"It appears that the author takes the word for an insult"
March 7, 2015 2:36 PM   Subscribe

 
That is a powerful last paragraph.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:43 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Mr Ishiguro said to the interviewer, “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?
It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.
To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice, that I had to write this piece in response.
Well said Ms. Leguin.
posted by Fizz at 2:46 PM on March 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Even her expository writing has tremendous narrative drive; by the end of that piece I felt like I'd carelessly blundered onto a ski jump.
posted by jamjam at 2:51 PM on March 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


I've linked to this on here before, but near the start of this BBC Radio 4 interview/profile from 2009 with Ursula Le Guin she talks powerfully about the reasons for writers disparaging or fearing being tagged as science fiction or fantasy (as well as lots of other things).

(A direct link to the mp3 in case that iplayer link doesn't work.)
posted by dng at 3:06 PM on March 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Is it far?" asked Ishiguro. "I've been told I shouldn't go too far into the woods."

"No, silly, it's not far." LeGuin replied. And then, catching glimpse of his distress, she turned and stopped and took him by his shoulders, looking directly into his eyes. "Now don't you be scared," she said, sternly, but not unkindly, "It's not that much farther and you've already come all this way."

Ishiguro peered ahead nervously and swallowed.
posted by jammy at 3:18 PM on March 7, 2015 [20 favorites]


There are massive plot spoilers for The Buried Giant in the linked article.
posted by Gin and Comics at 3:25 PM on March 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


LeGuin's expository writings are what made her go from one of my favorite writers to one of my favorite humans.
posted by dinty_moore at 3:25 PM on March 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


The book may even be good, but that is an awesome slapdown for that particular kind if silliness.
posted by Artw at 3:25 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Dragons aside, Ishiguro’s “Buried Giant” is not a fantasy novel

I read this Salon headline and was enraged earlier in the week. There is so much fear surrounding that label "fantasy" as if your book some how catches fire if you're placed in any sort of genre fiction. Ugh.
posted by Fizz at 3:58 PM on March 7, 2015


"It's not fantasy it's fan fiction."
posted by dng at 4:06 PM on March 7, 2015


I didn't realize Ishiguro was an idiot. Now I am sad.
posted by Justinian at 4:11 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?

Am I the only one who doesn't read this as Ishiguro worrying about the label because he looks down on fantasy, but instead as him worrying that readers will dismiss it because they look down on fantasy?

Worrying that other people will look down on something is not the same as looking down on it yourself.
posted by metaBugs at 4:15 PM on March 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


His last book was literary science fiction (which I vaguely remember him doing his best not to refer to science fiction), and his readers took to it just fine.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:21 PM on March 7, 2015


Am I the only one who doesn't read this as Ishiguro worrying about the label because he looks down on fantasy, but instead as him worrying that readers will dismiss it because they look down on fantasy?


I was typing this exactly. After reading the Times piece and then Le Guin's a couple times it seems like she's giving too much weight to a context-less quote. He's already written a sci-fi book and talks with the interviewer about westerns and samurai movies. David Mitchell is quoted saying he hopes it will de-stigmatize fantasy. He just sounds not totally confident in trying something new, not trying to distance himself from the fantasy label.
posted by edeezy at 4:26 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Well, it's not like Atwoods stuff is garbage because of her silly-ass opinions about genre labels.
posted by Artw at 4:41 PM on March 7, 2015


It's a good smackdown, but I still have high hopes for the book. Ishiguro is an outstanding author, and yes, his best bests LeGuin's best.

I think LeGuin might be overly sensitive to fantasy-hate. I don't read Ishiguro's single sentence from an interview as necessarily evincing dislike for the genre. The guy did write a book with orcs in it, after all.
posted by painquale at 4:42 PM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can't help feel a lot of these kind of discussions buy into some kind of "objective category" mumbo jumbo that I don't really believe in. The huge weight of genre as a marketing category outweighs the other considerations by approximately twelve gajillion miles. I think it's natural for Ishuguro to have anxiety about his book being pegged as fantasy, his kind of books are the kind of books "literary" readers by tonnes of, but "fantasy" readers hardly buy frigging any of at all.

I mean, if you look at the kind of authors, that I would personally mentally file him alongside - that write solely in fantasy - like I dunno Van Dermeer or something, their sales numbers would be utter dogshit compared to his. This guy ain't gonna sell millions of books to Robert Jordan readers.

