Some time ago, I was talking to an old friend of my parents called Henry. Intelligent, liberal (perhaps back in the seventies he was a radical), Henry was the kind of person I grew up around. As often happens in such situations, the topic turned to writing. I explained to him that I wrote ‘speculative fiction’ (SF), an umbrella term for non-realist or non-mimetic fiction. It includes science fiction, magic realism, fantasy, science fiction, perhaps some ‘postmodern fabulations’. He looked at me puzzled. The discussion moved on until, some time afterwards Henry said, ‘I used to read Doris Lessing before she started writing all that science fiction rubbish.’
I stared at him blankly, unable to think of anything to say. Most interesting about that moment was the fact that Henry was oblivious to the fact I might be affronted. For him, it was self-evident that SF was a substandard paraliterature. Indeed, SF was so far away from his conception of the world that our earlier discussion had simply disappeared like fog in the sun. It was as if he simply hadn’t heard me. As if I had mouthed the words as he looked away. Incommensurability hovered between us; it would take an effort to break it down. Until then, we were aliens; we spoke different languages.
None of this little story will come as a surprise to anyone who writes SF: it is a constant, never-ending discussion that we have with others.
There are all kinds of permutations the discussion can take. There are those who defend SF as the enlightened defend their holy texts: in them lies the truth. There are those who deny that they write SF at all.
The version I used to enact was like a game – I say it’s a game because there are rules. The rules are easy to understand. Step one: say, ‘Oh, you don’t like SF?’ Step two: pick an author who writes SF but is considered part of the literary cannon, and say, ‘Oh, so you don’t like [insert author]?’ Step three: enjoy the confused expression and assure them that yes, indeed, Mary Shelley and George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood are all science fiction writers. Or that Homer and Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, Australia’s own Christos Tsiolkas are in fact fantasy writers (Magic Realism is really a branch of fantasy).
This is a game that plays with the hidden equation purveyed (and I’ll return to this) by a general received cultural wisdom – the common sense, to use Gramsci’s term – of the nature of SF. The equation is this: science fiction = trash, ‘literature’ = good, worthy, edifying.
I call this a game, but really it’s a kind of posturing that can only be attributed to someone who themselves is profoundly ambivalent about the genre: Methinks the SF writer protests too much! It’s an ambivalence that is only heightened by the tsunami of drool that Hollywood drowns us in year after year: from The Fantastic Four to George Lucas’ more recent experiments in self-degradation, SF film is almost uniformly bad. The few exceptions – Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In – are all the more salutary for it.
But behind these personal reflections deeper forces are at work, which I’d like to cover here very briefly and schematically. It seems to me that the equation of ‘SF = trash’ has three sources.
First, SF is not only a genre, but also a publishing category. When we enter a bookshop, the SF is usually in its own gaudy little section. The exceptions – Atwood, Ishiguro, Ballard – have escaped into the world of ‘literature’. Many in the publishing industry have an interest in maintaining the separation. Marketers need clear parameters, certainties, a group of consumers to sell the commodities to. In other words, the very division into marketing categories tends to distort the way in we view fiction. It’s an instrumentalisation, a reification, as Lukacs might have put it.
The second underlying force is the determinate history of SF, which was constituted as a genre in the US in the late 1920s. SF of course predated this constitution. Fantasy is derived initially from myth, while the first modern science fiction novel is probably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In any case, its specific history meant that it did, indeed, become something of a paraliterature. The early ‘pulps’ and then the later ideational fantasies of Clarke or Asimov attracted a certain kind of reader: young, male, educated, intellectual, in the worst connotations of that term. But if a significant element of SF continues in this vein (especially in film), as a generalisation it has been dead since the 1960s. At that moment, SF saw the influx of a startling range of mature voices. From JG Ballard to Ursula LeGuin, Stansislaw Lem to Samuel Delany, SF elevated itself to ‘literature’.
The third force is the one I think most interesting (and here I’m generalising myself, so forgive me on this one). The equation, it seems to me, acts to defend the traditionalism of the bourgeois novel whose entire vector is towards a naturalised narrative of individual psychological development. The bourgeois novel is interested in a ‘believable’ world in which the protagonists have individual problems, goals that they seek to achieve. In doing so, their ‘deep character’ is revealed. More often than not, this kind of novel is interested in individual ethical problems. Taken as a whole, it is a production of the kind of worldview defined by traditional liberalism. For all its usefulness, Robert McKee’s Story neatly encapsulates the defining principles of this kind of storytelling.
The vector of SF, on the other hand, runs at almost right angles to that of this kind of fiction, as I’ve so crassly defined it. SF is interested not in naturalising, but estranging. By showing us an estranged world it asks us to refocus back onto our own. It makes us ask – is it necessarily so? As a result, SF is often a literature of radicalism. It is the literature of the radical Left and the radical Right. Society is mutable, SF argues. How might it be changed, how might it be bettered, how might we imagine different principles of organisation? It is interested, thus, in history. How does society become this way and not another?
From its birth with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the field has attracted writers concerned with other constructing other worlds of the mind, a radical imaginary. Is there a greater anarchist novel than Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed? It is no surprise that Marge Piercy, New Left activist and feminist, should turn to speculative fiction to write her feminist utopia, Woman on the Edge of Time, a novel that forms part of the great cluster of feminist novels that emerged – and this should come as no surprise – during the late sixties and early seventies. Others in that little constellation include Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton, and perhaps the greatest feminist SF novel, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man. This radicalism is not the sole province of the Left, however. The Right can lay claim to their own also, most famously in the work of Robert Heinlein and his repulsive descendants.
In some of these non-‘bourgeois’ elements, SF has much in common with modernism and the avant-garde, which also denaturalises or estranges, though often by calling its attention to the vey constructed-ness of the text itself.
It could be, then, that the division between SF and literature has an ideological function of shoring up the kinds of things that a novel should be able to write about. On the one side we have ‘literature’, which is for good, deep thinking, people. It is ‘culture.’ On the other we have the trash of SF. Or as Henry said, ‘that rubbish’.