Talking squid in outer space
March 8, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Margaret Atwood, Science Fiction writer
posted by Artw (251 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, good, I can restart my heart now. Please to not doing this to us.
posted by scrump at 10:15 AM on March 8, 2010 [13 favorites]


Hasn't Margaret Atwood repeatedly tried to claim that her works are "real" literature and not science fiction, that foul genre no "real" writer would touch with a ten foot pole?
posted by kmz at 10:22 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." - Kurt Vonnegut
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:24 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hm. Having read Oryx and Crake as well as numerous earlier "classic" Atwood tales, actually a very credible thesis. And now I'm depressed. Stupid MetaFilter.
posted by Go Banana at 10:25 AM on March 8, 2010


It's speculative fiction people! Speculative fiction!
posted by PenDevil at 10:27 AM on March 8, 2010


Also worth reading: Atwood on Science Fiction, or if you prefer, Speculative Fiction
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:29 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Speculative fiction IS people!
posted by Artw at 10:32 AM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


To review: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." and science fiction, as opposed to what [Atwood writes], was "talking squids in outer space."

However: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid."

So, yeah, she used to be a bit of a dick about it, but really, she's been past/comfortable with/resigned to the labels for at least 5 years.

Personally, I think she should have just insisted that A Handmaiden's Tale, Oryx and Crake and After the Flood be published under the name Margaret E. Atwood. Then this silly argument would never have happened.
posted by bonehead at 10:32 AM on March 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


IIRC she's back the other way now.
posted by Artw at 10:34 AM on March 8, 2010


Ach, the SF ghetto. It's annoying! Someone like Gene Wolfe, one of my all time favorite writers in any genre, will never achieve the fame he deserves, because he willingly lives in this ghetto.

As for the article -- very very plausible. I pray that she and other likeminded people will succeed in awaking the populace. I fear it will take a serious disaster before they do - and I simply hope the disaster is soon enough, and small enough, that we can recover.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:35 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The really annoying thing about Big Name Writers Who Write SF But Say They Aren't SF Writers isn't that they are insulting SF. SF fans are used to that. The really annoying thing is the people who read the resulting books and think that it's a really big new idea that the writer came up with.

Reader: It was mindblowing. The entire US had been taken over by this theocr..
SF fan: You mean like in If this goes on... by Heinlein? As well as dozens since then?
Reader: Who?

The same thing also happens with people whose only contact with SF is via movies, but is at least understandable because people who only ever watch movies are philistines. Whereas a supposed intellectual reader who is completely unaware of a vast storehouse of ideas because they don't like to get themselves dirty with that SF junk and then rave about how insightful a writer is for using those same ideas.....grrrr.
posted by DU at 10:35 AM on March 8, 2010 [31 favorites]


If I ever produce a work of speculative fiction, I'll insist that critics call it a "whimsy tale."
posted by Iridic at 10:38 AM on March 8, 2010 [12 favorites]


Evidence of the scifi ghetto is that when science fiction writers write historical or contemporary fiction (Dick, Gibson, or Stephenson for example) the novel still gets shelved in with science fiction.
posted by octothorpe at 10:45 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


" ... what can you say about your own book? It always comes through as kind of fatuous self-advertisement. Here's a good thing to say about it: It's a book. Let's keep it that way. As of today, it's a book. Keep this world inside the covers. Do not let it out."
The really annoying thing is the people who read the resulting books and think that it's a really big new idea that the writer came up with.

I don't think many readers would consider "human-engineered virus (or human engineered ___) results in the end of civilization" as a new concept

I'd like to think most people appreciate Atwood because she does it so well. Is The Handmaid's Tale the first time anyone has written about a future where women's fertility is controlled by a military structure of men? No. Is it the best? Maybe. I thought Oryx & Crake was great, and I am an SF/fantasy fan in general. I haven't read Time of the Flood yet.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:47 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Would it really have been that hard to toss in a one-sentence summary of the plots of the books in there to let those of us who aren't as well informed on Margaret Atwoods oeuvre know what this is all about?

The writing style of the article reminds me of someone giving a book report on a book he didn't read:
"It is a very important, and, by the same token, interesting book, which may or may not cause controversy. It can be argued about, surely, even if Monty Python did it first, but must we judge the author for doing so? This book is both similar to others and yet different from them, and it is a testament to the writing skills of the author that it manages to encompass the human experience as a whole and yet not get bogged down in details. "Boom goes the dynamite", as they say. And can the lessons learned not be applied to us, as we live our own lives? Prophets shouting terrorism from soapboxes - is this not a parable of our own times, our own fears?
In conclusion, the "lessons" learned should not be taken "lightly", even if they appear - at first glance - superficial. The research the author did to reach this level of realism can be felt on every page, in every vivid description, and this makes this book I want to introduce to you a worthwhile read with many interesting and important aspects."
posted by PontifexPrimus at 10:47 AM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


God damn it, Gravity's Rainbow is clearly science fiction!

If that isn't enough to redeem everything that came before from its limbo and emancipate everything after, nothing ever will be.
posted by jamjam at 10:51 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Be fair, octothorpe, some of that is booksellers trying to put books where the buyers can find them. Arturo Perez-Reverte has written historicals, thrillers, murder mysteries, and (maybe) fantasy, yet all his stuff gets stuck in one place. And, yeah, you could put copies in multiple places, but that has its own problems...

What's worse is that they only get reviewed in science fiction outlets, whihc non-SF readers are unlikely to see.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:52 AM on March 8, 2010


I'd like to think most people appreciate Atwood because she does it so well.

Maybe. But most of the raving I've heard about writers of this type sounds like a new art patron in 2010 going on and on about this great new painter who doesn't think paintings have to be photographic.
posted by DU at 10:54 AM on March 8, 2010


Not long ago, I was surprised to learn that Atwood really knows her science fiction -- I'd even say she's something of an expert in it. I had this realization on reading her New York Review essay on Ursula K. Le Guin.

She's not just an ignorant outsider, which I think rather changes the character of the little spat over whether she does science fiction.
posted by grobstein at 10:56 AM on March 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Once you point out that the Twilight Zone is science fiction, the genre-grumblers tend to shut up and accept their favorite author's fate. Serling's show was easily the most intellectually intense drama on American television for the first four decades of the medium.

Part of the problem is with novels - once novelists move away from war stories or political/spy potboilers in Science Fiction, they tend to get lumped in with "Literature" and zealously guarded from genre taint. With short stories, the intellectual and literary merit of Science Fiction is patently obvious. (Ted Chiang? Looking at you, there.)

Now, you want to see a real kerfluffle? Just wait until Toni Morrison's next novel gets close enough to "the line" where it's nominated for a Bram Stoker award.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:57 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I really want there to be a "Margaret Atwood, Science Fiction Writer." The phrase I use is "the Jane Austen of Science Fiction." I'm always searching for her; I never find her.

Sci-fi was my first literary love. I gobbled it down from when I could first read through the early years of college. Meanwhile, late in high school, I started getting into classics and "literary fiction." I fell deeply in love with words and found it less and less easy to read stories that weren't well crafted in terms of prose style.

This upset me, because I wanted to keep reading sci-fi, comic books, and the other fun stories of my youth, but I couldn't. I started to notice all the clunkiness of the wording, and it took me out of the story. No matter how compelling the ideas were,no matter how fully-realized the imaginary worlds were, no matter how exciting the adventure was... if the prose wasn't finely tuned, I couldn't enjoy it. I was like someone who used to enjoy getting drunk on cheap wine but who now been drinking expensive champagne. How did I ever tolerate the cheap stuff.

That's always a price you pay if you refine your tastes. But it's especially tough with sci-fi, because the natural thing for someone like me to do was to seek out the sci-fi writers that also excel at prosemanship. Except... where were they?

I'm not saying there are none. Of course there are many sci-fi writers who care about language and work hard to polish their prose. There are many... but there aren't THAT many. If I list off the generally-acknowledged prose masters of the 20th Century -- Updike, Cheever, Carver, Salinger, etc. -- who are thier sci-fi equivalents? You actually can find a lot of really gifted writers (in terms of language) in some other genres, notably Mystery. But sci-fi? Tumbleweeds.

This is just my opinion, of course, but the supposedly great sci-fi prose writers that people recommend to me when they hear me moan about this, the William Gibsons and Kim Stanley Robinsons... well, they are good, but they aren't Updike. If you've fed yourself a steady diet of Updike and Co., where do you go to get your sci-fi/fantasy needs met?

It's so hard to write good sci-fi! I don't want to read a sci-fi story that has excellent prose but poor plotting, science errors, cliched ideas, etc. THAT tends to be the problem when literary greats dip their toes in the sci-fi pool. What I need is a writer who has the language chops of Updike and the speculative imagination of Phillip K. Dick. And I need him to choose to write sci-fi, despite the fact that he won't get the recognition for it that he'll get for other sorts of writing.

That's a tall order.

In my opinion, Margaret Atwood is a sublime writer -- in terms of prose style. She swims with words. So she's got one half of the equation down. She also clearly has an interest in sci-fi. I wish she was younger. I feel like she needs another couple of decades to work on the sci-fi part. Then she might just turn out to be the Jane Austen of Science Fiction.

I am pleased to see that, slowly, sci-fi is becoming less tainted. Various "literary" writers are playing with it (or fantasy). Their attempts are rarely first-rate, but let's give them time.
posted by grumblebee at 11:05 AM on March 8, 2010 [9 favorites]


Evidence of the scifi ghetto is that when science fiction writers write historical or contemporary fiction (Dick, Gibson, or Stephenson for example) the novel still gets shelved in with science fiction.

You make it sound like a conspiracy inflicted by snobs who want to keep sci-fi writers out of the good neighborhoods. Absolutely, snobbery exists, but this is just booksellers trying to sell books. They (rightly, I think) suspect that Gibson fans are more likely to buy his non-sci-fi novel than literary-fiction fans.
posted by grumblebee at 11:09 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The really annoying thing is the people who read the resulting books and think that it's a really big new idea that the writer came up with.

Reader: It was mindblowing. The entire US had been taken over by this theocr..
SF fan: You mean like in If this goes on... by Heinlein? As well as dozens since then?
Reader: Who?


So in that little exchange we're supposed to be cheering for Comic Book Guy? It doesn't matter if Heinlein or [Insert another crappy writer, yeah you heard me, I said crappy] did it first, and the brilliance of Handmaid's Tale or [Insert another novel that can easily fit in a genre but isn't formally categorized or marketed as such] isn't invalidated by Reader's relative ignorance. That kind of thing rings of fanboy insecurity.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:18 AM on March 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Doris Lessing also delved into science fiction and she won the freakin' Nobel Prize. I'm not seeing the problem, other than they both have chanced losing some of their fans (and perhaps gained new ones) when they tried moving into the sci-fi genre.

Re , I don't consider it science fiction or speculative fiction; it's pure horror to me.
posted by fuse theorem at 11:23 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Science Fiction as defined by store shelving is pretty much a marketing category, and since I pretty much always wander over to that section and look at those books before doing anything else I can't really begrudge the stores that to much.
posted by Artw at 11:23 AM on March 8, 2010


Oops, correction: Re , The Handmaid's Tale, I don't consider it science fiction or speculative fiction; it's pure horror to me.
posted by fuse theorem at 11:24 AM on March 8, 2010


You make it sound like a conspiracy inflicted by snobs who want to keep sci-fi writers out of the good neighborhoods.

I don't think that it's an intentional conspiracy, but such writers are effectually ghettoized by their identification as writers that only science fiction fans will be interested in. Dick tried for his whole career to break out into mainstream fiction and never succeeded. I don't blame writers like Atwood for wanting to avoid that fate.
posted by octothorpe at 11:27 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hasn't Margaret Atwood repeatedly tried to claim that her works are "real" literature and not science fiction...

