July 15th, 2011
Unedited liveblog in progress. Illiteracies and other mistakes are mine, not the panelists’.
Well, We Know Where We’re Going: The Pseudo-Religiosity of Teleological SF
Panelists: John Crowley (JC), Barry N. Malzberg (BM), James Morrow (JM), Kathryn Morrow (KM), Graham Sleight (GS) (leader).
Panel description: The late Charles N. Brown was a great advocate of the idea that science fiction was teleological: even if it didn’t predict the future, it told us the kind of direction our species was heading. Books like Stapledon’s Last and First Men, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music are about that kind of ultimate destiny. But are they also offering a kind of pseudo-religious consolation, a final goal without a God watching over it? When readers seek out science fiction that posits or imagines some kind of final destiny for humanity, are they driven by the same yearning for certainty (even uncomfortable or unhappy certainty) that leads many people to religion?
And they’re off
JM: Why privilege the religious? Why can’t religion by pseudo-aesthetics? (Mentions Shambling Toward Hiroshima)
JM: Quotes the first paragraph of the Wikipedia definition of teleology:
A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. The word comes from the Greek τέλος, telos, root: τελε-, “end, purpose, (not to be confused with τῆλε, “at a distance, far from”). The adjective “teleological” has a broader usage, for example in discussions where particular ethical theories or types of computer programs (such as “teleo-reactive” programs) are sometimes described as teleological because they involve aiming at goals.
JC: It’s about ends. Ends impicit in beginnings. Or just end-ness. Cat’s Cradle—maybe the end isn’t implicit, or maybe it is.
KM: Is the sense of the grand ambition or destiny of man concerned with teleology—so “the human race has a destiny” would be the pseudo-religiosity of teleological SF, for example.
JC: The book that most comes to mind is Brian Aldiss’s Cryptozoic. In which (VAGUE SPOILERS) things are backward from what we might expect, chronologically.
GS: Time’s Arrow, too. (Martin Amis)
BM: Benjamin Button, of course. Fitzgerald.
KM: The yearning toward (?) spiritual progress is hardly only the province of Western SF. Myth of progress?
BM: And does it matter if it’s labeled “religious”? Whether you accept Christ and live forever or accept virtual reality and live forever, isn’t it the same thing?
Everyone: aliens as substitutes for religious figures who bring about an end.
GS: Whitley Strieber’s Communion, even (noted as being famously dissed by Tom Disch).
BM: What is the gnostic way of looking at things?
GS: Way of seeing things which came a few centuries after Christ and argues that there are ways in which by certain ways of thinking humans can perfect themselves and become one with the whatever forms of perfection exist outside thr world
JC: The wold and bodies we inhabit are NOT the real world, but are imposed on us by bad god-figures who’ve taken over the management of our lower, physical realms. Cites The Matrix, which is a wonderful (though backward) gnostic parable.
JM: Connections to Zoastrianism
KM: Feminist critique: all those nasty bodies with nasty women tempting us to produce more nasty bodies…
JC: Oh, you can give up your nasty body too…it’s not just men.
GS: Disch-inspired thoughts—SF comes into being in the 19th C when religion is declining and when scientific explanations are beginning to encroach on the “inexplicable” that formerly belonged to religion. Do we look inside SF for some of the same constellations as those which we’d find in religion?
JM: Darwin is intrinsically anti-teleological…thought you can turn it on its head and take it off into (citation that I missed). Stephen Jay Gould was willing to sacrifice a lot of pawns when writing Rocks of Ages—cedes meaning and so on, maybe a bishop or a knight—to get to keep science’s claim to Darwinism and so on. “I think Gould gives away the store.”
JC: Fiction can’t make that bargain that Gould made. It has to be about human meaning. Without it, you’ve got lectures on chemistry and…Larry Niven.
BM: Short story about regression and regressing into non-human form (“The Code”?). Tenn’s “Brooklyn Project” —all this well before Ionesco and all the official absurdism, but it’s very much about human absurdity. Sheckley was out to destroy human exceptionalism—there’s plenty of SF that works against the sort of teleology presented on this panel. (Golding? Goldwyn?) Baby Is Three (Sturgeon) moves against Campbell and that direction of SF.
“Our present is the outcome of the past”—myth of progress—that all of history has moved toward this point, with…Astounding Science Fiction being a pinnacle. (“Wig Theory”? I’m lost.)
JM: “The virtues of space travel were three” (Vonnegut)
JC: HG Wells’ Outline of History was the original of that vein of triumphalist SF.
BM: California used to be the place where people went to die. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie makes that point.
GS: Back to the Disch theory that Science fiction is the genre built on lies we want to believe. And so you get Scientology and so on.
GS: Reith Lectures being broadcast on the BBC—the very first is by Bertrand Russell—and it’s all about engineering ourselves, socially and politically, till we ascend to a better state.
JC: I think American exceptionalism is different, and is about absolutely freedom with a god that is the best part of yourself, limitless horizons, etc.
KM: Modern utopias…roughly based on The Republic and so on.
JM: Bradbury story where time travelers come back with lies about the future, but then they seem foreordained, so we make them happen.
BM: There was a statement about the history of American being about absolute freedom, but if you look at the founding documents, I think you might make a Marxist argument about a desire for entrapment. What is really being sought here?
JC: Entrapment is simply the reverse of absolutely freedom, is it not?
And then we wandered away into questions and an argument about American political history and I rested my fingers.