The Failure is Disappointing But Interesting: Meillassoux’s essay on Science Fiction

Quentin Meillassoux’s Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction is a worthwhile read in the same way that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism was worthwhile. I read the latter shortly after reading Being and Event and its shorter and clearer form was helpful in elucidating much of the difficult conceptual terrain of Badiou’s ontology. Similarly, this short piece by Meillassoux, ostensibly about science fiction literature, was helpful in explaining aspects of his larger After Finitude. Beyond that it was a rather impoverished text if I was to treat it, without any interest of his larger philosophical project, as an authoritative analysis of Science Fiction literature.

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To give the reader a brief overview of the philosophical concerns of this Meillassoux piece, the author is interested in using Science Fiction [SF] and what he calls Extro-Science Fiction [XSF] as analogical material to elucidate his concerns with Hume’s problem of induction and how it has been misunderstood by 20th century philosophers, most notably Karl Popper. His contention is that Popper misunderstands Hume’s critique of induction as an epistemological problem when in fact it is an ontological problem. He uses science fiction, a literature that can imagine all of the epistemological problems and mysteries of science, to describe the ways in which the Popperian solution to Hume’s problem are in fact still trapped within the boundaries that Hume critiqued; he hypothesizes the possibility of extro-science fiction to account for what Hume really intended. Whereas proper SF is the literary imagination of science, and all of the epistemological impossibilities can be unified by the unfolding of scientific discovery (to simplify, analogical of Popper’s solution to Hume’s riddle, and one that Meillassoux does not think is a true solution), XSF can possibly illustrate the ontological problematic of a world deprived of causal order. “The guiding question of extro-science fiction is: what should a world be, what should a world resemble, so that it is in principle inaccessible to a scientific knowledge, so that it cannot be established as the object of natural science.” (6) And this inaccessible world is precisely the world that Hume’s arguments about causation are meant to provoke.

Since on this blog I’m more interested in the cultural dimension of critique, I’m not going to spend time engaging with Meillassoux’s philosophical points than what I explained in the above paragraph. Rather, I’m interested in how this extended essay functions as an analysis of the genre of SFF and whether or not this analysis works. My contention, here, is that it only partially works; it’s limited by the author’s ignorance of the genre. Maybe this is due to the fact that he relied on someone to furnish him with genre examples (Tristan Garcia), or that he was never interested in producing an actual analysis of SFF… But the problem I had with this essay, despite its usefulness in explaining aspects of After Finitude, is that it only partially functions as a thorough apprehension of the literature it attempts to represent.

The reason I say it partially functions as an analysis of SFF is because, on the whole, it does draw up an interesting dichotomy that is worthy of consideration. In fact, its pairing with Isaac Asimov’s story “The Billiard Ball” is one of its strengths. Meillassoux treats this “classic” SF short story as an example of the Popperian (mis)understanding of Hume’s problem, significant insofar as it even names itself after Hume’s analogy of billiard balls. This story “works” as SF because “it rests on the fact that the event, which is unforeseen in fact, as not unforeseen in principle, because a physical law can explain it. […] The [scientific] prediction has to be possible for the story to work; thus the event has to be subject to a theoretical law.” (22-23) Meillassoux then defines Asimov (and writers like Asimov) as those who paradigmatically demonstrate fidelity to SF because SF can never conceptualize anything other than a science fidelity that is bound by the very order that Hume ontologically critiqued. It’s all about stretching the epistemological horizons of a science that is taken to be ontologically acceptable rather than challenging its metaphysical assumptions.

Very well. I’m more than happy to see Asimov and other “classical” SF writers as avatars of a rugged and grounded way of looking at the world. They wrote in this manner, and were only slightly more interesting than Popper because they were telling fictional stories with characters that were kind of interesting, but were otherwise quite dry. In a context where reactionaries are demanding a return to this “classical” period of the genre I appreciate Meillassoux’s concerns about this period being no longer philosophically salient except to demonstrate Popper’s impoverished understanding of Hume’s dilemma.