So what? They're her books and she's well informed on the subjects of literature and science fiction. If she can't declare (or choose not to declare) what her own books are what gives anyone else the right to refute her?
posted by Babblesort at 11:34 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Gumblebee, have you read any Gene Wolfe? If not, you might find him of some interest (and I envy you the experience).
posted by bonehead at 11:35 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


For reasons I can't remember, I failed to make it through the first New Sun book years ago. But Wolfe has been recommended to me so often, I will probably try again, soon.
posted by grumblebee at 11:41 AM on March 8, 2010


That kind of thing rings of fanboy insecurity.

A lot of sci-fi writing really is horrible, and a lot of the ire directed at Ms. Atwood is essentially down to a jumble of insecurities of its fan base. I wish her all the best in avoiding association of her varied and colorful body of work with a genre as cliched as a romance novel. She's a Nobel Prize-caliber writer and deserves a better fate than that.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:41 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blazecock wins the Troll cup.
posted by Artw at 11:43 AM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


I don't think that it's an intentional conspiracy, but such writers are effectually ghettoized by their identification as writers that only science fiction fans will be interested in. Dick tried for his whole career to break out into mainstream fiction and never succeeded. I don't blame writers like Atwood for wanting to avoid that fate.

Of course, Dick now has a series of Library of America volumes dedicated to him, and is widely considered "serious." But probably the strongest force keeping him "ghettoized" was his lack of interest in prose style, not his subject matter.

"Literary" fiction over the relevant period is largely defined by interest in how words are put together at the small level, by contrast to story-telling. And while Dick has formal experiments and mind-bending stories, I don't think he's a very interesting stylist. His prose is "workmanlike."

Maybe serious fiction should be more open to works where prose style is not a defining feature. But I think Dick had trouble finding acceptance for artistic, rather than prejudicial, reasons.
posted by grobstein at 11:48 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Book of the New Sun, great as it is, puts off many readers at first. It, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun are, by far and away, his masterpiece.

I often recommend either his collections, Storeys from the Old Hotel is good, or the Soldier series (Soldier of Arete is the first) to start. His bigger works can wait until you are certain you like his style.
posted by bonehead at 11:53 AM on March 8, 2010


Gumblebee - I went through the same process. All I read through high school and most of college was sci fi, and I went through half a dozen books a month. Maybe more. And now ... every once in awhile I glance through an old favorite at the bookstore, and can't recall the wonder. Usually I just cringe a bit.

Not always. Check out Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell), Stone Gods (Jeanne Winterson), or Michael Chabon (Yiddish Policemen's Union).
posted by kanewai at 11:57 AM on March 8, 2010


I respect Atwood's relationship to science fiction. As far as I can tell from the links provided in this thread, she's never resisted the label, and has a right-on analysis of how and why the genre is ghettoized. At the same time, she seems to make the sensible request that her novels be evaluated on their own terms, as we should evaluate all novels, no matter their genre or lack-thereof.
posted by serazin at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2010


There was a good programme on BBC Radio 4 last year where China Mieville interviewed Ursula Le Guin, and at the start they touch on writers/publishers distaste for the genre, even when they're writing/publishing it. Margaret Atwood speaks glowingly of science fiction in the couple of bits where she turns up.
posted by dng at 12:02 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd think Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union counts as sci-fi, only if Roth's The Plot Against America is sci-fi. There are almost no science-fantastical elements in either; both books exist in worlds that come about because of random, almost banal historical flukes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:06 PM on March 8, 2010


The Ansible zine has been making fun of Atwood for this for years now.
posted by Paragon at 12:07 PM on March 8, 2010


Ansible has always been pretty big on the whole "not really science fiction" thing.

These days I prefer to think of "not really science fiction" as a subgenre of Science Fiction.
posted by Artw at 12:12 PM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


Damn, that was horribly written. Why don't they throw a few more illustrations or photos in there so we can better follow along?

Train running off the tracks? What on earth could that mean?

*scrolls*

Ohhhhhh...


Here's a suggestion: if you want people to stop thinking only children read science fiction, stop writing for audience as if they're children.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:12 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I enjoyed Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood tremendously. I like Margaret Atwood a lot. (If you're not familiar with the books, let's just say they both concern a near-future dystopia, the first heap full of bio-engineering, the second situated in the more dangerous Plebeland, with its cults and mobs.)

I thought Atwood was being a little disingenuous when, during a recent book tour in Denver, she claimed that she was not predicting the future, she was just writing about what she observed in the world around her. I don't know if she was saying this as self-deprecation or to distance herself from the speculative/science fiction ghetto, but she is doing what all those dystopian writers do (including Orwell and Huxley, of course, not on the sci-fi shelf): pointing out what is dangerous about present circumstances by...umm..speculating about what might happen if present trends were to continue.
posted by kozad at 12:18 PM on March 8, 2010


Hooray! This is a great opportunity to bust out one of my favorite quotations! It's from the preface to the 1818 version of Frankenstein:
I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it developes; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield. [Emphasis mine]
I love this because it makes it clear that science fiction gives you the opportunity to understand real things in different ways. For example, I LOVE Battlestar Galactica. When I try to explain it to people, I realize that, okay, yeah, it's a show involving people flying around in space being chased by killer robots, but what it's really ABOUT is family and how people deal with crisis (or whatever you want to say it's about, I'm not going to argue with you, at least not right now). Not all science fiction is good and there's a fair amount that's not really my thing, but at its best it gives you a new framework for thinking about things that really matter.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:22 PM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Let me put it this way: If I wanted to read some science fiction and what I picked up from the shelf at random turned out to be a Margaret Atwood story, I'd be disappointed. The reverse is also true.
posted by Mister_A at 12:22 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


So in that little exchange we're supposed to be cheering for Comic Book Guy? It doesn't matter if Heinlein or [Insert another crappy writer, yeah you heard me, I said crappy] did it first, and the brilliance of Handmaid's Tale or [Insert another novel that can easily fit in a genre but isn't formally categorized or marketed as such] isn't invalidated by Reader's relative ignorance. That kind of thing rings of fanboy insecurity.

I think you're right...kind of. Let's be honest: Atwood is a better writer than Heinlein. I mean, hands down, right? But when people make the claim that their favorite writer couldn't possibly be a horror/sf/mystery writer because you know how trashy those are, and anyway their favorite writer had this fantastic premise and it's a premise the admirer thinks is totally original to the writer they love even though it's basically a cliche to anyone who follows the genre at all, it's fairly clear the admirer doesn't know enough about the genre they're looking down on to have a legit opinion about it one way or the other. And that, quite possibly, much of the brilliance the admirer thinks is inherent in a novel they love is just their own enthusiasm for an idea that's new to them, but really very old.

It's kinda like someone who heard a Green Day song and discovered this fantastic new sound that's so much better than that stupid punk rock, if that helps to clear matters up.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:23 PM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


A lot of sci-fi writing really is horrible...
Theodore Sturgeon fixed that for you.

If a work uses sociological or technological trends and extrapolates then it's science fiction. As far as I can tell, Attwood is all over that whole social / technological extrapolation thing.

Seriously, a western with all the old west nouns and adjectives replaced with space nouns and adjectives isn't science fiction. Adding a 10 year old kid and his robot dog for no good reason doesn't fix that either. The problem is not science fiction, it's with the way that science fiction has been marketed. As a result people believe that Star Wars is Science Fiction because it has space ships and robots. Meanwhile, Magister Ludi, with it's technology of philosophy. That is Literature.

I mean roll that around in your head for a moment - A Technology of Philosophy. I can at tell you where to start if you wanted to build a robot. But a technology of philosophy? That takes robots out behind the barn and kicks their shiny metal asses.

If Atwood wanted to rebrand her writing "a billet of oil hardening steel" would we put a special clause in the OED explaining that besides that whole iron / carbon thing, steel also refers to the writing of Margaret Atwood? I think not. I think we'd dismiss her as a crank. Which is kind of how I find myself leaning on the issue.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am also irritated by the way the bookstore keeps moving Jonathan Lethem's books.
posted by Mister_A at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2010


Well she might not be an sf writer but she did come up with the suitably skiffy LongPen
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:27 PM on March 8, 2010


Call her what you like, but I'm not going to read any more Atwood until she stops using infidelity and crazy women as major plot points. I twitch every time another class of teenage boys are given a copy of "The Edible Woman" as their into to feminism.

And I've read a lot of Atwood including some of her earlier stuff.
posted by Phalene at 12:28 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


kmz : Hasn't Margaret Atwood repeatedly tried to claim that her works are "real" literature and not science fiction, that foul genre no "real" writer would touch with a ten foot pole?

So, does it annoy others as much as it does me, when authors complain about praise given to them outside what they see as their intended genre? Usually this involves fantasy or SciFi (as in this case), but really I'd extend it to any deviation from their self-image.

I happen to like SciFi, and although I also like a fair amount of "speculative fiction", an author has a zero percent chance of my giving them a random try (without a friend's recommendation) if they bill themselves as such.

Aww, you consider yourself a "serious" writer and some mean ol' critic "accused" you of writing SciFi? Congratulations, you just qualified to have me as part of your audience. Now take my money and STFU.

Really - If you can make a living writing (or doing anything you love to do), consider yourself lucky and lose the pretension.
posted by pla at 12:28 PM on March 8, 2010


Call her what you like, but I'm not going to read any more Atwood until she stops using infidelity and crazy women as major plot points.

But women are crazy! (And so are men.) And they sleep around! (And so do men.) I liked The Edible Woman, and I liked Surfacing. I even liked The Robber Bride, although it flummoxed me a bit.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:36 PM on March 8, 2010


I'd think Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union counts as sci-fi, only if Roth's The Plot Against America is sci-fi. There are almost no science-fantastical elements in either; both books exist in worlds that come about because of random, almost banal historical flukes.

Alternate history stories are usually called science fiction, except when they are not. Is Inglourious Basterds a science fiction movie? Depends on who you ask, and who is doing the asking. Generally, not many casual viewers would think of it that way.

One of the things I, as an occasional alternate history fan, think about from time to time is that essentially every narrative takes place in a different world from our own. Whatever is the same between our reality and the reality of, say, Grey's Anatomy, there is no television show called Grey's Anatomy on TV in their world. It occurred to me ten years ago that while The X-Files was a science fiction show and The West Wing was putatively not, if I woke up one morning in the world of The West Wing I would know very quickly that something was wrong -- different countries, different heads of state, different borders on existing countries. Waking up one morning in the world of The X-Files, I would find it indistinguishable from this one: some secretive goings-on somewhere, some people half a world away with unusual powers... how would you know?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:38 PM on March 8, 2010 [14 favorites]


So, a blogger on a website run by a publisher of science fiction books asserts that writing science fiction is an act of moral courage. And it's extra special because the writer in question is, like, GOOD and stuff. Bah. That's the same kind of "fight the good fight, boys!" boosterism that reinforces genre stereotypes. It's a two-way street: booksellers and publishers reinforce genre stereotypes, but they'd be less likely to do so if Pudgy McConTShirt would read some Richard Powers or Don DeLillo instead the latest John Ringo clunker.

It's reinforced from both sides: the literary establishment seems unduly suspicious of fiction that actually sets out to entertain readers (not that that is a criterion of science fiction, but it's certainly characteristic of "genre" fiction in general), and genre buffs seem unwilling to make the effort to break out of their bubbles long enough to establish the kind of intellectual and interpersonal contacts that would cross-fertilize both camps. I dunno. I guess the only thing more insular than a science fiction convention is a college English department, who create , critique, and pass back and forth a set of Serious Books for Serious Readers amidst such an obfuscatory smog of theoretical wank that they might as well be exchanging seekrit handshakes at the clubhouse door. So there's plenty of wall-building in both camps.

