YAWB: Ambition in Science Fiction

The other day I put something up about having the confidence and balls to stick with your own personal writing ambitions in the face of wide ranging critiques offering highly different suggestions for improvement.

On a broader note, I came across this quote from Roberto Balaño’s bleak, sprawling 2004 epic, 2666, which encapsulated the mood I was feeling better than I had.

“He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pecuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

There is the sense of something monstrous and indefinable lurking just beneath the pages of 2666. It’s in the miserable sexual couplings (and triplings) of the literary professors, the dead soul of the cypheresque Archimboldi, the mutilated corpses of nine hundred women and the castrated corpse of the Romanian General. There’s a monster out there, but it’s amorphous and diffuse. It’s staggering ambition that bleeds upwards from the pages.

There is a danger when writing, or attempting to write, that we get so caught up in the correct execution of the prose, the syntax, the technical details for which there are so many rules, that we forget about what Balaño calls “real combat” – the attempt in literature to rise up, burst through walls and ceilings, and drag human fear, comprehension and hope into new areas of understanding. In what’s either perfect irony or highly reflexive self-awareness (perhaps sprouting from the fact that Balaño knew he was dying as he strove to complete the book), 2666 is that perfect encapsulation of frustrating imperfection, an attempt at real combat, a ruck in the mud ending in blood and snot and tears and exhaustion.

It seems to me that literature should not simply be about storytelling; the story may be the Thing, and a very fine thing to perceive too, but it sits lightly upon the seething mass of the Lacanian Real, the stuff that defies definition in the world and thus represents our own horrid fantasies. The imperfect, sometimes tortuous, works by the great masters (and I’d include 2666 as a modern example of a work within that bracket) are pieces that try to break free of convention and open up a new relationship with the reader. The quote mentions choosing Bartleby The Scrivener over Moby Dick. I’m very fond of Bartleby, as both a character and a piece. It’s highly evocative, dealing with the importance (and lack) of hope in a workbound modern (as it was then, in the mid-19th century) American society, and so is both worthy of study and topically relevant today. It’s also written perfectly. But Moby Dick is the manifestation of those thrashing, orgiastically violent thoughts made flesh upon the horrifying blank canvas of the White Whale. Is it written perfectly? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly not completely. In parts Melville constructs cathedrals of words on par with Middlemarch, and in others he erects rickety prefab sheds (again, a little like 2666). But the ambition is huge, and at its heart has a symbol so vast and unknowable that the book itself becomes the White Whale, the Thing that defies definition and yet draws us, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes gnashing and gnawing, but always inexorably, towards it.

I make no bones about striving for ambition. It’s the most important ingredient in writing, more than syntax, more than POV, more than not using passive writing. Without it, stories are merely lengthy wallpaper. Often I’ve read online posts from other writers stating that having a theme is irrelevant, useless, or – worse – difficult. A book has to have a chance to resonate, not just with its readers but with its author if it wants a chance to breathe and last.

Science fiction (and its sister genre, fantasy) seems to suffer a hangover from its pulpy, schlocky days inasmuch as it still sometimes struggles to convey itself as true literary art. It’s not for want of trying. Bradbury, arguably the first to drag SF into a higher plane of ambition, rightfully observed that science fiction must be the most literary of all genres, for:

“Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is science fiction.”

A little glib, perhaps, but one takes his point. Science fiction ought to be the most willing to break shackles and anoint itself with the task of advancing humanity’s understanding of itself, and this is because science fiction essentially deals with one central theme, which is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic.

Where we head if we continue on our current course, and where we head if we change.

I’m no fool (actually, I am). I work on execution as much as the next person. The gauze covering the wound has to look and feel satisfactory. And the best themes are like wounds, because they resonate with our own latent traumas and desires. Science fiction and fantasy (and, of course, their other sister genre, horror) typically deal with monsters – in all their forms – the most. And storytellers shouldn’t shy away from the traumatic irruptions that monsters represent. Indeed, some of the greatest ambition comes in the design of the Other things we encounter only in the speculative worlds of SFF and horror. But ambition mustn’t be limited to merely depicting the hideousness of the monster’s topology. That just makes Carl Denhams of us all. Ambition is letting the monster off the leash, wrestling with it in the mud as its creator, reflection and nemesis, until eventually, at last, it’s impossible to tell the two apart.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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