In this respect, genre categories, matter hugely, and they are in a weird symbiosis with what readers like to buy. He's written a book that will appeal more to "literary" (I use this as genre classification, not signifier of merit) readers than fantasy readers. If literary readers think the book is fantasy, they will likely eschew it, and only a small minority of fantasy readers will go for it, in addition. So if classified as fantasy, he would be giving up heaps of readers and gaining hardly any. An author that cares about sales would be very anxious about that.

I dunno, I get frustrated by these discussions. The way your book is sold and marketed matters hugely to authors and publishers. The classifications are largely invented, and the defensiveness around from certain fantasy authors is just as silly as Atwood's denial, in my opinion. A lot of people look down on fantasy books, it's true. Who gives a shit? They look down on romance, crime novels, thrillers, etc etc as well. And many of the readers in those genres look down on literary fiction as well. I personally find Ishuguro vastly over-rated (and agree with Leguin, that he - like most authors outside genre - produces trite and hackneyed stuff when he goes "in genre"). If he was sold in genre he would hardly sell anything.

I can't help feeling there's kind of vanity here, though a kind of desire to be held up by the establishment, but I really feel that the establishment, when it comes to reading, is pretty shitty as an arbiter of merit, and buying into that will not give you greater satisfaction. Literary fiction is mostly marketing, and if you look at what's considered classic today, those works are spanning a huge variety of genres. What most classics today aren't, is what the literary establishment at the time was holding up as best of the best.
posted by smoke at 5:05 PM on March 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


The Hierarchy of Contempt, regarding Atwood's opinions about genre labels.
posted by Phssthpok at 5:19 PM on March 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Ishiguro is an outstanding author, and yes, his best bests LeGuin's best.

Says you.
posted by jammy at 5:28 PM on March 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


Ishiguro is an outstanding author, and yes, his best bests LeGuin's best.

Now who's writing fantasy. ;-)
posted by Fizz at 5:30 PM on March 7, 2015 [18 favorites]


Yeah, that was probably an unnecessarily trollish thing to write. Sorry 'bout that!

On the other hand, it's true.
posted by painquale at 5:36 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I would love to participate in this discussion, but I've just learned that Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book out and I have to rush over to Amazon to order it.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:37 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, that was probably an unnecessarily trollish thing to write. Sorry 'bout that!

On the other hand, it's true.


You're right - it's truly an unnecessarily trollish thing. And while your opinion on the matter is mistaken, fantasy trolls are known for being easily fooled, even by the simplest of billy goats.
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:51 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've found the quickest way to piss off a reader of literary books is to tell them their books are just another genre. I have the facial scars to prove it.
posted by KHAAAN! at 6:16 PM on March 7, 2015


Clive Barker would have done a better job on that last David Mitchell book, mind.
posted by Artw at 6:21 PM on March 7, 2015


Dragons aside, Ishiguro’s “Buried Giant” is not a fantasy novel

Right, right. Murders aside, Jonathan Kellerman's book isn't a mystery. Ignoring the spaceship, Redshirts is totally not science fiction. Once you ignore the relationship, Romancing the Duke isn't a romance at all. If you exclude the zombies, Feed isn't a zombie book.

This works super well.
posted by jeather at 6:27 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Dragons aside, Ishiguro’s “Buried Giant” is not a fantasy novel

Right, right. Murders aside, Jonathan Kellerman's book isn't a mystery....

I haven't read Buried Giant, though I am very excited to do so as soon as my copy arrives. However, I think I get and sort of agree with the spirit of the first comment quoted above. Again, I can't speak about Buried Giant, but let me attempt to defend the following position: "Aside from the dystopian society created by widespread use of cloning, Never Let Me Go is not a science fiction book."

And let me first qualify my defence of that statement by saying that I've read a bunch of Asimov and the Hitchhikers books and that's it. So maybe I just don't quite understand Sci-Fi and would not make this argument if I did. However, I'm not a sci-fi expert, so here's my argument:

Science fiction is primarily about exploring how scientific changes or worlds with particular scientific advances or technologies function and how those technologies affect lives and societies. When those are the themes of a book then I would say that the book is science fiction.

