Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rocketpunk Manifesto Goes PoMo!

Firefly's Inara (Morena Baccarin)
Postmodernist literary criticism, AKA PoMo, gets beaten up on quite a bit, and not without some reason. It is the only discipline I know of in which people speak of Theory (with a capital T) without bothering to give the theory a name. It is notorious for unreadable prose. It is commonly associated with a prim campus leftism, but one of its founding fathers seems to have been uncomfortably comfortable with the Nazis.

Space geeks, of course, have poor standing to complain on that score. But most alarming, from intellectual perspective, there are legitimate grounds to wonder whether the postmodernists know what the hell they are talking about. Certainly no one else does, but a couple of physicists wrote a bogus paper, filled with pure jive, and got it published in a refereed postmodernist academic journal.

So why would I flirt with this particular dark side? Because at the root of postmodernism are some real insights into the slippery nature of texts. They do not always say quite what the author intends. Texts can contradict themselves in subtle ways, or the author's claimed meaning can be contradicted by other facts, the way Sally Hemmings contradicts the Declaration of Independence.

Among the questions raised is who 'owns' a text? Isaac Asimov once attended a lecture on his own work. He disagreed with one of the lecturer's points, and afterwards went up, introduced himself, and said so. Replied the lecturer, "What do you know? You're only the author." The Good Doctor A. had encountered postmodernism, and was not amused. I'll be returning to Asimov below, but what brought all this up was a discussion on SFConsim-l. The question of favorite starships came up, and a poster listed Serenity of 'Firefly' fame.

Is Serenity a starship? I said yes - thereby disagreeing with the show's creator, Joss Whedon. According to the official canon, the Firefly 'verse is a single vast planetary system that manages to have 50-odd habitable worlds. This is pretty shaky astrophysics - though hardly as shaky as FTL. But my argument is not so much about physics as about SF tropes. Serenity travels among habitable extrasolar planets, just like good old Enterprise. When I first watched the show I took for granted that it had the time-honored interstellar setting. No F/X or technobabble was wasted on FTL jumps, but it wasn't needed, and the only hint of a non-interstellar setting was the vague mention of the 'system' in Mal's opening voiceover.

So I have no hesitation in saying that, in terms of SF tropes, Serenity is best interpreted as a starship. If Whedon says otherwise it just shows that he is much better at creating a 'verse than explaining it.

Enter again Isaac Asimov. I have grumped before in this blog about his later Foundation books, which subvert and 'deconstruct' the whole premise of the original Foundation Trilogy - a thoroughly PoMo enterprise in its own right. The Mule a robot? I just don't buy it. My own PoMo response was and is to reject those books as Foundation canon. Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis has a far better claim to be a 'real' Foundation book - I haven't read it yet, but a quick thumb-through was enough to convince me. It engages the issues of determinism that the original trilogy did, and has the same grand sweep. Asimov's later books don't.

On the other hand, the later Foundation books have a much fairer claim to be canonical continuations of Asimov's robot-verse. Not only does R. Daneel Olivaw show up as a major character, the books are all about the implications of the Three Laws of Robotics - ultimately, the nature of ethics. Most of all the frame shift makes them much better books. (Just think of the Foundation-esque setting as a parallel universe.)

If that makes me PoMo, so be it. Isaac Asimov, for multiple reasons, is in no position to complain.


Anonymous said...

The postmodernist thinkers strike me as people who have grasped one part of the relationship between storyteller and listener/reader, and ran too far with that one part.

Yes, there is room in a story for it to mean more than what the author intended. No, the author's intentions are not meaningless. (See - Starship Troopers)

Yes, the experience of reading a text and the background you bring to a text are very important. No, they are not the only important part of the experience.

I could go on... And sometimes have, at great detail. Ultimately the pomo critics strike me as people who are very bright and very well educated, and believe that being very bright and well educated gives their critique of a work greater weight than the work itself.

I never got into the Foundation works, because I could not suspend my disbelief in psychohistory. I think that might be cultural/generational: Isaac Asimov grew up and studied in an era when people truly believed that they could predict future behaviours of complex systems if only they had the right information. I grew up with chaos theory and D.O.A.

FTL? I'll buy that, but only if it involves kewl starship battles.

Hot alien babes? I want to believe.

Psychic powers? Um, kinda stretching things a bit here... But I'll bite if the animation is good and the subtitles are bad.

Psychohistory? Sorry. Can't do it. I just can't imagine a clerk in the back offices of the Foundation correctly factoring for Robert Pickton and the Piggy Palace.


