Sunday, 6 September 2009

Oh no, it's not SF

I was listening to Margaret Atwood discussing her new book, Year of the Flood. She is insistent that it is NOT science fiction. I was reminded of Salman Rushdie who almost broke out as an SF writer, his first published novel, Grimus, is regarded as fantasy SF. Apparently, efforts were made to stop it being nominated for an SF prize, lest Rushdie be stigmatised, poor thing, as an SF writer!

So how did SF find itself in the ghetto? Or rather, back in the ghetto. For a while SF was pretty respectable. Following it's beginnings in the pulp arena, alongside westerns, detective fiction and war stories it gradually became respectable. For a while though, literary critics took to referring to SF has the 'literature of ideas', a polite way of excusing the apparent lack of the traditional literary preoccupations with dialogue and character. Indeed, many SF classics survive quite well on a bloody good idea, not much else, and still manage to be engaging enough to keep you reading to the end.

Later, of course, the likes Ballard, Bradbury and, indeed Margaret Atwood herself brought respectability and even the praise of literary critics to SF.

But these days SF is, again, 'beyond the pale' and anything whole heartedly regarded as being SF is not going to be considered serious writing.

Why is this? And does it matter?

First things first. The SF 'genre' is now shaped by movies and TV. The growth of the SF, massive budget movie/TV market has meant that SF and fantasy movies are a huge industrial investment. And when the money comes in so does marketing, branding and risk management. These kind of corporate buzzwords don’t invoke thoughts that what is being produced in any way resembles art. It’s a business, requiring risk mitigation. It may still be entertaining, and for sure, that guarantees it’s not literature.

No matter that producing a movie is a long way from the lone author crafting his unique and solitary vision. Hollywood has hijacked the SF brand. So now Ms Atwood must talk of writing Speculative Fiction, not Science Fiction, less she ends up in the bookstore alongside all those Dr Who spin-offs.

Now in some ways it doesn’t really matter how stories are categorised. That’s a problem for bookstore inventory management. But it does matter if people forget what SF does best. Anybody who has tried writing soon discovers that the SF writer has a big challenge that the mainstream writer doesn’t, he has to portray the unique world that his story occupies, and quickly. It’s a lot of effort, so why bother?

Here’s why. SF and only SF has the licence to put you in a situation where, for example, you’ll follow a human with his IQ is doubled. What might that be like? Who else can go there but the SF writer? Not Alan Bennett, not F Scott Fitzgerald, not, well name your literary giant of choice.

Is it important? Yes, it is. It took Daniel Keynes great skill and quite a lot of tenacity to write Flowers for Algernon and maintain his vision despite the editors who wanted to Hollywoodise it, and give it a happy ending. And by golly, it is SF and only SF. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, dear Ms Atwood, and Mr Rushdie.

The real culprits are probably the teams marketing them, no matter, I can't address them, it's Atwood and Rushdie on the book cover!


  1. Ah Atwood has been doing this for years, despite writing near-future dystopias just about all the time. I mean, I adore her, but her whole IT'S NOT SF thing is an old routine now.

    Tbh, I no longer care. I love me some literary Sf, and if by calling it sf, the writers and marketers know it won't sell, then they can call it whatever the hell they want in order to get readers to pick it up.


    It used to annoy me, but now I just shrug it off as a marketing thing.

  2. I agree with Cat that I think it only matters in terms of marketing-- but I wouldn't totally dismiss this. Unfortunately, science fiction does have a kind of bad reputation as being poorly written and inferior pulp. Too bad. There is some marvelous science fiction in the science fiction section of bookstores that is not masquerading as anything other than what it is. There are people who will not step foot into the science fiction section of a bookstore, but will gush over books like The Handmaiden's Tale, The Time Traveler's Wife, or The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

  3. It may not surprise you to learn that


    You can add a bunch of other people to this list, including (as I recall) Dorris Lessing. There are plenty of people who will write SF, or at least steal elements of the genre, and then will deny that that's what it is.

    Now, partially I do think this is the result of a problem in SF. SF is a very broad church. There are still people out there writing pot-boiler 'space-westerns' (grizzled spacer walks into a bar and orders a space-beer', you know the score) and there are also people who like those and want to read them. The problem is that... well... there is some truth to the claim that that end of SF has no literary, scientific, or speculative value. It's just 'boys own' fun. the problem is that this has the standard that the entireity of SF is judged by.
    'Speculative Fiction' has taken a step towards munging SF, fantasy and horror all together into one mass. I do wonder if this was the right way to go. Maybe what we need are not titles that are more inclusive, but some more exclusive labels so that people wont be embarrassed to say that this is what they are writing.

    Unfortunately I think SF is up against it in a lot of ways these days. It doesn't just have a reputation for being pulp, it has a reputation for being misogynistic, racist, irrellevant pulp.

    uh.. post too long, got to split it.

  4. Where was I? Oh yes...

    I don't agree that this is just a matter of marketing. I'm not too bothered about marketing. When I'm actually able to sell something I write, then I'll bother about that. But I'm not writing in the hope of becoming the next Stephanie Mayer and retiring to my private tropical island staffed with groupie sex-slaves

    No, I'm more ambitious than that!

    I'm very concenred about the genre, because I don't see it as just being a way for me to make money (most writers, even fairly successfull ones, would be better off taking up accountancy or IT. If I ever were to become a full-time writer, I'm sure it would mean a pay cut from my current IT job!) I see SF as a vital part of a socities 'thinking toolkit'.

    As I mention

    here I've seen at least one instance in my life when the ghettoisation of SF has had real-world consequences.

    Right now we are going through a period, with the Time Travellers wife and Cormac Mcarthy's "The road" when there is a fair bit of SF-in-disguise doing the rounds. But that doesn't mean things will stay that way. 'Literature' may at any point choose to go and parasatise some other genre (because that's what it is, a vampire genre) and all of a sudden people will not again be exposed to SF ideas.

    Science as a whole is derided these days. Quite a lot of people have no idea what a star is. This links to a lack of interest in SF, I believe. Certainally, I got into science via SF, and I think that same is true for a lot of others. If SF is exciting, then you can expect to see more kids taking science options at school. If it's cool, then they will follow those options through to adulthood. But if it's derided as childish and uncool, they will drop out of science and SF in their late teens.
    This is fine, so long as everyone in the world is doing the same thing. But they may not be. I worry that there may be some eager beaver kids in parts of the world that have social and political systems that I wouldn't want to live under, who are going to get into science in a big way. If this happens, the future balance of power might swing places that we don't like. Imagine if some of the worlds worst regimes were also the most technologically advanced? Do you think we would still be able to carry on as we are?

    Of course, the standard reply to such things is "That will never happen". At least, that's the thing that non-SF reading people always say. They said it about the fall of the roman empire, aircraft, telecommunications, the fall of the british empire, desktop computing, going to the moon, women getting the vote, travelling faster that 40 mph... etc, etc, etc.

    If a society cannot imagine a future any different than the one it lives in, then it's always going to get steamrollered when that future comes along. If it despises science, then it's going to be out-developed and swept aside by societies that value scientific progress. that's history, and that's the future too.