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August 31, 1999

The South and Science Fiction

A genre still dominated by what my grandmother termed Nawth'n Cult'ral Imperialism

by Gregory Benford

The South has played a strong role in American fantasy, but little in science fiction. Southern settings seem, in the mind's eye, to have an almost automatic fantastic glaze. We readily call up images of brooding purple ruins, green corpses, melancholy figures shrouding a dread secret that reeks of musty shadows. Edgar Allan Poe, the first great southern writer, started it all--along with the detective story and, indeed, the short story itself.

This dominance of fantasy is a bit curious, considering that one of the distinctive inventions of twentieth century American literature has been modern science fiction, a jury- rigged genre put together in the same era when the South was undergoing its own great cultural renaissance. Between 1930 and 1967, the era marking science fiction's rise, the South had twenty-one Pulitzer Prize winners, eight of the twenty-four New York Drama Critics' Circle winners, nine of the thirty-two National Book Award winners in poetry and fiction, and of course William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize.

But science fiction got nothing from the Southern Renaissance. That genre was and is dominated by what my grandmother termed Nawth'n Cult'ral Imperialism.

It's easy to see a deep reason for this, stemming from that four-year "moment" when the South was a distinct nation, the Confederate States of America. The war itself did not change southern culture very much -- people were too busy fighting and dying -- but, in a profound irony, the South thereafter was more powerfully influenced by the Lost Cause mythology than by dimly remembered Confederate realities. The region's response to battle, defeat, and shaky Reconstruction spawned a myth-history which ennobled the great catastrophe.

Somehow, in the minds of millions, the Southern cause was not only undefiled by defeat, but the colossal bloodbath actually sanctified the values and ideals of the Old South. And all this was done by the people themselves, not by Nawth'n meddling or falsified history. Scratch a Southerner and you'll find a history buff, a military history buff. We peer backward, almost reflexively. Look away, Dixie land.

I am a son of Alabama and so a product of that culture. I feel it a dozen times a day, but I can't explain it. It's in the blood. Long a resident of California, I find that I can now only dimly fathom the intricacies of Southern manners and indirection. (I love the tones and sliding graces of the language still, south of what we call the Mason-Diction Line.) But I remain a Southerner.

How odd, then, that I became a part-time writer of science fiction, a genre devoted to technology and tomorrow. The Southerner's identity rests firmly on events now shrouded by more than a century of misty recollection and outright fabrication.

Science fiction is about the future, mostly. Frequently it has been molded by a Heinleinian fascination with the winners, the doers. Much of the best Southern literature is fixated on the long recessional from the great catastrophe, that ringing defeat -- the losers.

The frontier looms large in science fiction as a place to be confronted, pushed against, defeated, expanded. The South was definitely not a frontier. Instead, from early on it was wilderness already enclosed by the still-expanding nation. As a boy growing up in rural southern Alabama, the South was a great piney reserve holding unfathomed mysteries and a sense of a stretching past. Much of twentieth century literature can be seen as a conversation between the Southern sense of the wilderness vs. The Nawth'n image of frontier. Such subconscious elements have a deep influence on all the arts, often without our realizing.

To its loss, science fiction has learned little from Southern concerns and literature, a deep facet of American culture. We Americans are embedded in a rich and fruitful past, none more deeply than Southerners, but the science-fiction genre keeps its beady gaze firmly fixed on the often rather plastic futures we authors so glibly devise. Yet much of history is dominated by inertia, not by the swift kinetics of technology.

The United States has been profoundly lucky. Bismarck, the great German foreign minister of the 19th century, remarked that his study of history had taught him that God helped three groups: women, children, and the United States of America. There's a lot of truth in that aphorism. We took on foreign antagonists in the best possible circumstances and prevailed, often with little damage -- two wars each against the British, against the remnants of the Spanish Empire, then against the Germans and their allies. Now we have destroyed the Soviet Empire by containing it and waiting.

Our greatest casualties, though, came from our war against ourselves. That war also left the deepest wounds; despite all the talk of the New South, the region has not fully recovered.

