Recently, I have listened to, or have participated in, discussions of the differences between mainstream and science fiction. What is the difference between what a science fiction writer writes, and what a lit-fic writer comes up with, when both are working in, say, a near-future setting?
Many years ago, I read P.D. James’s The Children of Men, in which human sperm, worldwide, becomes nonviable. The setup is pure SF. I waited, therefore, for an SF payoff. I expected someone, anyone, some scientist somewhere, to try to find out why this was happening, but no one really did. Oh, they sort of tried, offstage, but then they just threw up their hands and decided it was hopeless. (Yeah, that sounds like scientists, doesn’t it?) Nor did she ever explain why sperm that had been frozen were rendered equally nonviable. Even after I figured out James didn’t care about science fiction, or the sperm, and that this book was about something other than the sperm, I couldn’t turn off the expectation that it should be about the sperm. At least a little. Because she was being totally insincere about the sperm.
Now I’m in the middle of Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot, which the cover copy describes as a near-future, post-apocolyptic novel. The engine of the plot is the FUS events that have changed the landscape of North America. What FUS stands for is pretty easy to figure out, but it so far is a kitchen-sink catch-all concept, with a heavy emphasis on global warming. The first quarter of the book excited me: two sections of two main characters, both of whom I loved. The first, Woo-jin, was my favorite. He is a delightful dishwasher (the best dishwasher in the world) living in incredible poverty. The second, Luke Piper, suffers a devastating loss in childhood, which leads to a one-eighty reversal of his life’s trajectory.
Then we get to Abby, who encounters a bunch of clones, and my heart sinks. It sinks, because the clones are not real, not in any sense that human clones have been depicted in dozens of other novels. They are not emotionally true. They are kind of funny, the endless numbers of them attending an impossibly old grand-dame, aging Mae West style, but at the same time, they feel inauthentic. I do not believe the author believed in them.
Likewise the sentient glacier that ravages Canada and the U.S. Yes, this is a big global warming moment. The glacier sounds totally cool (no pun intended), but it happens as a throwaway, its story given to us in an awkward lump of exposition by a teacher-character to another character who already knows the information. The sentient glacier reminds me of something in Gabriel Garcia Marquez–it hints magical realism–except this is not magical realism. In magical realism, everyone in the book accepts weird events as normal. Here, everyone freaks out. I must conclude, once again, that the author doesn’t care about this magical glacier he has created. He doesn’t love it on its own terms; he is using it. I don’t know what he’s using it for, a symbol, a joke, but at this point, I am expecting the story to grow faucets and a drain, because it is beginning to resemble a kitchen sink.
The farther I get into the book, the more confused I become as to the author’s sincere intent. It turns out that Abby, the character who encountered the clones previously, is a clone herself. Gasp! So that’s why those other clones upset her before! But Woo-jin has come back, too, and that is a good thing. Also, we are alerted early on to a puppet-master, Dirk Bickle, who may very well tie this all together. We’ll see.
In spite of my difficulties with the book so far, I’m enjoying it. It is witty, tragic, and satirical. The parts I like the best, however, are the mainstream parts. None of the post-apocolyptic SF elements are new, and for all their noise and flash, not much of the author seems to be invested in them.
Boudinot is compared to Phillip K. Dick in one of the cover blurbs. There is a paranoid aspect to the novel, but where Dick related a paranoid and dark view of the near future, every bit of what he wrote came out of his core. He was not trying to tell us anything. He was being. He was in every one of his inventions one-hundred percent. I’m not sure Budinot is.
When it comes down to it, intent is the difference between someone who’s writing SF, and someone who’s writing mainstream, but using the trappings tropes of SF for symbol or mere effect.
Photo: Quelccaya_Glacier.jpg (Photo by Edubucher)