All cultures are divisive. In fact, we can say that culture, by its very nature, is xenophobic since it is based on an Us-against-Them paradigm, a paradigm that has evolved from geographical, sociological and psychological factors. Peoples world-wide have defined themselves apart from the Other, and have created boundaries (geographical and otherwise) to separate themselves.
Apart from the global manifestations of this phenomenon, my attention became focused on an ongoing debate concerning “Canadian literature” (or CannedLit, as I prefer to call it) which surfaced in a recent article written by John Degen, Director of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Here we have a demonstrative model of the argument in favour of pursuing a national identity as it relates to literature. But why, is my question, should a literature seek identity in the particulars of a culture, Canadian or otherwise?
A literature survives in posterity because it is universal, i.e. speaks to the human condition apart from cultural significance. People still attend the plays of Shakespeare, read the novels of Dickens and Dostoevsky or the poetry of Li Po, despite their geographical/national settings and linguistic/literary conventions, because they are works of art that transcend the box of cultural identity (the worm’s eye-view) and attain an understanding and insight into the universal human condition (the bird’s eye-view). They do, of course, reflect their cultural signifiers (setting, language, habits, etc.), but these signifiers are not the meat of any true art.
In trying to find a “Canadian identity” or formulate a “Canadian literature”, we limit our imaginations, and relegate our visions to the particulars of our cultural signifiers. When I read a literary master such as Julio Cortázar, the particulars of Argentina and its culture are apparent and informative and significant, but his penetrating view into the nature of evil resonates for all people world-wide.
posted by Richard TruhlarRead More
Since the turn of the 20th century, there has emerged a distinct genre in speculative fiction that can best be described as dystopian literature, and while in learned literary circles speculative fiction has been considered second-rate entertainment having very little literary merit, the genre of dystopian literature has managed to distinguish itself through such classics as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, and Zamyatin’s Z.
While the bulk of speculative fiction (an umbrella designation that groups together science fiction, fantasy, and horror) has been dominated by space-opera scenarios or sword-and-sorcery romances (much like the soap opera of most contemporary mainstream fiction), a number of speculative fictioneers during the 1960s turned their attention away from the ‘star-trek’ concerns of their colleagues and directed it towards the imminent future of life on Earth. One notable visionary in this generation was Philip K. Dick, whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (written in 1966 and later made into the film Blade Runner) set a speculative fiction precedent in that it spawned a provocative younger generation of writers who became the avant-garde of speculative fiction during the later part of the 20th century.
The new ‘science fiction underground’ is predominately devoted to dystopian visions of our world. Like Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, its distinctive characteristic is its intense and unwavering vision of a dehumanized Earth society. The epithet that came to describe this genre of fiction (now considered a ‘movement’ among science fiction literati) is cyber-punk. Foremost practitioners in this genre—William Gibson, K.W. Jeter, John Shirley—all readily adopted the cyber-punk epithet, their dystopian literary visions portraying a world that combined high-tech, high-speed futuristic settings and scientific developments with street-wise, tough characters. Bionics, prosthetics, brain/computer interfaces, robotics, micro-chip mysticism—all conspire in our present/future world to transform the human into the unhuman.
Unlike other mainstream fiction in which description, more often than not, functions as ‘setting’ for the characters to play out their social dramas, cyber-punk fiction brings the ‘setting’ to life, gives it an active role—the environment or ‘setting’ of the narrative becomes itself a character to be reckoned with. But the environments in cyber-punk are not, or are seldom, natural (trees, rivers, etc.)—they are man-made (cityscapes, mindscapes). Take, for example, John Shirley’s allegorical novel City Come A-Walkin’ (published in 1980) in which all the negative energy (hatred, spite, despair, self-loathing) of an urban population coalesces into a walking-talking nemesis who dispenses justice and death in the form of car accidents, house fires, and assassination. Taking humanoid form, this coalesced being’s name is City. He capitalizes on fear, stalks any negative emotion. City is man-made—a metaphor of our inner psyches projected on to our outward environment.
Another stunning example of the character of environment in the cyber-punk genre is William Gibson’s award-winning novel Neuromancer (published in 1984), a speed-addicted fiction that takes the reader on a relentless journey into the terrain of mind/computer interface. Pros and punks vie for position in the Matrix, a computer micro-world-network where fortunes can be won or lives lost, where those who are wealthiest and the most technologically advanced control the destiny of the human race. In order to access the Matrix, one needs special black-market software and “sendai” interface hardware that allows one’s brain to plug directly into the world’s computer network. Once inside the Matrix, a “hot-rodder” must have the skill and cunning to manipulate the system, break into silicon citadels of protected information, and have the intelligence to avoid “black ice” —deadly security programs that can attack an intruding mind, pursue it back to its host body, and literally fry the intruder’s brain.
What makes Gibson’s novel so compelling (as well as novels by Jeter and Shirley) is its precision of imagery, fast-paced action, true-to-life street-tough dialogue, and visionary quality. The visionary quality is no airy-fairy fantasy, but comes from an intense attention to the technological/scientific developments of today and to where these developments can possibly lead.
A truly distinctive voice in dystopian literature appears in the debut novel Red Spider White Web (published in 1990) by Misha Nogha. Here we encounter all the conventions of the cyber-punk genre, yet the narrative and Nogha’s distinct imagery transcends the genre by being, as one critic noted, “more accurate in its critique of contemporary U.S. culture’s cruelty and ignorance.” Here we have a world where artists and creative minds are outcasts, whose only salvation lie in indenture to wealthy and powerful patrons, a world where “society’s most disenfranchised victims struggle for survival against the technotopic juggernaut” (E. Helford).
The bulk of fiction being written today is mostly focused upon neurotic dramas of social interaction, and because of this, the reader of contemporary fiction is continually forced to re-experience the myths of the past, the old ways of perceiving the world, and to forgo the creative imagination in favour of traditional paradigm. Most contemporary fiction reinforces our notions of the ‘human condition’—a 19th century preoccupation. But what of the myths of the near future? These we are usually blind to, and yet live with day-to-day.
It is the strength of speculative fiction that it projects itself beyond the assumed, the traditional notions and perceptions we have of ourselves and the world we are a part of. Through imagination (a quality sadly lacking in most contemporary fiction), speculative fiction follows the thread of today into tomorrow, considers the labyrinthine paths of the future, and begins to formulate how the myths we are living today can come to fuller consciousness.
—by Richard Truhlar, originally published in Paragraph, the Fiction Magazine (1991), revised 2013.Read More
Brian Dedora reads from his latest intertextual work A Few Sharp Sticks, presented at the Teksteditions' Anniversary/Launch, October 30, 2012, at The Supermarket in Toronto.
Watch the video on the Teksteditions YouTube channel: Brian DedoraRead More
Richard Truhlar reads his story "Bewildered Liturgy" from his new collection of speculative fiction Infinite Anatomies, presented at the Teksteditions' Anniversary/Launch, October 30, 2012, at The Supermarket in Toronto.
Watch the video on the Teksteditions YouTube channel: Richard TruhlarRead More