Yet even in that catastrophe the United States was rather lucky. After all, the South came quite close to winning; only timidity made the Confederates not immediately follow up on the northern disaster at the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run). The South outfought the North for years; indeed, it is still something of an embarrassment to historians to explain why a nation outnumbering the South by better than 2 to 1 and possessing far greater resources took four years to win.

But the United States has been lucky in a more profound way, too, as Bismarck noted. We were able to take on the European powers one at a time in our wars, and to fight our own war of southern succession without significant meddling from Europe's vying factions.

This was enormously helpful. It framed the issues clearly, without intruding nationalisms of varying stripes. (Of course, the great constitutional issue of whether a state may leave the Union was not settled, and will, I predict, come back to bite us again.) It was fair fight and we got to slug it out alone.

There are many awful recent examples of what can happen when outside interests stir the red pot of hatred and anger. With a few rather minor changes, our Civil War (as it is known in the Nawth) might well have settled nothing and devastated much more.

Realizing this takes some imagination, and that is where Harry Turtledove excels, exploring the fragility of history. Of all alternative historical themes, it is remarkable that variant outcomes of the Civil War are only slightly less numerous than variations on World War II. Turtledove shows why: it is a fruitful fulcrum for history's blunt forces.

Few historians have ever written speculative fiction. There seems a natural contradiction between the precise inspection of the past and the colorful, evocative envisioning of the future. There are notable exceptions, of course: the entire subgenre of alternate history, which flows forward from the early nineteenth century. This method of inspecting the currents of history has produced such masterworks as L. Sprague DeCamp's Lest Darkness Fall and Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (an artful vision of another outcome of Gettysburg). To tinker with history and test one's ideas is enticing, endlessly attractive.

But most practitioners of alternative history are earnest amateurs, like me. Harry Turtledove (1949- ) is the real thing, with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history; indeed, I believe him to be the first historian to become a professional practitioner of the organized imagination known as speculative fiction.

He took up a fantastic alternative outcome to our Civil War in The Guns of the South. However, How Few Remain begins with a less fantastic possibility, one touching upon a perpetually debated point of military history: why did Lee perform so badly in the Gettysburg campaign? Even without the error invoked and corrected by Turtledove in his very first scene, Lee's failure of imagination and even of conventional military craft in his most important campaign is an enduring mystery.

So even though looking backward and looking away, Dixie Land, is common in recent speculative fiction, particularly in alternative history, why do we seldom recall that Richard Meredith's We All Died At Breakaway Station was a striking tale of dying for a cause written by a Southerner in 1969? That Daniel Galouye in Dark Universe wrote a major novel in 1961 about conceptual breakthrough from blindness to sight? And though my own Against Infinity is still in print after nearly two decades, few view it as a Southern novel, even though it is clearly written in the storytelling cadences I learned from my grandfather, in the voice of Faulknerian faded grandeur?

Perhaps because we believe that Southern fiction generally should concern the eternal return, a cyclic view of life immersed in that great Southern preoccupation: family. I believe that Southern speculative fiction embraces several aspects: concern with continuity and thus history; landscape as a shaping force; and voice. Style in the common sense of an apparent manner of telling is crucial to the first two concerns, because land and past must speak in their own tones and idioms.

There is a further commonality between science fiction and the South: we're outsiders. Though the South has dominated conventional culture to an impressive extent, and science fiction is the champion American genre (still alive in the magazines, and ruling Hollywood), both the South and science fiction profit from taking an exterior angle. For a Southerner this is automatic. I remember clearly when my father, a career army officer, was on General McArthur's staff in Tokyo during the Korean War and I watched half a million Japanese riot through the streets, shouting "Yankee Go Home!" A boy standing only a few feet away, scared, I felt relief; after all, I wasn't a Yankee.

That feeling of perspective born of remove is essential to science fiction, and more visceral to a Southerner. Though the first men on the moon left from the South, and the civil rights movement was invented in the South (winning us a Nobel for Peace), the South is fundamentally not about innovation and technology.

