It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

To gateway or not to gateway


All too often when people suggest science fiction titles to introduce non-sf readers to the genre, they pick something that will show them what the genre is capable of. But everybody knows that all ready – they can see it on telly, in the cinema. They know all about space battles, planets exploding, alien vistas, robots, cyberspace, weird ideas. Whether they recognise some of those ideas as science fiction is an entirely different matter – is The Adjustment Bureau, with its “magic fucking hats”, a sf movie, for example? The reason these people don’t read science fiction is because they think it’s badly-written, or mired in outdated sensibilities and so irrelevant to them. And we’re no help because we thrust shit books written ninety years ago by some dead old white bloke at them. So what if the men all wears hats and the women do the dishes, it’s about galactic empires! It’s a classic of the genre!

But, honestly, why should we expect them to plough through three hundred pages of tin-eared dialogue, cardboard cut-out characters and leaden prose just for an “idea”? The whole point of written sf is that it can do what media sf does, but it can do it better. The plots will be logically and internally consistent, it won’t insult your intelligence, it may challenge your preconceptions and prejudices, it will have themes and motifs, and it tries to say something beside “money, please, now park your bum here for 100 minutes”. Plus all those space battles and exploding planets, too. Nothing in a science fiction novel is likely to make you *headdesk* like the “cold fusion” in Star Trek Into Darkness.

So when we try to think of titles for a non-sf reader to read… we should pretty much bin all the classics of the genre. We should choose books that demonstrate sf can be well-written, even beautifully written, that it can handle ideas considered too outrageous for cinema audiences, that it can tell stories that are well-plotted, internally consistent, without dumb plot-holes, stupid bromances, or daddy-issues that obliterate the actual story… We should suggest books that are recent, relevant, and have something interesting, or perhaps even important, to say.

And such science fiction novels do exist. It took me a while, but I think I came up with five. They’re all twenty-first-century novels. I have also read them. One or two might have won or been nominated for prestigious genre awards. They are, in no particular order…

Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012) Because it’s a near-future thriller written with genre sensibilities, works brilliantly and recognisably as a cautionary tale on the world we live in, and yet it also does something a writer of near-future thrillers would never consider doing, or might even actually be afraid of doing.

Dark Eden, Chris Beckett (2012) Not only because it won the Arthur C Clarke Award a month or two ago, but because it’s a story everyone will recognise but set on a world which will be completely new to them; and it’s beautifully written too.

Spin State, Chris Moriarty (2004) Because written science fiction can do the fast-paced action/adventure but it can also, in the same story, ask big questions about identity, memory, the future of humanity… and try to answer them.

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge (2002) Because if science fiction is not about the people, then what’s the point in it – and how much are those people products of the world in which they live?

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004) Because sometimes science fiction is actually about science and scientists, and how their calling affects themselves, their lives, those around them, and the world.

So: five science fiction novels, published this century by genre imprints. All are currently available. One is the first book in a trilogy, the third part of which has just been published. One is by a small press. I count eleven appearances in genre award shortlists by the five books, and two wins. So it’s not just me who thinks they’re good books. All five books are, I believe, accessible to someone who has not read science fiction before but is familiar with many of its tropes from television or cinema. And all five books, I feel, will show why written sf can do so much more than sf on television or in the cinema…

15 thoughts on “To gateway or not to gateway

  1. # is The Adjustment Bureau, with its magic fucking hats, a sf movie

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic hats that fuck.

  2. You’re just stirring up the hornet’s nest again, Ian.

  3. Ian, I have nothing to say about the five books you have listed; I haven’t read any of them.

    The only problem I have with what you say is that any recommendations made to a non-sf reader can and should be tailored to their existing tastes. Classic SF can be all of those things you say SF should be (except recent obviously).

    The only thing that giving someone a good recent SF novel does is show them that the genre is still alive and well today. There is nothing inherent in new SF that means it is more likely to be of good quality or appeal to the modern reader. Indeed, modern SF is more likely to deal with scientific concepts that goes over the head of a non-scientific reader, meaning that it might prove less suitable.

    Personally, I have struggled to find recent SF novels that I particularly like. I tend to prefer short stories for recent SF. As such, I would be far less likely to recommend modern SF novels.