But this I GUARANTEE: right now, Gene Wolfe's publisher has a Secret Plan locked in a drawer. A pile of blurbs from Acknowledged Masters of Literary Fiction. Slick new covers that scream "CHALLENGING AND HYPER-LITERATE!". Phone numbers for the NY Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. As soon as Mr. Wolfe passes, the machinery will grind into motion. And five years later he'll be the "new" Philip K. Dick, required reading everywhere, a part of the discourse instead of the pride of the fanboys.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:39 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've only read a few of Margaret Atwood's books. I quite enjoyed Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad, but I thought Cat's Eye was really brilliant, and astonishingly horrifying in places.
posted by dng at 12:39 PM on March 8, 2010


She's a Nobel Prize-caliber writer and deserves a better fate than that.

Actually, I think of her books as being easy reads. The writing is thoroughly pedestrian and her ideas and characters are hardly subtle. She does have some interesting ideas and that plus the breezy read makes her book enjoyable (at least to me.)

And while Dick has formal experiments and mind-bending stories, I don't think he's a very interesting stylist. His prose is "workmanlike."

Yes, if by "workmanlike" you mean the mechanic who instead of rebuilding your engine replaces it with a painstaking yet crudely built cardboard replica while on a weekend long meth binge. I think PkD is a much more interesting 'stylist' than Atwood just because his prose is so broken. Dick's writing is in the category of 'outside art.' I think Vonnegut tries hardest to replicate the effect, but clearly isn't doing enough drugs. There's little one can really say about Atwood's style.

What I thought was most interesting about "Oryx and Crake" wasn't the end-of-the-world scenario or the literary style but the ideas on the moral underpinnings of science and the people who practice it. This is something she also gets at in "Cat's Eye" where the main character's brother is an astrophysicist. The combination of amoral instincts and the culture of academic competition and ladder climbing that she describes in O&C, I think ring true.

I don't think "Year of the Flood" had anything really to say... it tried to look at the same scenario from the perspective of two women (instead of the two men in O&C) but I don't think it went anywhere.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:40 PM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


I also consider Infinite Jest science fiction.
posted by georg_cantor at 12:40 PM on March 8, 2010


After writing Slaughterhouse Five" Kurt Vonnegut said:

"I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

I loved both Oryx & Crake and After the Flood. In fact, I went back and re-read Oryx & Crake after reading Flood. What's so fascinating is that much of the speculative stuff in the book is like a Law & Order episode - lifted from the headlines. Vat grown meat, goats with silk in their milk, wacky cults. Great stuff.
posted by misterpatrick at 12:42 PM on March 8, 2010


Sheesh, if those quotes at the Ansible site are true, Atwood holds some pretty hateful prejudices toward science fiction readers.

Can someone point to the offensive quotes and hateful prejudices? Is it just the talking squids comment? That's "hateful?" What the hell is wrong with talking squids? I'd read that novel. It sounds cool.

She basically said, "Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals."

Why does everyone think that just because she once claimed her fiction wasn't science fiction, that's because she thinks science fiction is bad. I don't get that at all (especially when she writes an op-ed about "why we need science fiction"). I'm a little nonplussed by the aggressive reaction to some seemingly inocuous comments.

I've been reading and loving science fiction since I was 5 or 6. I don't get the offense. I'm guessing that I must be missing some comments. (I can see some offensive comments from reviewers, but not from Atwood herself.)

I'd tell you my own opinion of Oryx and Crake, but that would mean actually reading it.

That seems to be the mindset here. I don't get the grar.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:46 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


I thought Atwood was being a little disingenuous when, during a recent book tour in Denver, she claimed that she was not predicting the future, she was just writing about what she observed in the world around her. ... she is doing what all those dystopian writers do (including Orwell and Huxley, of course, not on the sci-fi shelf): pointing out what is dangerous about present circumstances by...umm..speculating about what might happen if present trends were to continue.

Well, that's the effect it has on you when you read it, so naturally you assume that's what goes on in the writer's head while she writes it. Of course, Atwood might be fibbing or kidding herself, but I can see two different sorts of writers both creating dystopian stories -- stories that might be very much alike -- for very different reasons.

Writer A thinks the way you do: he looks at the world now and thinks, "What if this or that trend keeps on going the way it's going until it reaches its logical conclusion?" He is upset by some set of political or social forces, and he is essentially crafting a political cartoon about it.

Writer B thinks, "Hmmm. I am attracted to writing fantastic stories. They best way I know how to do that is to take stuff that exists now and exaggerate it.... what's that? You think I'm trying to predict the future? Naw. I don't care about the future. I'm just trying to create an imaginary world using stuff from the real world."

I should also note that there are different kinds of readers. I LOVE dystopian novels. As is true of many fans of the genre, one of my favorites is "1984." Now, from what I've read, Orwell thought the way you do. He WAS trying to predict the future. He was saying, "If things keep going the way they're going, we might wind up here!" And lots of people read "1984" in that light.

I don't. I am turned off by social satire, political commentary, relevance and "message" books. And yet I still love "1984." How is that possible? Because, regardless of whatever his intentions might have been, Orwell created a world that is self-contained. You CAN read it and do a sort of compare-and-contrast with our world. Or you can read it the way, say, you might read "The Hobbit." You can read it as an imaginary world that you escape into. That's how I read it.

(To me, one of the brilliant things about that book is that it simultaneously exists as metaphor and straight-forward narrative. Depending on a reader's personality, he can thoroughly enjoy the book from either stance.)

In that review of Le Guin stories, Atwood notes (with pleasure) what Le Guin says about her own method:

Typically, she doesn't concoct her worlds: she finds herself in them, and then begins to explore them, just like, well, an anthropologist. "First to create difference," she says, "...then to let the fiery arc of human emotion leap and close the gap: this acrobatics of the imagination fascinates and satisfies me as almost no other."
posted by grumblebee at 12:47 PM on March 8, 2010


Inglourious Basterds is fucking awesome, is what it is.

(some more thoughts on that from jscalzi - BTW if Inglorious Bastards currently remains unspoilered for you see it as soon as possible, you're in for a treat.)

If you're in the business of writing Historical What-ifs, and you come up with some kind of societal speculation as a result of it (which Inglorious Bastards certainly does not do) then yeah, that's pretty much in the vicinity of SF, A.K.A Speculative Fiction (see what I did there).
posted by Artw at 12:47 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alternate history stories are usually called science fiction, except when they are not.

Dick's The Man in the High Castle contains science fiction elements, mainly because of the "multiverse" elements in it. Up until the point when Dick introduces that plot element, it is just a work of historical fiction, about how modern society might be the same or different, given a few different parameters.

Just like Chabon's and Roth's stories, Dick's is self-contained. In that self-contained world, they aren't necessarily using scientific ideas but are instead focused on the people who live in that world as a starting point for thinking about what happens in our own.

You can draw a Venn diagram between the two categories, but I think there are reasonably clear boundaries to draw based on the contents of those stories and how they can be valued. I'm not certain that ascribing a seemingly vague and all-encompassing term "science fiction" to certain works mentioned here is fair to those works or their writers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:01 PM on March 8, 2010


every narrative takes place in a different world from our own.

But there is a difference in EFFECT.

In my theatre company, we try to give the audience the feeling that the entire cast is on stage all the time. (We perform on a bare stage and when actors "exit," they generally just step out from the center of the stage and stand by the wall.)

When I rehearse long plays with actors, they often worry that they won't be able to last for two or more hours without a bathroom break. So I sneak them offstage. I will let an actor actually leave the stage for an dramatic exit. Then, while the audience is distracted by some scene that doesn't involve that actor, he can go pee and then rotate back onto the stage again.

So it's NOT the case that my actors are on stage all the time. But it FEELS like they are. I've had audience members insist to me that no one ever left the stage, when, in fact, every actor left at some point.

It's not so important that stories play by rigid rules as that they FEEL as if they do. Some stories feel as if they are set in "the real world," even though, of course, when we think about it logically, we know they aren't. To me, that logical distinction isn't very important. What's important is the feeling I get that Anne Tyler writes about people who might live next door to me; whereas George R. R. Martin writes about people who live in another dimension.

There are many writers who delve into a gray area in between the FEELING of real and the FEELING of imaginary, but most tip heavily one way or the other. So I think you need to be a bit careful when, say, someone says, "I don't like science fiction. I like novels set in the real world" and you retort with, "There's no such thing as a novel set in the real world." Well, yes there is... sort of. There are novels that make you forget that they're not set in the real world. Just as there are novels that make you forget that there really isn't such a place as Middle Earth.
posted by grumblebee at 1:03 PM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


It might seem silly to argue with such heat over what Artw correctly deems a marketing category, but the discussion has stakes: the sci-fi ghetto is real, and authors of undeniable skill have languished in it. Take Avram Davidson, R.A. Lafferty and Thomas Disch. Blazing novae all; they died, respectively, in squalor, obscurity, and despair.

A fine, aspiring writer of science fiction or fantasy can make one of two responses to the situation: deny the genre, and preserve and enlarge your own audience at the expense of the reputations of the artists who came before you; or embrace the ghetto, and try to redeem those lost reputations through your popularity. Atwood chose the first response, while Neil Gaiman is among the foremost of those who chose the latter.

I can understand Margaret Atwood, but I respect Neil Gaiman.
posted by Iridic at 1:12 PM on March 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


I just finished reading After the Flood today. What a snoozefest that was. Loved Oryx and Crake — couldn't put it down. But Atwood, as good a wordsmith as she is, forgot to put in a plot into the sequel. The first one had the mystery of What Happened? driving it, and the sequel had the mystery of... well... is that girl going to somehow against all reasonable odds meet up with that guy from the first book? And then she leaves it on a pseudo-cliffhanger. Classic middle-book-in-a-trilogy downfalls. I thought you were better than that, Margaret.
posted by papercake at 1:15 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can draw a Venn diagram between the two categories, but I think there are reasonably clear boundaries to draw based on the contents of those stories and how they can be valued. I'm not certain that ascribing a seemingly vague and all-encompassing term "science fiction" to certain works mentioned here is fair to those works or their writers.

Oh dear. I thought you were joking earlier.

I'm not sure Michael Chabon would agree with you that it would be unfair or denigrating, though he does say he'd like to see bookstores shelve all fiction together regardless of genre (Or maybe just have two sections, "Good Stuff" and "Crap").
posted by Artw at 1:18 PM on March 8, 2010


Yeah I'm all for the "Good Stuff" vs "Crap" division. I'll browse both, of course. "Crap" usually has more naked ladies on the cover.
posted by Mister_A at 1:23 PM on March 8, 2010


Dick's The Man in the High Castle contains science fiction elements, mainly because of the "multiverse" elements in it. Up until the point when Dick introduces that plot element, it is just a work of historical fiction, about how modern society might be the same or different, given a few different parameters.

Interestingly by this definition The Iron Dream would be a historical novel.
posted by Artw at 1:25 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


(And really there should be a corollary to Sturgeons Law that stats that 90% of Alternate History is WWII)
posted by Artw at 1:28 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


DU: The really annoying thing about Big Name Writers Who Write SF But Say They Aren't SF Writers isn't that they are insulting SF. SF fans are used to that. The really annoying thing is the people who read the resulting books and think that it's a really big new idea that the writer came up with.