Never Let Me Go is a book set in a society that includes technology we don't have. But it's not a book about how that technology affects lives or societies. In fact, if you look at the Amazon reviews there are a bunch of people who don't seem to get that that's not what the book is about complaining that he never really explains these things. I think he doesn't explain these things because they're not the point. The point of the book (IMO) is that we are complicit and complacent in human suffering. We are complicit and complacent in our own suffering because on some level we just can't imagine another option. We are weighed down by the idea that "that's just the way it is" and by the knowledge that others are working very hard not to see our suffering precisely because they don't want to relieve it. We are complicit in the suffering of others because ending their suffering would increase our own -- sometimes only a tiny bit relative to how much we could relieve theirs. But we don't want to increase our suffering and we don't want to feel like we are the cause of someone else's suffering so we hide their suffering from ourselves or tell ourselves that somehow they are different than we are and so their suffering is also different.

Never Let Me Go could just as easily be a book about coal miners in a company town. In fact, I sometimes think of Never Let Me Go and coal miners when I run my dishwasher or turn the heat up, or when I think about how I have 3 computers that I leave on 24/7 because it's slightly more convenient for me that turning them off. The book isn't about cloning and it's consequences, though it includes those things. So, other than the clones, it's not a science fiction book. Maybe you don't agree and think it is science fiction, but I don't think I'm making an argument that is akin to "Other than the murder whodunnit parts, Agatha Christie's books weren't mysteries."

I know even less about Fantasy (I've read the Mists of Avalon books and Terry Pratchet and that's it) than I do about Sci-Fi, so I don't know what kinds of themes make a fantasy book a fantasy book. But I can certainly imagine "other than the dragons it's not a fantasy book" as a meaningful, non-ridiculous statement.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:39 PM on March 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Even VanderMeer seems to be moving away from a "Fantasy" label; the Southern Reach were marketed more as "speculative literature." His writing on weird fiction also feels like he makes an effort to demonstrate why it's not just "Fantasy/Sci-Fi," a position I'm pretty supportive of because I'm a snob and because he does like to highlight obscure writers over established "genre" writers. A lot of similarly literary weirdos seem to have trouble with marketing; no one really knows what to do with people like Jeff Noon, Alasdair Gray or William Burroughs. Sometimes they catch on in literary fiction, but mostly they don't, and the only way to sell them to a fantasy audience is to repackage them with more palatable fan fiction a la Lovecraft.

I think LeGuin comes across as overly defensive here. Which isn't new, exactly--I felt she was a little harsh on Goro Miyazaki's Earthsea movie, but also had a lot of fair and good points (and plenty of valid reasons to defend her baby). She usually does have a lot of fair and good points, and she does here too. Fantastic literature is certainly looked down upon, which is a real problem, but I also don't quite get a snootiness from Ishiguro's statements and I'm not overly fond of genres except as a very rough way of discovering other worthwhile works. Most of my favorite books are almost completely unclassifiable and I kind of wish the genre-clutching could be a little more loosened in both directions. The best work in fantastic fiction often has the same value, appeal and worth as the best literary fiction. Stronger bridges between--more fantastic writers who aren't afraid to craft beautiful prose with rich characterization, more literary writers who aren't afraid to explore wild ideas and accept that fiction inhabits the boundless space of Imagination--would be wonderful.

And I like Ishiguro, but I think LeGuin would win at Literary Thunderdome.
posted by byanyothername at 9:03 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


And let me first qualify my defence of that statement by saying that I've read a bunch of Asimov and the Hitchhikers books and that's it. So maybe I just don't quite understand Sci-Fi and would not make this argument if I did. However, I'm not a sci-fi expert, so here's my argument:

Okay, so here is where I would suggest that if you are not overly familiar with a genre, it is a horrible idea to try to try and define that genre.

Never Let Me Go is as much part of the science fiction genre as approximately half of the science fiction I've consumed in my life. I have read a lot of science fiction. I have also read Never Let Me Go. I think if a different author (say, LeGuin, though it seems more like a McHugh thing except for everyone being incredibly English) was writing that story, we wouldn't even be debating this point. Never Let Me Go is science fiction as it uses non-existent technology as a framework for that story. Plenty of science fiction doesn't go into detail about how or why the non-existent technology came about and instead makes a point to focus more on having it serve whatever theme they're talking about*. The vaguely derogatory name for this is 'soft' scifi, and is generally the sort of thing that LeGuin is known for writing. The Word for World is Forest could have been about the Amazon, and The Dispossessed is about two competing ideologies writ large far more than it is about space travel.