What I don’t appreciate about this extended essay is the author’s general ignorance about his object of critique. In the past I have complained about how literature scholars treat philosophy as theoretical smorgasbord – where they eclectically mine philosophy like it’s an all you can eat buffet, where you can put anything on your plate just because – but now I think it’s fair to say that the inverse is also true. Philosophers can sometimes treat literature in the same way, and without any serious investigation of the literature they’re attempting to examine, speak with authority without having done the minimal work that should in fact necessitate this authority. That is to say, and as noted above, Meillassoux’s understanding of SF and even what he calls XSF is premised on a very antiquated and pedestrian knowledge of the genre.

Generally Meillassoux treats SF and the possibility of XSF as something that ended in the late 1970s. He also dismisses Fantasy, almost immediately, by assuming that entire connected genre is either the high fantasy of feudalism lite or something akin to Lewis Carroll; he can’t even grasp the SFF conjunction that might indeed provide examples of what he wants to call XSF.

Meillassoux’s only contemporary example of the genre is Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia that sticks out like the proverbial sore, throbbing thumb. It’s not even a good example of a possible XSF, what he calls the “Type-1” example of XSF that introduces “a single break, a unique physical catastrophe that would plunge the protagonists, overnight, into a world in which an inexplicable phenomena is massively produced.” (46) A much more interesting break that better demonstrates this XSF concept is Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy because it not only demonstrates this break but moves towards Meillassoux’s category of Type-3 XSF where “the real would go to pieces, progressively ceasing to be familiar to us.” (48) More to the point, all of this is contingent on an understanding of this “Zone” kind of SF first described by Soviet science-fiction authors the Strugatsky Brothers with A Roadside Picnic that Tarkovsky adopted into Stalker. M. John Harrison played with this XSF theme before Vandermeer in Nova Swing. Wilson produced a derivative and far less interesting iteration on this older theme with Darwinia that could not hit the level of XSF surreality Vandermeer finally consummated. This is not surprising: Wilson has always been, in my opinion, a derivative author. Hell, he even wrote a book about online AI sentience decades after this theme was already rendered stale by Neuromancer.

But what is significant about the history of the genre that Meillassoux’s use of Darwinia invokes is that he seems completely ignorant of what the Wilson book was derived from, and that was much more strange and appropriate to his XSF categorization. Meillassoux claims at multiple points that his XSF hasn’t blossomed into a sub-genre of speculative fiction (45-46) when in fact this blossoming pre-dated his essay and he did not do the work necessary to discover all of the examples within the confused SFF milieux that would give him a better appreciation of his own theory. What of the New Weird and its icons like China Mieville? What of Benjanun Sriduangkaew‘s clearly “XSF” short-stories that take place in her “Hegemony/Cotillion” universe? What of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales or Prester John books? What of N.K. Jemisin’s latest Fifth Season or Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga?

The list could go on and on and on. We don’t even have to deal with what I have often called a “new renaissance” in SFF but skip back to the decades closer to Meillassoux’s impoverished understanding: what of the New Wave Science Fiction wagered by Moorcock and Ballard that pissed of the Asimov’s because of its rejection of properly “Science Fiction”; and what of Samuel Delany’s surreal queer SFF Ulysses, Dhalgren? To claim that this alter version of SF, XSF, is something that hasn’t really existed except for the few pedestrian examples Meillassoux uses really does demonstrate an ignorance of the genre. What he wants to describe already existed, already articulated itself in examples that were much more interesting than the ones he chose, and was for more heterogeneous than he supposed. In this context, Meillassoux’s entire analysis of SF is disappointing, a big proverbial face palm.

Now perhaps part of the problem of this analysis is the fact that genre faction is overcoded by anglo-hegemony, i.e. that most genre offerings are not translated into French. But since this is a known problem maybe Meillassoux should have chosen someone who was more aware of what the genre offered in English translation than the person he chose.

In any case, what is greatly disappointing about this attempted analysis is that in some ways it is a really worthy project in its attempt to describe an alter-SF articulation that does something more philosophically interesting than traditional SF. In many ways Meillassoux’s diagnosis and theorization is correct; its failure is in its inability to recognize an entire tradition of literature that would have fit these XSF categorizations and thus the analysis runs the risk of appearing amateurish to anyone who has been reading genre fiction over the past several decades. What I would like to see, and what maybe someone interested in Meillassoux who works within the field of literature could produce, is a revision of this essay that is properly aware of the genre. Then we would have a piece of philosophical analysis of SFF that is truly interesting.

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