Friday, October 2, 2009

No Respect for Science Fiction(?)

[These images are painted figures from the gallery at Hydra Miniatures, a site that sells really awesome pulp sci-fi figures. I doubt they care at all about the Booker Prize so I hope they don't mind my using the image here. Check them out.]

There was an interesting article in the Guardian discussing science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson's assertion that the United Kingdom's Booker Prize for literature routinely and unjustly snubs science fiction as a genre. One of the judges, English professor John Mullan, argues that science fiction has become an enclosed world cut off from the rest of fiction and mainstream society. "When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres . . ." he says, but this is no longer the case.

There is a whole lot of stuff to unpack here. First, Mullan's comment seems wrongheaded to me because it gets things precisely backwards. Growing up, I found science fiction to be much less accepted as a genre than other forms. I was never able to convince an English teacher to allow me to write a book report or a literary critique of a work of science fiction, for example. Moreover, the literary quality of the writing in science fiction, particularly in the terms of the depth of characterization and the richness of the language itself, has improved significantly in the past few decades. There have always been standouts in this regard, but there are many writers these days who can craft a tale involving fantastic settings and social/technological speculation while also presenting characters that go beyond the classic archetypes and stereotypes of the genre.

I also think that there are more mainstream writers crossing over into science fiction-influenced stories and vice versa. Authors like Greg Bear and Orson Scott Card have written what are essentially contemporary thrillers in recent years, while a mystery writer like Walter Mosley has tried his hand at science fiction. Maria Doria Russell wrote a powerful science fiction novel, The Sparrow, and a sequel Children of God, but shifted to historical fiction in later work.

Just because publishers label certain novels in particular ways and bookstores stock them in specific sections should not preclude anyone with the capability of walking a dozen paces or so from checking out what is going on in different fields. The branch of the public library closest to us has all the fiction books mixed together on the shelves by author. I find this quite refreshing, to tell you the truth.

Second, I do think it has become harder to write what is generally accepted as cutting edge or hard science fiction, because the scientific and technological issues involved have become more complex and more likely, if extrapolated to their logical extremes, to transform the main characters into something unrecognizable as human. Someone might craft an excellent book in this regard that utterly fails to grab a reader because they cannot relate to the inhuman or posthuman protagonist(s). Now, this sort of thing might be what Mullan is referring to, but I hardly think it is any more common than were the older sci-fi books that failed to grab mainstream readers because they could not relate to the subhuman protagonist(s), those cardboard valiant engineers and monocultural aliens who fell flat.

Third, the themes of science fiction are demonstrably more relevant today, because we live in a world where the pace of technological change, the clash of cultures, and the impact of modern society on the environment are major news headlines. Positing future scenarios about such circumstances as a kind of thought experiment is precisely the sort of thing at which good science fiction excels. In this sense it is more equipped to inform readers about our modern condition and where it might lead than many other genres, while remaining equally capable of entertainment.

Finally, I found a bit of irony in the fact that I've never found Kim Stanley Robinson's own writing very compelling in spite of his accolades. I've tried twice to read The Years of Rice and Salt to no avail, because it is hard to get a feel for the characters and I have to be in the mood to have to work to understand what he's talking about because he explains things so poorly or vaguely. Never was interested in the Mars trilogy that he's famous for, though I might give it another try in the future. Still, though he isn't my personal cup of tea and I would therefore probably take his own literary award suggestions (as noted in the article) with a grain of salt (or rice), Mr. Robinson seems to be making a valid point here.

It's startling that comic books have probably gained more critical appreciation, and certainly more popular appreciation, in the past decade or so than science fiction has. I wonder if that's because comics translate so easily to the big screen or the television, while most movies or television shows dubbed science fiction are very, very simplistic compared to the current literature in the field.


Aaron DaMommio said...

Also worth noting that Russell's Sparrow and Children of God appeared to be marketed with the mainstream books, and not typically shelved with the SF. Which was interesting. Has anyone analyzed their sales in that light?

Doug said...

On the weekend we visited a new library branch and Lisa was startled that the fiction section mixed together all the genres, with only the occasional label on the spine designating a genre book. But why should we have to figure out how to classify PD James's Children of Men, or Michael Chabon's alternate histories of comics or a Jewish state? Or pretend that those works are of a higher literary order than something like John C. Wright's Golden Age?