On the human (and teuthid) condition
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 10:17PM
Dave in discussion

Well, I guess I should start with hello.

I’m Dave, the other half of Robot Squid Publications. Those of you who’re in the super secret test audience for that other thing that I’m doing know what my main novel project is, here at Robot Squid Geostationary, but this is the first time I’ve actually blogged here, so some of you don't know me at all.

In my other job, I am an egregious drain on the resources of a cash-strapped society, or in other words, a grad student. An eterna-student. I’ve been in tertiary education for longer than primary and secondary education combined. I might as well come out and admit, I have a problem. Certainly, if I had just listened to wiser counsel and gotten heavily into drugs instead, it would have turned out to be less financially and psychologically ruinous.

Naturally, I regret nothing.

My life sentence in academia (the idea of no longer having access to a university library when I graduate genuinely frightens me) has taken me right across the campus, from English Literature, where I got my first degree, to Computer Science, which is what my PhD will be in if I ever get it finished. Quite a long time ago, my teacher for A-Level English told me that the thing that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction is that literature “offers insights into the human condition”. She was a great teacher, regarded the poems of Sylvia Plath as basically a vitamin, gave me the best piece of advice I ever heard for dealing with teenage angst (“stop thinking about your own problems for a while, and try really listening to someone else”), but on this point, I think she was dead wrong.

Offering insights into the human condition is the number one distinguishing characteristic of really good fiction (second place goes to “containing lots of very well-written sentences”), but there’s no reason to suppose that such insights evaporate on contact with spaceships, elves, detectives or jokes, though I suppose they might struggle for elbow-room when crowded around by all four. As far as I can tell, as a novice in the publishing industry, “literary fiction” is primarily a marketing category. Douglas Adams articulated the tragicomic absurdity of human existence more eloquently than Samuel Beckett ever did. Laurence Sterne, probably thought he wasn’t so much creating an enduring literary classic in Tristram Shandy, as trolling the novel-reading public of his time. When Margaret Atwood famously got offended at hearing The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake described as science fiction, she was touching on a marketing problem that science fiction had at the time, describing it as "talking squids in outer space."

(N.B.; I should note that, although Atwood no longer describes science fiction in such terms, my novel-in-progress here does contain a talking squid in outer space, who is also a flying robot)

Of course, fiction doesn’t have a monopoly on insight, and doesn’t deliver its insights in isolation. Indeed, I would like to suggest that forms of fiction that have connections to cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science and quantum physics might just deliver more startling, unexpected insights into the human condition than forms of fiction whose main academic connection is to departments where poststructuralism is Still A Thing. Science fiction has the power to take the astonishing, weird, counterintuitive vision of the world presented by science, and bring it together with lived human experience; and, in an era of unparalleled growth in scientific knowledge, that puts it in a better position than literary fiction to show us how strange the human condition really is.

And that’s what Robot Squid Publications is here to do.

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