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Literature, speculative fiction and me

Science FictionSome 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.

'Other Worlds'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?

Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed'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’.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. I have an impulse to write ‘rubbish!’ because it seems such a wonderfully pompous and wanton and Stephen Fry thing to say. But the post is not rubbish, it’s interesting and from the heart.

    My very first fiction writing effort was a long, lovingly crafted rip-off of Le Guin (Wizard of Earthsea) for an English class when I was 15. I still remember the mark: 27/30 and how I wondered why those three marks had eluded me.

    When I’m not striving for the elusive 30/30, I wonder about definitions of literature … the construct of marketing departments and Tuesday book clubs? Of course, we want people to sell/buy and discuss our books, so we take it on, this genre-making, but do we have to believe it?

    I was under the impression that ‘literary’ literature was about the language – the emphasis on language; its construction, sculpture, flow, pace and effortless-yet-craftedness … its status, up there with plot, character, ideas, etc … but then, how does one really separate those things out considering it is the language that shapes plot, character, ideas, etc. Hmmm. As for SF – I grew up reading it and didn’t know it wasn’t ‘literary’ until I was told so, as an adult, by other adults. But some is good and some is bad, surely, like all the other ‘genres’. And deciding goodness and badness is subjective, surely.

    I do, however, look down upon crime novels and Mills & Boon so am undoubtedly a hypocrite.

    Goodness – a tome. I shall go: my portal into another existence that challenges the preconceptions of this one, awaits.

    • Ironically, of course, Le Guin is a literary writer herself. And yes, your definition of literary is pretty close to the mark. Hence you have literary and non-literary writers of SF.

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  3. Thought-provoking post. I’m reminded of the recent disputatious thread on the Guardian Books blog:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/nov/18/science-fiction-fantasy-literature-realist?showallcomments=true#comment-fold

    Without wanting to reprise my comments there, I can’t let argument three – SF versus the bourgeois novel – go by without some response. I feel like Rjurik is aware that it’s a false dichotomy, anyway, so let the pass – but I don’t see how SF can be seriously related to the avante-garde. What are SF’s original contributions to formal innovation? SF, like other genre fiction, tends to be formally unadventurous, and stylistically unexciting.

    There are of course exceptions, but these don’t make a rule; it doesn’t seem to be credible to make claims about SF as a whole on the basis of outliers. I could understand, and agree, if the argument was ‘certain excellent authors are being unjustly ignored because of genre prejudice'; but it seems to go further than that, into advocacy for the genre as a whole; and since genre itself is a stultifying force, the argument seems to point to convention as a means towards breaking new ground, which seems a little perverse.

    What disappoints me in SF is that, in theory, it should be so incredibly innovative in form as well as in content. But it so rarely is. For sure, praise is deserved on those SF writers who *do* innovate, but that’s doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the genre, it just shows it up.

    • Of course, you’re right about the conventionality of much or most SF – the ways in which it reproduces exactly the ‘bourgeois novel’ form I was discussing. Hence within SF you have a division between the avant-garde (and there are many avant garde SF writers, starting with J,G. Ballard) and the formulaic. In any case, your redefinition of the argument seems to me to be perfectly acceptable, but what I wanted to write about (and think about out loud really) was WHY there are SF authors unjustly ignored (see my earlier post on Deb Biancotti (http://web.overland.org.au/2010/11/08/fiction-review-a-book-of-endings/). With that in mind, I think – however poorly expressed it was – there is something in there about what mainstream lit considers a legitimate ‘form’.

  4. SF was certainly part of the avant garde when there actually was one, ie, in the early part of the 20th century. (I’m not sure what avant garde really can mean now…) SF scenarios were often used to imagine political/technological utopias or dystopias by terribly Serious Artists. Of course there was Metropolis; also writers like Karel Capek (who invented the word “robot”), in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. Mayakovsky picked up elements of SF in his plays – a time machine is featured in The Bedbug (it’s suggested that it ought to be used for speeding up boring political speeches). Moravagine, Blaise Cendrars’s outrageous 1926 novel, invents a language from Mars with only one word, but 150,000 meanings. What’s Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog or The Master and Marguerita but sublime speculative fiction? Then later on, as Rjurik points out, there are people like Stanislaw Lem and Tarkovsky’s SF films, Solaris and Stalker. I admit that practically every example here is European rather than Anglo; but still. Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists?

