Our Tribe (Gabba Gabba Hey)

by wjw on April 23, 2011

So when did it become okay to write about our tribe?

I am prompted to ask this question by reading Among Others, by Jo Walton.  Which is about growing up as an Anglo-Welsh science fiction reader in the 1970s— the sort of person who reads Delany and Heinlein and Plato’s Symposium all at the same time, and who listens to the dialog the books are having  in her head; but there’s absolutely no one to share this with, because there is no one else who’s part of the tribe or would remotely understand.

Mor, the protagonist, is reading a dozen SF novels a week while stuck in an English boarding school that’s like Hogwarts without the magic and without good food and with three hours of mandatory sports every day.  In the rain.  It’s the sort of place I would kill to stay out of.  Mor is desperate to find a karass, and she eventually finds one, and part of the book is about what happens when she does.  (And if you don’t know what a karass is, you’re probably not part of our tribe.  Sorry.)

Among Others has an unconventional structure, in that it’s built around what we sometime writing teachers call a “deleted affair”— which is to say, the single most important scene is never revealed to the reader, and in fact occurs before the book starts.  Before the first chapter, Mor and her twin sister (also Mor) save the world, more or less literally.  So the book relates the denouement of a much bigger story that we don’t get to see.

(One of the characteristics of my tribe is that I read a book like Among Others in a fairly literal way.  I could read it as the story of a paranoid schizophrenic who romanticizes her delusions.  I don’t read it that way, nor do I read Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird in that fashion, although I concede that such a reading is possible, though much less interesting than mine.)

Among Others deals with the personal consequences of having saved the world.  The story opens with Mor battered and (literally) scarred and on the run, and being dumped in this soul-destroying boarding school because her runaway father and his three evil sisters don’t want to deal with her.  So I thought, “Hey, this is the Scouring of the Shire.  It’s about the Wounded Hero who can’t be healed because her wounds are invisible.”

Which is what happens up until Mor finds her karass, and then the book changes, because suddenly she finds other people who know about Robert Silverberg.  And Plato.  And Zelazny.

The rest of Among Others I will leave for you to discover yourself.  It’s worth discovering, particularly if you’re a member of our tribe.

All of which returns me to my original question, which is when it became okay to write this sort of thing?

For almost the entire history of science fiction, the one thing you would never find in a science fiction novel was, well, science fiction.   Every person in a science fiction story behaved as if science fiction itself was never invented.  Nobody in science fiction had ever read a science fiction story or seen a science fiction film.  When they were faced with a science fictional problem, they had absolutely no frame of reference outside the mundane world in order to deal with it.  (When I see a science fiction film, I’m often prone to thinking thoughts like: “If only the protagonist had read that Up the Line by Silverberg, he’d know what to do.”  And if Buffy the Vampire Slayer had actually read horror fiction, she would have had an easier time, too.)

Heinlein’s juvenile protagonists would crack open a science textbook and work out equations on their slide rules, but even though they were totally the sort of people who would have a pile of pulp magazines under their beds, they never did.

Science fiction stories reacted to one another— in Among Others, Mor wonders if the anarchist society in Triton is a reaction to the anarchist society in The Dispossessed— but no one in science fiction ever read Triton or The Dispossessed.

Not only did science fiction never deal with people who read science fiction, it hardly ever dealt with any element of popular culture at all.  Science fiction protagonists rarely went to ball games or night clubs or the movies or listened to rock and roll or even watched television— or if they did, television was the enemy (1984, Fahrenheit 451).  If popular culture was portrayed, either it was evil or it was condescended to, as for instance the puppet Pidgie-Widgie in The Star Beast.

Science fiction, a form of popular culture, seemed to be very snobbish about popular culture.  (Pardon me for thinking this is not exactly healthy.)

The first portrait of a type of science fiction person I can recall is the title character of Philip K. Dick’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, which was written in the Fifties but couldn’t be published till the mid-Seventies.   In the novel,  Jack Isidore isn’t a science fiction person exactly, mainly because he can’t tell the difference between science and fiction.  He believes in UFOs, the Hollow Earth, ESP, and telepathy.  He does “scientific” experiments to demonstrate the truth of his beliefs.  He has stacks of old magazines, but they’re not Astounding, they’re Popular Science.  And though he’s the sort of character that it’s very easy to condescend to, he turns out to be the most sympathetic and least screwed-up character in the book.

Was having such a wacked-out protagonist the reason the book wasn’t published in the buttoned-down Fifties?  I don’t know.

The fan Forry Ackerman was used as a protagonist by Philip Jose Farmer in a couple erotic SF novels in the 1970s.  (I don’t care to read about Forry Ackerman having sex, but maybe that’s just me.)  But until the last few years, these are the only examples of people from my tribe appearing in the sort of books my tribe reads.

Now, though, we’re all over the place.  Movies and television shows that aren’t even about science fiction have references to science fiction in them— and they expect their audiences to catch the reference! And of course there’s Big Bang Theory, which is crammed with members of our tribe,  nerdy and pathetic though they may be . . . but at least it’s a hit, and people seem to understand the jokes.

Dagmar, the protagonist of This Is Not a Game and Deep State, is a former science fiction writer and RPG gamer, and I didn’t experience any resistance from the publisher on that score.   (They were concerned that no one in the book be based on a real person who would sue us, and no one was.)

And now Among Others, about a character in which Heinlein and Le Guin conduct Platonic dialogs in her head.

