pink slime fiction

A genre’s landscape should be littered with used tropes half-visible through their own smoke & surrounded by salvage artists with welding sets, otherwise it isn’t a genre at all. But what Paul Kincaid describes here & here as “exhaustion” is something else. It’s not creative redevelopment, it’s not evolution by bricolage, it’s not the boring old being kicked apart to reveal an interesting new inside. It’s not even laziness. It’s the intense commodification of ideas & styles evacuated of their original meaning & impact, an apparently deliberate industrialisation of the commonplace & worn out. In using the term exhaustion, Paul Kincaid is not announcing the “death” of F/SF as a genre. He’s very clear on that. Nor is he suggesting, from his broad, long-term experience as a reader & critic, that no interesting fiction is being written into or out of the genre–you’d be mad to claim that in a year which has seen the publication of Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, or the long-hoped-for return of Jeff Noon with Channel SK1N, to mention only two examples. What Kincaid seems to be bringing to our attention here is that while genre has always been economical in the way it scrapes the carcass, much of what is published now is the product of a thoroughly mechanical separation & disinfection: LFTB of the imaginative.


Filed under fantasy, science fiction

27 responses to “pink slime fiction

  1. Mike Mooney

    Very good interview. Reminded me of the old “sci-fi” vs. “sf” debate. When someone tells me they are a fan of “sci-fi”, I find they are invariably referring to cinema or TV (or, at a pinch, their printed spinoffs). And they look utterly baffled when I aver that the “purest” format for sf is arguably the short story. Then again, I also know quite a few of the “genre only” types that PK refers to. They’d rather read (say) ten steampunk novels (where one is good and the others waste of print) than ten great novels without prejudice as to genre. Ho hum.

  2. uzwi

    & see here for Jonathan McCalmont’s view:

  3. It isn’t dead? Fuck. I was really hoping it was.

  4. uzwi

    Hi Damien. Norty, norty.

  5. uzwi

    Jonathan McCalmont in full flight: “Don’t worry about your job… picture yourself as a Victorian airship captain! Don’t think too much about what the government is doing with your taxes… read a series of novels about bloggers fighting zombies! Don’t pay attention to real world inequalities… moan about how oppressed and mistreated you are for wanting to watch a cartoon about magical ponies and friendship!”

  6. Kelly

    Now I know what LFTB means. In the context of fiction. And in the real world, too.

  7. I really like the way you put this: “much of what is published now is the product of a thoroughly mechanical separation & disinfection.” That’s certainly one of Paul’s central points, though by no means the only one. In the interview, I put this under the “crisis of passion” thesis implied by the original LA Review article–that many writers are producing and publishing work that has an SF exoskeleton, but little substantive SF underneath, so to speak. To put it another way, SF may be suffering from institutional malaise–the continual self-replication of the expected and routinized.

  8. Really liked your comments, Mike – and thanks for the links. Do you listen to Paul Kincaid discussing all this on the Coode Street podcast?

  9. uzwi

    Hi Danny–thanks for the link, I hadn’t got round to that yet.

    Hi Nerds-feather: Any position of Paul’s will always be broader & more thought out than one of mine.

    Self-censorship is central. Writers are avoiding difficulty in the structure or surface, difficulty in the science (when there is any); they’re avoiding political or philosophical positions which might offend, characters whose strengths or eccentricities might prevent reader-identification & stories which go against the broad grain of audience expectation & preference. The reasons for it are obvious, commercial & long term; but, since the 80s, turbo-publishing has turned timidity into a technical discipline–part of the “craft” of being a writer. The result is a novel without a meaning &–worse–without the pulp vigour of genre. For me these are the real losses SF has suffered: the loss of connection to the world, the loss of something to say about it & the loss of drive & energy to make the point in cascades of live imagery. I’ve had a problematic relationship with genre all my writing life, but at its best it has a kind of visionary energy–open, untutored, uncluttered by the need to be literary or to conform to the commentariat consensus of its day. It’s a kind of trash collider where half-digested science can be smashed together with metaphysics & politics in search of exotic states–demotic ontologies and epistemologies–showers of gorgeous if shortlived intellectual & emotional sparks. I could probably name a score of authors who do that, or try to, every time they write; but against their efforts have to be balanced thousands of LFTB happymeals a year.

  10. Pingback: Genre fatigue syndrome? | Null Entropy

  11. I struggle with this – there are times when I think it would be the right thing to do, to completely and utterly inhabit a nerd-niche, if you like, stop even half-performing it and live and breathe it; in that way, you could also end up being a steampunk enthusiast who gradually discovered, because the overlap between ‘real life’ and ‘alter ego’, would be complete, a social political, edge to your thinking (surveying your rancid un-emptied bins in tinted goggles and wondering what the council is going to do about it because it’s regular uncool knowing you are living in sh*t, rather than ignoring or escaping it).

    But mostly I think, nah – I never was a joiner: I don’t even gather with other non-joiners: just as I get to the hand-in-glove stage, I can see the stitching is coming apart, or that there’s a hole in the threadbare making, and I don’t care to be insulated at all, and it’s gloves off again (groan).

