''Systems fiction'': a new way to think about ''cli-fi''
How is this different from Robert Scholes's 'Structural Fabulation' from the mid-70s?
Not sarcasm, a genuine query.
Weirdly enough, science fiction is not the best lens through which to examine science fiction. In the 80s, critic Tom LeClair came up with an alternative category for all the weird literary novels that veered into speculative territory: the systems novel.
These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies – all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction. LeClair applied this tag specifically to Don DeLillo, but it can be expanded more widely: think Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Umberto Eco, among others.
That may seem like an eclectic bunch to unite under one banner, but the systems novel is ultimately a space for ambitious thinkers, the ones who want to weave complex thoughts into a tastier parcel than some impenetrable academic tome.
The dramatic kick in a systems novel is usually found in the points where the different systems overlap: tackling climate change isn’t all about physics, it also about unpicking the economics of a carbon-driven economy, for example.
DeLillo, as LeClair identified, is famous for picking apart systems: as one example, his classic novel Underworld charts a history of the cold war along the path of a baseball struck at the same moment that Russia detonated a nuclear test, and through the lives of collectors obsessed with owning the ball. Underworld grasps the whole of American postwar culture in a baseball mitt.
At their best, when systems novels veer right into science fiction, they can hold infinity itself in their purview – and none come closer to that than Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson’s seminal Mars trilogy opens with humanity’s efforts to colonise our cosmic neighbour in Red Mars, and closes two centuries later in Blue Mars: by then, water is flowing on the planet’s surface, an achievement reached after hundreds of pages of Robinson’s musings on science, politics, economics and religion.
Robert A Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress covers similar themes to Robinson, but reaches a very different conclusion; in stark contrast to Robinson’s holistic worldview, Heinlein’s tale of a lunar colony fighting for freedom from the mother planet – Earth – fits closely with the author’s libertarian beliefs.
Issac Asimov’s Foundation sequence, and his use of psychohistory in it, makes him a remarkable systems novelist, as does Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish sequence and Samuel Delany’s novels Nova, Babel-17 and Dhalgren. There are more contemporary fiction authors using this model, too: Madeline Ashby, Ramez Naam and Monica Byrne all use fiction as an arena for speculative, intellectual debate.
“The future is here,” William Gibson famously said. “It’s just not evenly distributed.” And in these difficult times, the visionary possibilities of the systems novel can be comforting. When we’re in the capable hands of guides like Atwood, Gibson and Robinson, these novels can be a profound reminder of human progress and potential.