Potlatch 7

Science Fiction as Literary Cartooning

Time:Saturday, 10 a.m.
Ringleader:Lenny Bailes
Cohorts: Tom Whitmore, Eileen Gunn, Loren MacGregor, David Hartwell

The idea for this panel came to me a few Worldcons ago while listening to one of the "Evolution of the Short Story" panels. The question I think they missed is whether there are current trends in science fiction toward writing photorealistic characters and plots that overlook the power of "literary cartooning." Some of the stuff that John Collier, Fred Brown, Cyril Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley, et. al wrote was less fully worked out than contemporary offerings, but their stories made unforgettable, broad statements about the effects of technology social trends, & cultural memes on ordinary people.

Some questions for this panel:

  • How does "literary cartooning" differ from straight "social warning" and dystopian traditions in SF?
  • Do SF readers form the same kind of relationships with "literary cartoonists" that they make with graphical ones (Trudeau's Doonesbury, Adams' Dilbert, etc.)?
  • Which modern SF short stories have the social punch of earlier classics: characterizing broad forces in a way that exposes how they work on people?

Reported by David Bratman

Lenny began the panel by asking if we've lost the satirical sense in SF, the exposing of the absurdity of the world in a broadly-applicable satirical statement, as in a political cartoon. He cited past and older SF writers like John Collier, Lewis Padgett, Fredric Brown, and Robert Sheckley as examples. Are there current SF writers doing what G.B. Trudeau and Scott Adams do in cartoons? He also presented a timeline, including the above authors, Pohl and Kornbluth, Theodore Sturgeon (his 40s stories rather than his 50s ones), H.L. Gold, Philip K. Dick, Grania Davis, James Tiptree, Connie Willis, Eileen Gunn, Jonathan Lethem, Martha Soukup, and (with an asterisk) Neal Stephenson.

Lenny's question produced several varied replies scattered throughout the hour:

Yes, there are such current writers in SF. Authors and stories cited included: Ian Macdonald, Eileen Gunn, Leslie What (notably the upcoming "Say Woof"), Connie Willis, Jonathan Carroll (described by Loren MacGregor as "Philip K. Dick on drugs"), Ray Vukevich, "Danny Goes to Mars" by Pamela Sargent, Crank magazine, Eliot Fintushel, some Terry Bisson stories, Karen Joy Fowler, "The Dead" by Michael Swanwick, "Motherhood Etc." by L. Timmel Duchamp, Gene Wolfe's short fiction, "Horror We Got" and other stories by Howard Waldrop. David Hartwell said that half of Analog these days is satire, but not aimed at this audience: only 2 people present read it regularly. This lead to a digression on Analog: is it good satire? Is it well-enough constructed, or is it beating a dead horse?

There are such writers, but they're working outside the SF field. The SF field is no longer the marginal safe corner it once was, and satire outside of the genre is more acceptable. Writers who might once have done SF are going elsewhere. Names cited included: Derek James, Kathy Acker, "Preternatural" by Margaret Bonnano (sp?). Comics like DC's Helix line, "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac", "Too Much Coffeeman".

The definition is too narrow. Tom Whitmore cited cartoons like Ralph Steadman's, which are more painful than funny, and named J.G. Ballard as an SF writer in that vein. Other authors, like Harry Harrison, are more like video cartoons than print ones. Another problem, raised by Eileen Gunn, is that the "1950s tradition" which Lenny seemed largely to be discussing was too limiting. Damon Knight had taught her that the 50s satirists were too much "of their time" to imitate. She's been trying in her own writing to escape their influence for 20 years. Loren MacGregor added that it's the truth of the story's comment on society, not its 50s quality, that makes its pointedness.

Satire has gone out of fashion. Lenny suggested that a kind of photorealistic writing has come into fashion that's incompatible with the kind of broad strokes appropriate to satire. Satire requires frustration, and perhaps we're not frustrated. John D. Berry elaborated by citing the conformism of the 50s. Amy Thomson suggested that the marketing and critical focus have moved to novels: "cartoon" novels are not really practical. Tom said it might be harder to write cartoon-like fiction in a world where real cartoons are being seriously deconstructed. See also David Hartwell's comments below.

