Three Questions

Three Questions is a transcript of a talk given by David Wingrove at the Neal East Bookshop on the evening of September 14, 1989, shortly after the launch of the series. Full text after the break…

Three Questions

By David Wingrove

Why write big books? Why write science fiction? And why on earth write about China? Those are just three of the questions I’ve been asked since Chung Kuo, my big science fiction book about China, has begun to emerge into the light. Yet from where I’m sitting – behind these eyes and wherever in the brain my individual consciousness happens to exist – all three seem fairly obvious. At most I’m tempted to say, Why not? But the questions have persisted and so I’ve been forced to crawl out from the cave of my skull and stare back into the darkness there, to try and work out why I’ve arrived here, sat before you this evening, discussing the nature and origins of Chung Kuo.

Well, to answer the first. Why write big books? My pat answer, I suppose, is that I don’t have any choice in the matter. Whatever limits I try to impose on myself, they just come out that way. A pat answer? Well, maybe not, because I’m much more aware these days that my propensity to write long has to do with my deep interest in character and social/historical process. To do character justice, and to capture the subtleties of social and historical change, one needs space. In my case, LOTS of space. There are those, of course, who are interested in snapshot fiction – in capturing a specific moment . Borges is perhaps the most extreme exponent of that school, and his brilliant one-page story, ‘The Witness’, its most succinct example. My interest is different, however. I’ve always wanted to know what happened before my characters stepped on stage, and then, what happened next. I’m curious to know what my characters do when the lights go down on them. I want to know what they think and feel – what motivates them and how – in their private as well as their public moments – they act.

As far as social/historical process is concerned, one of the great things science fiction has brought to literature – with a little help from Tolkien, of course – is world-building. There’s an unmistakable delight in entering a world distinctly different from our own, and whether one gets that from past history, from an adventure in an exotic setting, from a journey to a far-future earth or on some alien planet, the joy is always that of encountering something other than the everyday world we inhabit. Indeed, I’d claim that this need for vicarious experience is precisely what makes people seek out fiction. And like curries, one adds spice to taste. In that respect science fiction is a regular vindaloo.

John Fowles once called fiction the ‘god-game’, implying that the author is playing god. Well, there’s a certain truth to that, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the field of science fiction, whose authors, megalomaniacs all, have taken it to an extreme, often starting their work of creation from scratch.

All of this, of course, brings us neatly to the second of those questions. Why write science fiction?

To me the question is as preposterous and thus, perhaps, as profound (who knows?) as the question “Why write?”. It’s not that I have anything against contemporary fiction; it’s just that, at its best, science fiction can achieve a degree of metaphoric richness that one finds but rarely in the so-called ‘literary’ genre.

At its best. I stress those words, for I’ve no brief to defend all of science fiction’s vast output, as anyone who has read Trillion Year Spree will know at once. I’m as conscious as anyone that the average science fiction book – and I say book and not novel with good reason – is at best a second-rate adventure with ideas. But were one to judge every artform by its most commnplace examples what would escape condemnation?

The metaphoric richness of science fiction is too often overlooked by critics of the genre whose view of it has been formulated by watching too many B-movies and the odd episode of Doctor Who. It’s too easy to forget how potent science fiction’s imagery is – and what, in fact, that imagery symbolises. What is a spaceship but the type and symbol of our outward urge – our need to explore and seek out new frontiers? What is a robot but the very symbol of alienation from ourselves; of man reduced to a machine? What, indeed, is the future setting of most of science fiction, but a means of looking backward at ourselves – of achieving the long perspective on the here and now.

I say this, but the sad truth is that most practitioners of science fiction also forget these things. Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ – one of the few specifics of science fiction that non-SF readers will have heard about – is a typical example of this, reducing Capek’s marvellous symbol of alienation to Robby-the-Robot, the household friend. Likewise, the spaceship has become a galactic bus, the future Disneyland-2500 AD. No wonder Douglas Adams found it easy to send up the genre. The kind of science fiction I write – and I’ll come to what I mean by that in a moment – is a reaction against this emasculation of the genre. Is an attempt, if you like, to return to the very basics of science fiction and create a form of SF that might have existed had the specialist American magazines not distorted the genre these past fifty years.

Forgive me, for I’m about to side-track momentarily. Yet bear with me, for I don’t think that what I have to say here is without interest. It has to do with the nature of science fiction and the institutionalisation of the genre.

These days science fiction is primarily an American genre. The majority of its practitioners are American and the American form of science fiction dominates the world’s markets. It is also a surprisingly small field; smaller than one might imagine. There are five main magazines and a dozen or so major publishers of science fiction in the States. Writers, editors and publishers meet often – at specialist conventions throughout the States, held practically every weekend, with major conventions every month. New writers go to writing courses, where they meet established professionals and editors. They submit stories, serve out an apprenticeship at that level for a few years, then progress to writing their first novel. If that’s accepted, they begin work on the second, often to contract. By now they’re four or five years along their career path, all their friends are by now other science fiction writers (or editors) and they’re very often writing for their peer group. Those same friends are also the critics who read and praise their work in print. As you can imagine, somewhere along the line all objectivity – all chance of originality in their work – is lost. And there’s no opportunity to backtrack or take time off to re-evaluate what they’re doing. Whether they realise it or not, they’re on a treadmill. That’s not to say that these people aren’t immensely successful, it’s just that the creative spark that first drew them into the genre is no longer there. And what job could they get that paid as well?

There are exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions. Yet in looking at the science fiction genre one has to take on board the fact that originality is at a premium and most science fiction books are re-treads of themes that were already decades old when the first scientifiction magazine was launched in 1926. To be blunt about it, they’re old dogs doing the same tired old tricks, for all that they might bark stylishly, and the current trend among American publishers to hire a ‘name’ science fiction author to write an adventure set in a world created by another ‘name’ author, is perhaps the last step down this particular cul-de-sac.

