Monday, 20 June 2011

What's wrong with SF?

"sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you”.

This was written by Virginia Woolf to SF writer Olaf Stapledon. But SF has had some public relations problem since then, not least amongst writers. SF went through a growth spurt in the pulp zine era, then another in the UK during the 1960s. Andy Hedgecock in "From New Wave to SciFi Strange: thematic shifts in the SF short story" (from "Short Fiction in Theory and Practice" 1: 1) covers the genre's history from then to now

  • "The new wave in British science fiction (SF) was a literary movement championed and guided by the London-based magazine New Worlds in the mid- to late 1960s". He quotes Colin Greenland: "One of the strongest imperatives of Moorcock's editorial policy, ... was to bring sf back into the arena of contemporary fiction, first by incorporating into sf the characteristic themes and techniques of fictional innovators from Joyce and Beckett to Burroughs and Borges, and then by investing the sf writer’s inheritance of images and approaches into a fiction whose primary and most urgent concern was not remote space or the distant future, but the condition of the present"
  • According to Kelly and Kessel (in their introduction to "The Secret History of Science Fiction") "'after the mid-1970s, SF went back into the playroom, never to be taken seriously again'. As the same authors point out, however, forms of literary SF ignored by the mainstream media continued to flourish both with and without the ‘science fiction’ label"
  • "In recent years writers and critics have endeavoured to define a form of SF that offers accessible storytelling but returns to the literary and human-centred values of the new wave. The term 'slipstream', originally coined by SF author Bruce Sterling, was used to refer to fiction that blended SF, fantasy and literary fiction, and which focused on feelings of strangeness and dislocation; while the 'New Weird' combined urban fantasy, literary experiment, SF and horror. It is suggested the most useful term for recent developments in SF storytelling is 'SciFi Strange'"
  • He concludes by writing "There is a rejection of ‘disguised nostalgia’ in SF stories and a hunger for new approaches, often based on the blurring of genre boundaries. Contemporary SF writers tend to believe, like their predecessors in the 1960s, that mainstream fiction ignores significant aspects of human experience such as politics and the abuse of power, ecological disaster and the fragility of identity. ... The development of a new approach to SF storytelling, SciFi Strange, seems to be inspired, in part, by a wish to use the tools, techniques and tropes of the genre to discuss the diverse themes set out above with an audience unfamiliar with traditional SF. There is little compelling evidence of a resurgence of the formal experimentation of the 1960s new wave"

The early Star Wars films didn't help establish SF's high-art credentials - SF got dragged back to what the SF people call Sci-Fi (pronounced 'skiffy', I'm told) where too many loner scientists (i.e. authors) save the world and get the girl.

One problem is that the definition of SF is slippery - if you want to buy "The Handmaid's Tale", "Cosmopolis", "The Time Traveler's Wife", "Never let you go" or "Frankenstein" in a bookshop you wouldn't head for the SF section (which seems the place where SF authors' books - rather than SF books - are kept). China Mieville's books challenge classifications. Borges, Vonnegut, Calvino, etc edge toward Fantasy or Science Fiction too, but the rule seems to be that SF with literary value isn't "Science Fiction" - it's just "Fiction". Whenever an SF overlaps another genre or mode, the odds are that SF will lose its claim in a resulting tug-of-war if the work is good or topical

Some writers/agents encourage the SF/non-SF division - Margaret Atwood didn't want her books on SF shelves; Iain Banks writes as Iain M. Banks when he writes SF. The goalposts have moved over the years though

  • When Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels he could use distant lands, but nowadays it would be set on different planets or in the future - like "1984", "Planet of the Apes", "Clockwork Orange", etc. These Allegories/Satires are no more scientific than "Animal Farm" is horticultural.
  • SF settings are used to explore alternative lifestyles and sexualities. or used as a source of comedy - e.g. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". During the cold war there were several post-apocalypse novels - "A Canticle for Leibowitz", "Planet of the Apes", "Riddley Walker", etc - which because they dealt with mainstream pre-occupations were accepted by the mainstream.
  • The PostModern mix of high and low cultures offers a route for SF to fraternize with literature. William Burroughs and Vonnegut live happily enough on the edge. Vonnegut said (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) that "the science-fiction passages in SlaughterHouse-Five are just like the clowns in Shakespeare".

Whether or not the author wants it, the science element in these could be considered incidental. In Paul March-Russell's "The Short Story" it's suggested that SF is less a sub-genre than a mode of writing - i.e. a vocabulary of images than can be applied to various genres. Perhaps so. Science might be there only as a source of new metaphors for old problems. E.g., William Gibson (Neuromancer) said that "computers in my books are simply a metaphor for human memory: I'm interested in the hows and whys of memory, the way it defines who and what we are, in how easily memory is subject to revision"

SF can appear escapist in a derogatory sense, but I think the situation's more nuanced than that. SF and Romanticism have been associated for decades - Frankenstein's associated with the English Romantic poets, and Wells described his SF works as "scientific romances". The re-evaluation of (or search for) Self in times of Technological Revolution goes on. Man's place in nature is re-assessed. Loners and explorers venture out across dales and galaxies. Sometimes Humanity wins, sometimes Technology does. More often nowadays some fusion is reached - most explicitly with cyborgs.

