I had a fruitful email correspondence with Rick Wilber after this. My dislike of the uncritical celebration fan fic – also evident here – as something radical and innovative rather than derivative and, ultimately, pretty dull may grate among some. I quite like this review, and like how the anthology illustrate’s fiction ultimately superior power (in every sense) over academic writing.
In the influential 2010 essay “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto,” David Shields argued that the age of fiction is past; non-fiction in its many variants (some of which borrow the conventions and practices of fiction) is the key literature of our time. Future Media, a splendid anthology of fiction and non-fiction on mass media edited by Rick Wilber, could almost be Exhibit A in the case against Shields’ thesis. The fiction is almost always not only more entertaining, but conceptually richer.
Take, for instance, the two authors represented on both sides of the fiction/non-fiction aisle. James Patrick Kelly’sAsimov’s Science Fiction column “New Brains For Old” reproduced here is a solid and thought-provoking piece, but his story “Feel The Zaz” is a wonderful, witty, moving story which also “says something” about celebrity culture and the protean masks mass media allows us to wear. Cory Doctorow is represented by a brief text from his website on free downloading and an extract from his novel Makers — and again, it is the fiction which not only works as fiction but also illuminates our world more. The non-fiction highlights are the two typically gnomic Marshall McLuhan extracts that bookend the anthology, Andrew Postman’s introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition of his father’s Amusing Ourselves To Death (my own two cents on this occasion can be read here) and Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” since expanded into the book The Shallows. Most of the other non-fiction pieces seem almost deliberately chosen as pale shadows of their fiction equivalents. We have a rather pedestrian essay on various feminist approaches to technology by Judy Wacjman which is completely overshadowed by James Tiptree, Jr.’s story “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” We have Henry Jenkins’ exercise in mash-up/fan flick boosterism “Dude We’re Gonna Be Jedi” which is completely overshadowed by “Feel The Zaz” or Kit Reed’s “At Central.”
When I say “completely overshadowed” it is not to denigrate the perfectly serviceable examples of non-fictional, academic writing featured mentioned above, which are interesting enough, but to make the point when fiction succeeds in creating an alternate reality (forget genre limits and definitions, even the most sturdily realist novel is an alternate reality) the life of this reality carries a force not merely rhetorical. Cinematic fictions have far more force in our culture than the slickest documentary; we read Tolstoy and Balzac to illuminate the past despite the fact that they, too, made it all up. Wilber’s anthology (and it would be remiss not to mention his excellent introduction, an essay of considerable power in its own right) certainly captures any aspect of the fluid modernity of our age. We are all media people now; our lives increasingly seem mediated through and modulated by media. Facebook and Twitter have made us all broadcasters, media moguls of the self. Whether all this ceaseless media activity is actually leading to the expression of anything worthwhile and hitherto unexpressed, or is simply a practical realisation of the famous thought experiment about a million monkeys with typewriters, is another matter. One of the catchphrases of the internet revolution in publishing is disintermediation; a term borrowed from economics and with a similar meaning, as reader and author are linked directly without the middlemen and middlewomen of publishing, marketing or retail. Sometimes it seems that what the internet is doing overall is a process of reintermediation of experience; increasingly we experience, interact with, and even recall the external world through the prism of various technologies. Perhaps twas ever thus, or at least since the daubing in Lascaux and the notches in cuneiform of Sumeria, but our lives seem increasingly marinated in media.
All media has within it the seeds of fantasy, of nightmare. Extend any media technology to its logical conclusion, extend it to omnipresence or omniscience, and you have science fiction. Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel brings us face to face with the dream and nightmare of infinity, in which all possible texts and therefore all possible worlds and fates. Huxley’s Brave New World — a dystopia not of repression but of hedonism — takes the pleasure principle of media and extends it to a whole society’s raison d’etre. Indeed, when it comes to that perpetual pseudo-argument between “literary” fiction and “speculative fiction,” perhaps one notch for the sci-fi side is that in imagining where mass media would go, they dealt with one of the determining forces of modern life — perhaps the determining force — long before the literati. There is something comforting — something, dare I use the term — old fashioned about an anthology about the media landscape of the future, with its kaleidoscopic innovations and transformations, in which the most profound and engaging thoughts expressed are expressed in stories. Perhaps this reflects my own biases, and perhaps David Shields would read this book marvelling at the non-fiction and glumly annoyed by the fiction. A book is a mirror, and an anthology is a kaleidoscope, and Rick Wilber has produced one of the most impressive anthologies of recent times. Indeed along with the wonderful Kafkaesque, it has been quite a year for superb anthologies from Tachyon Publications.