    But the body alone is pretty pathetic without adornment, and the adornment needs the sweat and tears for effective contrast.

    I donno.

  12. matthewbrandi

    I’m sure that the technology of timidity is real and chilling, but theories of the crapness of contemporary [insert category here] aren’t of much interest unless they enable us to identify as [safe | worthless | dead] things we’d [previously | otherwise have] thought were [challenging | worthwhile | alive].

    If we don’t end up undermining our own [poor | lazy | cowardly] judgements, aren’t we as bad as those we’re sneering at for scoffing rusks in warm milk?

  13. uzwi

    hi matthewbrandi: Paul Kincaid began with a dissection of three current volumes of short stories. I daresay he could do the same with three current novels. Nothing in my experience suggests that the process of identification you describe is of much use, though it’s always attempted. Change comes from elsewhere, specifically the production side: mainly from young writers & readers who feel scorn for what’s on offer & have the energy to make something briefly “new” from the cultural contexts & materials at hand. That’s the beginning of the end for them, of course, the process being so obviously a commodity cycle.

    I’d like to repeat–because some people don’t seem to be getting this point–that no one is talking about the “death” of FSF here. Paul Kincaid is too experienced–& too honest–a critic to propose a reductive or thoughtless “theory of the crapness of contemporary” anything. I also draw your attention to Jonathan McCalmont’s essay here–

  14. matthewbrandi

    Hi, Mike.

    I’ve read Kincaid’s LA Review piece. It wasn’t Kincaid, but the comments on your piece, that prompted me to comment. (I’ll continue to spare the blushes, as I’m not interested in abusing your readers, but if you push me, I’ll quote the one that made me groan aloud.)

    I’d considered ending my first paragraph with ‘good luck formulating such theories’, but I feared my sarcasm was too heavy-handed already.

    Of course, I may be completely wrong and projecting my struggles with my own demons, anyway.



  15. matthewbrandi

    I have now read the McCalmont, too, but I’m none the wiser.

    He seems to have it in for irony. My understanding of irony is perhaps a little old-fashioned: “expression of one’s meaning by language of opposite or different tendency, especially mock adoption of another’s views or tone” (Pocket Oxford, 4th edition). Not, note, avoiding saying anything by mock adoption of another’s views or tone. Mock adoption of another’s views or tone is insufficient for irony: the ironist uses it to say something. Perhaps nothing important or interesting, but something.

    McCalmont quotes Kincaid’s “… perhaps it would be more accurate to say that [SF] has lost confidence that the future can be apprehended.” McCalmont says soon after that, “I agree with Paul Kincaid… I think that science fiction has lost interest in the world and fallen out of step with the times resulting in the emergence of a narcissistic and inward-looking literature devoid of both relevance and vitality.” Are these supposed to be linked? Is SF’s mode of engagement with the world supposed to be attempting to predict the future? If that idea was ever taken seriously, surely it was given up long before people started wittering on about the ‘singularity’.

    (Perhaps the missing confidence is supposed to be that when the future comes, it will be intelligible to those living through it. What that would have to do with writing vital SF now, I don’t know. But it does suggest I may be massively missing the point.)

    McCalmont seems not to believe in the link himself: he cites with seeming approval (two favourites of mine) The Forever War and The Female Man. Those books are not works of prediction, and they don’t rely on the idea that the future can be grasped from the present. Their mode of engagement with the world is to address then current political issues. (I don’t claim the issues are not still current, but that’s beside the point.) Russ’s book is not set in the future (or not in any straightforward way) and neither we nor Haldeman has to believe in his future for him to make his points.

    Berating authors for lack of political engagement–which seems to be where McCalmont ends up, but I may have him wrong–seems a long way from explaining exhaustion through loss of confidence that the future can be grasped.

    Which way is the explanation supposed to be going? Are we explaining authors’ failure to say anything of importance (to give McCalmont that much) through features of their writing with causes other than their determination not to say anything important, or do they write that way because they are determined to say nothing of importance?

    Is failure of political engagement particularly a problem of SF as it dissolves into fantasy, or is it a problem to be found outside the field for much the same reason it is found in the field?

    It ought to go without saying that there are other ways of engaging with the world than politically: if Hal Clement’s subject was gravity, that doesn’t mean he was narcissistic, nor that his work wasn’t vital.

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  17. Travelin Man

    I just wanted to say thanks. To you in particular for helping guide me out of the fog. You’re a fine artist, among many other things, and for what it’s worth, I am truly grateful.