So what does this have to do with the kind of science fiction I write? And, to be even more specific, what does it have to do with Chung Kuo?

I’ve already mentioned my own reaction to the emasculation of the science fiction genre. What I haven’t said, but shall now, is that that emasculation is a product of the insularity of the field that I’ve just been talking about. Science fiction writers don’t usually read anything but science fiction (unless it’s the pure science mags). As a result the literary standards of the genre are – despite recent incursions by critics – still very low. Inventiveness is still, usually, the science fiction field’s only criteria for praising a writer. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that the late James Blish – a good novelist, but also the author of the first eleven Star Trek novels – was looked upon very highly for having actually read James Joyce’s Ulysses.

One of the results of such insularity is a paradoxical hostility in the field towards new ideas. Modernism, which ravaged literary London in the late twenties, caught up with science fiction in the mid Sixties. Noir, the detective style of the thirties and forties, swept through the genre in the last five years. At this rate the kitchen sink, angry-young-man drama should hit the genre somewhere about two thousand and twenty.

Which brings me, at last, to what I feel is different – indeed unique – about Chung Kuo as a work of science fiction.

I began work on Chung Kuo, in its embryonic form, back in 1983. Back then I had no conception of the final scale of the work that was to emerge over the next five years, yet what I WAS clear about was that I wanted to write a novel of character, set in the future, which used the full metaphorical richness of science fiction.

Primarily, however, it was a novel of character. And of the formation and development of character. A bildungsroman. I knew my models. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks was one. Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence novels another. But I wanted to take it one stage further. I wanted to set my novel not in some historically-verifiable past but in the future. A totally uncharted future.

I set about building my future. Slowly. Painstakingly. Through seven drafts in all, as it turned out. Taking present trends and pushing them to their limits. Looking at how a society worked from every conceivable angle and then trying to imagine how it would be to live in such a world. What would it FEEL like?

It was only partway through this long process that I realised that I was in virgin territory. In the white space on the map, so to speak. It was during the break I took from the book to research and write Trillion Year Spree, the history of science fiction I co-authored with Brian Aldiss, that it struck home. No one had ever done what I was attempting. In the long history of science fiction no one had ever thought to even attempt a bildungsroman. To chart the lives of characters in a changing society years from now.

Why? I asked myself, because to me it seemed such an obvious thing to do. But then I thought about it. I considered that institutionalisation of the science fiction genre I’ve been talking about – and the concomitant inability of most SF writers to take the time out to write something on the scale of what I was considering writing. Moreover, for all that science fiction thrives on world-building, the worlds it builds are often little more than movie sets – backdrops for the fast-paced action that fills the pages. I wanted my world to be real. At least, to seem as real as those worlds we find depicted in ‘contemporary’ novels.

Even so, it struck me as somehow absurd that science fiction – a genre which goes back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and which has been a growth industry since 1926 and particularly since 1977 and Star Wars – had never embraced the bildungsroman. Indeed, I found the whole notion that I could be doing something that hadn’t been done in a hundred years of furious activity by thousands of people quite outrageous. But the more I looked at it, the more I found that it really was so. I was treading on fresh snow. Going where no man (or woman) had gone before.

All of which brings me back again to the question, Why science fiction? Well, you’d be forgiven by now if you had the impression that I don’t actually like most science fiction. That’s not so. I’m unabashedly an addict of the genre. But that isn’t to say I have to emulate its poorest examples. Indeed, what spurred me on with Chung Kuo was not so much a knowledge of what science fiction so often was, but what it could be. AT ITS BEST. It was the sheer potentiality of the genre that attracted me.

Well. What in the gods’ names has all this to do with China?

I’m conscious that most of you here this evening are probably far more interested in that aspect of the book than in any other, yet it’s very difficult for me now to separate out the different elements of Chung Kuo even if I could in some hypothetical centrifuge of the imagination. Because there never was a stage when the work wasn’t also about China and the future Chinese domination of our world. It may seem curious to some, but it’s an article of faith with me that the Han will come to control not merely our economies but also the way we live our lives.
You can ask me why, perhaps, in the question and answer session afterwards.

I’ve written elsewhere about how my love of things Chinese grew – from a fascination with the Mandarins in their floating palaces in the Rupert The Bear strips I read as a child, through a sixth form project I did on the Opium Wars, on to the fully-fledged obsession of the past six years. What I haven’t said, and perhaps ought, is that I find this fascination OF THE SAME KIND as my fascination with science fiction itself. Indeed, of the same kind as my other fascinations – with Dark Ages Britain and with ethnic music from around the world, to name but two. It’s a fascination with otherness – with something uncharted; with something on the dark side of ourselves.

More than that, I find that reading about China – about Chung Kuo, the ancient Middle Kingdom – satisfies another of my cravings: that craving for the long perspective. It panders to that urge in me that longs to put the here and now into the greater context of historical process. For China is the most ancient of our extant civilizations and, in its long history, has gone through a vast range of social and political change. In this regard I have to say that whilst, in the first volume of my work, I depict the society of Chung Kuo in the grip of an overwhelming stasis, Chinese history is not, by any means, as static as the European commentators of the 19th century portrayed it to be. Indeed, as readers of Chung Kuo will discover over the next six volumes, the Han curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’, was one which was cast in the fire of bitter experience.
Interesting times. I guess that sums up my fascination with Chung Kuo. With China and science fiction and big books, I wanted to write about interesting times. And what could be more interesting than a future world dominated by the Han and on the verge of social breakdown?

Unless it’s the lives of the people inhabiting that world.

David Wingrove

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