Mutual Symbiosis: A Conversation with Gerry Canavan

Several years ago, while I was writing my dissertation, I found Gerry Canavan’s Theories of Everything, in which he views SF as a genre that “rests on the knife’s edge between the promise of utopia and the threat of apocalypse” (1). Since that time, Canavan has proven himself a versatile theorizer of everything, having written on seemingly every aspect of science fiction: Star Wars reboots, ‘50s era works like They Live, and on a diverse stable of luminaries including Octavia Butler and Kurt Vonnegut.

Not only does Canavan explore diverse writers, eras, and themes in SF, he brings a joy to his work. It is easy to see his love for analyzing science fiction. Canavan took out some time to answer questions about his work on Octavia Butler, pulp vs. literary SF, the psychology of storytelling, and ecology vs. utopia.

- Joseph Hurtgen
In your book on Octavia Butler, you describe her as engaged in oppositional thinking—white vs. black; female vs. male; heterosexual vs. homosexual; disabled vs. abled and describe how that opposition even permeated her writing process: she would flip the script and write stories that were the opposite of her intentions. But no matter what oppositional discourse she considered, she always wrote narratives of survival. Could you address the relationship between her use of opposites and survival narratives?

Butler says it here: opposites are sexy. They're generative. The collision of opposites makes things happen. She says that even with a pair like good-evil, good is sexy only if it's not too good, just as power imbalance can (sometimes) be dynamic and freeing so long as it is not coercive or soul-crushing (and best of all when it creates mutual symbiosis, the union of opposites). This links up to her ideas about survival in a few ways; first, it provides a description of what she thinks life is and how it works. That struggle/collaboration between opposites is part of vitality for her in nature just as in individuals, and when you don't have that sort of mutuality, all you're left with is something inert and dead. But the other crucial aspect of survival for Butler is that it isn't the same thing as victory or freedom. Because of her place in American society, she saw survival as entailing compromise and filled with a lot of sadness. She viewed survival as necessary even in the face of constraint and pain. Survival is always mixed up with its own opposite, suicide, a recurring threat in nearly all of her novels. Her characters often seem close to simply giving up and allowing themselves to die. So, staying alive in Butler's terms is always about allowing in a certain amount of pain, sometimes as much pain as you can tolerate, even as it makes other sorts of joys possible.

Emotive awareness was largely foreign to scientifictions, scientific romances, and most all 20th century classic SF. You find emotional registers in writers at the end of the 20th century and forward like Iain Banks or Kazuo Ishiguro—if you want to class Ishiguro as an SF writer—but I wonder if they weren't influenced by Butler and other female SF writers of the '70s and '80s. Writers like Heinlein, Niven, Asimov, and Clarke often substituted genuine emotion for the wish fulfillment of male fantasies: getting the girl, colonizing new worlds, overthrowing tyrants. Even though many SF writers still rely on pulp conventions, why did it take nearly a century for science fiction to reflect more accurately on the human condition?

I'm not sure I fully agree with the premise. Like most definitional questions in science fiction, a lot depends on who we are taking as the core of the genre; there's a lot of SF even during that Golden Age period that isn't just about power fantasy, even if it doesn't always make the sort of top-ten list that defines a "canon." If we center Mary Shelley or Philip K. Dick or Alfred Bester or Ray Bradbury, are we so sure that science fiction as a genre can't deal with genuine human emotion, even in that Golden Age period?

It is interesting though that the main face of the genre as a publishing or fan category was and remains so preoccupied with that sort of overly masculinist tendency; it's something Octavia Butler talked about when she reflected on the stories she read when she was young and the stories she attempted to write at the start of her career. One of the reasons we centered the New Wave so strongly in our CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION was precisely because of the importance of the sort of artistic and psychological turn you're talking about, exemplified by J.G. Ballard’s famous quote about swapping the exploration of outer space for inner space. I suppose there's a way in which science fiction has been wrestling with which of those two versions of itself ought to be primary ever since. But you can find inner human complexity and powerful reflections on the human condition even in the pre-New-Wave period too, even if Asimov and Heinlein weren't the best at it.

There's a psychology behind the stories we tell. Traditionally, stories are supposed to educate and entertain, but, in practice, the business of storytelling skews toward storytelling as entertainment, to reinforcing the current cultural mythos. People want the stories they are told to confirm their biases, beliefs, anxieties, and so on. Can science fiction escape the imperative to tell the story people want to hear? How can SF challenge the assumptions we have about our culture, about who we are?

This is a tricky problem -- both on the level of political economy (the entire production apparatus of basically all culture is controlled by megarich corporations who implicitly or explicitly censor anti-system messaging) but also on the level of form: how do you sell people ideas that don't taste good or that even make them feel deeply or permanently unhappy? In the classroom, where I teach a lot of environmentalist literature, this is a gigantic pedagogical problem. The classroom has a sort of mandatory optimism where problems are only named because we already know how to solve them. The idea of a problem that has no obvious solution, or potentially no solution at all, is weirdly anathema to the whole project. Science fiction has a similar problem in that it can't always countenance a problem that can't be solved; maybe an individual or a society will "fail the test," but the idea of a tragic cosmos hostile to the human project in ways that can't be routed around seems somehow out of bounds, more akin to genre horror than genre SF. The book that exemplifies this for me is AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson, which had a really troubled reception even though it's a terrific book about a generational starship told incredibly well, and gets the math right to boot; it just told a story that science fiction enthusiasts didn't want to hear, namely that a generational starship is a terrible idea and that there is no place in the universe that will ever be as friendly to life as Planet Earth already is.

You've worked on a lot of projects dealing with ecology and utopia. Do you see an overlap between these two fields? And are these two fields more about the present or the future?

A lot of people seem to approach ecology as the disproof of utopia, as the proof that the world is miserable and that nothing can make it better. I tend to see it more about the playing field; ecological thinking tells us what the rules and constraints are for our dreams of a better society and point us to a number of important considerations about how to build it (perhaps first and foremost that a good society doesn't undermine the necessary conditions for its own existence and reproduction). No society would be utopian without also being ecotopian; it's only the bad habits of thought we've inherited from centuries of anti-ecological thinking that ever let us think overwise.

In that sense, ecology and utopia are about present and future simultaneously: what's wrong with the world as it is and how we would like it to be better than it is. I've been really influenced by the way Kim Stanley Robinson talks about utopia as permaculture, as building a society that doesn't leave the planet worse than it found it, that gives the people of the future the chance to have decent lives too, and I think that link between ecology, utopia, and the future guides a lot of what I see as most vital in SF.

Is there a single question or an approach to reading science fiction that you've found particularly useful in application as an SF critic? How would you tell readers to approach an SF text?

I tend to view most of them as ruminations on utopia; as Jameson said once said, "All contemporary works of art have as their underlying impulse our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought to be lived." Even the most dystopian texts serve as an attempt to prime our historical thinking and imagine paths out of hell (even if sometimes the path exists only in the story world's past). There is certainly a lot of retrograde and reactionary SF out there, but even there I think you can see these utopian kernels challenging us to think about the world differently, and of the SF I focus on in my teaching and writing, I would say it's more than just a kernel. This was already a little bit of an old-fashioned way to think about the genre even before I started my career, but it's still what animates me and what draws me back to the genre again and again.