    Btw Rjurik, re Le Guin’s “literary” status, which she has certainly earned: do you know this piece of hers On Serious Literature? Very funny. “She would never, ever get invited to write for Granta now.”

  5. Alison – what a thoughtful comment! The novel I’m getting ready for the publisher at the moment is called, “Unwrapped Sky”, which is a reference to a Mayakovsky poem, “Night Wraps the Sky.” The Anglo moment of avant-garde SF came in the 1960s (The New Wave SF), the first sorties organised around the Moorcock-edited “New Worlds” magazine, of whom Ballard was the most significant writer, probably. In the US, slightly later, came two or three nubs of innovation: the magazine Orbit, the anthology “Dangerous Visions”, and a couple more (which slip my mind atm). I’ll be writing more about this in the next issue of Overland.

    Nowadays, like many genres, SF is a fractured sphere full of micro-movements which replicate or continue earlier ones. Ten years or so ago the New Weird was considered somewhat form-breaking. But I’m not sure what it means now… I am part of an avant-gardish network of SF writers here in Oz, but we’re not doing too much form-breaking at the moment. :)

    Look forward to reading the Le Guin piece!

  6. On the Anglo theme: I guess HG Wells is so well-known he is part of the mental wallpaper and that’s why he hasn’t come up here. Still. George Orwell talks somewhere about how when he was growing up HG Wells’s books affected boys his age like no-one else’s – he makes it sound almost like a counter-culture thing – your parents and teachers might have been stuffy and repressive but Wells’s books promised a whole new world based on science rather than on religion and Latin and Greek, etc – and this was all tied in to Fabianism and feminism in the years before the Great War. And Wells’s scientific romances were read by everybody, “serious” literary people as well as ten year old boys.

    My copy of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker has a quote from Virginia Woolf writing to Stapledon saying how much she liked it – and the next time you play the Surprise! It’s Spec Fiction! game, Rjurik, you should mention Orlando. Also Borges and Calvino.

    It has always seemed to me that one of the numerous reasons to think James Wood is a Bad Thing is his attempt to make the naturalistic psychological novel the yardstick by which all prose fiction should be judged.

  7. And it’s pretty standard to point out that The War of the Worlds was HG Wells saying to imperialist Edwardian England “How would you feel if you were suddenly overrun by creatures who used their vastly superior technology to kill and exploit everyone?”

  8. Yes, now I see that you were talking about SF and the avant-garde, which isn’t really much to do with HG Wells. But I am tired, and politics has made me sad.

    • Wells is fascinating cos he’s such a contradictory figure. Not just on imperialism, either — he was also an early feminist and advocate of free love (eg Ann Veronica), who tried to implement his theories (with predictably disastrous results).
      That Orwell essay Owen cites is interesting, too. The quote goes like this:
      “There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers, with your future employers exhorting you to ‘get on or get out,’ your parents systematically warping your sexual life, and your dull-witted schoolmasters sniggering over their Latin tags; and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planets and the bottom of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined.”
      I agree — it does sound distinctly counter cultural.

  9. The first HG Wells I read (and re-read) as a child was his collected short stories. They’ve left me with some vivid images – especially the wicked capitalist sizzling on his own gigantic hotplate in his factory. I think they made a deeper impression than his novels. It’s true about his contradictoriness (but what writer isn’t?)

    I’ll look forward to your essay, Rjurik. Yes, of course, Moorcock and John M Harrison et al… I’ve been wondering lately whether the real creative energy in fiction, at least English-speaking fiction, might not exist now in generic or populist work. Of course the whole commercial/marketing thing is problematic, and there’s a lot of indifferent work (just as there is in so-called literary fiction) but I’m kind of over being precious about that.