*Also, for the record, I find that most of the people asking 'but it doesn't explain how it works' in this context are less likely to be science fiction fans. Especially when you're talking about a standard trope like cloning.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:40 PM on March 7, 2015 [22 favorites]


What dinty_moore said. SF is a broad genre and the SF penguin is describing is only one type of SF.
posted by Justinian at 9:56 PM on March 7, 2015


Literary authors are afraid of being classified in a straw man version of science fiction or fantasy. I'm not sure where the straw men came from, but they certainty do not represent contemporary SF or fantasy.

Sadly, contemporary critics are impressed when literary authors do better than the straw man versions of contemporary SF and fantasy, even though the ideas being expressed have been seen many times before in those genres.
posted by monotreme at 12:13 AM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


byanyothername, I can relate to what you're saying... I also tend to love writers who fall in the borderlands between genres. And I think I like people who have their roots on both sides of the divide--both Catherynne Valente and Steven Millhauser are among my favorite writers. So I'm all for expanding and relaxing those definitions. At the same time, I think it's super important to do so in a way that doesn't continue the denigration of fantasy and science fiction.

Also, your comment reminded me to check Jeff Vandermeer's blog and his most recent post is highly relevant to this conversation. In it, he says: What the tribalism of genre usually results in is invisibility for some authors and an incomplete understanding of the amazing constellations of fictions that make up the entire SF and fantasy universe.

Which seems like a good example of advocating for opening up genre divides while still acknowledging the merits of fantasy.
posted by overglow at 1:18 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Never Let Me Go could just as easily be a book about coal miners in a company town.

Then why isn't it? This is falling into the same trap Ishiguro is charging into, pretending that the actual substance of the book, the things that happen and the places that are created, are mere "surface elements". It's why so much literary fiction is horseshit, because it treats fictional reality as being an incidental, rather than integral, part of the construction of a meaningful narrative.

Fucking Plato and St Paul, still fucking things up after all these centuries.
posted by howfar at 4:10 AM on March 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Science fiction is primarily about exploring how scientific changes or worlds with particular scientific advances or technologies function and how those technologies affect lives and societies.

I believe that this isn't quite accurate, but not far off. Let me first say that my own definition of what science fiction should aspire to is similar, but different: science fiction is about using a setting with technological differences to show a how individuals and societies operate in different contexts. In other words, it's not about understanding what the technologies do, but about understanding what that says about people and human nature.

But like I said, that's my "ought" definition. The reality is that "science fiction" is just a genre label, and it doesn't serve very much purpose outside of marketing. There is some relevance as a set of traditions and a literary canon, but I find it restrictive to look at things too much through the genre lens. All good art is trying to show us our own world in a unique and/or entertaining way that gets us to engage with it in a new (and hopefully better) way. Bad science fiction does get caught up in the warp drives and the point defense systems in a way that I could only describe as fetishistic.

I don't want to derail here, but I've noticed that many of my favorite science fiction authors tend to be female. It's not something I planned, just something I noticed. For instance, LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness always jumps to mind when someone asks me what my favorite novel is. In the last year, I picked up on Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga...how did I never hear about this, before? In the related genre of fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is also somewhere near the top of my list, and Jo Walton's Among Others is another recent tour de force.

The reason that this isn't a total derail is because I think the reason I like so many female sci-fi authors is because they don't lose focus on the characters. A lot of male authors get caught up with their settings or technologies, and forget about story fundamentals like character and plot. I've often been left cold even by lauded male authors like Banks and Baxter (and sometimes Asimov...and his stuff is so fusty and orthodox that it's just not my cup of tea at all).

So I can understand why some authors might run away from the genre label, but this only demonstrates their ignorance about what science fiction really means. Ultimately, it means nothing, because at its best, it aspires to the same things that any other art aspires to. Labeling is always critically important for marketing. But an artist shouldn't be ashamed of creating art in any genre.
posted by Edgewise at 4:27 AM on March 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Even VanderMeer seems to be moving away from a "Fantasy" label; the Southern Reach were marketed more as "speculative literature."