Anonymous said...

By the way, if you don't get the reference to Pickton... Good. Don't google it.

Rick said...

... and believe that being very bright and well educated gives their critique of a work greater weight than the work itself. This may be inherent in literary criticism, even traditional. But PoMo does seem to lend itself to a certain amount of solipsism.

Flip side, I'm slightly leery of bashing an intellectual enterprise that I don't understand. Somewhere I read a credible response to the Sokol bogus-paper fiasco. I don't recall the specific argument, but generally the whole academic self-correction mechanism is designed to handle honest error, not deliberate fraud.

On the third hand, 'not even wrong' is a truly devastating critique!

Starship Troopers - Oooo, something else I should write about! Nothing like a little controversy to pimp a blog! (Short form: I like it, but it shows incipient traits that made later Heinlein more or less unreadable.)

Interesting point about Foundation, psychohistory, and changing intellectual climate. (Plus I read it in the Golden Age of SF - i.e. when I was 13.) Midcentury SF was also big on tropes like weather control that seem pretty laughable now.

I'm not sure when it hit me that psychohistory did not account for Hari Seldon himself. Assuming the premise, shouldn't his mathematical model of the late Empire have shown substantial probability that someone would come up with psychohistory?

That said, I retain a bias that large, complex systems damp out a good deal of local chaos, and can display rhythmic patterns. Reliably predicting them, not so much.

Oh, and inevitably I did google the Picton reference. My advice to readers is to take your advice, and refrain from doing so. Unless you are interested in serial killers.

Anonymous said...

'Not even wrong' - In that sense, PoMo thought reminds me string theory. Both fields grabbed ahold of a handful of very powerful tools, and ran amok with them.

Societies - Large, complex systems - do develop predictable broad patterns. And you can make very accurate short-term predictions about fashions, new technologies, electoral politics, etc. But it's all so context sensitive...

The economic 'quants', the guys who created the predictive software used by the financial industry, created some incredibly powerful predictive tools. These tools allowed investors and speculators to create vast amounts of money (No wealth, but a lot of money). But the quants all worked from the same limited set of historical data, and all their products had the same core assumption: US house prices would only ever go ^UP^.

Societies run in predictable patterns. History runs in cycles. It's possible to predict the broad outlines of future events - So long as your predictions are limited to the current cycle. As soon as a society switches over to a new cycle, your old models are useless.

Starship Troopers is a great argument-starter, and a lot of good stories have been written in response to it. Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage is my favourite.

"I'm not sure when it hit me that psychohistory did not account for Hari Seldon himself." Huh. I missed that completely. There's definitely a story in that, but not for me. I'm still working on pirates, politics, and how to hijack a spaceship.


Rick said...

Nice analogy to string theory. Another thing I know jack diddly about, but I get the impression it says all sorts of interesting things while offering no empirical evidence, or (iirc) even the possibility of empirical evidence.

I was thinking about the real estate crash and recession in context of this discussion. It seemed 'obvious' to me - especially living in coastal California - that the real estate hype couldn't last forever. At some point, like Wile E. Coyote, it would look down, then follow, leaving a Wile E. shaped hole in the canyon floor. Predicting when the inevitable would happen was another matter.

As a curious side note, during the dot-com bubble I remember much buzz about Kondratiev waves and the long cycle, but the only mention I've seen this downturn is the one you're reading.

And it just feels right that a wave in a complex system would be somewhat predictable, but not what happens beyond it.

I've never read Rite of Passage, and at first glance the plot summary sounded more like a twist on another Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky. (It also sounds like a book I'd like.) But I also found Panshin's own essay - quite illuminating. Definitely blogworthy stuff.

I just checked out Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis ... which seems like it may take up a variation on my comment - what happens when rival psychohistorians are running around.

Anonymous said...

While many people SAY they are 'postmodernists', the sad fact is that only some of them do understand it and believe in it; others understand but don't believe; others don't understand and don't believe; and (unfortunately), the loudest are often those that don't understand, but do believe. Any worth while use of Postmodernism tends to be tarnished by those that don't understand it, but do feel the need to 'apply' it at every opportunity. Again, sadly, this isn't limited to Postmodernism.

Rick said...

sadly, this isn't limited to Postmodernism. See my reply to your comment on the next post up! The gods keep playing the same jokes because we keep falling for them.

Damien Sullivan said...

Er, I don't think the Mule was a robot, but a fugitive from Gaia, a planet of people with Asimov's funky E&M 'psychic' powers but still people.