So of course it may seem odd that I am a Southern science fiction writer, because I am usually described as a hard science fiction type, and everybody knows that such writers are relentlessly pitched forward on the cutting edge of the new. True -- but the South remembers that a lot of the new is just fancied-up old.

That is why I set Against Infinity on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, where a crucially Southern distinction comes into play. Again, the South historically was born into a wilderness. Most northern science fiction is about pushing back the unknown, building galactic empires (such as Asimov's, thinly covering its anxieties about America, with Rome still looming large in memory), and subduing. I wrote about humanity recapitulating an old mode: going out from their settlements to hunt the Aleph, a thing out of prehistory, alien and unstoppable and still coming, despite all human efforts to either kill it or understand it -- clearly, it didn't matter which.

But the Aleph cannot be killed forever. It returns in the last pages of the novel, whose last phrase is ". . .and he knew he would remember." That's what makes it a Southern novel, amid all the high tech trimmings.

Another way to think of science fiction in our time is through Newton's second law: F=MA. Force drives Masses to Accelerate. Science Fiction is big on F, the hammering march of progress through science to technology to jarring social change.

To get that heady acceleration that mainstream readers find jarring (never mind the science too!), science fiction minimizes the mass, M -- that is, social inertia. We dream of a Singularity coming soon to a theater of the mind near you -- Vernor Vinge's Northerner fantasy of the moment when mind-computer linkage takes some of us off into utterly incomprehensible mental realms. This image of freedom from both history and from our bodies is quintessentially Northern. A=F/M; let's go! (Note that even the cerebral Arthur Clarke's love of intellect and desire to shuck our skins, from Childhood's End onward, does not also abandon history; he uses analogies and references to the deep past, from Babylon and the Olduvai Gorge.)

What's Southern science fiction? That which appreciates the magnitude of M. In this sense Southern science fiction is not regional, though its approach often stresses landscape. It can be seen in some British science fiction, from J.G. Ballard's acceptance of inevitability in his early disaster novels to Brian Aldiss's sense of the ponderable weight of the time in his Helliconia Trilogy. It is there in novels which trace the failure of hubris to overcome, such as Tom Disch's Camp Concentration and DanielKeyes's Flowers For Algernon. Novels with a great weight of landscape give this sense, as in Kate Wilhelm's When Late The Sweet Birds Sang and George Stewart's Earth Abides (a southern title indeed).

That is the sense the South can give to science fiction (some prefer to call it speculative fiction), no matter how broad and distant its technological ramparts. The rise of alternative history as a subgenre may be expressing a growing perception in our American culture that F is too big and we need more M, because we don't like the A we're experiencing.

If so, there will be more Southern spice and flavor in our future literary cuisine. I wouldn't mind that at all.


Gregory Benford was the Guest of Honor at a symposium sponsored by The Harbinger in June that was supported by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The focus of the symposium was "Southern Accents in Science Fiction." Dr. Benford -- professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine and science fiction author -- is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University. In 1955, he received the Lord Foundation Award for contributions to science and the public comprehension of it. Benford, born in Fairhope, Alabama, is the author of over a dozen novels, including Jupiter Project, Artifact, Against Infinity, Great Sky River, and Timescape. A two-time winner of the Nebula Award, Benford has also won the John W. Campbell Award, the Australian Ditmar Award, and the 1990 United Nations Medal in literature. Many of his best known novels are part of a six- novel sequence beginning in the near future with In the Ocean of Night, and continuing with Across the Sea of Suns. The series then leaps to the far future, at the center of our galaxy, where a desperate human drama unfolds, beginning with Great Sky River, and proceeding through Tides of Light, Furious Gulf, and concluding with Sailing Bright Eternity. At the series' end the links to the earlier novels emerge, revealing a single unfolding tapestry against an immense background. In his Foundation's Fear, Benford continues Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Benford is also a consultant to NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy. As a physicist his scholarship and research is in the areas of Plasma Physics and Astrophysics.


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