Speaking of marketing...I really enjoyed Southern Reach, but I don't know when I last read something that seemed so well-packaged. I mean, there's no reason this needed to be separated into three slender books. The only reasons I can divine are (a) to increase anticipation/hype, and (b) they are movie-sized.

His writing on weird fiction also feels like he makes an effort to demonstrate why it's not just "Fantasy/Sci-Fi," a position I'm pretty supportive of because I'm a snob and because he does like to highlight obscure writers over established "genre" writers.
...
I think LeGuin comes across as overly defensive here.

Just LeGuin? All these people trying to explain why they fall outside a genre boundaries seem defensive to me. They're trying to circumscribe and limit what a genre can be simply so they can prove that they don't belong. That's actually pretty mean-spirited to authors who aren't embarrassed to identify as science fiction writers.

For instance, I haven't read Ishiguro's book, but from LeGuin's synopsis, it sounds much more solidly "fantasy" than Jo Walton's (justly celebrated) Among Others. But Walton's book explicitly celebrates genre literature, so obviously she has no problem being numbered among sci-fi/fantasy authors. In the process, she's stretching the boundaries of what that can mean, while folks like VanderMeer and Ishiguro are trying to constrict them in order to service their marketing and/or anxiety.
posted by Edgewise at 4:39 AM on March 8, 2015


Science fiction is primarily about exploring how scientific changes or worlds with particular scientific advances or technologies function and how those technologies affect lives and societies. When those are the themes of a book then I would say that the book is science fiction.

I take some issue with this -- it's a little restrictive about the definition, because often these are used to show the world as it is today in a different light.

However, Never Let You Go doesn't exactly ignore "how does cloning affect the lives of clones". It doesn't at all ignore this question. It's very interested in the characters -- more than in the tech that allows it -- but that isn't particularly uncommon. Many science fiction books -- the vast majority of the ones I read -- don't go into long discussions of how the tech works. They explain what it does (or they don't, if it's something well enough known like faster than light travel or an ansible, thanks Le Guin).

could just as easily be a book about coal miners in a company town.

But it isn't. It's a book about clones. It fits very well in the genre. Had he written the book about coal miners, then it probably would not have been science fiction. Had he added in a murder that the clones had to solve it would have been a mystery. But he didn't do any of those things.
posted by jeather at 5:13 AM on March 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Identity politics separates genre-readers from genre-fans. Some people really like to wear labels and debate their meaning, others not so much. From a distance, that kind of behavior looks a lot like people grouping together based on the band - or brand - on their t-shirts.
posted by unmake at 5:58 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Identity politics separates genre-readers from genre-fans. Some people really like to wear labels and debate their meaning, others not so much.

Yes. I think this is probably true. I think it is possibly most true in the genre of "literary fiction". Hence Ishiguro's horror of being confused for the "wrong" genre.
posted by howfar at 7:06 AM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


At least it gets him out of his period domestic servant farce rut.
posted by Artw at 7:28 AM on March 8, 2015


Fair enough that as someone who hasn't read much sci-fi, maybe I don't quite understand the boundaries of the genre. In fact, it occurs to me today that another example of sci-fi that isn't really about the technology is Star Trek which is just allegory set in the future.

As to why it isn't about coal miners, you'd have to ask him, but I would guess that if it were about coal miners the book would be pointing out the readers' own moral failings. We don't want to see our own moral failings. We see ourselves more clearly in a distorted mirror.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:53 AM on March 8, 2015


Somewhat disjointed thoughts, for which I blame the flu:

LeGuin has written feelingly,thinkingly, angrily, movingly about genre before, and ultimately she herself is the best argument for the fantasy genre. She is one of the best authors alive, and she writes the stories she wants to write, and mostly they come out as fantasy. As an anthropologist, what she does best is imagine societies, and imagine individuals shaped by those societies. Even when her story is set on a spaceship, she tends to be more interested in the ship as a social construct than as an object.

