Monday, March 24, 2008

Existential Science Fiction; Michel Houellebecq


Michel Houllebecq with dog. Philip K. Dick with cat.

About a year ago I read an article in The Believer on The Believer that lead me to want to read the works of Michel Houellebecq, an author who has a reputation for offending people, especially those who follow religion or spirituality of any sort or are a muslim or are a woman. The article relates a rather boring literary tour of The States Houellebecq was making that the author of the piece was asked to tag along on. During the entire run of the article the author/reporter is waiting for Houellebecq to do something horrible, but the novelist mostly pretends to be asleep in the back seat of the car.

Since then I have read Extension du domaine de la lutte (in english translation: Whatever), Les Particules elementaires (The Elementary Particles) and La Possibilite d'une (The Possibility of an Island) . Each of these novels are pretty much what I was lead to believe they were; nihilistic, existential, often depressing, serious, offensive if you take offense to things written in novels (for instance women don't usually make out as anything more then someone to stick your dick inside), and really good. All of this was to be expected.

What I didn't expect upon reaching the end of Les Particles elementaires was to find out that the entire time I thought I had been reading a really serious "nihilist classic" (quoted from somewhere, loosely) I was really reading a really excellent piece of SciFi. As the last chapter reveals the entire novel is written by an evolved form of humanoid who tells the story of one of the human scientists responsible for the evolution from human to humanoid in order for the humanoids to better understand their human predecessors. The Possibility of an Island starts out SciFi, as every other chapter is written by a clone (Daniels 24 and 25) commentating on the life story of the human he was cloned after (Daniel 1).

What strikes me as dead strange is the lack of reviews that put Michel Houellebecq's novels in the category of Science Fiction. (Houellebecq himself has, however, written an essay on H. P Lovecraft.) In fact, if Les Particles elementaires was an album put out by a band I might review it as The Stranger if Albert Camus wrote Science Fiction, or, something Philip K. Dick* might write if he was a grumpy french man. Granted, Whatever had no real trace of sci-finess, but it also had very little trace of a plot, one might liken it to a long rant. Each subsequent novel (including Platform which I have yet to read) could easily have been a plot device used by Kurt Vonnegut.

The only reason I can come up with for this complete lack of discussion on the topic is that the stigma of Science Fiction would stop people from declaring Houllebecq "the new Camus" or "the best french writer of his generation". I however, have no problem with declaring that most of my favorite novels are Science Fiction novels and that Science Fiction seems to be the only fiction that makes any real sense these days.

*It might even be interesting to write a long essay comparing the the use of cloned animal companions (dogs only) in The Possibility of an Island with Philip K Dick's character's obsession with android/real animals in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In both novels the love of an animal outweighs the love of another human being.

1 comment:

My God: What If? said...

Great post. I too - as an avowed SF fan and (PK)Dickhead - was pleasantly surprised to reach the "Atomised" finale, and equally mystified by the total lack of acknowledgement of this in the literary papers. I wonder whether, as you say, it is another case of literary snobbery towards SF. There is a reverse tendency, I've noted, for those within the SF community to claim more mainstream literary writers as practitioners of SF, e.g. Amis with "Time's Arrow", Pynchon, and Calvino. While this might be misguided in these cases, I think Houellebecq certainly displays an SF sensibility. The issue really comes down to the following questions: (a) what is SF/ is it intelligible (outside of the need to classify pulpy space opera stuff)to use it as a term of distinction? (b) is Houellebecq merely utilising the SF framework to bring into relief essentially non-SF issues?