A couple of Booker Prizes ago Kim Stanley Robinson author of sometimes interesting books like Years of Rice and Salt (and really terrible ones like Antarctica), complained that science-fiction writers were never nominated for the Booker Prize, and then listed a slew of books that he thought were good enough to win it. It’s not really much of a mind-flip to imagine a sci-fi novel winning the Booker. After all, science-fiction writers have something of a history of craving mainstream literary recognition.
But it’s astounding, time being so fleeting, that a genre like sci-fi – potentially the most interesting of fictional forms – that has so often concerned itself with linear time and its transgressions hasn’t challenged the dominant paradigms of fiction more.
Even the most innovative science-fiction writers of the twentieth century, like Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem and John Crowley, writers who, to an extent, opened up political fractures in the sci-fi narrative, a narrative that always seemed to be about to take a jump to the left and always ended up taking a step to the right, were often very consciously literary in their endeavours. Still Le Guin’s Earthsea books, a series that deconstructed itself very satisfyingly in the fourth volume Tehanu, Lem’s Solaris and Crowley’s Little, Big were books that created their own niches and showed a few glints of light from a place where not many others followed.
The awarding of literary prizes could be a sign of a lot of things but literary worth may be the least of them. Kim Stanley Robinson’s desire for literary greatness, for institutional recognition and perhaps chunky tomes of magisterial literary critique, is all the weirder for not valuing the marginal place, the place where sci-fi was born among the pulp magazines and the science-fiction double feature. Science fiction has often been the place of weird ideas, and of perhaps the weirdest and most interesting idea of all: the idea of the alien/Other. Perhaps science-fiction fiction hasn’t learned anything from its marginal position. Perhaps it hasn’t even learned anything from Roger Corman. Or from Rocky Horror for that matter.
Has sc-fi-fi ever been weird enough? Has it ever fulfilled its promise of getting so weird that it would weird literature out? The weirdest sci-fi writer of all is probably Kilgore Trout and he doesn’t even exist. Still, a number of non-sci-fi writers have danced rather formally and sometimes very successfully with sci-fi weirdness: Peter Ackroyd (The Plato Papers), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five), Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics), Kathy Acker (Empire of the Senseless), Doris Lessing (Canopus in Argos Archives).
Mainstream literature – the literature of Booker Prizes and writers festivals and so on, that is to say Big Lit – is always very ready to appropriate the weird and normalise it, corralling it and tagging it with names like ‘magical realism’. In doing so the process of naming the weird can take the otherness out of it, and we lose our encounter with the weird and see only the normative. Big Lit, like Big Pharma or Big Oil, exists only to perpetuate itself, to expand continually. There’s no room for the marginal. You can never be too big, grow too fast, be too rich, have too much influence. You can never win too many prizes.
In March last year learning that he had made the Booker International shortlist (whatever that is), John Le Carre politely requested that he be taken off it. Of course not, said the Booker nazis, we need to celebrate and promote your greatness (thereby taking Le Carre’s work out of his own hands and appropriating it for Big Lit). Recently a clutch of British literary types, having decided to wash their hands of what they see as the plebian Booker, decided to launch their own prize called, modestly, The Literature Prize. Hilariously, the anonymous ‘board’ claimed that the objective of the Lit Prize ‘is to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence’ and decry the Booker’s apparent emphasis on ‘readability’ (whatever that is). I have to admit that I honestly thought the announcement of the Lit Prize was a joke and Dylan Moran was going to turn up carrying a bottle of wine in a paper bag, and make a deranged speech about literary critics while launching a new sit-com. But alas, no. Apparently ‘readability’ and ‘excellence’ are hot topics in the world of literary prizes and very, very important.
Like the Literature Prize and the Booker, science fiction has, for the most part, largely ignored its own political nature, as if it has been spaced out on sensation as a way of keeping itself under sedation. Science fiction could have been and still could become Big Lit’s bad dream, the weird sibling in the cellar that makes the unearthly haunting sounds that disturbs everyone upstairs, that mutters deliriously about politics, and reminds everyone about the skeletons in the walls, the transience of time, the strangeness and meaningless of the strivings of Big Lit, and speaks to us of a present or future where books are incomprehensible, or too alien or too subversive, and that constructs books like that itself.
Ursula Le Guin, perhaps thinking of her novel The Word For World Is Forest, which features an alien civilisation based on dreaming, called science fiction the ‘language of the night’, speaking of it as if it were a language of dream, a language of subversion. And when we start speaking of the language of dreams, we must inevitably start speaking of the politics of inner and outer spaces. Every dream is a political rewriting of the day’s subtexts, taking the taken-for-granted and the non-problematic and making them very problematic indeed.
For some reason in a recent issue of Overland, I received an Overland bookmark which I was very excited about. I like bookmarks. They allow me to pretend I am reading more books than I actually am. On the bookmark’s verso was a somewhat perplexing quote about trains from the science-fiction writer China Mieville. I had no idea what he was talking about so I scribbled over his quote with a permanent marker substituting one by Kathy Acker from Empire of the Senseless; ‘Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified.’ It might not be a quote you want to whip out a party (as, depending on the kind of parties you go to, those attending might think your incipient madness had at last taken its toll). But Acker’s words give me a way of rethinking the ambit claims of ‘literature’, especially when I’m confronted by advocates of Big Lit babbling about excellence and prizes and readability.
The real reason that most Big Lit writers have historically stayed away from science fiction is purely and simply because they don’t know how to write about spaceships, deathrays, dragons, steampunk robots and other cool stuff. It probably takes a strange state of mind to confront the otherness of the world in this way, and an engaged and lively unconsciousness that is full of more weird and dimly perceived creatures than the sewage pit in the Death Star that traps Luke, Han and Leia.
I think that my reading of science fiction has always been predicated on the hope that I would find myself falling into the weirdest of narratives, where the strangeness of the world would be revealed, as if the stars in the night sky were to be suddenly replaced with the heads of insects. As weird as my life has been, it has never really seemed weird enough, and I think that reading books was always a way of seeing if my life also existed elsewhere, spoken to by someone else.
There are never enough weird books in the world. Sometimes I wonder if the first line of In Search of Lost Time would have excited me even more than it did, if it had read ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early, during the journey to the Cyborg Planet.’ But perhaps it’s too late now, too late to seek the unutterable otherness of others in literature, to find there reflections of the strangeness in myself. Perhaps I have always been looking in the wrong place.