Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The New Weird

Last night I was looking at The New Weird, a collection of fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and after reading a couple of stories (and some essays in the book) on the New Weird, a variety of thoughts came to me about the state of fiction today (not that anyone can claim to know the "state of fiction today," of course, but that's partly the point). I should mention that my thoughts were also, in part, moved along by a Huffpost review I happened to read last night—by U. Wisc. Green Bay Professor Harvey J. Kaye—of Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline. Professor Kaye, who follows me on Twitter, pointed me to the review. It's an excellent review, although I respectfully disagree with many assumptions in it; and because the review was so excellent, I won't be reading Joffe's book now that I know how absurdly outmoded its assumptions are. (More of which, in a minute.)

What all this got me to thinking about is: Where is fiction headed? Where is it now? Where should new writers of fiction consider going?

My first route to prying the lid off these questions was to try to get to the core of New Weird. Which is an adventure in itself.

What is New Weird? Why does it exist? What audience-need does it serve? This turns out to be a difficult set of questions. There is no New Weird Manifesto, no elevator pitch that reduces it to a neat logline, but the VanderMeers say it's "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy." In terms of signature works, China Tom Miéville's Perdido Street Station is oft-cited as prototypically New Weird, along with works by M. John Harrison and even Clive Barker.

In terms of common elements, New Weird seems to involve, more often than not, an alternate reality or alternate society (optionally on an alternate planet) with new rules of behavior (optionally magical, but more often than not simply cultural and/or state-imposed), with characters that may or may not have special abilities or powers, special body modifications (a la Clive Barker), special quests. Elaborate world-building is thus a mainstay, a la Tolkien. In terms of basic storytelling, all the usual Joseph Campbell tropes (hero's quest, etc.) apply, along with common-sense storytelling best practices.

As I survey the New Weird landscape, I don't see a whole lot new, honestly, so much as a tedious (if admirably elaborate) reskinning of the Old Weird, going back to Poe and Lovecraft, with heavy debts, also, to Aldous Huxley, Kafka (The Metamorphosis), Orwell, Ellison, Dick, and others. The cultural reorganization of society along NewWeirdian lines that one sees in things like Perdido Street Station (or Miéville's story Jack, in The New Weird) feels, on some level, instantly stale to me. But that only makes me more anxious to understand why it feels fresh to others.

The New Weird is clearly an attempt to break out of the thematic tropes of mid-twentieth-century fiction, but it already feels stillborn in its quest to take Tolkien in more phantasmagoric directions, precisely because of its slavish insistence on making characters behave in accordance with elaborate (and supposedly fresh) systems of rules (cultural or state-imposed; less frequently self-imposed) in their "new worlds." The early and mid-twentieth century fascination with the apparatus of bureacracy (Kafka, Orwell, Heller, Pynchon) seems to trudge on, in different clothing and in deeper mud, in The New Weird. In terms of success in breaking away from conventional thematic tropes and techniques, it strikes me that bizarro fiction—with its frequent recourse to absurdism, surrealism, and proto-Dada grotesquerie—comes much closer to missing the dart board (where missing the dartboard is, in fact, the aim).

Earlier I mentioned Professor Kaye and his incisive review, "Whither America," which speaks to the themes of grotesque nationalism (my term, not his) explored in Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline. The out-of-date sociological metrics by which Joffe analyzes America's "Policeman of the World" and "Default Culture" (my term) status evoke in me the same frustration (and, at times, abhorrence) I feel with NewWeirdian fiction vis-à-vis its slavish dependence on externally supplied (and sometimes quite archaic and baroque) sociological rule-systems. Apparently the Policeman of the World meme (brutally and dangerously archaic as it is) still resonates with certain nonfiction audiences the way Kafka still resonates with fiction audiences, the latter being (from my point of view) far more comprehensible. But in both domains (fiction and soiological nonfiction), readers still harbor the hangover of nationalism, heard in the ever-reverberating echoes of Orwell; and I think it serves modern audiences—and the common literary weal—ill to continue to pay homage to the dead bronze statues that so gravenly mark our progress in literature.

The story of the last thousand years in human history is largely the story of nationalism—the aggregation of peoples and ideologies under "state" banners with messy borders crudely drawn in blood. It's thus in no way surprising that the vagaries of militarism—and (in peacetime) the apparatus of control—have so preoccupied the literary mind over this timeframe, with some of the most famous signposts in all of western literature having names like War and Peace and Gravity's Rainbow (the latter denoting the parabolic arc of the V-2 missile in WWII). To be sure, fiction has also during this time produced significant tonnage of highly personal and psychological works, novels having more to do with issues of character and interpersonal dynamics; and such works will always be relevant, because they cut quickly to the bare-naked core of human existence, stripped of its geopolitical underwear, as it were. But the question is why we cling so lovingly to the cold stiff corpse of State and/or External Authority as the controlling factor in characters' everyday worlds; more particularly, why do we seek refuge in archaic-feeling representations (no matter how lovingly and elaborately permutated) of externally validated rule systems? (Externalism of this kind arguably reached its apotheosis in The Matrix.) How many flavors of Tolkien or Frank Herbert (or Kafka or Orwell) do we need, going forward?

