Daily Archives: February 9, 2007

Writers and Science Fiction

I’ve always been frustrated by literary authors such as Margaret Atwood who adamantly deny that they write science fiction. Over at the New York Review of Books, I found not necessarily an explanation, but a rationalization of using the SF mode without calling it by that name:

“Ambivalence toward technology is the underlying theme, and thus we are accustomed to thinking of stories that depict the end of the world and its aftermath as essentially science fiction. These stories feel like science fiction, too, because typically they deal with the changed nature of society in the wake of cataclysm, the strange new priesthoods, the caste systems of the genetically stable, the worshipers of techno-death, the rigid pastoral theocracies in which mutants and machinery are taboo, etc.; for inevitably these new societies mirror and comment upon our own. Science fiction has always been a powerful instrument of satire, and thus it is often the satirist’s finger that pushes the button, or releases the killer bug.

This may help to explain why the post-apocalyptic mode has long attracted writers not generally considered part of the science fiction tradition. It’s one of the few subgenres of science fiction, along with stories of the near future (also friendly to satirists), that may be safely attempted by a mainstream writer without incurring too much damage to his or her credentials for seriousness. The anti–science fiction prejudice among some readers and writers is so strong that in reviewing a work of science fiction by a mainstream author a charitable critic will often turn to words such as “parable” or “fable” to warm the author’s bathwater a little, and it is an established fact that a preponderance of religious imagery or an avowed religious intent can go a long way toward mitigating the science-fictional taint, which also helps explain the appeal to mainstream writers such as Walker Percy of the post-apocalyptic story, whose themes of annihilation and re-creation are so easily indexed both to the last book of the New Testament and the first book of the Old. It’s hard to imagine the author of Love Among the Ruins writing a space opera.

There is also a strong current of conventional hard-edged naturalism at work in much post-apocalyptic science fiction that may further serve to draw and to reassure the mainstream writer. If the destruction is sufficiently great, life and its appurtenances are reduced to a finite set, mitigating the demand for baroque inventiveness imposed by other kinds of science fiction, while the extreme state of the natural world —global ice, global goo, global ocean —serves to reflect the extremes of human psychology, of grace under the ultimate pressure. The great British tradition of the post-disaster novel pioneered by M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and John Collier’s forgotten masterpiece Tom’s A-Cold, retooled in the Fifties by John Wyndham and John Christopher and brought to a kind of bleak perfection by J.G. Ballard in the early Sixties, is very much a mainstream naturalist tradition, cold-eyed and unadorned, and novels like Christopher’s No Blade of Grass and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids were popular successes that found a wide readership. For the post-apocalyptic is also a mode into which mainstream readers may venture without risking the stain of geekdom.

The status of relative legitimacy enjoyed by the literature of global disaster may in part result from the fig leaf that a satiric or religious purpose provides, and from the congeniality to conventional realism of a world without supercomputers, starships, or eight-foot feline warriors from the planet Kzin. But perhaps it is mostly a measure of the growing sense in the minds of readers and writers alike, since the mid-twentieth century, of the plausibility, even the imminence, of the end of the world. Instantaneous global pandemics, melting ice caps, and transgenic eco-calamity have joined large-scale nuclear exchange as stalwarts of the front page of the daily newspaper. Meanwhile the old retro apocalypse is selling better than ever these days, reformulated in science-fictional packaging as the Left Behind novels.”

But here is another explanation as well from IROSF, which also tickles my fancy, about why readers of literary fiction rarely make the jump to SF: unrecognizable images.

“The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chicklit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But literary and mainstream fiction are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, pseudo-autobiographical protagonist is a figure that appears repeatedly and almost exclusively in stories categorized as literary and mainstream.

When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright. […]

By the same token, when literary writers adopt science fictional language, while still employing their core emotional tropes, the result is often oddly unsatisfying to genre readers. Kirstin Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) are examples of this trend. Reading them with genre expectations impedes the transmissibility of story because the tropes are misaligned. An experienced genre reader has expectations of genetic engineering, time travel and alien body snatcher stories. Excellent as these books are, those expectations are not met in them.”

The whole discussion is more than ironic, since literary writers can easily migrate to the SF World while denying it, but it is nearly impossible for an SF writer to migrate to the literary world. If you’re tagged with the SF genre, tag, you’re it.

Is it really a question of the world changing, or recognizable landmarks, or simply snottiness?

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