This cuts both ways. I've recently seen Neal Stephenson's and Ian McDonald's direct lifts from, respectively, Pynchon and Marquez praised as breathtakingly original, and back in the day science fiction's "New Wave" was mostly about importing decades-old mainstream techniques.

grumblebee: here are some suggestions for science fiction with excellent literary qualities:

John Crowley, Engine Summer
John Clute, Appleseed
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
Thomas M. Disch, 334 and Camp Concentration
Carol Emshwiller, The Start of the End of It All
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand Of Darkness
Barry Malzberg, Beyond Apollo
Paul Park, Coelestis
Christopher Priest, The Prestige
Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died
Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden
James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon): Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus
posted by doubtfulpalace at 1:31 PM on March 8, 2010 [24 favorites]


I've been working on The Handmaid's Tale for a few weeks now. If I could read it straight through I could knock it out in under a day, but Atwood's gorgeous, lyrical prose so perfectly conveys the horrors she's writing about that I can't get through more than a chapter or so without wanting to die.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:32 PM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


mrgrimm : Why does everyone think that just because she once claimed her fiction wasn't science fiction, that's because she thinks science fiction is bad.

Because in general, people don't try to distance themselves from labels only slightly incorrect unless they consider those labels fairly negative.

By doing exactly that, she has fallen into a larger stereotype (others mentioned Vonnegut) of authors who go out of their way to defend their work as magically more important than the mere bread-and-circuses of the plebes - Whether her intention or not.


I don't get that at all (especially when she writes an op-ed about "why we need science fiction").

"I have nothing against black people, I even think we need them to add diversity to our culture... But, check out this healthy palor!"


Iridic : I can understand Margaret Atwood, but I respect Neil Gaiman.

This.
posted by pla at 1:33 PM on March 8, 2010


I think the age of the hard distinction is past: David Foster Wallace, Cormac MacCarthy, Michael Chabon, and other "real" fiction luminaries have written novels that could easily be shelved in the SF section; even Don DeLillo is arguable (White Noise).
posted by Shepherd at 1:33 PM on March 8, 2010


(And really there should be a corollary to Sturgeons Law that stats that 90% of Alternate History is WWII)

And 60% of that is back-catalog Turtledove.
posted by Iridic at 1:33 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


My take on Margaret Atwood: As mrgrimm said above, I've been reading and loving science fiction since I was 5 or 6, so I'm fairly familiar with the genre. I picked up Oryx and Crake because it was so strongly recommended as a great SF work. That's not how I found it. To me, it was a sort of middling-interesting piece of science fiction. I've read stuff with more interesting and better developed ideas, and I've read standard fiction that I thought was far better written. So, if I'm looking for a really fantastic sci fi read, I will not go to Atwood, and if I want to read a really good book, I might pick up War and Peace or Housekeeping (by Marilynn Robinson).
posted by Hobgoblin at 1:41 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'll add Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville, and Nalo Hopkinson to doubtfulpalace's list.

Incidentally, Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies are a good place to look if you want well-written SF (although his taste runs to apocalyptofic, I've noticed).
posted by thomas j wise at 1:44 PM on March 8, 2010


Paolo Bacigalupi

When it comes to portaying a ravaged world with all kinds of GM freakery going on Paolo Bacigalupi has a degree of verisimilitude that Atwood could not even begin to touch. In particular the various neologisms of Oryx and Crake are just flat out terrible.
posted by Artw at 1:49 PM on March 8, 2010


I guess the only thing more insular than a science fiction convention is a college English department, who create , critique, and pass back and forth a set of Serious Books for Serious Readers

This is so completely full of shit that I hardly know where to begin, but suffice it to say that I've known so many hardcore sci-fi fans in literary studies that this kind of generalizing about "literary establishments" and "college English departments" reads like clueless defensive posturing to me. Maybe you haven't heard of popular-culture studies or sci-fi scholarship, or maybe somebody with a Ph.D. sneered at your favorite pulp writer once, or whatever, but that doesn't mean that literary scholars ignore genre fiction. There are journals and even graduate programs in sci-fi studies. Save your hostility at the genre-sneering crossover marketing for the publishers' marketing departments; nobody in the "literary establishment" (whatever that is) really believes it.
posted by RogerB at 1:50 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ach clumsy neologisms make me cringe.
posted by Mister_A at 1:51 PM on March 8, 2010


Can someone point to the offensive quotes and hateful prejudices?

Oh, crap. I totally misread that. The quote that stuck in my head: "She said that SF readers were nerds who dressed badly, were poor and could not, in her elegant phrase, "get a woman". I asked, "How about Bill Gates?" Her reply: "He's a nerd too." was not referring to Atwood but someone else.

Atwood did not say that.
I retract my harsh comment above and would be happy for a mod to remove it and resolve to read more carefully before spouting off again.
posted by straight at 1:52 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Heh. Googling "oryx crake neologisms" brings up this: Snats don't squeak; they hiss
posted by Artw at 1:55 PM on March 8, 2010


So, if I'm looking for a really fantastic sci fi read, I will not go to Atwood, and if I want to read a really good book, I might pick up War and Peace or Housekeeping (by Marilynn Robinson).

Try "Cat's Eye" one day. Atwood's more far-out stuff is, naturally, getting attention. "Cat's Eye" (which is a dark novel about childhood) is her masterpiece.
posted by grumblebee at 1:59 PM on March 8, 2010


I think the age of the hard distinction is past: David Foster Wallace, Cormac MacCarthy, Michael Chabon, and other "real" fiction luminaries have written novels that could easily be shelved in the SF section; even Don DeLillo is arguable (White Noise).

Perhaps only by stretching the term "science fiction" past the point of any coherent meaning.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:00 PM on March 8, 2010


As it happens I read Cat's Eye a few months ago, and I agree with grumblebee.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:05 PM on March 8, 2010


even Don DeLillo is arguable (White Noise).

White Noise is not, but Ratner's Star certainly is (even if the NYT called it a Menippean satire). Check it out. It's one of my favorite books ever.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:09 PM on March 8, 2010


Perhaps only by stretching the term "science fiction" past the point of any coherent meaning.

I think you'd really have to jump through some odd hoops to come up with a definition of SF that excludes this but not this.
posted by Artw at 2:10 PM on March 8, 2010


"...Perhaps only by stretching the term "science fiction" past the point of any coherent meaning."

A chemical that causes one who takes it to mistake words for the things they represent? A drug that cures the fear of death? Those sound like elements of a Twilight Zone plot to me - which makes it (say it with me kids) Science Fiction.

Just because it's literate, exquisitely written and widely acclaimed doesn't mean we'll go and give it a pass. The new breed of science fiction fan will claim it as their own, instead. The irritation and upset this causes with those who've been urinating in Vonnegut's drawer pleases me greatly.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:12 PM on March 8, 2010


Cat's Eye is really good, but my favorite is probably Alias Grace. (I thought Blind Assassin was ubercheap for the (one big) spoilerish reason.)
posted by mrgrimm at 2:13 PM on March 8, 2010


A drug that cures the fear of death?

That sounds like Paxil.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:16 PM on March 8, 2010


.... or the Penfield Mood Organ (man, that was a good book).
posted by mrgrimm at 2:21 PM on March 8, 2010


Artw: on the contrary, it's easy: "science fiction is stuff that sells best if you put it on the science fiction shelf."

Science fiction fans define SF by the tropes it contains, because that lets them claim the most stuff as SF. Literary readers are more interested in style and technique--how a book is about something rather than what it's about. By this criterion putting the The Road and The Road Warrior in the same genre seems absurd.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2010


A chemical that causes one who takes it to mistake words for the things they represent? A drug that cures the fear of death?

The book is a satire of consumerism and academia, and a discourse on postmodern, suburban malaise, among other ideas. It is perhaps not as productive to focus on the drug to the exclusion of the larger ideas the drug is supposed to be pointing you towards.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2010


The Book of the New Sun is one of the greatest literary works I've ever read. But it's long. I can't see how it could be any shorter, but perhaps your first exposure to Gene Wolfe might better be short story collections like "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" or ""The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories" and Other Stories".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:24 PM on March 8, 2010


Caution: Some of the titles mentioned may be slipstream.

TBH I think the talk of hard lines and distinctions is pretty useless... certainly no one has had a single hard-and-fast definition of Science Fiction better than the rule-of-thumb "it seems science fictiony" for a couple of decades now.

Probably it makes more sense to think in terms of science fiction as a very fuzzy gradient, with surreal-with-sf-elements and Alt History being fairly far out from the core, non-specific dystopias like The Road and fantasy pieces where the SF is fairly incidental sitting a little closer and slap bang in the middle would be your Space Opera and your Hard SF.

Oryx and Crake would be right in that central spot.
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2010


By this criterion putting the The Road and The Road Warrior in the same genre seems absurd.

Well, that, and that focusing on what caused the events in The Road, while cool in an apocalyptic Mad Max SF way, is kind of not why the writer typed it out. Details in the "science fiction" aspects, such as they are, are largely irrelevant. Purposefully so.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:29 PM on March 8, 2010


Blazecock Pileon: It is perhaps not as productive to focus on the drug to the exclusion of the larger ideas the drug is supposed to be pointing you towards.... Details in the "science fiction" aspects [of The Road], such as they are, are largely irrelevant. Purposefully so.

This is equally true of any number of books that everyone would label as science fiction.

I personally don't see any reason why a book can't be both SF and literary fiction, or a little of each.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:32 PM on March 8, 2010


I was reading Ice by Anna Kavan recently and the introduction in that (by Christoper Priest) kept talking about slipstream fiction, but by the end it seemed so broadly defined it might as well just have meant "odd fiction".
posted by dng at 2:36 PM on March 8, 2010


That'd be roughly what it is.
posted by Artw at 2:38 PM on March 8, 2010


A genre for genre's sake
posted by dng at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2010


dng: I read Ice last week. My copy had an Aldiss introduction claiming it was SF, possibly because the term "slipstream" hadn't been invented yet, but like you I was not convinced. I would call it surrealism if I had to call it something.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:43 PM on March 8, 2010


Millhauser is odd. Is he SF? Slipstream? Literary fiction? You decide.
posted by Mister_A at 2:43 PM on March 8, 2010


The only Millhauser I've read is In the Realms of Morpheus, which I would say belongs in the dream fantasy microgenre with Alice In Wonderland and Cabell's The Nightmare Has Triplets. Unlike those works, I found it extremely irritating, but I would be hard-pressed to explain why, especially as I read it twenty-plus years ago.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:54 PM on March 8, 2010


Ooh, I love these genre vs. lit world arguments.

Some thoughts:
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:03 PM on March 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Heh, that's actually in me in comment 17 of that post. I thought the argument advanced was a bit silly - he's putting a whole lot of motivations onto Atwood that she herself has never voiced, and may not even hold.

On top of those unknowable motivations, he is slathering a layer of heroism and self-sacrifice that is either redundant (if Atwood is a hero for doing this, so are a quintillion other sci fi [and other] writers) or simply untrue (yes, what courage, to write best selling novels that get nominated for prizes and make millions of dollars).

On both counts, no dice from me.

PS I have started writing for tor.com myself! wooo! Nothing so controversial, I might add.
posted by smoke at 3:09 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


A genre for genre's sake

Oh, I don't know. I think a term somewhat like that might be useful for describing, say, William Gibsons work and it's relationship to SF. But "slipstream" is pretty much a dead term mired in the early 90s, so TBH I'm pretty suprised to hear anyone using it.
posted by Artw at 3:11 PM on March 8, 2010


Anyway, what I'm really waiting for is for a serious lit writer to write some high fantasy.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:18 PM on March 8, 2010


My money is on McCarthy.
posted by Artw at 3:24 PM on March 8, 2010


I've known so many hardcore sci-fi fans in literary studies that this kind of generalizing about "literary establishments" and "college English departments" reads like clueless defensive posturing to me. Maybe you haven't heard of popular-culture studies or sci-fi scholarship, or maybe somebody with a Ph.D. sneered at your favorite pulp writer once, or whatever, but that doesn't mean that literary scholars ignore genre fiction. There are journals and even graduate programs in sci-fi studies.

