Saturday, November 14, 2009
Feeling very estranged
To my immense delight, the new issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction features my essay "Feeling Very Estranged: Science Fiction and Society in the Aftermath of the Twentieth Century." An earlier version of of the essay was presented as part of the symposium on "Mundos Paralelos" at the 2009 Festival de Mexico in el Centro Historico put together by author and critic Mauricio Montiel Figueiras and Festival director Jose Wolffer. The essay is my effort to synthesize much of my accumulated thinking on sf as the most highly evolved branch of the twentieth century project to produce a literature of alienation. It covers some pretty disparate ground, considering post-apocalyptic dystopias as works of emotional realism, the fantastic media multiverse as the enabler of our alienation, and the portents to be gleaned from the merging post-cyberpunk literature of things.
Here's an excerpt from the opening:
I. The ruins of Des Moines
“It is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system.” — Slavoj Žižek
In the spring of 2005, eleven men were arrested while re-enacting scenes from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior on a highway north of San Antonio, Texas. Saturday shoppers headed to the mall were alarmed to be passed by a heavily armored Mack truck pulling a tanker trailer and being chased a black 1974 Ford Falcon GT pursuit special (complete with big chrome blower sticking through the hood — “last of the V-8 interceptors”), a green pickup with a roof-mounted four-gun swivel, a red pickup with a snake painted on the side and a gun-wielding maniac riding shotgun, and several dune buggies driven by men with shoulder pads, mohawks, aggressive body art, and not much else.
The police learned that the guns were fake — these men were members of Roadwar USA, a Mad Max re-enactment society that stages events all over the country. If you’ve ever tried to navigate your way out of the parking lot after a midnight screening of The Road Warrior, you can understand the kinetic jolt that animates these fellows. The idea of mass disaster contains within it the possibility of one’s own society becoming liberated territory, an idea that wants to escape the confines of the screen. In this world’s 1984, I had such an experience, which led directly to an all-night donut shop plan with a high school buddy to go to Mexico, acquire an old jeep, and tour the war zones of Central America in search of an authentic feeling of post-apocalyptic liberation. (Think post-ideological Motorcycle Diaries for the VHS generation.)
To our surprise, we actually found it: at the end of our road in the real-world disaster area of Sandinista-era Managua. Twelve years after the earthquake whose relief funds Tachito Somoza absconded, the downtown of el Centro was a Mad Max setpiece. At dusk, squatters huddled around oil drum fires in the shells of colonial-era office buildings. Bleached prairie grass obscured the tracks of burned-out Sherman tanks on the losing side of the last war, tagged with FSLN graffiti. The only intact edifice was the glass-and-steel high-rise of the Bank of America, rising out of the ruins like some science fictional sanctuary in a 1970s teledrama. In interstitial post-colonial burrows near the skeleton of the old cathedral, revolutionary cadres hosted experimental kindergartens while North Korean soldiers on parade stomped out the weeds growing up between the cracks of the plaza.
The unexpected discovery of an actual abandoned capital city, accessed through the original silver screen portal of a science fiction B-movie, certified completion of my all-American adolescent project to reimagine my world as a post-apocalyptic ruin. It was a postmodern tribal initiation ceremony, largely of my own design — a cathode ray vision quest designed to provide me with the semiotic tools to navigate the psychic landscape of my burgeoning middle-class alienation.
If you read this blog and do not have a subscription to NYRSF, you really should. It's really the only remaining journal of sf criticism by people in the field. Subscribe today—and consider submitting something (hey, they'll even let take payment in subscription copies).
Thanks to David Hartwell, Kevin Maroney and the rest of the editorial team at NYRSF for the opportunity.