  18. [..] talk of ‘exhaustion’ brings to mind Ballard’s “Death Of Effect” and Gibson via Lovecraft’s image of ‘rats in the walls of the world’. Thanks to uzwi for the link to McCalmont’s essay – itself (non ironically) one of the better slabs of ultra-contemporary sci fi I’ve read all year. As for “Pink Slime”:

  19. Kij Johnson has appeared on the Coode Street podcast discussing Paul Kincaid, exhaustion, etc.

  20. Yeah but yeah but yeah but yeah. Isn’t this exactly the same schtick that fine art and music go through every now and then? And those re-evaluations gave the world Impressionism, Surrealism and Jazz. Anyway I’m not altogether convinced that FSF is a genre or ever really was, any more than Le Carre or Deighton were ‘only’ spy thriller writers, or Highsmith ‘only’ wrote crime. And yes, I know they did other stuff as well. Thing is, readers are no longer so easily astounded, are far more accepting of the fantastic. So any story that relies primarily on the science (or elves, but that’s a personal beef) is liable to be greeted with a ho-hum except by serious enthusiasts, and that’s being polite. Not many authors, Mike Harrison being an obvious exception, have the ability or the guts to successfully imagine how different a future society could be. For many it’s the same as life outside the house plus FTL travel, with any aliens given human emotions. But it’s also true that over the years good SFS has asked more questions about humanity than most literary writers have or do. And all that without an elf or a magic sword between them. I suspect that many people are writing SFS these days not because they’re intrigued by the possibilities, but because it seems an easier way to get noticed.

  21. Nigel – I brought that very same point up with Paul in one of my questions. In some ways, I’m surprised SF/F lasted this long before sinking into institutional malaise. Or, perhaps it already has a few times, yet very specific paradigm shifts within the (umbrella) genre gave it temporary vitality. I think the implication of Paul’s discourse is that there’s little indication of where the next cyberpunk might come from.

  22. m brandi

    Cyberpunk–that’s where Philip Marlowe buys an Xbox, right? Do we want another one of those?

  23. I’m not sure about cyberpunk, either. With one obvious exception, perhaps more a matter of style than substance, although still highly enjoyable. For me the most innovative and convincing SF is that which shows people changed by science, not just physically but also intellectually and emotionally. Huxley’s 1984 is intriguing not only for the high tech, but because of the emotional difference between the Savage and the soma-happy citizens. Jack Vance often gave his characters a slight, uneasy sense of alien otherness. Mike Harrison obviously does. And there are many others who’ve explored humanity as much as they have space. But too much SF has always fallen into the category of quest-with-special-effects and while that’s basically the plot of the Odyssey, Homer was also arguing about the human condition. A slightly pompous and overworked phrase, I know, but still genre-free and surely where SF should be pushing boundaries.

  24. m brandi

    @Nigel Foster

    “the most … convincing SF is that which shows people changed by science … intellectually and emotionally.”

    I hope that doesn’t distort your intention too much.

    How does that sit with the ‘human condition’ stuff. I’d always thought that rather in tension with the idea that humanity might change. If a ‘novel of the human condition’ written now were to be delivered by time capsule to a far-future, radically-changed humanity (think: birds ARE dinosaurs), those future ‘people’ might make neither head nor tail of it.

    I’ve nothing against Homer, though. That his subject matter may mean nothing to future humans (and nothing to Martians) diminishes it not at all. Universality is a chimera.

    I don’t want to knock the idea that SF about the impact of science on intellect and emotion is valuable, but is that really what all the best SF is about, even that which does show science and technology changing us emotionally and intellectually? So I’m not disagreeing with you, but …

    For example, is Rogue Moon really about the impact of a machine that can duplicate humans on the Moon? Not really: the impact on our intellectual and emotional lives that gives it its power is the impact of thinking about how the concept of personal identity behaves under stress (see Derek Parfit or that National Film Board of Canada cartoon for more in the same vein) – it is the impact of thinking about the ‘possible’ technology, not the impact the technology would have had we it — who knows? — that matters. As a work of psychofuturology, Rogue Moon may be rubbish. It doesn’t matter.

    One reason someone might agree with you is that they think SF will tell us how ‘science’ (doing science? dealing with technological change?) will impact us emotionally — forewarned is forearmed — but that seems a foolish hope. You may well agree.

  25. Nigel–Think you may have misunderstood my purpose of mentioning cyberpunk. Not my favorite genre, to be clear. Yes, I like William Gibson, but generally speaking I prefer the antecedents, like John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Rather, I brought it up because, when it emerged, it represented a shift in direction for the genre as a whole at a time when there was also a lot of malaise. These are healthy, from time to time, as they shake things up well beyond the confines of their own corner.

    Also, you said: “But too much SF has always fallen into the category of quest-with-special-effects and while that’s basically the plot of the Odyssey, Homer was also arguing about the human condition.”

    The human dimension you mention is what I need to enjoy SF or fantasy, and especially short SF or F. I need to feel like the story is telling me something about the human condition, or human experience. Sometimes gravitating towards a particular story occurs because it speaks to me personally, but at other times (like Homer) it has some profound, general insights that I find compelling. Over at the blog, I posted a list of 6 recent short (SF/F) stories that did this for me:

  26. MichaelO

    Sir, you must…this very instant…create a valuable blog of your own.
    So that the teeming billions can bear witness
    to your galvanic ideations.

    I retreat in awe from the pure mass of it all.

  27. m brandi

    @MichaelO: Given the consistent failure of my attempts at irony–here and elsewhere–I would be fool to attempt such a thing.