Taking science fiction seriously as a piece of popular culture isn't the same as taking it seriously as literature. Different rules and mindsets apply. And if your point is that the study of science fiction isn't stigmatized within academe, well, OK, it HAS been a long time since I've been in a classroom, so maybe you're right and things have changed. I doubt it, but I hope so.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:29 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is equally true of any number of books that everyone would label as science fiction.

Perhaps, but I am talking specifically about a book, in which its author purposefully avoided almost any details of the catastrophe that created the story's world. And this is both in the book and in any discussion of the book with critics or journalists. The point I am addressing is that it would require a massive redefinition of the term "science fiction" to put The Road on a bookshelf with Ender's Game etc. when the author deliberately avoided exploring the only part of the book that could reasonably be called SF-y.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:54 PM on March 8, 2010


It's a kinda election them elves got, the wizard said.

There was a rust on the wind. The hero decided he would oil his sword. He was tired of the wizard's voice. He thought to shake off his brown study.

The gods done breathed on em at the maidenhood of the world, the wizard continued, and they with the ears knows it. I seen elves die, and they do it smiling. Nothing of our order of happiness, now. Let 'em live, make em die, they'll smile at ya. They knew how it was gwine to be from the beginning.

The wind sounded again, overblowing the campfire. The noise made for an alarum of twitching and stamping in the horses. The hero remembered that his oil and his stone were in his saddle, shuddering with his horse. He went to get it.

If you kill an elf you're doing the gods' work, the wizard called after him. Jist don't expect to get paid for it.
posted by Iridic at 3:59 PM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


t would require a massive redefinition of the term "science fiction" to put The Road on a bookshelf with Ender's Game etc.

Nah. Like I say, shelving decisions are somewhat separate to genre definitions, and purely come down to marketing. So all it would take is for The Road to be marketed as a science fiction book. So say we propose an Alternate History in which Cormac McCathy had sold no other books before The Road, except for a single Science Fiction one which does not exist in this reality - let's call it Death Squid. If Death Squid sold well and he went on to write The Road, exactly as is with no changes to the book, then The Road would absolutely be shelved next to Death Squid in the Science Fiction section.

Exactly as is, and without seeming out of place.

This alternate history is somewhat unlikely though - his editor at his SF book imprint would probably have asked him for proper punctuation at some point.

The US edition would have a really terrible cover as well.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on March 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


Science fiction: the genre that dare not speak its name. Mainstream authors and publishers seem happy to appropriate the tropes of science fiction but not the label itself
posted by Artw at 4:31 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maureen McHugh on The Road and the genre of Not Science Fiction (she didn't much care for it).
posted by Artw at 4:46 PM on March 8, 2010


Atwood is one of my favorite living authors. Several of my friends dislike her. They say that she is a supercilious smart-ass. She is. She is also frequently proven correct on many of her imperious pronouncements. That makes them dislike her even more. Her poetry has an edge to it.

A short list of some of my favorite great SF authors:

Atwood, Butler, LeGuin, Lessing, Sheldon/Tiptree..

(previous comment) Wikipedia description of Murder in the Dark:
"Atwood uses this game to describe the relationship between the author, reader and critic: the writer is the murderer, the critic is the detective, and the reader is the victim."
posted by ovvl at 4:58 PM on March 8, 2010


Also, in terms of awesome Sci-Fi writers that may or may not occasionally be labeled Science Fiction is Italo Calvino. Although, reading him in his native Italian is satisfying, the translations of his work are very well done. I happen to think he's a phenomenal author.
posted by lizarrd at 5:02 PM on March 8, 2010


What's odd about much of the chip-on-shoulder commentary in this thread from SF fans is, well, if you've so little respect for Atwood, and her prose, and perhaps for the very notion of "literary fiction" as something separate from genre fiction, why on earth do you care so much about whether she endorses your preferred genre as a legitimate one?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:04 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hey, you make silly pronouncements about how a genre you write in sucks but your own stuff is special, it's going to catch attention. She should definitely know better and is pretty much a hypocrite covering her own ass. That said The Handmaid's Tale is an excellent piece of Science Fiction and thoroughly deserves it's Arthur C. Clarke Award and it's Nebula award nomination. Though Oryx and Crake, the one she made the most fuss about being not science fiction and the source of the quote about SF being "talking squids in outer space" seems to be very much a lesser work.
posted by Artw at 5:12 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Road could be put into any setting where close-knit family members are forced into utter despair and chaos, like the Thirty Years' War, for example. If an unspecified nuclear holocaust or asteroid strike makes The Road science fiction, then Der Augsburger Kreidekreis is a work of science fiction, as well.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:15 PM on March 8, 2010


Which it ain't, btw.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:15 PM on March 8, 2010


I think it's two things, game warden: first, it's the way members of the literary community feel fine looking down their noses at something that most SF writers and readers take very seriously and hold close to their hearts. Maybe that's cheesy or sentimental, but it's always hurtful to have people (particularly people who are held up as examples of creative/intellectual genius in the public eye) treat you with disdain. And it's an old argument, and it happens often (see this really not-nice response from a Tin House editor to a writer of genre) and we feel tired of it, just flat-out weary, and we're a passionate bunch anyway.

Secondly is that these writers of Not Genre, as McHugh calls them, are appropriating elements from something, for better or for worse, that we see as ours, often without acknowledgment. Or maybe they stumble across this stuff separately, but they don't care enough to do the research, to see what's gone before. They say they just don't like that kind of writing, even if they have no problem using what's good about it. And then they get hailed as innovative or inventive, when we know it's been done before, or been done better. And often these writers have no problem simultaneously taking genre tropes--our genre tropes, dammit!--and then dismissing genre generally, or its fans. Talking squid and all of it. I mean, you can't see how that would be hurtful, how that would sting?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:20 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


TBH if I were a Famous Author and given to widely reported pronouncement about how Non Genre fiction is all just about alcoholic literature proffesors having affairs* and therefore beneath me I'd probably expect someone to point out that this wasn't the case sooner or later. Especially if I was doing this whilst promoting my book about a mathematics proffessor who smokes opium.

* obviously not true: sometimes it's an unemployed person, sometimes they smoke pot and sometimes they just masturbate whilst contemplating the futility of existance.
posted by Artw at 5:42 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


If an unspecified nuclear holocaust or asteroid strike makes The Road science fiction, then Der Augsburger Kreidekreis is a work of science fiction, as well.

The only way The Road isn't science fiction is if, by calling a thing science fiction, we're making presumptions about what the work is that go beyond subject matter and into quality. I'm sorry, but I don't see any other way to argue it. In terms of subject matter, there just isn't that much difference between The Road and The Road Warrior. In terms of treatment, the gulf between these two works is massive (and I say this as a great admirer of both). But should treatment be the deciding factor? Should quality -- as thorny and subjective as that is? Put another way, is it okay to call No Country for Old Men a modern western because that means it (more or less) shares a genre with The Searchers or Unforgiven? Or yet another way: Would anyone object to calling The Road science fiction if that were framed as "you know, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange?"
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:17 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Would anyone object to calling The Road science fiction if that were framed as "you know, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange?"

I would, because it would be cheating. Both of those are considerably more science-fictional than The Road Warrior, which I would consider a borderline case.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 6:26 PM on March 8, 2010


I'm absolutely biased, as Atwood is one of my favorite writers. But I've seen her speak, and remember her almost rhapsodizing about the ability of science fiction to explore worlds and run thought experiments that realistic fiction quite simply cannot.

We have at least one comment above referencing her article on why we need science fiction. And another on her seemingly deep knowledge of (and willingness to take seriously enough for an NYRB article about) the genre. And another linking a radio program where she's made glowing comments about science fiction.

Which is all to repeat the question asked elsewhere in this thread: where had she made these recurring comments against science fiction as a genre? A little Googling brought up this (unverified) article, which referenced some statements made around the time of Oryx and Crake. But they seem to be the minority of her statements on the subject... ?

This is all odd to me because she seems, on the whole, to have been a staunch defender of the genre, and a firm believer that traditionally "genre" works and writers deserve to be taken quite seriously. But again, maybe I'm biased.
posted by lillygog at 6:47 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Margaret Atwood, a rip-off artist? Puhleese. The Year of the Flood is one of her best yet.
posted by agregoli at 7:14 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given that the US is fixing to retire a fleet of space ships and we have a superconducting supercollider, what isn't speculative fiction according to Atwood's definition? Is R2-D2 any farther from the robot that welded my car together than Atwood's take on genetic engineering is from real life genetic engineering?

Hell, given that I'm pretty sure the glass bead game didn't involve posting angry diatribes on the philosophy department's bulletin board, Magister Ludi may be the only science fiction left.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:18 PM on March 8, 2010


we're making presumptions about what the work is that go beyond subject matter and into quality

The substance of the journey the two main characters take in The Road is largely unconnected to what caused the catastrophe. That event is the only aspect of the book that has even the slimmest connection with science fiction tropes and the writer gives it about a sentence worth of description, before getting back to his storytelling. Quality doesn't have much to do with it.

In terms of subject matter, there just isn't that much difference between The Road and The Road Warrior.

I'm not so sure The Road Warrior isn't just a glorified Western written around the time of the energy crisis and Reagan's nuclear gamesmanship.

On both a substantive level and a quality level, I question the general idea being put forward in this thread, that The Road and works like it could easily be put on a bookshelf next to, say, Shatner's TekWars epic. They just don't equate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:05 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


On both a substantive level and a quality level, I question the general idea being put forward in this thread, that The Road and works like it could easily be put on a bookshelf next to, say, Shatner's TekWars epic. They just don't equate.

See, but this is facepalmish because The Road would be fine next to another work of high quality SF. Like, say Riddley Walker. There's no reason to use an example of SF that most SF fans don't even think is good.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:10 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


We have at least one comment above referencing her article on why we need science fiction. And another on her seemingly deep knowledge of (and willingness to take seriously enough for an NYRB article about) the genre. And another linking a radio program where she's made glowing comments about science fiction.

Which, for me, makes the whole situation all the more bizarre.

She's familiar with the genre, appreciates what can be done in it, and knows that it's not all pulp. Why, then, the insistence that the term shouldn't be used to refer to her books? Why the "Hurr, hurr, talking cabbages from Planet X" stuff?
posted by CKmtl at 8:21 PM on March 8, 2010


Like, say Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker was more of an exposition on society regressing to medieval mythology, mores and wordplay, after a nuclear war. It has science fiction aspects, but it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work. Anyway, I'd facepalm at the mention of Riddley Walker when TekWars and the like are perfectly representative of what most science fiction happens to be today.

I'm not saying science fiction can't overlap with literature — see Delany and Disch, for example, as well as Hoban — but there's just not a whole lot of it, which is evident in any bookstore or library that puts together a science fiction zone. A book isn't science fiction just because it has a slim sci-fi-y aspect cobbled into it. It has to be at the core of the work, and that just isn't true for most of books that several people want to wrap into the bosom of SFness.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:30 PM on March 8, 2010


Anyway, I'd facepalm at the mention of Ridley Walker Margaret Atwood when TekWars some bullshit magic realist crap about a dwarf with a three foot penis and the wacky villagers that love him, written marginally better than Enid Blyton's The Wishing Tree and the like are perfectly representative of what most science fiction literature happens to be today.

