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The Kitschies and Progressive Fiction

Nick Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo by Sarah McIntyre
Nick Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo by Sarah McIntyre

This week I was at The Kitschies, a set of awards for “progressive, intelligent and entertaining genre literature.”  Its creators, Jared and Anne of the Pornokitsch website and Pandaemonium Fiction (my publishers, no less) rightly eschew the word ‘best’ when giving the awards.  ‘Best’ is a devalued term in when it comes to awards, as implies an objectivity that a judging panel cannot possibly hope to achieve.

I compiled a Storify summary of the event, pulling photos and comments from social media.

The winner of the Red Tentacle award for a novel was Nick Harkaway for his book Angelmaker.  On his blog, Nick has posted a long article on what he thinks ‘progressive’ might mean in terms of fiction in general, and sci-fi/fantasy genre literature in particular. He says that such progressive fiction “It is a fiction which connects the inner human future with everything it must have around it, and recognises that the two develop together.”

In the general run of things, I think mainstream literature (say: any fiction which can reasonably expect in the present climate to be discussed extensively on Radio 4) is conservative about technology and science. It tries very hard not to notice them, and is focused largely on a notional interior human experience, an emotional journey which is proposed as universal and, being stripped of external distractions such as desktop computers and satellite navigation systems, purports to be a perfected, essential presentation of the human identity. The conceit is that our humanity is inherent and inward, not a product of our encounter with the world. More, humanity is a consistent thing, a noun, from which it follows, of course, that it can be threatened by changes created in that external world, and that some technologies are inherently dehumanising. Literature which embraces technology has by this yardstick already lost access to the Real Person.

In consequence (or perhaps it’s the cause) the mainstream is macro and Newtonian: it’s about people who exist in a world which can be apprehended entirely by the unaugmented senses. Anything which requires a microscope or an equation to be seen simply does not exist: cognition, arguably the human faculty by which we know most about the world, though of course it rests on and interweaves with our senses, is not part of the basic underpinning of the mainstream universe. In fact, too much cognition gets in the way of that emotional truth. Mainstream writing’s culture blends mysticism with immediacy and seems to reject cognition as a way to understand. Truth is personal, and it can be found only be clearing away distractions.

Speculative fiction is, happily, not the mainstream’s negative energy twin. Good SF and Fantasy, good Weird, good whatever you want to call it, is perfectly happy playing with human scale objects and emotions alongside technologies, magics and sciences which remake the outer world and in consequence alter or highlight the inner one. It just isn’t a conflict. You can’t genuinely depict “the ordinary mind on an ordinary day” in the developed world if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of the social web, CCTV cameras and online shopping. Human-ness doesn’t happen in the dark interior of the skull; it’s not Plato’s cave. It happens at the border of self and exterior, and that means it is affected by every outer trend. A human being without external stimuli does not develop a self in the same way as the rest of us. Our humanity is contingent on the world we encounter, which means that as we change the world so, to, we are changed. Small potatoes in speculative fiction, a huge matter for the mainstream.

Emphasis added. You can read the whole article on Nick’s blog.

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