Friday, 30 March 2007

Just What Is It About Today's Yesterday-based Tomorrows That Makes Them So Different, So Appealing?

I’m not thinking of the appeal of Victorian and Edwardian sf, but of the books I mentioned earlier, for which “steampunk” is probably as useful and as hideous a label as any. Of course, Wells and Verne can be retrospectively claimed for it, but only in the way that they are filtered through the kind of sensibility shown by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In other words, War of the Worlds wasn’t written as steampunk, but it can now be read as it. (In David Lodge’s Small World, Persse McGarrigle, the graduate student, proposes a book about TS Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare.)
But I think what I like about The Difference Engine and so on is largely what I like about Wells and Conan Doyle and Stevenson. The difference is that in the latter the items which are costume and props – top hats, frock coats, hansom cabs, gaslight, snuffboxes, you name it – are, for the writers, the normal items providing verisimilitude for everyday life; only the Martian tripods are exotic. But modern books set at the turn of the last century or some close version of it, we can’t help but be aware, are appropriating these bits of décor as things every bit as foreign to us as the Martians. Thus you get two bites at the cherry.
Science fiction, as no one connected with it ever gets tired of saying, is not about predicting the future but about elucidating the present. And while the future has this advantage over the past, that you can change it; the past has this advantage over the future, that you can know it.
One interesting example of knowing that the trappings of (then) contemporary life can be seen as if by alien eyes occurs at the very beginning of GK Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, when he describes the buttons at the back of frock coats as being like the eyes of black dragons, and then says that the London of the future is almost exactly like the London of today. The book was published in 1904 and, strangely enough, set in 1984.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is, of course, a reasonable extrapolation from the politics of 1948. But the atmosphere of the film (which was brilliantly set-designed and costumed) is a 1980s view of 1948’s view of the 1980s. You have to conclude that Baudrilliard was on to something with all that hyper-reality stuff. More on that later.

sf: The Game Players of Titan, Philip K Dick
crime: Let’s Hear It For The Deaf Man, Ed McBain
discover: The King, Donald Barthelme
listening to: La Forza del Destino, Verdi, with Maria Caniglia (Torino, RAI, 1942)
getting ready to cook: char siu pork with fried noodles