I don't know why anthropology-based fiction shouldn't have just as much of a claim to the "science fiction" title as, say, physics-based fiction; especially when so much "hard" sf is utter crap at the "softer" sciences. I also don't understand the perceived divide-- which seems to be taken very seriously by Ishiguro-- between fantasy and "good" or "real", culturally approved, legitimate writing.
"Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"

--JRR Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
Also, this post sent me down the rabbit hole of LeGuin's blog, and I am currently a bit teary over this incidental poem to one of her cat's victims.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:24 AM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


So um on the one hand Never Let Me Go is a novel that centers on clones who are born and raised to be murdered for their organs, but on the other hand the reason why it's a novel that centers on clones who are born and raised to be murdered for their organs is because of how that storyline literalizes the slow cannibalism and murder that marks class-sorted societies. If you think it's a novel about clones, you run the risk of interpreting it as a story warning against the grim outcomes that could result from the use of a technology — widespread human cloning — that we don't have, instead of as a story about the grim outcomes that are right now produced through application of technologies — capitalism, hierarchical modes of control in general — that we already have.

I can see why science fiction writers like Ishiguro and Atwood run screaming from that label, since science fiction fandom has historically been, and in large part still is, crawling with people who think that dystopia is something that might happen in the future if we are not careful with our technology or whatever,1 and who thereby fail to understand that we are already living in dystopic conditions. Despite this reactionary and, well, just sort of lame tendency within fandom, science fiction and fantasy are still phenomenally useful tools for discussing our dystopia. Remember that David Foster Wallace speech where he tells the old joke where an old fish swims up to a young fish, says "nice water today," and receives the response "what's water?" The defamiliarization techniques of SFF are a way to make the dystopian water we swim in visible to people who can't see it, because it's all we've ever known.

Stretching this analogy a little farther, you can think of science fiction themes — clones! mind-controlling aliens! a brilliant psychotic scientist who can design a species of super-horny blue-skinned people and release them into a postapocalyptic world! — as a sort of brightly colored dye that's dropped into our water to let us recognize it as water. Even though the dye is central to the technique, it's not the purpose of the technique.

Much of science fiction fandom is structured around focusing on the dye rather than the water. There are good reasons for this. In this comment so far I've been underplaying the spectacular aspect of science fiction, the joy associated with reading about whizbang spaceship battles2 and the delightful horror produced by reading about clones getting vivisected and the vertigo you experience while trying to figure out what it could possibly be like to share a society with sentient legal contracts that are perpetually warring with each other or whatever. Although spectacle can often be fucking awesome, there is a certain tendency among fandom to treat spectacle as the sole purpose of scifi and fantasy. This might be mirrored by a tendency outside of the fandom bubble to underplay the value of spectacle, but, given that we are living in dystopian conditions, I do think it is fair to say that there is more danger to treating spectacle as the sole point than in treating commentary as the sole point.

I'm also realizing, at the end of this long rambling comment, that by focusing on the social commentary aspect of science fiction, I'm accidentally leaving out some of my favorite philosophical scifi, stuff like PKD's novels and Ted Chiang's stories, that work less as social commentary and more as ontological commentary, things that are partially about the bizarre and oppressive societies we live in, but which are maybe more about the bizarre condition of existence itself.

1: Consider, to take an arbitrary example, all of the science fiction fans who were illiterate enough to think that Snowpiercer was a movie about a train.
2: I think my boredom with the spectacle (which can get a little samey after a few decades reading it) is one reason why I always find Banks' Culture novels to be such a slog, even though summaries of them make them seem like something that's utterly up my alley. The problem is, when I'm reading them I find my eyes glazing over in all of the parts about laser drone spaceship battles and far-future spycraft and the details of endocrine system rewiring and whatever — instead of being all "gosh, that's cool," I'm just like, get to the point, guy.

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:59 AM on March 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I had the same thought as metaBugs and edeezy. The linked response seems unnecessarily defensive to me.
posted by echocollate at 10:32 AM on March 8, 2015


Science fiction is primarily about exploring how scientific changes or worlds with particular scientific advances or technologies function and how those technologies affect lives and societies. When those are the themes of a book then I would say that the book is science fiction.

"Fantasy is primarily about exploring how magics or worlds with particular monsters or magical artifacts function and how these affect lives and societies. When those are the themes of a book then I would say that the book is fantasy."
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:33 AM on March 8, 2015


Science fiction is primarily about exploring how scientific changes or worlds with particular scientific advances or technologies function and how those technologies affect lives and societies. When those are the themes of a book then I would say that the book is science fiction.