Perhaps the objects of satire have moved? Society has become self-satirizing (but hasn't it always been so?). The 50s satire was largely against marketing, but the postmodern age embraces markets. We need to satirize things now besides the old targets of bureaucracy and the military: the workplace, political correctness, the new sources of power like the computer industry. Eileen observed that writers write satires not because the subject needs satire, but because they're pissed off. We admire stories that were prescient (Kornbluth, Padgett, and Sheckley on TV when it was new), but we'll have to wait another ten years to know what was prescient in today's stories.

In the course of discussion, Lenny clarified his question by defining literary cartoons as stories whose endings have punch, and make the reader question aspects of society. Connie Willis is screwball comedy, not criticism of society. Many silly stories have a satirical look, but have no teeth: no social critical statement (Terry Pratchett; Pratt & de Camp's Gavagan's Bar, Spider Robinson). David Hartwell said that Willis, like Padgett's Gallagher stories, are surface funny, but wear their satire underneath. Lenny distinguished literary cartooning from social dystopia (H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley) and deadpan critics of society (not funny, just gritty: Richard Matheson's "Twilight Zone" work, some Murray Leinster stories). Loren said that good satires work on several levels, not just as satire. David said 50s satire was relatively short and had flat, functional characterization. Eileen said it articulates one's own unspoken feelings, not repeated tropes. It synthesizes the moment, even if the subject or feeling is irrelevant later. An audience member suggested it should change your view of the world. Others observed that this is easiest with a younger reader: as Lenny said, one's first encounter with a meme can be life-changing, even if later it becomes a commonplace.

Why is there a sense that these stories no longer exist, since they do? David Hartwell emphasized repeatedly that the stories are being written and published, but they are being critically ignored, or called old-fashioned. The critical attention is elsewhere, and the audience is not engaged. Satire as such simply can't be marketed today: it won't sell. Call it cyberpunk instead. He dated this change in attitude to the early 70s. But Tom Whitmore replied that books like "The Space Merchants" and "The Silver Eggheads" weren't marketed as satire until the early 70s.

What makes satire last? Lenny said it's the timely and relevant, not the frivolous, that makes memorable satire. Tom Becker indicted toothless co-opted satire and uniform nonconformity. Tom Whitmore said that lasting satire is written out of a deep abiding anger (Jonathan Swift has certainly lasted a long time). Eileen cited Jack Sharkey as an example of a writer she liked as a child, but now feels is lame. She concluded the panel by suggesting that if the Golden Age of SF is 12, the Golden Age of Satire is 15-16: the most cynical age. David modified this to 17, the age of high-school seniors.

Lenny's notes for Science Fiction as literary cartooning

a vehicle for social/political commentary — a tool for easing alienation?

Not just "The Tradition of the Space Merchants" the panel might discuss:

the relationship s-f readers have formed with the great s-f socio/political cartoonists:

Why is this tradition important to us?

(eases alienation? bridges to pop culture?)

How does "s-f cartooning" differ from the

dystopian and straight "social warning" traditions.

((H.G. Wells/E.M. Forster/Aldous

Huxley vs.Lewis Padgett / P.K. Dick))


((H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley)) deadpan critic examples ((Murray Leinster — If you was a Mocklin == Richard Matheson — Monsters on Maple Street; James Tiptree, Jr. — various))

humorists ((Lewis Padgett, C.M. Kornbluth, Fritz Leiber, Robert Sheckley))

Can this tradition of "literary cartooning" still

find a voice in today's s-f markets?

How is the tradition changing?

((Neal Stephenson as the heir to the great'50S literary cartoonists with Snowcrash?))

Chronological Evolution

John Collier

Lewis Padgett

Fredric Brown

H. L. Gold

Ted Sturgeon

C. M. Kornbluth

Fred Pohl

Fritz Leiber

P. K. Dick

Robert Sheckley*

J. G. Ballard

Grania Davis

James Tiptree, Jr.

Howard Waldrop

Connie Willis

Eileen Gunn*

Jonathan Lethem

James P. Kelly

Martha Soukup*

Neal Stephenson/Stephen Bury*

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