    • Classic SF can be all of those things you say SF should be

      Except, well… it can’t be relevant, geared to modern sensibilities, well-written, with well-drawn characters, or say something about the world the reader knows… Though there are a handful of exceptions which meet some of those points.

      And I disagree that modern sf is not by definition better than classic sf. While there are certainly bad books published today, the level of writing has as a whole improved a great deal – because the success, and the number of years sf has existed, has forced writers to up their game in order to see publication.

      The point of my choice of novels is that media sf has so familiarised people with sf tropes that there’s no such animal as a “non-scientific reader”. Everyone knows what the basic tropes are and what they mean. Anything beyond that comes down to the skill of the author.

      Forever recommending the so-called classics is actually damaging the genre’s reputation. People should stop doing it.

      • Okay, classic SF is not going to be geared to modern sensibilities (and that may in itself be a good reason to always recommend modern SF to modern readers) but I don’t see why it can’t be relevant and/or well written. I certainly think, when one can draw from the rich history that SF has to offer, one can find more than a handful of exceptions.

        In any case, when a classic SF novel is one of those exceptions, why should it not stand alongside your other recommendations to modern readers? If they are genuinely good books, they won’t damage the genres reputation.

        • As a general rule, the good old books are not typically found in lists of “classics”, which makes their current availability problematical. And I think a list such as the above should consist of books which can be easily purchased. (Yes, the SF Gateway has done an excellent job in making available many OOP titles, but they’re ebook only.)

          I’m not sure there is any old sf that’s still relevant. It’s not just references to old tech which will throw modern readers out of the story – tapes, slide rules, etc – but also the concerns of the author no longer hold true – WWII, the Vietnam War, free love, etc. The good books are about the time they were written, which makes their relevance to a 21st century unlikely; the bad books are, well, bad…

          • In “The Sands of Mars” (I agree not a classic nor an example of “good” writing) Arthur C Clarke has a journalist take his typewriter to that planet. Jarring to a modern audience, I would think.
            The unthinking sexism of earlier times would get in the way too.

            • I’m currently reading Women of Wonder, which contains some good, if dated, stories. Its introduction, however, is very good, and includes part of a discussion between Lem and LeGuin about The Left Hand of Darkness. Lem really missed the point of the book – he claims it features bad psychology because all Gethenians would want to be men when in kemmer, they’d want to be the dominant partner. So, by implication, the female partner – according to Lem – is always inferior. Except Gethenian society is not binary precisely because of their biology. It’s attitudes like Lem’s which are all too common in old sf novels, and which often render them unfit for modern audiences…

          • A couple of examples of classic SF that I would argue are as relevant as ever:

            “The Space Merchants” by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth.

            Powerful Corporations, manipulative advertising and marketing; all the more prevalent today than they were fifty years ago when this was written.

            “Forever War” by Joe Haldeman.

            Although inspired by the author’s own experiences in the Vietnam war, the essential message of this story remains intact and as relevant as ever with western governments still waging wars in foreign lands.

            Of course, both of these may well contain outdated scientific or technological ideas but what they’re telling us about humanity and society is as fresh as ever.

            • It’s been decades since I read The Space Merchants so I may be misremembering it, but I’m not convinced its message of obtrusive advertising is that relevant. We’re so used to it now that’s ceased to be obtrusive. We tune it out as a matter of course. People record stuff on telly and fast forward through the ad breaks, they use ad-blockers on their browsers, they don’t even register the content of posters on bus shelters… Even product placement has become so commonplace we no longer really notice it.

              I’d also argue that The Forever War is not entirely relevant, because it’s about a soldier and not the populace back home. Yes, we’ve been at war almost constantly since the turn of the century, but it’s just reports on the news to us. It doesn’t directly impact our lives, we’re not ourselves fighting in it (though some of us may know people who are). These days, in order for a novel about war to be relevant, it has to be relevant to the way we experience it, as distant colonialism in service to political strategies completely divorced from everyday realities – and not as, say, it would have been experienced by the Greatest Generation or Americans during the Vietnam War.

              I shall now try and think of a sf novel published before 1980 that could be considered relevant…

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