Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why Don't We Love Science Fiction?

"Why don't we love science fiction?" asks Brian Appleyard in the Sunday Times, partly in response to the release of a new version of the Brian Aldiss edited anthology "A Science Fiction Omnibus" in Penguin Classics. At nearly 600 pages its a must-have, though you have to wonder whether "bulk" is really the best way to read science fiction - after all it is the short novel, the novella, the short story, even the micro-short story that has characterised the highlights of the genre. My NELs, Savoys and Pans seem slightly grubby, but ever so accurate. The best of the genre of course began in trash magazines, and I guess if I'd been twenty years older, I'd have those as my most treasured possessions. Appleyard makes the valid point that Sci-Fi is the necessary counterpoint to science, and mirrors the new developments in scientific fields, whether its Asimov's robots or Gibson's cyberpunk. That said, its a lazy article, that you feel could have been written without change pretty much any time in the last 20 years. I feel that my generation - the Star Wars generation, if you like - have no problems with sci-fi, are simply not snobby about it; along with the noirish detective story its as much a part of my literary upbringing as anything else. I've written here before of how many mainstream writers, rather than being snobby about sci-fi, have been turning to it - Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in the last couple of years alone. The old story of Rushdie's "Grimus" being withdrawn from a sci-fi award (and imagining a parallel world with, one presumes, no fatwa, no "Midnights Children", just a reputation as a slightly odd sci-fi writer, certainly sounds appealing to those of us who've never been a fan....) because it would "label" him, would probably happen to any writer even today, hence the M. in Iain M. Banks. Yet Appleyard also points out that we're happy to like fantasy (speak for yourself Brian!) as childrens books for adults. He's right in wondering whether China Mieville is sci-fi, or just plain weird. I guess when I recently read the very enjoyable "Perdido Street Station" I felt that it was essentially a crime noir in another world, and since we neither knew or cared where that world was (in space? the future? another dimension? behind a wardrobe?) what we lost in allegory we gain in versimillitude.

I was thinking about my own writing and wondering which of it I'd even class as sci-fi? Very little, in the space opera sense (and perhaps I should write some more), but much of it in the Harlan Ellison or Borgesian sense - of a world of possibilities. Aldiss argues that we're living in a sci-fi world; Appleyard disagrees, saying that science fiction comes into its own as the most "hardcore realism." I'll drink (moloko? pan galactic gargle blasters?) to that.


Kaesar said...
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Jim Murdoch said...

People just love squabbling over words. Science fiction has evolved as a genre. When Asimov wrote his robot stories back in the 1940s the concept of a robot, let alone a robot in a domestic setting, was fantasy (in the strictest sense of the word). Only yesterday I made a comment on a lady's site who was going on about her affection for her robot vacuum cleaner – it bothered her to carry the thing about by its handle and preferred to hold it in her arms like some kind of metal puppy. She had never even heard of "Asimov, whatever that it" and said she would look it up.

Okay, so the future is here and it's not bright and shiny and wearing tinfoil. So what? All you have to do is look at the success of science fiction films to see how much the public love it. We're not especially interested in it as a counterpoint to real science so much as a complement to it. Take Star Trek for example, real scientists love the show and have done for years. They look at things like the tricorder, drool a bit, and then go away and invent them. We now live in a world where such things actually exist and in that respect Asimov is quite right. But that doesn't mean science fiction is dead.

Genres are not nearly as rigid as they used to be. When I'm describing my first novel I call it a cross between Kafka and Douglas Adams and I can't think of a better description but it is certainly not science fiction. That said, how would you classify a novel where a guy gets to spend two days with the personification of truth? Labels are limiting.

I can just see Asimov pottering away on The Caves of Steel on day when the genre police come a-knocking at his door: "Right Mr Asimov, let's be 'avvin you. You know the rules, sir, it's either a detective novel or science fiction. One or the other. Yes, sir. That's right. You can't mix 'em up. No, sir. Might confuse the public. We'll just have to confiscate that I'm afraid. Yes, that's right. Just 'and it over. And the sheet in the typewriter. Very good, sir. Now, why don't you just sit down and start one of 'em nice Foundation books? The wife can't get enough of 'em Foundation books, sir. Love's 'em to death she does. Me? Ah, more of an 'Arrold Robbins fan meself, sir, to be 'onest."

Richard said...
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Richard said...

Reply posted here.

Adrian Slatcher said...

All I can add is this quote from Aldiss's brilliant Supertoys last all summer long, source material for the dreadful A.I. "Though three-quarters of the overcrowded world are starving, we are lucky here to have more than enough, thanks to population control. Obesity's our problem, not malnutrition." Written in 1969. Make room! Make room!