Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Space Hockey Cadet

Heinlein’s Failure of the Imagination


Heinlein grew more & more irate about the future—increasingly getting didactic and trying to evoke with his novels the disappearing family American scene. The phasing out of the postwar American family that had been Westwarding itself across the vast NA continent through its long Midwestern regionalism literary period—all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Heinlein tried to evoke high-tech and far-future images of this vanished Americana—but ended up lecturing to an empty room. It wasn’t simply because he was a juvie sci-fi writer who’d turned his Naval Academy young manhood into a Space Cadet fantasy full of adolescent jouissance.

Fantasy is also a harsh mistress and includes an ironclad reality principle. You can’t daydream about living the same way forever—the fantasy demands a certain realism in order to maintain provisional or ephemeral libidinal and aesthetic effect. .

A sci-fi novel like Space Cadet or Star Trooper or Have Spacesuit Will Travel may originate in private wish-fulfillment—but to become narrative itself this deeper truth-mechanism needs to be covered-up. It’s the source of the old adage about trusting the tale rather than the teller.1

Disguising one’s own private subjectivity and streamlining all the non-functioning machinery behind a Potemkin façade—that’s how the sheerly logical contradictions of the unconscious left behind by the writer in his haste to write a book needs to be dealt with.

That is if he wants to get the reader’s attention to shift from the aesthetic spectatorship of the authorial gratification of the wish fulfillment he’s gone through to create the novel—over to its far less appealing preconditions of Fantastic Reality which he proposes.

Rereading Heinlein today—we can see how the process works and how thereby the novel itself becomes transformed from the expression of the writer’s private wish fulfillment and ideology—into its implicit critique.

Heinlein’s failure was not to see the increasing institutionalization and collectivization of late capitalism—its late modern and postmodern social life. Embodied by the Pulp Fiction Planet Corporation—the vast transnational corporate planetary entity. Bigger than most governments—virtually unstoppable, impossible to modify or control politically.

So that the problem isn’t the idealistic Heinlein family failing or even the classic populist-style revolts of Philip K. Dick, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants collapsing—against the great corporations coexisting with small businesses and their more humane ethos. The problem goes far beyond that exhausted paradigm of heroic revolt…

The sci-fi dilemma is a representational one—the problem of portraying the great corporations with their vast powers of political control by mapping their presence in our daily lives, of perceiving them, of giving them expression and articulation.

It’s a genre dilemma—finding a narrative cognitive enough not to limit one's imagination to those earlier periods of science fiction with their prescient anachronistic narrative ethos. How does a POMO writer write about the faceless anonymous longevity of the multinational or transnational or transplanetary corporations of the future which is now?

Frederik Jameson thinks the Pulp Fiction Planetary Corporation began to emerge after the winding down of the Viet Nam War—in the Allende coup, for example. (Steadily growing to its present day Neocon Roman Empire dimensions?) But isn't his political praxis Marxist—making him just as transnational as late capitalism?

Revivifying images of transnational eternities—sounds like the same old SSDD doesn’t it?

At least that’s how Kip Russell the high school kid in Have Space Suit—Will Travel thinks, right? Besides, as Heinlein says, it wasn’t any of Kip’s business anymore anyway.

“Let’s stick to the facts. I don’t charge for world saving and don’t do it to order; it just happens. I’m not sure I’d do it on purpose—with you in it.”—Robert Heinlein, Have Space Suit Will Travel

1The classic analysis of how the writer writes to gain wish fulfillment through his work remains Sigmund Freud’s “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” (1908), Standard Edition, Vol. IX, pp. 141-153.

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