical" novelists, though technically any novel set in the past could be regarded as "historical". Perhaps what we need here is a further sub-classification into the "costume drama" type of historical novel (Daphne du Maurier, Jean Plaidy, Dorothy Dunnett, etc.) and the others (Patrick O'Brian, Derek Robinson, C.S. Forester, etc). Yet even this sort of exercise has its dangers, for I can think of at least one lady in North Norfolk who would hotly defend Dunnett as a serious novelist, as I suppose is du Maurier if only for Rebecca. Oh dear!

I think this all goes to show that, as the editors suggest, any sort of classification is both difficult and dangerous, that really there is just "literature", and that to seek to parcel it up into neat little compartments based purely upon its subject matter achieves little but to diminish certain authors in our estimation.

Kelly and Kessel start with an interesting "what if?". Suppose Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula Award (a sort of Sci Fi Booker Prize) for which it was short-listed in 1973. Would this distinction between Sci Fi and serious fiction have ended? Or might there be yet another classification, perhaps, of "speculative fiction"?

By an amazing coincidence I had just finished reading Gravity's Rainbow when this book arrived. I can see why it might have been considered for a Sci Fi award, though in truth it's hard to say precisely that it would qualify. On one reading of the book there is no alternative science going on, at least not in the sense of it actually working. There are lots of people attempting to do things which sound scientifically impossible, but largely in the hope of gaining and keeping large budgets and staffs, and thus political influence, for this is a novel which operates on various levels. V2 rockets did break the sound barrier, for example, and some of the experiments described sound close to what Jung was working on as described in Synchronicity.

Picking up a Pynchon novel is always a humbling experience for anyone with aspirations as a writer. Like Joyce, his prose is like large vats of hot, dark chocolate in which you can easily drown while enjoying it. It is a style that no other contemporary writer could pull off, yet while it is brilliant it also runs the risk of being labelled as impenetrable as some verse (think Ezra Pound). A novelist's first task is to tell a story, and you cannot do this if you lose your reader along the way. As Pynchon concocts his heady brew, in which every image is striking, every character is larger than life, and every scene slightly surreal, you feel your senses beginning to reel. He is more of a challenge than any writer I have ever read.

As a period piece, set in England during the latter part of WWII, the book works well, although there are a few glaring errors. Petrol for private cars was unobtainable, for example, as were stockings, while the German rocket base at Peenemunde was way beyond the range of Spitfires, except for specially adapted high level reconnaissance models. Normally, I find such things irritating but somehow here they did not seem to matter, perhaps because, as with Philip K. Dick, one's sense of reality has become gradually distorted anyway.

There is a constant mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, of high brow and low brow. It is almost like watching a cartoon version of Proust, or listening to Mahler arranged for the barrel organ. A truly remarkable book. Does it matter whether it is Sci Fi or not? I don't see why.

But, coming back to The Secret History of Science Fiction, what Kelly and Kessel have done is to gather together, and presumably where necessary commission, short Sci Fi stories by mainstream authors. These are all enjoyable and one or two are outstanding. I would single out in particular those by Michael Chabon and Don DeLillo. Read and enjoy.

"The Secret History of Science Fiction" is published by Tachyon Publications of San Francisco under ISBN 978-1-892391-93-3

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