Appearance of a World

by Ray Davis

In his essay "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" (reprinted in The New Sentence, Roof Books, 1989), poet Ron Silliman traces the devaluation of language in Western literary tradition. Non-referential ornamentation has been stripped away; value has passed to the "content" of fictional plot or easily replayable trivia, with language a silent partner. "In its ultimate form, the consumer of a mass market novel such as Jaws stares at a `blank' page (the page also of the speedreader) while a story appears to unfold miraculously of its own free will..."

The gaudier appeals of language have been subject to attack since Plato, usually in the name of truth. Silliman, however, links the flattening trend of the last five centuries with the rise of capitalism. A community of listeners surrounding a distinctive voice is less reliably profitable than passively receptive consumers of interchangeable possessions.

In both political and poetic terms, Silliman clearly finds writing which struggles against the "desire to cleave narrative from the gestural aspects of language" more honest, more interesting, and healthier than writing which acquiesces in it. As a reader of poetry who distrusts the literary mainstream, I agree. As a reader of science fiction, I'm forced to reconsider his battle lines.

In its very nature, science fiction is an extreme example of focusing past the veil of words, world-building being the definitive sf enterprise, to which all else may be sacrificed. Stylistically, politically, and even emotionally, sf is often absurdly conservative. Economically, like other pulp-derived forms, it functions as commodity.

However, Silliman's essay makes no mention of fantastic literature, perhaps because it pushes the "dream . . . of a signified with no signifiers" to such a dreamlike extent that it falls outside his dialectic argument.

The linguistic surface of sf is unremarkable, its most experimental writers arrière-garde compared to such established figures as Gertrude Stein or Louis Zukofsky, but sf renders transparency itself problematic and playful. Science fiction shares the dominant belief in the possibility of bypassing voice to directly comprehend what voice speaks of, but its references are explicitly conditional.

Although science fiction conservatively insists that any surface disruption be incorporated into a coherent narrative, on those terms it welcomes surface disruption. (Heinlein's "The door dilated" is a famous example.) A science fiction reader is predisposed to seek out and seize upon seeming incoherencies as clues to the world beyond the narrative, in somewhat the same way poetry readers seize upon narratively inexplicable visual disruptions or conjunctions of sound.

Indeed, as publishing categories, both fantastic literature and poetry are defined by the points at which they break from transparent "realism". There is a corresponding urge to highlight such points. Sf, horror, and fantasy often situate anti-natural elements at breaks in the prose, achieving the intellectual equivalent of a cliffhanger. The desire to increase access to such breaking points may have been one factor leading to sf's most distinctive format, that of short sections separated by spaces or asterisks. (Other factors are described by Samuel R. Delany in The American Shore, pp. 70-72.)

A few examples: The first section in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle ends with a cautious American merchant lighting a brand name joint; the second chapter of Howard Waldrop's Them Bones, set in pre-Columbian America, ends "'Hello,' he said, in Greek"; one of the first sections of Pat Murphy's The Falling Woman ends with the narrator's casual remark that the person she's looking at lived 1200 years previously. A variant approach favored by Theodore Sturgeon and any number of horror writers is to break when the point-of-view character is overwhelmed by surrounding strangeness, as if to entice the reader into a shared disorientation.

In the development of both sf and poetry, there have been corresponding counter-urges to present anti-realistic elements ("pure world-building" or "pure verbal structure") as subtly as possible, and, close at their heels, populist backlashes against subtlety. Although many objections to the best sf of the 1960s and 1970s were ostensibly to "plotlessness", Ballard is only slightly less narrative than First and Last Men or a paper on Thiotimoline, and it's easier for me, at least, to discern the storyline in any novel by Russ or Delany or Disch than in the Foundation series or Rendezvous with Rama. Conservative sf critics may have borrowed this bugbear from the mainstream as the nearest correlative to their own discomfort. On closer examination, such protests tend to be founded in world-building too complex (due to a point-of-view character falling short of Übermensch messiah, for example) or disturbing for the reader to collaborate in it comfortably.

That desire for a comfortable familiarity to the game, for the manipulation of worlds and millennia to be as painless as possible, so often climaxing in awe that it skirts spiritual masturbation, can lead to a dismissal of sf as simple power fantasy. Although no branch of fiction can plead innocent to a charge of power-hunger, sf tends to feed the same spurious sense of omniscience as its cousin genre, popular science. Such tendencies may be inseparable from world-building itself, sf's very driving point. The writer-to-reader coziness of a minimally shared world, however enlivening, however fought against with satire or metaphysical horror, can hardly be described as revolutionary in spirit.

Still, similar charges of flattery or lassitude can be leveled against any art form. Not long after reading Silliman's essay, I re-read Marianne Moore's ambivalent defense of her chosen art, a poem titled "Poetry" which began with a sentiment which critic-participants such as Disch and Malzberg were to echo in sf:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
The original 29-line version was widely anthologized. Later, after Moore stripped it to a musically pure essential three lines, it became less popular. What she removed was somewhat mendacious pleading, a list of desires which might drive one to poetry but which were unlikely to be, speaking precisely (which, after all, Moore was attempting to do), fulfilled by it.

They included the Bartlett's-friendly "imaginary gardens with real toads in them". Indeed, the phrase has little to do with poetry. It is, however, eminently applicable to sf and fantasy, whose speculative games nurture life unavailable to the ideal of the pure observer.

Dominant aesthetic and political forces have a congenital susceptibility to burrowing from within, destructive to the host no matter what the spirochetes' intentions. Sf's emphasis on the building of new worlds rather than on the thin stuff accepted as representation of The World, sf's foundation on what is not, sets it against the mainstream despite any nostalgic longings.

In contemporary poetry's terms, fantastic literature can seem the most radical of reactionaries, yet the pleasures of both forms largely depend on their pointing out the arbitrary nature of referentiality. Poetry calls attention to the verbal surface which sf would have us mold around new contexts, but both force the reader to manipulate, rather than deny, its presence.

Copyright 1992 Ray Davis