It cuts both ways, BP. "Good" is a category that defies genre, just like bad - which unfortunately makes up the bulk of all published books, equally irrespective of genre.
posted by smoke at 8:36 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that strike thing? Really doesn't help your case.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:42 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Riddley Walker was more of an exposition on society regressing to medieval mythology, mores and wordplay, after a nuclear war. It has science fiction aspects, but it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work

This is ludicrous. Seriously. You obviously subscribe to the TinHouse definition of genre which is "If it's crap, it's genre; if it's good it's not." Which is a definition that's only used by lit peeps with sticks up their butts. It's not what the readers or writers of genre use. Hell, it's not the definition used by the vast majority of anyone involved in books--be it reading, writing, or publishing. If you want to continue using a definition of a commonly understood term that's totally inscrutable to most sensible people, go ahead, but that's not going to stop any of us from rolling our eyes at you.

Anyway, I'd facepalm at the mention of Riddley Walker when TekWars and the like are perfectly representative of what most science fiction happens to be today.

Seriously, I just don't think you read enough science fiction to talk authoritatively about this. I proofread for a science fiction mag, and subscribe to a whole lot more. I can't tell you the last time I read a piece of fiction or a review of a work that was anything like TekWars.

Anyway, that's fine. I'm sure The Road is nice and cozy besides My Sister's Keeper and other works that are stunningly non-SF.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:45 PM on March 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm sure The Road is nice and cozy besides My Sister's Keeper and other works that are stunningly non-SF.

???
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:48 PM on March 8, 2010


???

My point is that there are terrible books on both the genre and non-genre side of things. You want to talk about how ill-fitting The Road would be next to bad SF. Fine, put it next to bad mainstream fiction. Though I still think it would make more sense on a shelf of works that share thematic elements: Riddley Walker, Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, a Canticle for Leibowitz, Earth Abides, Alas, Babylon, and a ton of others. Books that are commonly seen as science fiction. And rightfully so. If it quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:55 PM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fine, put it next to bad mainstream fiction

I'll put it next to Pulitzer Prize-winning literature, like Kavalier and Clay, Old Man and the Sea or The Color Purple, because the characters and world the writer created are evocative and deeply moving without relying on narrative crutches.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:00 PM on March 8, 2010


Riddley Walker was more of an exposition on society regressing to medieval mythology, mores and wordplay, after a nuclear war. It has science fiction aspects, but it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work.

Let me get this straight: Your definition of SF includes the idea that SF must be poorly researched and poorly crafted. I thought you folks all died in the 80s?
posted by Justinian at 9:01 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, I should point out that Riddley Walker won the Campbell award for best science fiction novel, as well as being shortlisted for the Nebula. So your assertion that it isn't Science Fiction is absurdly idiosyncratic.
posted by Justinian at 9:04 PM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


So your assertion that it isn't Science Fiction is absurdly idiosyncratic.

How utterly ridiculous. I know you have some kind of interest in defending the SF genre to the death, but I never said anything of the sort. You can make your point without being dishonest.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:08 PM on March 8, 2010


Unbelievable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:10 PM on March 8, 2010


it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work

Okay, so - beyond Tek Wars, what is "wholly" SF? And why are so many self-and-other-proclaimed SF writers not, by that definition wholly SF? I'm not trying to pile on here, but it really does read like your definition of wholly SF includes "must be shite" - as opposed to your view of literature which is "must be great". Truly, this is not the case.

From a publishing - a commercial viewpoint - (as opposed to a 'wholly' subjective critical one), both genres are simply made up; labels slapped on books and writers to help sell copies, nothing more, nothing less.

This is why a book like Never Let Me Go is classified as literature, and a book like Doomsday Book is classified as SF. To read anything more into it is literally judging a book by its cover.
posted by smoke at 9:35 PM on March 8, 2010


It has science fiction aspects, but it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work.

BP, in all seriousness here, how does "well-researched and well-crafted" exempt something from being "wholly SF"? What does "wholly SF" mean to you?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:49 PM on March 8, 2010


It's kinda like someone who heard a Green Day song and discovered this fantastic new sound that's so much better than that stupid punk rock, if that helps to clear matters up.

Heh, I was totally going to make a Green Day analogy for my point! I guess where people stand on the issue depends upon Hypothetical Reader's position on Science Fiction vs. Literature, and to what degree that position rankles/gibes with their own.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:49 PM on March 8, 2010


I never said anything of the sort.

To be fair, you did say:

1. Riddley Walker [. . .] is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work.

2. A book isn't science fiction just because it has a slim sci-fi-y aspect cobbled into it. It has to be at the core of the work.

Combine 1 and 2, and you get, maybe not exactly the statement "Riddley Walker isn't Science Fiction," but probably something "of the sort."

In any case, this response:

I'll put it next to Pulitzer Prize-winning literature, like Kavalier and Clay, Old Man and the Sea or The Color Purple, because the characters and world the writer created are evocative and deeply moving without relying on narrative crutches

is a dodge, for two reasons.

1. We're talking about genre. Genres are analytical and historical categories, not evaluative ones. If there's a genre, there have to be bad examples of the genre as well as good ones. It's hard to imagine a bad example of the genre of "evocative and deeply moving novels that don't rely on narrative crutches." That just sounds like another way of saying "good novels." If it is your contention that science fiction novels CANNOT be good, then I guess that's fine, but it's pretty clear that (a couple of intemperate remarks to the contrary) that is not your contention.

2. It's only a "narrative crutch" if the author doesn't know how to use it. Is the idea of a journey to a series of bizarrely improbable lands a "narrative crutch"? Not if the book is Gulliver's Travels. Is the idea of a man with a magic penis that can predict rocket attacks a "narrative crutch"? Not if the book is Gravity's Rainbow.

Anyway, as someone who likes both "literary fiction" (whatever that is) and science fiction (whatever that is), I think it's ridiculous to use either as a club to beat the other. Anyone who knows anything about literature (including science fiction) should know that genre-policing is a losing proposition.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 9:49 PM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Riddley Walker was more of an exposition on society regressing to medieval mythology, mores and wordplay, after a nuclear war.

How can being "more of" a common science fiction subgenre (A Canticle For Leibowitz, The Long Tomorrow, etc.) make a book less science-fictional?
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:05 PM on March 8, 2010


but I never said anything of the sort. You can make your point without being dishonest.

Your words are right there on the screen! You said:

but it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work

You said Riddley Walker can't be called wholly SF because it is too well-researched and well-crafted. How can you deny saying something that is right there! Look up! There it is!
posted by Justinian at 10:14 PM on March 8, 2010


Let me get this straight: Your definition of SF includes the idea that SF must be poorly researched and poorly crafted. I thought you folks all died in the 80s?

You need to be introduced to a science fiction author who has had his work made into a movie. Don't eat anything that isn't easy to digest for at least a day before this meeting, because you're going to feel pretty queasy afterwards.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:18 PM on March 8, 2010


This is why a book like Never Let Me Go is classified as literature, and a book like Doomsday Book is classified as SF. To read anything more into it is literally judging a book by its cover.

I'm not sure I buy this. Doomsday Book is modern SF in its most common failure mode: a science-based adventure story that would have made a nice Ace Double side padded out with a few hundred pages of mediocre exposition and character development, told in prose that offers no delights of its own. I don't think you could pass it off as literary fiction.

I don't think SF (published as SF) of conventional literary merit is as rare as Blazecock claims, but we make it pretty hard for sympathetic literary fiction readers to find it. It's not distinguished by any sort of packaging semiotics. It doesn't win awards. It doesn't make Internet Top 100 SF lists. If you think your genre filters are working pretty well--they hand you LeGuin, Delany, Dick, Ballard and maybe even Disch--what incentive do you have to go trawling through the SF&F section and trying to tell one cheesy-looking book with a half-naked swordsman on the cover from another?*

I also don't think conventional literary merit is the only way to fly. I'd love to see room in at least the outsider canon for some of SF's more deranged, uncompromising novels of ideas like Courtship Rite, Schild's Ladder, and Growing Up In Tier 3000, even if their prose is undistinguished (well, that's not really the right word for Gotschalk, whose dense psychobabble might be unique enough to have its own charms). But that's an even tougher sell.

*I can think of at least two SF novels of literary merit with half-naked swordsmen on the cover.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:46 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


For those wondering: The last Tek wars novel appears to have been published in 1997.
posted by Artw at 10:55 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


It doesn't win awards. It doesn't make Internet Top 100 SF lists.

Whut? I'm sympathetic to your points (curse dodgy airbrush art covers, curse them to heck!) but the Hugo, the Nebula, the Philip K Dick Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree Jr Award are all what I would consider pretty reliable indicators of in-genre quality, even if I don't agree with every winner (my strike rate with them is a damned sight higher than the Booker, for example).

A quick search of Metafilter yields a post not so long ago positively dripping with fantastic lists.

Obviously there are still dozens of authors labouring in obscurity - within genre and without - but I truly don't think sci-fi/fantasty/speculative fiction-call it-what-you-like is any less served in this regard than other genres. That's what I find so puzzling about this debate we're having with Blazecock; it presupposes that Science Fiction is in someway obscure - before it even starts debating on whether this assumed status is deserved or not.

It's a false dichotomoy - Literature! Scifi! Never the twain shall they meet! - that I truly don't believe exists any more, if indeed it ever widely did, beyond the sensibilities of a few fiery souls.
posted by smoke at 12:44 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


When will we learn that women and science anything don't mix? Curie. That space shuttle teacher. And now this.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:28 AM on March 9, 2010


Doris Lessing also delved into science fiction and she won the freakin' Nobel Prize. - fuse theorem

Lessing won for a lifetime of work -- and a body of work that pushed way past 'genre' limitations. "Sci-fi" is as limiting a term as any other. Lessing's Canopus in Argos: Archives series was as deep and satisfying as her earlier work (work that included themes as varied as short 'political' stories to deep psychological explorations).

Atwood writing 'sci-fi' books is hardly anything surprising. Perhaps women writers have an easier time blending 'genre'. Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time) and Dorothy Bryant (The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You) are other feminist writers who also resist being limited to a one-genre writing style. Even Virginia Woolfe dabbled in 'feminist speculative fiction' in Orlando.
posted by Surfurrus at 1:54 AM on March 9, 2010


the Hugo, the Nebula, the Philip K Dick Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree Jr Award are all what I would consider pretty reliable indicators of in-genre quality

(1) Except for the Hugo and maybe the Nebula, those awards are pretty obscure if you're not already an SF reader, and (2) "in-genre quality" isn't the same as "conventional literary merit." The only two Hugo winners that I feel like I could hand a literary fiction reader without a disclaimer that the prose was less than first-rate are LeGuin and Chabon, and literary fiction readers already know about both. (I haven't read Strange & Norrell; maybe that's another. And let's allow Gibson, whose prose I think is just OK but whom many rate higher.) With the Nebulas, we pick up Delany, Wolfe, and I assume Butler (an inexplicable gap in my reading that I should rectify forthwith), with Benford and Bishop coming pretty close.

A lot of the other winners are outstanding, but in a more specifically science-fictional way. They're as worthy as many acclaimed literary novels that are beautifully written but rather mundane in their concerns, and I would certainly like to see their wild yet rigorous imagination rated higher on the scale of literary virtues than it is. But if you're trying to hook a fish, I think it's better to use bait they already like the taste of.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 7:12 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lessing's Canopus in Argos: Archives series was as deep and satisfying as her earlier work

I liked Briefing For A Descent Into Hell and The Golden Notebook much, much better.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 7:19 AM on March 9, 2010


What I've learned is that I like PhoBWanKenobi's taste in books.
posted by Mister_A at 7:33 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


The only two Hugo winners that I feel like I could hand a literary fiction reader without a disclaimer that the prose was less than first-rate are LeGuin and Chabon, and literary fiction readers already know about both.

