The Future at the Tip of Your Pen (Commentary on Nabokov’s Lance and Sci-Fi)

Vladimir Nabokov tries his hand at cross genre with a piece, circa 1952, published by The New Yorker. Cross Genre is always tricky, what with the metafiction tinging itself with science fiction particularly. In Lance, the narrator, detaching himself from writer Nabokov, painstakingly composes the character Lance, an astronaut, and his family. But unmistakably, the narrator justifies this piece as an amateur work, even calling Science Fiction out as masked regular fiction:

“I utterly spurn and reject so-called “science fiction.” I have looked into it and found it as boring as mystery-story magazines — the same sort of dismally pedestrian writing with oodles of dialogue and loads of commutational humour. The cliches, are of course, disguised; essentially they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those “assorted” cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade, whereby their shrewd makers ensnare the salivating consumer in a mad Pavlovian world where, at no extra cost, variations in simple visual values influence and gradually replace flavour, which thus goes the way of talent and truth.”

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During a literature class four years ago, my professor mentioned there only being seven basic story plots. Of course, there are also several different theories contesting and justifying this one. But can I just say, I agree with Nabokov/the Narrator on this one. I applaud him for a piece well-written. Anyway, science fiction is almost always set in the future or in some alternate present, but quite actually, there is no such thing as the future; it’s all just a skewed representation of the present. According to an analysis of ‘futuristic art’ by Brian Dillon (which also coincidentally mentions Nabokov’s Lance), “the only future that seems to have mattered is the future anterior: what will have been, or more accurately what might have been”. That’s exactly what the narrator attempts to do in Lance: he’s actually conjuring up some pretend future that his descendent will later experience. Those attempting to write science fiction or metafiction should take cues from this wonderful and overlooked masterpiece by Nabokov (who gains most recognition only for Lolita)

Science fiction is just so fantastical. I don’t mean that in the informal marvellous-adjective sort of way, I mean that, while I don’t fancy reading much of it, I commend the writers for such an overactive imagination contributing to the portrayal of a disguised world as we know it until it no longer becomes recognizable.

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