- The Advocate and the Propagandist
304 Pages; Cloth, $26.99
The subtitle of Cory Doctorow's latest collection seems a nod to Fredric Jameson's oft-cited conception of SF as a genre defined less by a desire to imagine the future than to "[transform] our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come." In other words, the utopian kernel of SF lies in its ability to deploy "the future" in order to articulate an alternative to "our present moment." It is about here and now. This vision of SF, popularized by New Left critics like Jameson and Darko Suvin, importantly corrected earlier and less flattering appraisals of SF as sub-literary escapism—the sort of thing Vladimir Nabokov memorably dismissed as "gals and goons, suspense and suspensories." For Jameson and Suvin, what commends SF as a genre worthy of serious attention is not so much its aesthetic originality as its ability to allegorize political reality. The gizmos—and, yes, even the suspensories—of SF are not important in any predictive sense, but rather in a cognitive one: each novum (as Suvin styled them) generates a sense of "estrangement" (think Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt), and this estrangement in turn creates a dialectical space unavailable to social realism (which is definitionally confined to the way things are). Someone wanting a portrait of the Eisenhower years, for example, would perhaps learn more from The Sirens of Titan (1959) than The Wapshot Chronicle (1957); by extension, someone wanting to understand our current decade would do better to consult, say, Nnedi Okorafor than Jonathan Franzen. For many years, the writings of Philip K. Dick enjoyed especial prominence among New Left critics, both for their uncanny articulation of the postwar American zeitgeist but also owing to the general sense that Dick was a fellow traveler—a dyed-inthe-wool anti-establishment type, from Berkeley no less! To everyone's chagrin, when Dick's late correspondence were published in the early 1990s, it included letters to the FBI denouncing SF writers like Thomas Disch and Stanislaw Lem, as well as literary critics like Jameson and Suvin, who had championed his work as subversive. Among other things, Dick accused them of being commie shills if not outright apparatchiks. Going forward, any and all New Left citations of Dick would include an invisible asterisk.
At some level, one imagines Cory Doctorow—who began publishing in the late '90s—as self-consciously stepping into the gap left by Dick, dutifully supplying us with SF allegories of the present, only now from a position of unimpeachable ideological purity. His first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), published under a Creative Commons license, amuses and horrifies with its near-future plausibility. This plausibility, we might say, is properly "Jamesonian," stemming less from the work's proposed technological novelties than its uncanny sense of late capitalism run amok. The seemingly "outlandish" premise of his second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe (2004)—in which national polities are replaced by online "tribes" whose members, scattered across the globe, synch their lives to artificial time zones—is not so outlandish in a world like ours where telemarketers routinely call at 3am (India Standard Time) to inquire about my car insurance. Someone halfway across the planet has to live a sort of stunted nocturnal existence calling people like me because it is cheaper for a third-party vendor (working on behalf of the insurance company) to pay its employees in rupees. The fundamental weirdness and wrongness of that situation—our sense of its profound inhumanity—forms the thematic core of Doctorow's oeuvre. Subsequent novels, like Little Brother (2008), have coupled this sense with an ever-deepening paranoia about the post-Patriot Act surveillance state. Taken together, these two facets of Doctorow's work—anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism—bear out Suvin's point regarding the novum: that it isn't merely a fetishized novelty, but the concretization of—necessarily ambiguous—political forces. Gadgets and tech in Doctorow's work are never politically inert, but...