This definition would arguably exclude the following Nebula and Hugo nominees, no doubt among many more:

The Left Hand of Darkness
A Case of Conscience
Black Easter
The Dispossessed
A Canticle for Liebowitz
Speaker for the Dead
Slaughterhouse 5
The Shadow of the Torturer (or just Gene Wolfe more generally)
The Postman
The Handmaid's Tale
The Sparrow / Children of God
Redshirts
Fahrenheit 451
That Hideous Strength
American Gods
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:03 AM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Science fiction is primarily about exploring how scientific changes or worlds with particular scientific advances or technologies function and how those technologies affect lives and societies.

Actually, science fiction is primarily about being slotted in a back shelf between the latest Star Wars novelizations, and a bunch of Starship Troopers pastiches. Which means your selling power is highly limited, compared to say, mystery or general literature. It's basically a recipe for avoiding making decent sales.

SF is also about dealing with science fiction fans, online or at conventions. Frankly, if I had to do that, I'd pull an Atwood myself.
posted by happyroach at 1:15 PM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I wonder if people who feel like LeGuin is being defensive are fully aware of the historical and (diminished but) ongoing shaming and marginalization of genre fiction as not as good or deep or important as literary fiction. For one tiny example, in my creative writing classes at a state university in the early 2000s, we were explicitly forbidden from writing science fiction. I think the stated reason was that the instructor wasn't familiar with the genre so couldn't give good feedback but there was the unmistakable whiff of that's not real writing.

And that's what Ishiguro is worried about. It's not about reading conventions or literary genealogies or people not understanding his vision. It's about people--and there are lots of them, especially in the literary world--who think that fantasy is a mutually exclusive category with good writing. If it's fantasy, it's not good. And if it's good--even if it includes dragons and magic and unbridled imagination--then, by definition, it can't be fantasy.

I think it's reasonable for people to push back when someone implicitly equates their lifework with shitty writing.
posted by overglow at 1:25 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


“[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book,
but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person.
I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.”


"Kazuo Ishiguro rejects claims of genre snobbery" (The Guardian)
posted by Petersondub at 1:48 PM on March 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


We read this To the kids all the time - she sure likes kids a lot.

Hmm, I wonder if our eldest would like the Earthsea stuff.
posted by Artw at 2:07 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Dunno how old your eldest is, but the Catwings books are absolutely lovely.
posted by jeather at 2:17 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fair enough that as someone who hasn't read much sci-fi, maybe I don't quite understand the boundaries of the genre. In fact, it occurs to me today that another example of sci-fi that isn't really about the technology is Star Trek which is just allegory set in the future.

I think one thing most of use forget when we're taking ourselves too seriously is that while sci-fi can often be allegory, or be deeply symbolic, or be a cautionary tale about some technology or crappy way to run a society, but that it doesn't need to be any of those things - a story can simply be a good yarn and that can be enough a good story.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:32 PM on March 8, 2015


"[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons."
Kazuo Ishiguro rejects claims of genre snobbery (The Guardian)


Thank you for this link, Petersondub.

If for no other reason than this:

(Ishiguro) also confirmed that Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin had optioned the film rights for The Buried Giant and said his ideal cast would include Gary Cooper and Betty Davis playing the lead couple and James Stewart as the aging Arthurian knight Sir Gawain.

:)
posted by jammy at 3:54 PM on March 8, 2015


I think it's reasonable for people to push back when someone implicitly equates their lifework with shitty writing.

It's not clear at all from the initial interview that Ishiguro was doing that, implicitly or otherwise, which is why I and others feel Le Guin is being unnecessarily defensive here.
posted by echocollate at 3:58 PM on March 8, 2015


I think Ishiguro was equating fantasy writing with shitty writing, although possibly inadvertantly. Here's the quote LeGuin is responding to:

“Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

That implies that this story with magical and mythical elements is not fantasy. Why is it not fantasy? Because it is deeper in some way than the "surface elements" of fantasy. What does that imply? That fantasy elements are shallow, that depth is unusual in fantasy writing.
posted by misfish at 6:35 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, it's good to know that Ishiguro is on Team Pixie Dragon.

