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!