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… it just has to sound plausible

One genre to rule them all


Apparently there was a discussion at the Cheltenham Literary Festival between John Mullan and China Miéville about the Man Booker, literary fiction and science fiction – as reported by Niall Harrison here and Gav here.

I’ve said before that consigning science fiction to the dustbin because much of it is written by semi-literate hacks is a foolish argument. The genre contains some very good writers indeed, and it shouldn’t be characterised by its lowest common denominators. After all, no one ignores John Le Carré because most spy fiction novels are disposable potboilers. Having said that, I suspect it’s an argument we can never win because detractors only have to point at any list of sf “favourites” or “classics”…

Another discussion, according to Niall, “strayed into what-next territory”. Which, to my mind, is related to the above. Science fiction is becoming increasingly constrained by the economic pressures of publishing. Only books which are likely to make a profit are being published, and the best yardstick is: is this new novel like an existing successful novel? It’s not that writers are not individual or producing individual works, nor that there aren’t surprise hits. But series and subgenres seem to be becoming more dominant. As a result, some of the most interesting sf of recent years has been written by non-genre writers. They’re bringing fresh eyes, and new techniques, to genre writing.

And one of those techniques – which, perversely, you’d have expected to have been in sf’s toolbox since the genre’s beginnings – is “rigour”. Literary fiction writers do not wave their hands around as much as science fiction writers. Partly, it’s the nature of the beast – to maintain the same level of rigour in a sf novel that is built into the real world is impossible. However, sf readers have also traditionally been willing to accept all manner of implausible bollocks in a story. Calling some of it “science” would be doing science a great disservice. The genre is now more rigorous than ever before, but there is still room for improvement.

And that’s where I think the Next Big Thing in sf is. I’m ignoring, of course, the hordes of adventure fiction in sf clothing which forms the bulk of the genre. That’ll continue to do what it’s doing, probably until the heat death of the universe. The potboilers are never going to go away. But the “good stuff”, that’s going to move away from the sort of science fiction where the author’s hands are a continual blur. It’s going to focus on the real things: the characters, a rigorously-applied central conceit, a universe in which we occupy an infinitesimally small place and which is not at all designed for us to exploit…

I see a more realistic slant to the best science fiction over the next few years, stories that distance themselves from the space operatics of the rest of the genre, that will in many respects resemble literary fiction as much as it resembles science fiction. It’s a form of assimilation, and the process has already begun. The lines between sf and everything else will never blur, but the area between them will become more permeable and amorphous. Because of the introduction of realism, because of cross-pollination from literary fiction.

And I think I’ve mixed up far too many metaphors there. So I shall stop now.

4 thoughts on “One genre to rule them all

  1. One of the nice things about the literary fiction market is willingness to publish work simply becasue the publisher thinks it’s good. Whether or not you agree with their particular opinions it does mean writing isn’t dominated by sales and some books that deserve to be printed are..
    Hasn’t ‘the good stuff” by your defibnition always been about our relationship to the world, society and the wider cosmos? We’ve got some fantastic writers – Chris Beckett for example – who write using SF as a mirror to our own world and condition and where we might end up.

    • But there’s some good stuff which is pure space opera – Banks, for instance. While the themes and commentaries in those books are of the real world, there’s still a lot of “magic” obfuscating things.

      In the past, most sf which depicted space travel and space exploration realistically was all about the pioneer spirit and manifest destiny, but I think such arguments are no longer tenable – yet that type of sf remains open to exploration.

  2. I’m pondering Ian’s concept of devote SF readers having a greater suspension of disbelief than mainstream readers. Never saw the lines drawn that way, but it makes more sense than a lot of limning I’ve seen.

  3. While the dichotomy is false, it would be interesting to see an SF “Line of Beauty” or SF “Malone Dies.”

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