Science Fiction in the Critical Vein: New York 2140 & This Census Taker

New York 2140
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit Books ($28)

This Census Taker
China Miéville
Del Rey ($16)

by Paul Buhle

As icebergs break off into the ocean and threats of mass extinctions gather, it’s normal (if “normal” is the word) for Science Fiction to re-emerge as a form of social exploration and social criticism. Happily, we have a handful of masters on hand to lead our imaginations along.

Literary scholars will eagerly point to historically distant origins of SF, and rightly so. But it’s good to understand how closely the American share of the genre has been tied to the book and magazine market at their lowest, most popular levels, and thus to their connections with utopian and anti-utopian political visions. A half century before H.G. Wells, meetings on Mars with gender experiments unacceptable on earth—notably women’s freedoms—were already being enacted in popular novels, part of the Yankee reformism of the middle nineteenth century. Toward century’s end, Populist standout Ignatius Donnelly sold tens of thousands of his vision of a destroyed and despotic future, anticipating Jack London among others, and added newer fictions of dread as the First World War approached.

Jump down to the 1920s through ’40s as the pulp magazine market, then the paperback market, found their way into the lower-class consumer world. Mostly filled with space cowboys and “BEMs” (Bug Eyed Monsters), these publications also contained much of the bizarre and politically radical. In Depression-era New York City, a circle of young, left-leaning, mostly Jewish intellectuals called themselves the Futurians. Only Isaac Asimov among these youngsters is likely to be remembered today, but the wider circle contained not only writers but also genre publishing experts establishing their own paperback imprints. By the 1960s, drug store readers looking beyond Ray Bradbury would find dozens of socially critical novels, not to mention short stories, about how the future looked a lot like . . . well, actually, Donald Trump’s America, with public schools privatized to cereal companies and all sorts of barbarism made respectable. The last of the Futurians, democratic socialist Frederik Pohl, passed away at ninety-three in 2013, still blogging for a transformed, cooperative order.

The literary picture, meanwhile, had become too complex for any easy overview. But postmodern science fiction, with a special inspiration from the British, made quite the splash in the 1960 and ’70s, willfully discarding the narrative in many a novel. For many readers, however, the tellable tale remained mandatory. Thus Philip K. Dick, whose Man In The High Castle, now adapted to video by Amazon Prime, has brought his name back with a bang. Thus Ursula K. Le Guin, feminist, ecosocialist, and literary standout of a political generation. Thus the young intellectual who wrote his PhD dissertation on Dick’s novels and then decided to become a writer rather than an English professor: Kim Stanley Robinson. Across many volumes, but memorably in his “Mars” series of the 1990s, the multiple award-winning Robinson combined a wealth of “hard” scientific knowledge with a radical critique of capitalism and hints of what a more cooperative order might look like.

A couple of decades ago, when I interviewed Robinson for In These Times, he was already a genre legend. My own father was a geologist, like Robinson’s wife, and that might help explain why the Mars series was so special to me. But hundreds of thousands of readers had the same impression: when he wrote, for instance, about “terraforming” Mars into a habitable (for humans) environment, he offered more than credible details. This was as far from sword-and-sorcery (of the old “Science Fiction and Fantasy” publishers’ category) as imaginable—and close to a tradition little understood.

Robinson has been so prolific that merely listing his works would be excessive. Suffice it to say that in one of his Mars books, explorers far in the future come across the physical remnants of an extra-planetary social uprising crushed by the mighty. The proletariat, let alone the socialists, do not seem to gain the victory over the earth-bound and interplanetary corporations. But then again, the struggle is never over. Unable to make desperately needed change, such as the abolition of the profit system, humanity must face itself and the consequences of its ecological foolishness.

Robinson’s next-to-most-recent book, 2015’s Aurora, concerns itself with the subject of such devastation. It makes sense that humanity, a couple centuries from now, would be exploring the solar system for a planet where at least a portion of society could start over. It also makes sense that success is badly against the odds, which favor our presence in the planetary ecosystem where we now live, no matter what we have done to it. But there’s something else here: Aurora happens also to be the title of the totemic mystical text by Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), a vision of abundance and presumably peace as well for all, animals included. This “legacy” Aurora is the presence of an absence in Robinson’s book, and yet it is there, somehow. From his home in Davis, California, Robinson works closely with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, and has been named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time, that historically reactionary publication now seriously worried about the future of American politics and profits.

It would not be giving too much away about New York 2140 to say that it depicts the city being continuously flooded, with new struggles of landlords and tenants, lenders and creditors, heading toward the riotous stage. Amazingly, not quite credibly, the Democratic Party is still at once hopelessly corrupt and a locus for progressive political work (the “Rad Dems,” a phrase that sounds curiously like Berniecrats). The protagonists are forever floating around, of necessity; there also seem to be a lot of beavers and muskrats, as pre-settlement water sources reassert themselves. New York 2140 is chock full of whimsy, as if Robinson is on a lark and wants us to know it, and yet the subject is serious, too. If capitalism does not yield, and Fascism does not crush all opposition, then something else is bound to happen.

If there is a younger version of Robinson in the English language, it must be China Miéville. More influenced by postmodernists like J.G. Ballard but also well within the socialistic literary lineage of science fiction, Miéville was born in 1972 and educated in International Relations and British Left politics as well as what he likes to call “weird literature.” No summary of his earlier work, ranging widely and twice from fiction to non-fiction (the latest is October, his own historical account of the Russian Revolution), can simplify it generically. So let us turn to his latest fiction, a little gem entitled This Census Taker.

Reading this spare journey into the life and mind of a boy growing up in the aftermath of some unnamed but terrible wars brings to mind not the dystopian literary fiction of the 1950s but rather the comic art version. EC Comics, about to go under from pressure of the Comics Code in 1955, featured the most realistic and therefore most anti-war war comics ever written and drawn—mainly by Harvey Kurtzman, also the founder of Mad Comics. Horror titles actually kept EC financially afloat, but a sidebar series of science fiction, drawn by some of the contemporary greats but adapted from Bradbury or pursuing similar themes, often had impoverished wanderers discovering destroyed cities. On the last page or perhaps in the last panel, they realized that the barely recognizable places had once been New York, Chicago, or anywhere else in the vanished United States.

Miéville’s protagonist, who seems to be in his early teens, is raised on a hill outside a village struggling, through the recuperation of handicrafts, to come back to life. His mother raises vegetables, his father makes keys, and he grapples with their inability to communicate with him about the world they inhabit; he also has a terrible (and seemingly justified) fear of what his father has done, and may still do, to people considered dangerous. He seems to find a community of his own, young ragamuffins in the collapsed village, but this, also, comes to almost nothing. The story is better in the telling of details than in any proposed conclusion, perhaps because in this world, no conclusion can be foreseen—as in our world today.

No doomsday crier, Miéville was himself among the founders of a UK socialist alliance initiative led by filmmaker Ken Loach, in 2013, and is doubtless in the camp of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn today. How will this affect his further fiction? Hard to say, but if there were ever a time for the resurgence of such politically astute SF as Miéville’s and Robinson’s, now is surely it.

Click here to purchase New York 2140 at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase This Census Taker at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017