When did it change?  And is it a good thing?

And while you’re thinking about that, feel free to chant along with me:

Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.  One of us!  One of us!  Gooble gobble, gooble gobble.  One of us!  One of us!

Zora April 23, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I’m reminded of one scene in Firefly.

Wash: Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.
Zoe: We live in a spaceship, dear.
Wash: So?

Ryan Viergutz April 23, 2011 at 11:23 pm

We are the Many!

Chris Abbey April 24, 2011 at 2:34 am

A few brief thoughts on the gap between SF and culture and pop culture:
In the 80s, I was in a smoking room listening to two people talk about the political undercurrents of V. It took me ten minutes to realize they meant the Pynchon novel.
Seven years ago, at a convention, I talking with some guy named Walter about the existential nature of Chicken Boo from Animaniacs. An onlooker later told me she’d wanted to join in, but she doesn’t watch TV.
I Like Big Bang Theory, but it annoys me that they don’t *read* SF. If one of them is reading when the rest come in, it is invariably a comic book. I get the feeling they’re the kind of nerds who have only ever read LotR and Neuromancer.

Jean-Daniel April 24, 2011 at 5:07 am

Maybe you’ve all forgotten Fredric Brown’s “What Mad Universe”.
According to its wikipedia entry, only we Frenchmen consider it a masterpiece.

David W. Goldman April 24, 2011 at 8:23 am

Kilgore Trout?

Bud Sparhawk April 24, 2011 at 11:23 am

I read Walton’s book recently and loved the SF discusssions/views/insights immensely, but was. like you, bothered by the structure and the DEM at the end.

grs1961 April 24, 2011 at 1:45 pm

“Sybly White” in “Children of the Lens”. SF inside SF, even if Qadgop the Mercotan was a bit of a sleaze.

David W. Goldman April 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Hmm! There’s actually an entire listing of Recursive Science Fiction here: http://www.nesfa.org/Recursion/recursive_S.htm

Pat Mathews April 24, 2011 at 10:17 pm

S.M.Stirling’s “In the Court of the Crimson Kings” opens with a pack of sf writers watching the first robot landing on Mars. Most of us old-timers can recognize them all.

wjw April 24, 2011 at 11:36 pm

I think recursive SF, and SF that is a satire on other SF, is different from having a protagonist who is so clearly an SF fan or writer. That seems to be relatively rare.

Blaze April 25, 2011 at 10:11 am

In a more specific example of the situation, I always smile when “Star Trek” characters time travel to the here and now. Well, it’s our modern world in every respect except…there’s no “Star Trek”.

Virtually any person on our planet who saw an individual with a severe haircut and pointed ears would make a crack about “Spock” or Vulcans. Abruptly seeing people dematerialize would automatically trigger references to “Scotty” or “Beam me up”.

But in a “Star Trek” time travel episode, the person suddenly exposed to our time travellers make lame “Flash Gordon” references if they make any at all.

Your post is interesting. I’m not sure just when the line was crossed where characters actually have some fictional reference point when they confront the mind-boggling. Some TV shows go too far the other way. Busy, nomadic monster hunters or star explorers apparently spend every off duty minute (between episodes) in marathon pop culture sessions, just so they can quip and banter knowledgeably.

John Appel April 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I think some of the answer may boil down to the author saying “Hey, I’ve had to dream up one imaginary world, now you want me to dream up *another*?” This is especially problematic when your story takes place in the Far Future. When the “real life” has finally caught up to science fiction, what’s still out there?

I suspect that the cool factor of geeks is a relatively recent phenomenon (and certainly hasn’t fully penetrated society), and that may play a role as well. Perhaps authors wanted to avoid making their character a “nerd” and thus making them less attractive or sympathetic to the reader, or less likely to be someone the reader could identify with.

Another consideration is that like any other social classification with a substantial population, there are many different sub-cultures within SF fandom. For example, while fantasy and science fiction are prime components of my intellectual diet, and I’ve read works by authors many of my age-peers haven’t (most have no idea who John Brunner was, for example), I consider myself a lower-case “f” fan – never attended a con or belonged to any sort of fan group, for example. (And I had to have the term “slash” explained to me by a 20-something friend a couple years ago, as I’d never heard it.) These days, the tribe includes people whose only exposure to fantasy and SF is Star Wars, or one or another vampire/urban fantasy series, etc., as well as those of us who’ve still got a couple of old ACE doubles floating around in shelves and stacks of Asimov’s or Analogs. This broadens the pool of possible characters, so maybe we’ll start seeing more as time goes on.

S.M. Stirling April 26, 2011 at 8:19 am

I ran into this problem while doing the “Terminator” spin-off novels. I had John Connor make an X-Files reference. Some humorless corporate twit started bleating that this “wasn’t an X-Files story” and I had t0 -explain- that people make pop-culture referencs and John Connor was supposed to be a young person at that time and would therefore have WATCHED THE X-FILES.

This really, really puzzled them. I had to explain the concept over and over again.

Perhaps he conquest of pop culture by SF and fantasy has become so complete that -everyone- is now familiar with this.

Charlie Stross April 30, 2011 at 6:25 pm

SMS: Perhaps he conquest of pop culture by SF and fantasy has become so complete that -everyone- is now familiar with this.

Except for film studio executives, obviously …

(Did you check the back of their suit jackets for suspicious puppet-master sized humps on your way out of the meetings?)

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