The strange thing is, I don't think Le Guin is anything particularly special in terms of her prose. There's no reason, speaking strictly of prose style only, that Le Guin would be acceptable and, say, Simak should not be. And John Crowley could write circles around them both, prose-wise.
posted by Justinian at 8:07 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


*I can think of at least two SF novels of literary merit with half-naked swordsmen on the cover.

Ooooh, a challenge!

Delany's Neveryon and... hmmm... I don't believe Wolfe has had any half-naked swordsmen on his books. Lots of swordsmen, but fully clothed. I don't think any of the Earthsea novels had such a thing, either. I mean, if you look at stuff from Vance or whoever, sure, but that's not what you mean.

What's the second?
posted by Justinian at 8:18 AM on March 9, 2010


Simak is hugely under-appreciated, in my opinion. I would not attempt to argue that he should be seen as the best stylist ever. It is, however, a real shame that, with Theodore Sturgeon, he gets lumped into the rocketships and laser-beams box of the pulp writers. Both were much better stylists than their contemporaries, and both did rather poorly in the marketplace for science fiction at the time. If either man had lived today, they'd be much better known.
posted by bonehead at 8:27 AM on March 9, 2010


I don't believe Wolfe has had any half-naked swordsmen on his books.

That's the original publication cover of The Sword of the Lictor, I think. Certainly one of them; I have it at home somewhere.
posted by bonehead at 8:31 AM on March 9, 2010


I'll put it next to Pulitzer Prize-winning literature, like Kavalier and Clay, Old Man and the Sea or The Color Purple, because the characters and world the writer created are evocative and deeply moving without relying on narrative crutches.

This makes me giggle at the imagined dialog.

"Oh! You're reading The Road! I've heard it's good. What's it like?"
"The Color Purple."
"So . . . it's about poor black women? It's an epistolatory novel?"
"Well, no. Okay, it's like The Old Man and the Sea."
"It's about an old man catching a marlin?"
"No . . . more like The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The characters and the world are evocative and deeply moving."
"It's about Jewish guys writing comic books?"
". . . no."

Like it or not, when people talk about classifications of literature, 90% of the time they're talking about the trappings of that literature, not whether the characters/world are "evocative and deeply moving." And there are narrative crutches in all of the books you name, or at least gimmicks. And that's fine. People like gimmicks. Whether you see the idea of a gimmick as being negative or not depends wholly on your feelings about the gimmick. Which is what I always think these conversations boil down to: whether or not you like talking squids in space. Because now, we have people claiming they don't know what SF books are good because of the half-naked swordsmen on the covers. We're judging books by covers now?! Seriously?!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:33 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


What's the second?

I was thinking of Shadow of the Torturer, but I was wrong. He's (incorrectly) depicted with a shirt on. You can see a nipple on Claw of the Conciliator (but no sword).

I also like Simak a lot.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 8:41 AM on March 9, 2010


Blazecock Pileon : The Road could be put into any setting where close-knit family members are forced into utter despair and chaos, like the Thirty Years' War, for example.

And you could set Star Trek in 1515 and have most of the storylines work just as well.

Some SciFi uses tech as a crutch. And some just uses it as part of the scenery.


doubtfulpalace : told in prose that offers no delights of its own. I don't think you could pass it off as literary fiction.

I'd say you just described the point where the "serious" writers (which I tend to use as a pejorative) and "good" writers diverge - Not that they can't overlap, but they rarely do.

We (the non-English majors of the world) use language to communicate, not for its own sake. Yes, a particularly clever turn of phrase or rhythmic device or metaphor might impress me - But only in the context of an actual story with some substance to it.

Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams - They manage both. Weis and Hickman (as the stereotypical hack fantasy authors) entertain with no presumption about "literary merit". Atwood I'd put on the edge - Personally I don't really care for the modern trend of "acceptable" misandry, but YMMV.
posted by pla at 8:41 AM on March 9, 2010


And, now that I think of it, The Wizard and The Knight, and Latro in the Mist (the collection of Soldier of Arete and Soldier in the Mist) should also qualify.
posted by bonehead at 8:45 AM on March 9, 2010


We're judging books by covers now?! Seriously?!

Getting her Science Fiction shelved with general fiction probably does get Atwood a better class of cover, so there's that to be said for it.
posted by Artw at 8:49 AM on March 9, 2010


Because now, we have people claiming they don't know what SF books are good because of the half-naked swordsmen on the covers. We're judging books by covers now?! Seriously?!

Who said anything about judging? All I said was that if you're looking for literariness in SF, the covers don't give you any help, unlike in general fiction.

We (the non-English majors of the world) use language to communicate, not for its own sake.

This is a false dichotomy. Bad prose communicates badly. Not caring about bad prose because you can follow the story is like not caring if a band is out of tune because you can tell what song they're playing.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:01 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Those folks are fully dressed, bonehead. I checked my copies of the Wizard Knight books to be sure before I posted. I'd never actually looked at my copy of Sword and Citadel though since I read some tattered paperbacks instead, but it certainly appears to qualify. Or at least there is a man on the cover. With a sword. Who is half naked.

So Delany's Neveryon and Wolfe's Sword and Citadel would seem to be the answer.
posted by Justinian at 9:04 AM on March 9, 2010


Actually, Neveryóna, if we're being picky.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:07 AM on March 9, 2010


Who said anything about judging? All I said was that if you're looking for literariness in SF, the covers don't give you any help, unlike in general fiction.

How do covers show you the literariness of books in general fiction?

This is a false dichotomy. Bad prose communicates badly. Not caring about bad prose because you can follow the story is like not caring if a band is out of tune because you can tell what song they're playing.

No, this is much more like: some people don't like the White Stripes because they're technically less than thrilling. Some people don't care because the White Stripes are fun and raucous and they're not looking for the cold precision of prog rock, or whatever. We're not even talking about prose that's conspicuously bad here--for example, a friend recently lent me a Patricia Briggs novel, and the prose was fine--clean, functional, and correct. It wasn't a poetic masterpiece, but it worked. I've found that the same is true of most speculative fiction authors (and some authors who don't write speculative fiction--Salinger, named upthread, stands out in this way to me). Most don't write the hackneyed and often technically incorrect prose of Dan Brown, no matter what the literary world would want you to believe.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:08 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


How do covers show you the literariness of books in general fiction?

The Oprah Book Club sticker. [/reverse italics, HAMBURGER, Ethiopian sarcasm mark]
posted by CKmtl at 9:35 AM on March 9, 2010


Anyway, what I'm really waiting for is for a serious lit writer to write some high fantasy.

Infinite Jest.

Lyle, the guru who lives off sweat; a magical Entertainment with the power to enslave the human race; a band of Quebecois terrorists who purposely inflict paraplegia on themselves via train ritual; the Great Concavity/Convexity; a mystical narcotic that (somewhere/somehow) transforms a highly intelligent teen into a drooling mutant ... how much more fantasy do you want?

Or by "high" do you mean wizards and warlocks? I would call Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell juvenile literary fiction (if you held a gun to my head and forced me to catalog/classify books).

Personally I don't really care for the modern trend of "acceptable" misandry

Can you give some examples of "acceptable" misandry?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:46 AM on March 9, 2010


I am intrigued by your Ethiopian sarcasm mark...
posted by Mister_A at 9:48 AM on March 9, 2010


Mrgrimm - that's fantasy alright, but not really high fantasy. It's more of a Tim Powers/slipstream/magic realism kind of thing.
posted by Artw at 9:53 AM on March 9, 2010


The reference to talking squids in outer space reminds me of a Philip Dick story, maybe "The Infinites." With the guinea pigs? That's one of my favorites.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:54 AM on March 9, 2010


Ooh I don't know if I've read that one (The Infinites)!
posted by Mister_A at 10:00 AM on March 9, 2010


Got it, artw. Slipstream or alternative reality fits, though those genres seem wide open as well, i.e. Jim Dodge's Stone Junction is a lot different than Man in the High Castle.

Believe it or not, I've never read Tim Powers. I think I'm going to see if my library has Last Call today (unless someone has another rec).
posted by mrgrimm at 10:01 AM on March 9, 2010


That or Declare, but probably that.
posted by Artw at 10:04 AM on March 9, 2010


Mister_A, I might have the wrong title, but it's in The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, which you can usually find under $10 and well worth it, as is that whole collection. Other faves from Vol. 1 are Variable Man and Colony.

And that one where the robots keep all the humans living underground with a fake war ... and that one ...
posted by mrgrimm at 10:06 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Riddley Walker was more of an exposition on society regressing to medieval mythology, mores and wordplay, after a nuclear war. It has science fiction aspects, but it is a bit too well-researched and crafted to be called a wholly SF work

Here I thought this was the strawman of the thread.

So genre pigeonholing is not about quality -- it's not an insult! Except that it is, and it is. Egads.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:09 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mister_A, I might have the wrong title, but it's in The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, which you can usually find under $10 and well worth it, as is that whole collection. Other faves from Vol. 1 are Variable Man and Colony.

<3 this collection.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:14 AM on March 9, 2010


Re prose:

I don't tend to categorize it, but if I had to I would first eliminate all totally inept prose: constant grammar mistakes, tons of cliched phrases and misunderstandings about what words mean.

When I say I have a hard time finding sci-fi that has good prose, I don't mean that most of what I read is like Dan Brown. It's unfair to chide sci-fi for being like that, because all genres contain writing like that. Pick up a bottom tier Western, Mystery, Romance... etc and you'll find sentences that seem to be competing in the Bulwer Lytton contest.

You can usually spot a book like that via its first sentence or paragraph. They aren't worth discussing further. I hope that no one in this thread wastes any more time discussing that crap. As someone who is upset with the prose in standard sci-fi stories, I will go on the record as saying that the authors named in this thread write WAY better that that.

Of what's left, there are books that have showy prose and books in which the prose "steps out of the way." To me, those two types of prose (Nabokov vs. Orwell) have nothing to do with good or bad. They are two different way of writing that bring two different things to the forefront. Either can be good or bad.

I mention that, because when I criticize some sci-fi prose, people tend to think I'm looking for something more "flowery." They think I'm looking for "poetry." I'm not. Though I have enjoyed flowery prose in my life, it's not my favorite sort. I prefer the get-out-of-the-way sort: the stark, the journalistic, the minimalist. I lean away from flowery prose, because as cool as it sometimes is, it tends to lead me more towards the writer's style than towards the sensual aspects of the story.

Aside from proficiency with basic mechanics, what I demand from prose is that it is evocative. If prose just tells me what happens, I consider it bad prose. I expect it to make me FEEL what happens. I expect prose evoke sensual data -- and to evoke it vividly -- that "puts me in the scene." I read in order to be in the scene. So I don't just want to know that the space ship is smooth. I want something in the writing to make me imagine running my hand down the exterior of the hull.

It is possible to write grammatically correct SIMPLE (stay-out-of-the-way) prose that does that. It is also possible to write grammatically correct simple prose that doesn't do that.

THIS is what I miss in a lot of the sci-fi that I read or try to read. The writer is so busy describing his complex world and/or its technology, he forgets to let me feel the bit of sand caught in my shoe. I ESPECIALLY want to feel that sort of stuff in sci-fi. If you're going to take me to another planet, MAN OH MAN do I want to BE there! I want to finish the novel and know what it feels like to shoot a laser gun, to travel at warp speed, to run along the shore of an alien lake.

