Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

3/04/2005

I came across (pretty randomly) this essay by Dale Chapman called "Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Paranoia and the Technological Sublime in Drum and Bass Music". Aside from the interesting things it had to say about drum and bass and the movie Pi, the article had a lot of eye-opening thoughts about science fiction:

As I hope to demonstrate, the specific coincidence of elements that we find in many drum and bass tracks--the coexistence of a volatile rhythmic framework, an affect of cyborg artificiality, and the traumatic impact of the sublime--lend them a prophetic quality in the face of recent events.
The phrase "traumatic impact of the sublime" really hit me--and it made me think about the old SF standby "sense of wonder". How is it, and how can it be, traumatic? Awe-ful? Chapman has this to say about trauma later in the essay:

Trauma is, in short, the experience we have of an event so violent or disturbing that our mind shuts down in the attempt to represent it; the event creates a break that ruptures our sense of the way in which the world is organized. Framed in this manner, we might say that trauma articulates the experience of the sublime--that massive, unlimited awe and terror--in the form of a single punctuating act.


This inverts, esp. in our 21st century, of the "trauma as spectacle." But is "sense of wonder" in of itself, at least latently, traumatic? Whether for characters who are involved with it (or observing it) or the readers reading it? I had once thought of dour, affectless near-future prose as the vehicle to deal with contemporary terrors, but I'm pretty sure I was wrong. The trouble is that at times even some of the most sophisticated SF has a sheen over it that masks these complications. The terror's there, but sublimated.

One of the common techniques to create this sense of the sublime is a kind of blitheness (pioneered by Heinlein?) that characters in the story have in regards to awe-inspiring events, e.g., a star collapsing, a space elevator. "Yeah, we see this all the time, what's the big deal?" This is bread and butter for science fiction writers. The effect is to have the reader unidentify with the character to an extent; that is, to create distance through banalization of the unreal. At its best, this can often, also, "three-dimensionalize" the world-building, by showing glimpses of "unseen corners" of a given world. At its worst, it leads to a kind of talking-out-of-the-side-of- one's-mouth glibness, a smoothing over of this distancing to drive the story forward.

And that, ultimately--the belief that the very act of "moving the story forward" is the prime requirement for a sense of wonder--is what is so frustrating sometimes in SF. If I'm driving my car at 75 mph, a lot of the time I'm not even thinking about it; the fact that, in the whole history of humankind, the vast vast majority of it could not even fathom going this fast. But occasionally, I do think about it, and it provides a "holy fuck, what am I doing here" kind of tension. (Then I turn off and try to find a parking spot.) I think everyone has those moments. It's this multiplicity teetering of perspectives--not just the bludgeoning home a point about technophilic kicks--that can provide amazing, volatile textures in science fiction. I wish some stories would slow down enough, or get off their own predestined track enough, to let these kinds of moments seep into the authored worlds. (This dissonance, of course, is a milder version of "trauma", or maybe not related to it at all. But amplify this on the often-broader scale of future-fiction, and a wider range of thought can be incorporated into the narrative.)

ps. I have not read China Mieville's first novel, King Rat, which I heard has a lot to do with jungle, though I have no idea whether it tries to embody it with a "volatile rhythmic framework"... anyone who's read it, I'd be thrilled to hear about it.

1 Comments:

At 3/05/2005 07:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Thax.

 

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