I'm intrigued by the new Steven 'I stopped making films with the last one' Soderbergh's new Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra (HBO 2013). Hopefully I'll get to see it (though it's not produced by Pixar or released as a PG, so I may have to wait until it turns up on telly). But the timing is fortuitous; I'm just polishing a SF story I have written, called 'Gerusalemme Liberace', prior to sending it off to the Italian journal La Torre di Babele. As I'm just now composing a headnote for the piece; Liberace, and kitsch more generally, are accordingly on my mind.
For much of its history science fiction has been dismissed as precisely this: as trash, disposable and immature art. This has been so large a part of the genre’s cultural history, in fact, that it has woven itself into SF’s DNA. The best SF today is aware of its own ridiculousness, even as it explores the mode’s technological sublime and ludic metaphysical potential. SF that takes itself too seriously just isn’t as effective as SF that embraces its kitschiness: Stanisław Lem; Douglas Adams, Calvino’s Le Cosmichomiche, Iain Banks’s Culture novels, Josh Whedon, Dr Who—sf that is witty as well wonderful; or to put the case more strongly, SF whose wit enables its wonder. There’s a deeper structural reason for this, I think: it is connected to the fact that SF’s perspective on the world is ironic rather than mimetic. SF seems to me integrally a playful mode of art (it plays games with the basic assumptions equally of Realism and of physics) and it baffles me that so many SF writers and fans take their art so very earnestly, and react in so hostile a manner against it.
‘Irony’ is a much larger category than kitsch, of course; and although kitsch generates its affect through its ironic relationship with seriousness it is a much more specific cultural category and must be considered as such. Celeste Olalquiaga suggestively traces the beginnings of ‘kitsch’ to the nineteenth century, linking it with (as she puts it) the way ‘industrialization transformed nature into an artificial kingdom of miniature scale’. For Olalquiaga this aesthetic is ‘at once exhilarated and melancholic’; and although she doesn’t not specifically discuss science fiction she might as well do. The desire to model the cosmos, to ‘reduce’ it to a working scale model (a process called ‘worldbuilding’ amongst sf types) [Celeste Olalquiaga, Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (University of Michigan Press 1988), 7].
There is a naffness about science fiction; something cathected onto the archetypal science fiction fan by general culture—think of the Comic Book Shop Guy from The Simpsons. But this naffness is a redeeming one. I go so far as to put words from Susan Sontag’s celebrated essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ (1964) into the mouth of my story’s title character, because they—and that whole essay—do such a good job of summarising what makes SF so potent. Camp ironizes its source material; it plays games with it, putting a premium on a deftness and smartness.
I suppose I am, more or less, proposing an alternative cultural history of recent SF. For many on the more academic side of the genre, a more-or-less embarrassing ‘kitsch’ mode of sf (from 1930s Pulps, bug-eyed-monsters preying on startled space princesses in skimpily futuristic clothes, Flash Gordon and Godzilla, through to the improbably adventures of comicbook superheroes of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the popular success of Star Wars) is contrasted with a ‘serious’ variety of the genre. This latter embraces Aldous Huxley and Olaf Stapledon, writers of the 1960s New Wave like Ballard, Le Guin and Delany, the strenuously gritty ‘street’ quasi-realisms of Cyberpunk and respectable literary crossover novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and McCarthy’s The Road. My quarrel is with those who take it as axiomatic that this second strand is superior to, or in some sense overwrites the former.
‘Romanticism is outmoded,’ Jacques Sternberg once claimed; ‘symbolism disused, surrealism has always appealed to a small elite but kitsch is everywhere. Even more pervasive and indestructible now that it is fused to a civilisation based on excess consumption.’ [quoted in Thomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania University Press 1996), 13] Nothing consumes quite so conspicuously as SF, cycling with prodigious energy through all the concepts and constructions human ingenuity can imagine, constructs planet-sized death stars only to explode them in a rain of firework-sparkles (not once but twice in Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy), which casually snuffs out whole worlds and even whole universes. The other elements of Sternberg’s quotation are interesting too, were there but space here to discuss them (‘symbolism’ has an interesting relationship to the way SF deploys certain novums as pre-loaded, as it were, with semantic signification; the creative distortions of the best SF have much in common with surrealism; and a lasting strand of Romantic idealism still informs the mode).
I once published a history of Science Fiction that argued that the genre was older than is generally thought (I dated its origins to the Protestant Reformation, when a new mode of ‘fantastika’ rooted into newly developing scientific idioms split away from the older, larger body of Catholic ‘magical fantasy’ works). I also suggested that SF owed more to poetry than to conventional narratives, because it is a metaphorical rather than a metonymical mode of art. In my Palgrave History I discussed such resonant ‘poetic’ images as the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey turning, mid-flight, into a space-ship, or the final paragraph of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’. I could equally have picked out images that resonate according to a more kitsch or camp logic, yet which possess equal staying-power. I’m thinking of the rocket sticking out of the squelchy-faced Moon’s eye in Melies’ Le Voyage dans la lune, the elegantly camp design of Maria, the robot in Lang’s Metropolis, the design of Mike Hodge’s 1980s motion picture Flash Gordon or the witty pasticheing of Futurama.
Of course, kitsch is not the only mode of SF; but it is one of the most valuable. In John Varley’s 1984 novel Demon (the third of his Gaea trilogy, an excellent if rather overlooked masterpiece of 1980s writing) the sentient space-habitat in Saturnian orbit, ‘Gaea’, has started to go mad. The habitat manifests itself within itself as a 50-foot tall avatar of Marilyn Monroe. In an early chapter, this giant is lying, naked, on the hills of Gaea being scrubbed clean by an army of zombies and human servants, using soapy water and brooms. This, the kitsch flipside to the clean sublimity of Kubrick’s bone/spaceship jump-cut, captures something the ‘high art’ equivalent cannot. It has the same expansiveness and mind-startling wonder about it, but married to a gonzo energy and disrespectfulness that animates it more brilliantly. It has the grandeur, but also a kind of innocence pathos of silliness. ‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,’ is how Sontag puts it. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious."’ That relation—ironic, metaphorical—is precisely the structure of SF. One can, as Sontag notes, be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. That SF remains a silly mode of art, adolescent, daft, over-reaching, often preposterous; this (as the phrase goes) is a feature, not a bug.
‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]
‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.
There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.