Big Echo

Critical SF

Inteview with Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is an American Science Fiction novelist, short story writer, and critic.

What do you think of a project to treat Marx’s Capital as a science fictional text? Do you think it a reasonable experiment? A reasonable claim?

I’d argue that it’s already been done and often. Jack London based “A Literary Fragment” on that vision and J. G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man” is all about capitalism’s need for constantly expanding markets. I’ve done two stories on related themes myself, “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…” and “The Dead.’ There have been plenty of others, I’m sure.

I should probably state here that I’m not a devotee of Marx. I’m not perpetually awaiting the birth of a Worker’s Paradise. I’m just someone who’s afraid he might be right.

It is certainly the case that “The Dead” and “From Babel's Fall’n Glory We Fled...” are great examples of what could be construed as a post-Marxist critique of capitalism — and a great deal of Ballard as well —  but they are also rather bleak. What is in the Jack London story and not in the others is hope (although the last few ironic lines of “The Dead” hint, I suppose, at the possibility of a sort of Worker’s Paradise). None of Cory Doctorow’s techno-utopianism for you? And which part of Marx are you afraid is right? Diagnosis or cure?

It’s the diagnosis that money and power must necessarily wind up in increasingly fewer and increasingly crueler hands that fills me with dread. Nor, if Marx was right, do I look forward to the desperate revolution this will inevitably lead to. Particularly since the technology of oppression and intimidation has gotten so much better in the 150 years since Das Kapital was published. We’re at the dawn of the age of robot armies. One can easily imagine robots enforcing control over slave populations long after the last capitalist has died. That would really be Marxism without hope.

The cure – the people seizing control of the means of production, etc., etc. – does sound better than the disease. But it’s harder to believe in after the Great Terror. In practice, the Soviet experiment was flawed at best. My friend Andrew Matveev is a writer who wanted to be the Russian Hunter S. Thompson when he was young. He submitted his first novel and was called into the publisher’s office and told, “This book will never be published.” Then he was sent into internal exile. That’s anything but a Workers’ Paradise. Writing in present-day capitalist Russia has its own problems. But, Matveev said, “They took from me a part of what I could have been.” In Russia I quickly learned to brace myself whenever somebody began a statement with, “In Soviet times…” Because what came next would inevitably sizzle your hair.

So I find it hard to believe in the happy ending that Marx promised. But I could be wrong. It’s happened before. Mostly, I hold out hope that we’ll muddle through somehow. That’s happened before too.

What does it mean to “see everything in terms of economics”? Is that related to the literalness of science fiction? What would a SF look like that saw everything in terms of economics?

More SF does that than most of us realize. One of the basic pieces of advice for turning a neat idea into a story is, “Ask yourself this: Who does it hurt? Then write about that person.” And what else is economics but an examination of mechanisms and consequences? Larry Niven wrote several stories applying this question to teleportation. His answer included: bridge painters, automobile manufacturers (but not motorcycle companies, for bikers would now have the roads to themselves), and people who could no longer move far, far away from abusive ex-spouses.

What is the relation of history to your work? Is it simply a wonderfully bewildering tickle trunk to which you can resort to for ideas? Or is there a more complex relation? Do you have a philosophy of history? Of time?

I don’t think I have a philosophy of time or of history. I’m just a consumer of them.

You famously said you didn’t care much for repeating yourself but it is difficult not to. If you were to look hard at the body of your work what would be repetitive in it? I am particularly interested, rather obviously, in what political and ideological tics have persisted over time.

Identity. Sex as a motive force. Family. I was raised Catholic and that never goes away, so I hope I have compassion for the flawed and suffering. I had a lot of low-paying jobs when I was young, which gave me a strong awareness of class – something most Americans like to pretend either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Oh, and transcendence. There’s a lot of transcendence in my work.

But, really, I’m not the person to ask about this. I’m far more interested in everything else than in me.

Transcendence is intriguing. Might you develop this just a little more? Particularly transcendence as it is situated in an analysis of material mechanisms and consequences?

Transcendence is by definition being lifted above and beyond the universe as we know it. In Catholicism, by going to Heaven. In science fiction, it generally happens through enhancement of the human brain or by piggybacking off of superior alien technology and it’s usually called the Singularity. In my own work, it generally occurs at the point where technology and religion intersect. (There’s no getting around the fact that I have a mystic streak.)

And that’s all I know on the subject. The mechanisms of transcendence employed in my fiction are all ad hoc. Nor do I have any idea why that particular trope comes up so frequently. I have a lot of upbeat positive futures in my fiction, but they all occur far enough in the future that problems besetting us have been resolved (somehow) in the past.

Is it possible to write about the future without fetishizing technology?

It’s done all the time. But I don’t think fetishizing technology in fiction is necessarily a bad thing when fetishized technology – whether it’s a hot car or a new iPhone – is a part of our daily lives. It’s possible we need more of it in our fiction, just to keep up.

One of the most interesting questions you can ask of most SF novels set more than a century in the future is, “What happened to television?” It’s rarely present and nothing seems to have specifically replaced it. So there’s a kind of anti-fetishization going on there, a nostalgic wishfulness that the future will be a return to an idyllic past that never existed anywhere outside of our imaginations.

Is it possible to write about the future (or the past for that matter) without politicizing it?

I think not. And I believe it’s potentially strongest when writers believe they’re not doing it. The unstated, unacknowledged assumptions of their time and class permeate the work. The British Museum acquired a kouros – an ancient Greek statue of a naked male youth – in Victorian times which was seen as a particularly splendid example of its kind. A hundred years later, a curator glanced at it, stopped, and said, “Oh.” It was a forgery and enough time had passed that the Victorian elements in the sculptor’s style that no one could then see had become obvious to the modern eye. So, too, with politics. If they’re not conscious, they’re unconscious. And time is very good at separating the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff.

So it seems I have of philosophy of time after all!

I’m curious about power shifts in the genre landscape. You have commented in some detail about the emergence of cyberpunk. What would you characterize as the most exciting, or simply interesting, developments in contemporary SF since then? How do you see the genre proceeding?

I am extremely wary about movements and schools of literature because by the time they’re done announcing themselves, they’re over. In fact, I was the first person to declare cyberpunk dead, back in 1986 – though not long before the writers themselves did.

But there are a couple of broad trends worth noting. One is the large number of writers doing slipstream fiction – mainstream, essentially, but with a fantastic edge. So far as can be told, slipstream is far more popular with writers than it is with readers. I’ve heard that Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which is the field’s preeminent publisher of slipstream (among other things) has more submissions monthly than either Asimov’s or Analog. I haven’t checked the assertion but that sounds about right.

The other is a growing fondness on the part of genre writers for writing stories that are neither science fiction nor fantasy, but rather a hybrid form. One where the fantastic element is not rationalized, as in traditional SF, but then treated as if the story were science fiction rather than fantasy. I think that doing so abandons science fiction’s key strength – the ability to rigorously examine a clearly presented idea. But I’ve written a lot of stuff that blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy, so that may be just rank hypocrisy on my part.

Your writing is often laugh-out-loud funny. You mention suffering as one of your ongoing concerns, and I often catch myself thinking of Beckett and Kafka when I’m reading you. I’m wondering about the role of absurdity in your writing, or even science fiction in general. 

I’m afraid that absurdity is built into the nature of reality. That’s one reason why Philip K. Dick has had such a successful posthumous career while far better writers and extrapolators – John Brunner comes to mind – have not. Woody Allen put it best when he said that life is “full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness – and it's all over much too quickly.”

We laugh at things to show we’re not afraid of them. And apparently we find the human condition uproarious. I think that’s kind of glorious of us.