Rather than being escapist, SF has been used as a way to avoid censorship. According to "Anatomy of Science Fiction", ed Donald E. Morse, Cambridge scholars press, 2006

  • "In Central Europe in the twenty-first century there is now little in the way of home-grown science fiction", p.190

  • "After reunification, many GDR authors stopped writing science fiction or ceased writing altogether", p.180

Another barrier to literary acceptance is that SF stories often adopt a traditional 'Realism' attitude to language. There's competition from other genres too - as bloggers have point out, imaginative reconstructions of historical (or even alternative history) scenarios aren't subject to the same linguistic constraints. According to George R.R. Martin in a recent interview SF is even losing ground to the Fantasy genre.

Yet another factor affecting the reputation of SF is that it's sometimes said to suit the currently unfavoured short-story genre - novels like "2001" and "Fahrenheit 451" began life as short stories - but SF isn't well represented in general short story magazines and anthologies.

Is the situation any better now? In a Sept 2009 Guardian blog written by SF writer Prof Adam Roberts, his professorial colleague (and Booker prize judge) John Mullan said that SF is "bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other" although according to Roberts, "British SF really is going through a golden age". The New Scientist Sept 2009 issue had some Flash SF pieces, and the UK's £5000 Edge Hill short story collection prize was won by Chris Beckett in 2009 for his SF collection "The Turing Test", ahead of some well-known mainstreamers. Maybe that will help change the attitude of people who say of an SF text that "It's not real SF. It's just exploiting SF to write about Satire/Politics/Love/Life". It's SF Jim, but not as we know it.

So don't be too put off by the SF label - yes, it may be just "cowboys and indians in spacesuits" but it may also be the speculative literature of our age. More SF is slipstreaming into the mainstream - David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" is partly SF, as is "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. If it's good enough for Virginia ...


  1. I was talking about this recently and the example I gave was Batman. Batman was a decent character trundling along in several successful comics and then in 1966 the ABC TV series came along and ruined a perfectly good character overnight and it was twenty years before Frank Miller managed to salvage him. I think science fiction is a bit like that. It started out quite respectably with the likes of Mary Shelly and even HG Wells and then it went through its BEM-phase and sci-fi-for-the-masses was churned out lowering the tone considerably and we’ve still not recovered from that even with respectable writers like Margaret Atwood and Paul Auster producing very worthy novels that just happen to have a science fiction bent. It will happen. It is happening.

  2. I actually found this article irritating, because it shows a deep lack of knowledge of science fiction. Sorry. As much as I like Margaret Atwood's novels, the fact that she is highlighted here simply underlines the fact that most mainstream literary critics don't even take notice of science fiction until Margaret Atwood or Doris Lessing writes a novel of speculative fiction—which is what they have written, because the "science" parts of their otherwise excellent fictions is woeful—and brings a little light into the dark corners that most mainstream fiction writers are otherwise ignorant of. Yes, that's circular, but it's true. Sorry. The fact is most commentaries such as this come from critics who simply haven't read much science fiction. Ever. Sorry, but that's the bottom line.

    No one inside the genre ever asks "What's wrong with SF?" They already either know the answer, or they know it's an unanswerable question.)

    Meanwhile, the SF genre itself goes along (and no true SF fan with any interest in its literary content ever calls it "syfy" or "skiffy") producing novels by writers that are at least as good as any that ever won the Booker or the Pulitzer, but would never be considered for those because SF is "genre" fiction. (Such writers include literary stylists such as Samuel R. Delany, Kate Wilhelm, Harlan Ellison, Ignoring for the moment that "mainstream literary fiction" is itself nothing more than a genre, and no less of a genre than "romantic fiction" or "mystery novels." But no one inside mainstream literary fiction likes to be ghettoized as a genre writer they way the tend to ghettoize other genres as "genres." But that too is part of the outsider's ignorance that one finds irritating: a lack of self-knowledge couple with a lack of knowledge of what is being talked about. It rarely surprises anymore.

    Finally, almost every single one of the titles and authors you cite here do not write science fiction. At best what they write can be called "fantasy" or " "speculative fiction." Which, don't get me wrong, is just fine. I love most of these books and writers myself. But that's not "science fiction." And again anyone actually inside the genre doesn't ask the question "What's wrong with SF?" because they already know it's meaningless. Sorry.

    Because what's being analyzed here is apples, while SF is oranges. It's really that simple. And that's the basic root of the problem. (And its continual recycling is the source of the irritation. Sorry.)

  3. I used to read much more SF than I read now (I subscribed to Interzone for years, and got a few SF stories published in small mags, beating Stephen Baxter in a "readers' votes" list once. Ah those were the days). But yes, I read much less of it now.

    "The city and the city" by China Mieville was the last book I read from the SF shelves. Before that I tried "Permutation City" by Greg Egan and "Rivers of God" by Ian McDonald, but gave up the latter after a few chapters. The last SF book that impressed me was Chris Beckett's The Turing Test.

    The article's title was meant to be more a challenge to mainstream readers than a statement about SF. It was more about the exploited flexibility of the classification. It seems to me that some people want to reserve the label SF for hard-SF, and maybe that's a more helpful usage, but it risks alienating the common reader, and has the drawbacks that "real poetry" and "pure poetry" have.