    • Yes, I wondered that, specifically in relation to graphic novels. It’s not a genre I like much but Alicia and I interviewed Nikki Greenberg about her version of Hamlet, and it’s hard not to think that a project so sophisticated and complicated would struggle to ever get a publishing deal as a literary novel, whereas illustrated books seem to have much more scope for experimentation.

      • Interesting point Jeff. I’ve been thinking a lot about the scope of experimentation that illustrated books offer. Working at a school and surrounded by childrens book you can see lots of ways in which the combination of text and visual can offer complimentary and contrasting images. There’s also a sense of play around space on the page. Its something i keep thinkink of writing a post about but get distracted by other things including work itself.

        • Ah. Just not a very visual person. Find myself skipping the drawings to read the text. And then it occurs to me that I’m missing the point.

  10. Was lucky enough to attend the Australian Association of Writing Programs Conference at RMIT last week, when one of the speakers at the book launches, was Shane Maloney. I may be at risk of misquoting him, as much sparkling wine was being consumed by this author. However, the gist of what he spoke so elloquently about was that in the eighties he felt edified to find out that crime fiction was not deemed ‘literature’ by the Australia Council and he was inelligible for grants. He took this to mean that he could write books that “people wanted to read”. It was interesting to note that he described genre fictions popularity in terms of people hearing their own voices and colloquialisms from the pages. This is skill and craft with much planning as any fiction writing. I also adored his summation of literature not being about “shootin’ and rootin’ ” until Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin. Now apparently ‘rootin’ is the only non-literature in the market. So rest asured speculative fiction authors you are accepted members of the literary establishment, however to what extent to do, as a popular women’s writer (perhaps even a Nanna Lit writer) belong outside the Australian canon? Or is it as Shane hinted a very good thing indeed with a change top be read?

  11. I suspect there is also a link between the “trashy” nature of SF and the later of avant-gardes of the 1960s; I’m thinking here of Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and Donald Barthelme’s ideas of his own work as a “trash fiction” (literally a fiction composed of cultural detritus). In this sense, a good deal of the more interesting SF has been able to re-motivate its own pulp history as a sort of countercultural position (e.g Neil Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”), and, in this sense, SF’s own outsider status in relation to “literary fiction” is, in fact, a hugely important part of its cultural aura (or so I’d suspect).

    On a personal note, I’d attribute my own interest in avant-garde/experimental writing directly to my obsessive teenage consumption of SF; after growing up on SF, avant-garde writing made much more sense to me than traditional, sentimental novels ever could.

    • “a good deal of the more interesting SF has been able to re-motivate its own pulp history as a sort of countercultural position”

      Many of the prominent golden age SF writers were either involved in the communist movement or subscribers to the racial politics of the day – communists and fascists! They were counter-cultural even then and their fiction sort of reflects this – many of their favoured subjects/themes in their literature were startlingly original; mainstream literature of the day had hardly dealt with it. I’m thinking stuff like evolution, mind-control, the existence of historical laws, nuclear power, and the subconscious. Some modernists dealt with the subconscious (albeit very elusively/allusively); Eliot kind of sort of dealt with historical laws (in The Wasteland); Wells and Lewis Carroll dealt with evolution – but it was the proliferation of the pulps that really bought these ideas to a wider audience, and in a simple and direct way (whole chapters of golden age sf are used to explain scientific theories).

      So it’s not really true that they are just counter-cultural now, they were counter-cultural in origin as well! Indeed, some of the values and ideas advanced in the golden-age pulps seem very strange now: stuff about the perfectibility of man, the ability to enhance one’s mental powers to such an extent that telepathy becomes possible, the decay of a ‘cultured’ society in favour of a technocratic/scientific one… (though some of these have stuck around, come to think of it, but they look decidedly strange and disturbing when thought about at any length)…

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