Friday, April 29, 2011

From New Worlds to a New World

TOM SYKES traces the influence of the new wave of science fiction on postcolonial literature

IN 2010, I wrote an article about the new wave of science fiction, spearheaded by authors connected to the seminal New Worlds magazine. The new wave grappled with cerebral themes that the genre had traditionally shied away from: social anomie, gender/sexual politics, the ambiguities of human subjectivity, the dangers and limitations of science and technology, the relationship between rationality and irrationality, and entropy. The simple narrative conventions of the space romance were supplanted by experimental formal techniques such as parataxis, self-reflexivity and cut-up, borrowed from sources as diverse as the Beats, the surrealists and the Dadaists. Originating in the 1960s, this brave new literary approach aimed to reflect a brave new Western world whose values and epistemological assumptions were being interrogated by varieties of social protest, mind-altering drugs, Third World struggles of national liberation such as Vietnam, the anti-psychiatry movement led by R.D. Laing and an all-permeating mass media as conceptualized by Marshall McLuhan.

By the late 1970s, the new wave had petered out as a discernible movement. These days, however, we can see its hallmarks on everything from comic books to steampunk literature to films such as The Matrix. Michael Moorcock makes an even greater claim: ‘We were doing postmodernism before the name was invented’. But while the influence of the new wave on Western culture is clear enough, less well-known is its impact upon certain postcolonial writers of a fantastic, anti-realist persuasion. Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Doris Lessing, Peter Carey, Ian McDonald and Sam Watson have all produced works uncannily resonant of the new wave, bringing its key concerns and devices to bear not on the Anglo-American 1960s, but on the postcolonial world and its attendant issues of migration, hybridity, cultural identity, racism and colonialism/imperialism.

While critics such as Maggie Anne Bowers have rightly identified the influence of magic realism on Rushdie, the man himself also admits a debt to science fiction and a love for the films of Terry Gilliam (both men, incidentally, began their careers in the dream factories of the advertising world). Indeed, Rushdie’s debut Grimus (1975) was set to win the prestigious Victor Gollancz Science Fiction Prize, for which new wave stalwart Brian Aldiss was a judge. However, Rushdie’s publishers withdrew the novel from contention for fear of their rising star being labelled a ‘genre’ writer. Whatever the politics surrounding Grimus, its story has a strong taste of the new wave about it. Its setting, the metaphysical realm of Calf Island, is an analogue of J.G. Ballard’s celebrated ‘innerspace’: a fractured psychological landscape of paradoxical notions and images. For Ballard, innerspace was a device for exploring ‘the latent pathology of the consumerist West’. For Rushdie, Calf Island is a metaphor for a rapidly-changing world in which decolonisation, immigration and globalisation are tearing down the old metropolitan certainties and giving a voice to the subaltern subject. His eccentric cast of characters is truly cosmopolitan (snooty Russian aristocrats, racist American cowboys, stubbornly rationalist British scientists) and hybridised (‘Virgil Beauvoir Chanakya Jones’), representing a vast plethora of mores, creeds and world views. In a similar fashion, Sam Watson in his 1991 novel, The Kadaitcha Sung, mingles different cultural outlooks by having his more recognisably ‘real’ characters interact with the ghosts and demons of Aboriginal mythology. This can be read as a forceful critique of race relations and nationalism in contemporary Australia.

Here Rushdie and Watson invite comparison with two classics of the new wave canon: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner and Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (an African-American author who dealt more explicitly with colonialism in Empire Star (1966), which are both indebted to the cognitive scientific theory of ‘multistable perception’ described by Sterzer, Kleinschmidt and Rees as ‘the spontaneous alternation between two or more perceptual states that occurs when sensory information is ambiguous.’ These books veer between conflicting voices, registers and allusions in order to present a more holistic account of strange invented worlds that nonetheless comment upon the real world. In the case of Stand on Zanzibar, the earth is stricken by overpopulation and information overload, whereas Dhalgren is the tale of a US city in entropic breakdown recounted by a mentally disturbed individual.

Indeed, multiplicity informs the underlying mechanics of Grimus’ fictional universe, for Calf Island is just one dimension within an ‘infinity of dimensions’, one notion of reality amongst countless. Those who cannot muster the single-mindedness to resist this difficult truth succumb to ‘Dimension Fever’, but others, namely the tyrannical Grimus himself, are able to manipulate this situation through such science fictional instruments of power as the ‘Crystal of Potentialities’.

Taking their cue from savage critics of the Enlightenment like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, the new wave writers repudiated the starry-eyed progressivism of their Golden Age forebears and spun bleak tales of ecological disaster (Ballard’s The Drowned World), nuclear apocalypse (Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz) and lethal computer malfunction (Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream). In the same vein, Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) rejects the scientific meliorism of the British Raj as hypocritical, arrogant and methodologically flawed. The character of Ronald Ross (who in real life won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1902) overconfidently assumes that his research into malaria will wipe out the disease forever.

More controversially, another colonial scientist, Cunningham, takes all the credit for a breakthrough in fact made by Mangala, his female Indian assistant. Many years later, a Westernised Indian named Murugan investigates the mysteries surrounding this research. Even though he is the citizen of an advanced future society of artificial intelligence and instant global communication, it is ironic that he must admit, ‘We don’t even know what we don’t know.’ Indeed, like cars in Ballard’s Crash (1973), technological inventions designed to improve humanity in the various timeframes of The Calcutta Chromosome instead threaten or oppress it, whether this be a runaway train in 19th century Bengal or a sophisticated IT system belonging to a near-future NGO.

Ultimately, it is revealed that a shadowy cult devoted to reincarnation is manipulating malaria research for its potential ‘for a crossover of randomly assorted personality traits’. Ghosh blurs the binary between science and spirituality as a way of re-asserting a subaltern world view that for so long had been trampled by the absolutist empiricism of imperial ideology. Likewise, Michael Moorcock’s reappraisal of the Jesus story, Behold the Man (1969), examines the relationship between religion and psychology, but for another purpose: to understand how mass hysteria and megalomania functioned in the historical moment of the 1960s.

Doris Lessing’s Shikasta (1979) and the 2004 anthology So Long Been Dreaming employ stronger science fictional tropes than Rushdie or Ghosh for more overt political ends. These works deal metaphorically with such colonial/postcolonial misdemeanours as slavery, genocide through war and disease, cultural repression and the displacement of indigenous persons. It is fitting then that Lessing declared in 1982 that ‘science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time’.

While the postcolonial authors are conventionally viewed as following in the slipstream of postmodernism and magic realism, I believe that examining such authors through the prism of the new wave of science fiction leads us to a fuller critical understanding of them. Like Flapping Eagle, the protagonist of Grimus, Rushdie, Ghosh, Lessing and others have travelled the world, adapting to different cultures, absorbing alien concepts and habits. That the richness of their fiction comes from such hybridity is hardly an original claim to make. They have drawn upon the literature and mythology of their homelands. They have incorporated lofty metropolitan ideas learned at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and other Ivy League universities. But they have also been inspired by more demotic forms, chief amongst them science fiction.

Reproduced from the January-March 2011 issue of Quill magazine


Blogger mohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 8:20:00 AM  

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