Systems of Control are still relevant, but not (IMHO) as represented in the "world-building" narratives of NewWeirdism or OldWeirdism. The current world is, in fact, much weirder than any of that already. The Systems of Control of today are not explicit manifestations of state nor ideology. They are far more subtle (and dangerous), obtaining legitimacy directly from the suppressed and exploited (that's you, that's me) through their passive assent. No law, no explicit form of coercion, makes you eat at McDonalds (or order, with your Happy Meal, more soda than the human stomach can reasonably process). And yet America the Superpower, America as Default Nation, along with most constitutional democracies in the world (most countries templated on American politics), is happy to allow its citizenry to be obese, diabetic, sclerotic, and cancer-prone. No law explicitly requires you to buy Chinese goods at Walmart (or for that matter to take a minimum-wage job at Walmart). And yet your host nation has you wearing cheap foreign-made clothing, and using foreign-made electronics, while the underlying jobs (not just grunt-labor jobs but "good" jobs in technology) are shipped out of the country. No law requires you to go hungry in the greatest food-exporting nation on earth, yet one in six Americans requires Food Stamps.

To see more clearly the desolate bus stop on history's joyride that we've come to, it might help to roll back the tape and put your mind inside the head of a Thomas Paine, say, or a Rousseau or Voltaire. Suppose, in 1770, as Paine, you were to read a "speculative fiction" novel (supposing such a thing existed at the time) about a future nation-state, the Greatest Country on Earth, in which printing presses have largely disappeared (recall that as late as 1975, printing was the most prolific business type in America), "pamphleteering" has become obsolete, and citizens consume the majority of their reading matter by means of magical devices coupled to the Great Interconnector. Further suppose that although literacy has become universal, citizens of this strange future country spend a good time watching "visual replicas of plays" (films, videos) instead of reading, and the majority of citizens who choose to spend any time writing (hundreds of millions worldwide) are reduced to filing dispatches of only a few hundred characters at a time (Twitter and Facebook updates). Now imagine that in this strange future-world, people live to be 80 instead of 50, and yet a third of the citizenry is sick with obesity-related illnesses (not just diabetes but heart disease and cancer). Fully a quarter of the population takes daily pills for "high blood pressure," diabetes, or melancholia. People are required by Tithe Laws to give a tenth of their income to the state, which spends a good deal of the money on foreign wars devoted to dubious goals (goals that would not have been compehensible in Paine's day). Meanwhile, average citizens incur crushing debt to obtain an education, then are not hired for their knowledge or skills; they obtain degrees in "political science" or philosophy or literature, but go to work for inconcceivably large corporations, doing incredibly menial things; many of the jobs paying an unconscionably low "minimum wage" that has one in six persons dependent on public munificence for food.

These sorts of "future-world" facts would have seemed absurd to anyone of Paine's generation. What would have seemed most preposterous of all to Paine, in particular, is the notion that huge masses of people would not be marching on their governments in revolt!

Paine would have considered deeply troubling the geopolitical yardsticks by which a Josef Joffe measures a nation's stature: military budget, GNP, hegemonic domination of world politics, etc. He would have identified strongly with measures of infant mortality, wellness, general happiness, opportunity (he would have loathed the term "upward mobility," however), poverty rates, hunger, incarceration rate—all areas where America consistently ranks poorly.

To the extent that writers of fiction are envisioners of the future, or at least envisioners of alternate worlds, it seems to me we fail our readers if we tether our worldview to the soggy mire of militarism or nationalism (in any of its guises). Given that the social milieu is an Unseen Main Character in novels that build new worlds, it would seem appropriate to take stock of current Control Structures and build worlds that resonate with the issues that pertain to the modern inhabitants of those structures, many of whom have been brainwashed that slavery is freedom (or vice versa), ignorance is strength, war is peace, etc. By the old measures, America is still the greatest country on earth. By any rational measure it's arguably the most broken country on earth. By buying into old notions we break fiction itself and render it a self-parody. Society is evolving. Nationalism as a concept is fading. The Control Structure conventions of yesteryear are like a once-magnificent cake that's been sitting all day in the rain. Why must we continue to eat from it?

It's not enough for fiction to permutate and pervert the past and serve it up again in shocking colors. Serve us up something new. If weirdness is a necessary ingredient, just look around.

As a reader of fiction, I want to move beyond Tolkien-in-a-party-dress. I want the next New Weird to come without a rearview mirror. The current New Weird isn't doing it for me.