Seriously, though, I do think that article indicates the progress that's been made around genre-blending and breaking down the stigmatization of the fantastic. I do still think that, even if Ishiguro himself doesn't believe in the idea that fantasy=not-as-good, the fear that his original quote discusses is based on other people continuing to buy into that equation.
posted by overglow at 8:47 PM on March 8, 2015


From Ishiguro's response:
He said The Buried Giant’s fantasy setting served as a neutral environment to explore the idea of collective memory and how societies heal after atrocities by forgetting the past.
...
Fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t.


So he's saying he's on the side of pixies and dragons, but continues to insist that he's not writing fantasy, even though everything he's saying suggests that's exactly what he's writing?
posted by HumanComplex at 9:45 AM on March 9, 2015


Yeah, it's still Atwoodian nonsense but with fluffy handwaves.

Probably enough to keep him in his preferred marketing category.
posted by Artw at 9:59 AM on March 9, 2015


It seems like most of the "it's not sci-fi/fantasy/whatever" arguments could be made successfully about pretty much any book. "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy isn't science fiction, it's Swiftian satire!"
posted by speicus at 2:20 PM on March 9, 2015


"SF's no good! They bellow 'til we're deaf. But this is good. Well, then, it's not SF!"
                               -Kingsley Amis
posted by Justinian at 3:06 PM on March 9, 2015


To be fair there's a handful of (usually reactionary jerk) science fuction writers who do the exact same thing from the opposite direction, producing similar eye-rolling.
posted by Artw at 3:06 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


On the plus side, at least these days you have to list the SF authors who are reactionary jerks, rather than in the past where it may well have been easier to list the ones who weren't.
posted by Justinian at 3:39 PM on March 9, 2015




The marketing reasoning makes a lot of sense to me. I can't fault people for being concerned about sales of their book.

The most absurd proprietary claim I’ve ever encountered was a SF fan arguing that Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—an otherwise realist novel that imagines what would have happened if FDR had lost the 1940 election—was by definition science fiction

The weird wormhole reason is bizarre, but I've always considered all alternate history novels SF. Is this unusual?
posted by jeather at 4:22 PM on March 9, 2015


Yup, historical what-if fantasies fall pretty solidly into any definition I'd use.
posted by Artw at 5:30 PM on March 9, 2015


That seems pretty close to making all fiction SF. All fiction contains counterfactual elements by definition; some of these elements might be set in the past. You can call any novel a what-if fantasy.

I thought that Electric Lit piece was pretty good.
posted by painquale at 6:16 AM on March 10, 2015


Alternate history as a marketing category is mostly read by SF readers, but I'd be hard pressed to think of them as science fiction. Maybe it should be called humanities fiction.
posted by Kattullus at 6:37 AM on March 10, 2015


That seems pretty close to making all fiction SF. All fiction contains counterfactual elements by definition; some of these elements might be set in the past. You can call any novel a what-if fantasy.

So, what's the difference between Philip Roth and Harry Turtledove, then (besides ability to write and literary acclaim)? I've never seen Turtledove's series anywhere besides the science fiction section, and there's an entire series with a very similar premise (Key point of US history is different, things change).

I have no issues with something being in two genres, but every instance I've heard for 'this literary fiction piece cannot possibly also be this genre' seems to have a very shallow understanding of the genre.

I also think that genre snobbery is alive and well. The New York Times Review of Books might deign to review a #1 series with a television show, but the New York Times has also made a point of reviewing the start to each TV season dismissing the fantasy elements of the show.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:40 AM on March 10, 2015


Alternate history as a marketing category is mostly read by SF readers, but I'd be hard pressed to think of them as science fiction.

Maybe more speculative fiction than science fiction? But along those lines.

All fiction contains counterfactual elements by definition; some of these elements might be set in the past. You can call any novel a what-if fantasy.

I think that the distinction between "What if Hitler won" and "What if in a world essentially like our own, there had been a person named Sam Johnson who didn't have any particular importance to world affairs" is pretty real. I do consider "what if the past had spooled out more or less like it did but these fictional characters were there for important events" more like the latter. Essentially the question is whether the world is more or less like our real world or not.
posted by jeather at 7:46 AM on March 10, 2015


Maybe more speculative fiction than science fiction?

Eh, those are pretty much synonyms at this point.
posted by Artw at 8:49 AM on March 10, 2015


The further we get into the 21st century, the more most novels set in the past read like utopian fantasies to me.
posted by jamjam at 9:19 AM on March 10, 2015


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