What Makes Fiction Hopeful?

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

One of the most famous nominative predicates of the last quarter of this century is Frederic Jameson's: "History is what hurts. It is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis." This nominative predicate is justly famous, for it speaks not only to the student of history, but to all who are determined (or desperate) to change the reality of the world they live in, or even their own individual lives. And it speaks above all to the science fiction writer, whose broadest concern is the realm of human possibility.

Political art, Jameson writes, needs to "convey the sense of a hermeneutic relationship to the past which is able to grasp its own present as history only on condition it manages to keep the idea of the future, and of radical and utopian transformation, alive." I find this to be the hardest task of writing: managing to see sharply and clearly enough to know what must be critiqued and blasted, while at the same time, by means of that critique, creating the space in which a vision of hope and possiblity can bloom. In other words, to write strong fiction, one must say No, not this and Yes, something like that in the same breath. One must admit the limitations of the human being and believe there is always hope. No wonder "happy endings" tend to trivialize a powerful vision. A happy ending usually pays deference to What Is, saying A happy ending is usually not a positive one; a positive ending is tenuous, uncertain, a trajectory for change and difference. A positive ending is open, a happy ending is closed (though there may be more sequels on the way, offering an endless succession of closures). Recent books with positive, open endings: Rebecca Ore's Gaia's Toys, Nicola Griffith's Slow River, Gwyneth Jones's Phoenix Cafe.

Margaret Atwood insisted that "pessimism" in art is not antithetical to "hope" when she commented in a 1986 interview with Geoff Hancock:

When I finish a book I really like, no matter what the subject matter, or see a play or film, like Kurosawa's Ran, which is swimming in blood and totally pessimistic, but so well done, I feel very good. I do feel hope... If you see something done very, very well, something that is true to itself, you can feel for two or three minutes that the clouds have parted and you've had a vision of something of what music or art or writing can do, at its best. A revelation of the full range of our human response to the world-- that is, what it means to be human, on earth. That seems to be what "hope" is about in relation to art. Nothing so simple as "happy endings."

I find that in almost every piece of science fiction I write, no matter the setting and character, "what it means to be human" is necessarily at issue. Nothing can be less obvious, or more open to dispute. How one answers the question will indicate how one conceptualizes identity issues, history, individual and collective potential, and one's own version of "common sense" (namely, all those cliché assumptions one takes for granted without realizing they are assumptions, and ideological ones at that (*). When I don't call bits of "common sense" into question, I am tacitly either valorizing or declaring it a hopeless "fact" of ineluctable human existence. An editor once asked me to provide a "moral," "happy" ending to my story "Ms. Peach Makes a Run for Coffee," on the assumption that there was only one "correct" thing for the protagonist to do. That "correct" action would have negated the character's own values-- but would have comforted some readers by suggesting that the double-bind the character was caught in could simply be wished away through sturdy rational thought, thereby erasing the very implications of capitalist middle-class values the story was addressing. The pressure of the character's double-bind makes it clear that some degradations, in a captialist system of values, namely those that preserve a minimally bearable class status, are likely be preferrable to other degradations when they are undertaken to preserve one's (class-determined) respectability. A "happy ending" would insist that there is no problem or contradiction that a sufficiently strong individual can't overcome. A "happy ending" would subscribe to the notion that humans are not social creatures, mutually dependent in every way imaginable, but monads living separate existences in which everyone always has the choice of doing the Right Thing. (And that of course there always is a "right" thing to be done.)

In the early and mid-1980s I hiked and camped several times, in Spring, in the Anza-Borrego desert in California. What a heady, powerful experience! Never have I encountered such a profuse variety of wildflowers (no, not even on the subalpine slopes of the Cascades in July!). As I trudged through sand, I sought in vain to place my steps where they wouldn't crush the amazing, often tiny flowers carpeting every surface in sight. I gloried in the fiery fountains made by the tall, arching branches of ocotillos, the garishly blossoming barrel cacti (on which I always seemed to be impaling myself), the constantly shifting striations of light tinting the mountain ridges surrounding us. At night I grew breathless with pleasure at the glitter of pyrite sprinkling the sand in the moonlight. And in the morning I was sexually aroused by watching humming birds dipping their long, sharp beaks into the lush, mauve trumpets of the flowering willows that graced our campsite.

Before I tasted the wonders of the desert, I thought the very word implied scarcity, lack, aridity, sterility. Certainly I've never even considered trying to camp in the desert in August. And even hiking in the spring, one would be a fool not to carry in a lot of water. But it is precisely the starkness and harshness of the desert that makes a spectacular proliferation of life possible after a single, good rain. And so it is for me, seeking the bloom of hope in creative work. The beauty and power of life and hope don't come easy. I never find them in the slick, easy endings that slide down like the cola that leaves my mouth cloyed and thirsty afterward. Hope cannot be found by shutting one's eyes to what hurts, by pretending that history simply doesn't matter. For without the courage of acknowledging what we can't (and shouldn't have to) bear, "hope" is but a mirage of an oasis without substance.

February, 1998

(*) "Clichés, especially sexual clichés, are always signs of power or political relationships."
      ---Kathy Acker

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