This usually comes down to subtle word choices. Is slithered more apt that crawled?, etc. It comes down to a facility with metaphor. This is really key for sci-fi, because many such stories are going to be about things that I've never encountered. Your job, sci-fi writer, is to help me encounter them. Your can't always use straight-forward, descriptive language, because there's nothing I've seen you can point to. So you'll have to use an extremely vivid metaphor.

I put down books when they say, "the alien's face made William's feel a little queasy. There was something off about it." It's totally possible to write prose that stays out of the way and yet gives me a sensual hook. WHAT WAS OFF ABOUT IT? Or, if you'd rather it remain a mystery -- if your point is that William's himself couldn't put his finger on it -- then use a metaphor: "There was something a little off about it, like a picture hanging just slightly crooked on the wall."

If there are sci-fi writers that are (a) extremely gifted in the tropes of their genre and (b) genius at putting you in the scene and making you hear, touch, taste, smell and see everything, please please please tell me their names!

H. G. Wells was a master at this:

I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant. There is a feeling exactly like that one has upon a switchback—of a helpless headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash. As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky, leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day. I supposed the laboratory had been destroyed and I had come into the open air. I had a dim impression of scaffolding, but I was already going too fast to be conscious of any moving things. The slowest snail that ever crawled dashed by too fast for me. The twinkling succession of darkness and light was excessively painful to the eye. Then, in the intermittent darknesses, I saw the moon spinning swiftly through her quarters from new to full, and had a faint glimpse of the circling stars. Presently, as I went on, still gaining velocity, the palpitation of night and day merged into one continuous greyness; the sky took on a wonderful deepness of blue, a splendid luminous color like that of early twilight; the jerking sun became a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space; the moon a fainter fluctuating band; and I could see nothing of the stars, save now and then a brighter circle flickering in the blue.
posted by grumblebee at 10:19 AM on March 9, 2010


How do covers show you the literariness of books in general fiction?

Fonts, images, all sorts of cues. They don't tell you how good the book is, but they tell you what it's trying to be.

True story: when I was 19, I was traveling across Europe by train. I needed some books, so I went to the train station bookstore (in Bern, I think). Oh no! The English-language section doesn't have any SF! I have to read... ick... mainstream.

So I made the best of things, and bought some books by writers I had never heard of, but whose covers seemed to imply non-crapitude. They were Rabbit Is Rich, The New York Trilogy, The White Hotel, and The Looking-Glass War. Hey, turns out this mainstream stuff isn't so bad! A literary fiction reader is born. (Yes, I'd really never heard of John Updike. I read SF and fantasy almost exclusively at that time.)

Without cover cues, I would have been just as likely to end up with Sidney Sheldon or the equivalent.

Now imagine the genres reversed--I'm a young literary fiction reader stuck in the SF section. Guess what? I'm stone cold fucked. There's no way to design a useful filter based on cover semiotics, and maybe I end up with Orson Scott Card because he won the Hugo right about then. (To be fair, the early 80s were the nadir of SF cover design. Things aren't as bad now.)

No, this is much more like: some people don't like the White Stripes because they're technically less than thrilling. Some people don't care because the White Stripes are fun and raucous and they're not looking for the cold precision of prog rock, or whatever.

The White Stripes have the correct "prose style" for their music. Good prose doesn't mean fancy prose, it means appropriate prose.

Most don't write the hackneyed and often technically incorrect prose of Dan Brown, no matter what the literary world would want you to believe.

This is absolutely true. But I think most could do better--not by writing space opera in an insanely baroque style, although come to think of it Delany and Clute have done that and it's awesome--but by making their plain language the best possible plain language. This is where I think LeGuin shines.

And there are some award-winning writers, like Robert Sawyer, that are just unpleasant to read.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:27 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a brief technical correction: Some horror has been expressedf at the idea that The Road could be conceivably shelved next to William Shatner's Tek War. I CAN ASSURE YOU THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN. Books are shelved alphabetically by author, so The Road would in fact be shelved next to Anne McCathry's dragonriders of Pern series. Thank you.

Death Squid by Cormac McCathry of course belongs in the mystery and suspense section, along with his other books and next to Ed McBain.
posted by Artw at 10:27 AM on March 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Or: what grumblebee said. grumblebee, I flung some authors and titles at you upthread--if you didn't see them, check them out.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:29 AM on March 9, 2010


doubtfulpalace, I have favorited this thread and will mine it for titles. Thanks!
posted by grumblebee at 10:33 AM on March 9, 2010


Of all the names mentioned here I would probably push Paolo Bacigalupi upon you the hardest, as he really is shaping up to be Kind of a Big Deal, as you can probably tell from my previous FPP.
posted by Artw at 10:40 AM on March 9, 2010


To be fair, the presence or absence of naked sword wielders as an indicator of "craptitude" fairly depends on your predilection for naked sword wielders. I think publishers are making a good--and sensible--gamble in assuming that, if one likes books with brawny swordsmen, then it makes sense to put one on the cover and that it's likely to help the book sell. That's how most people choose their books. See also: Brian Sanderson's recent (excellent) essay on discovering fantasy via the cover art of Michael Whelan.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:52 AM on March 9, 2010


THIS is what I miss in a lot of the sci-fi that I read or try to read. The writer is so busy describing his complex world and/or its technology, he forgets to let me feel the bit of sand caught in my shoe. I ESPECIALLY want to feel that sort of stuff in sci-fi. If you're going to take me to another planet, MAN OH MAN do I want to BE there! I want to finish the novel and know what it feels like to shoot a laser gun, to travel at warp speed, to run along the shore of an alien lake.

I know I keep talking about Octavia Butler, but Dawn is really good enough to warrant it--she describes the alien beings (and the subsequent revulsion that humans feel at the sight of them) with such precision that I often felt nauseous while reading. I've also found that this sort of sensory richness is normally more present in fantasy or even soft SF than hard sci-fi. Mary Stewart and Mercedes Lackey and Anne McCaffrey's early books all have this, for whatever other problems I might have with their books.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:02 AM on March 9, 2010


This thread was worth it just for Death Squid by Cormac McCathry [sic].
posted by Mister_A at 11:03 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


To be fair, the presence or absence of naked sword wielders as an indicator of "craptitude" fairly depends on your predilection for naked sword wielders.

My whole point is that it's not such an indicator. It tells you nothing except that (maybe) there's a brawny swordsman in the book, which, if you're a sympathetic literary fiction reader, is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a thing.

It would be perfectly possible to distinguish Wolfe's books from Robert Howard's by design choices while still featuring semi-clad warriors on both, but, as you say, publishers are trying to sell books, not improve inter-genre relations. I just think it's a little harsh to criticize literateurs for their ignorance of SF's literary merit when circumstances make it pretty obscure.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:06 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and true story: I almost bought The Windup Girl because I had just finished reading The Windup Bird Chronicle. Now I have mild regret, but only mild because I did get this dope-ass Iain M. Banks book.
posted by Mister_A at 11:06 AM on March 9, 2010


Jesus that's a horrible cover on that Banks book there. Awesome book though.
posted by Artw at 11:07 AM on March 9, 2010


It would be perfectly possible to distinguish Wolfe's books from Robert Howard's by design choices while still featuring semi-clad warriors on both, but, as you say, publishers are trying to sell books, not improve inter-genre relations. I just think it's a little harsh to criticize literateurs for their ignorance of SF's literary merit when circumstances make it pretty obscure.

Hmm, given that, as I say, US covers for Science Fiction books tend to be particularly horrible, would this mean that you would expect a lesser divide between SF and other books outside of the US?
posted by Artw at 11:10 AM on March 9, 2010


Yikes that is bad! This is my cover.
posted by Mister_A at 11:10 AM on March 9, 2010


This thread was worth it just for Death Squid by Cormac McCathry [sic].

Come to think of it, this is less unlikely than it sounds...
posted by DaDaDaDave at 11:11 AM on March 9, 2010


Awesome book though.

I recently told a guy looking to get back into SF to try Iain M. Banks. "But not Mattter!", I said.

He got Matter. He didn't like it. Sometimes that's how it goes.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:12 AM on March 9, 2010


Hmm, given that, as I say, US covers for Science Fiction books tend to be particularly horrible, would this mean that you would expect a lesser divide between SF and other books outside of the US?

I think both of those are true, but I'm not sure which causes which.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:14 AM on March 9, 2010


Come to think of it, this is less unlikely than it sounds...

I bet he could do some bang up novelizations of the Jaws movies.
posted by Artw at 11:24 AM on March 9, 2010


My whole point is that it's not such an indicator. It tells you nothing except that (maybe) there's a brawny swordsman in the book, which, if you're a sympathetic literary fiction reader, is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just a thing.

See, but I think you'd be an outlier in thinking it's just a thing. Because it's pretty easy to find good SF: you walk into the science fiction/fantasy section of your local bookstore (conveniently almost always located right up front), pull out a few books, read some book blurbs, read the first few pages. Take home the books that look promising. Leave behind the ones that don't. But the problem, if it is one, is that most readers of literary fiction don't do that. And I honestly think it has much more to do with someone liking brawny swordsmen or aliens or spaceships or not. Maybe they've come to associate these things with bad writing, but I think there are enough examples of really impressive SF/F in this thread alone to show how that logic is faulty. I truly believe it has much more with taste in tropes. And that's fine--but the logic falls apart when you have, say, someone like McCarthy writing a book very close thematically with many genre books, and it's okay when he does it, but not people whose books are on the shelf over there. That's . . . weird! That's . . . contradictory! That shows you how much marketing has to do with rendering a genre work suddenly palatable for literary tastes.

Of course, this works both ways: I think that Atwood and McCarthy and Ishiguro wouldn't do so well on the SF shelves as they would on the literary shelves, because, stocked next to similar books, they simply don't always execute the ideas as well as those who have done it before, and those better read in these tropes are less likely to put up with it. So the division is sensible from a sales' viewpoint on many levels. But I think to suggest that these literary readers view these genre tropes as "just a thing" is disingenuous. Because where's the lizard woman on my cover of Specimen Days, then? If it's irrelevant, who cares if it's there? It certainly shouldn't impede the sales, then.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:32 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


TBH I'm suprised Literary Fiction types are not more suspicious of Atwood. These are clearly not books that are just about prose! They have plots and ideas and all kinds of other verboeten stuff! That's clearly not allowable unless you have a funny foreign sounding name! She's not even covering it up by playing silly games with punctuation or anything!
posted by Artw at 11:46 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think story is going to make a comeback, Art! I can feel it!
posted by Mister_A at 12:00 PM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


See, but I think you'd be an outlier in thinking it's just a thing.

I think you'd be hard put to find a literary fiction reader who disdained Don Quixote and Le Morte D'Arthur.

Because it's pretty easy to find good SF: you walk into the science fiction/fantasy section of your local bookstore (conveniently almost always located right up front), pull out a few books, read some book blurbs, read the first few pages. Take home the books that look promising.

I might be wrong, but when I mentally subtract my life-long SF fandom from the equation and listen just to the part of me that likes litfic, I think this method would be an utter failure, like a classical music fan picking rock music based on album covers. And why bother when you have more litfic books to read than you can manage in one lifetime? We're the ones who seem hungry for greater recognition. They could give a shit.

I truly believe it has much more with taste in tropes.

I don't think anyone is the ideal reader who judges purely on execution, but I would say that the success of McCarthy and Atwood backs up my point of view, not yours. I think the litfic reader's point of view is that any book about talking squid in space good enough in their terms for them to read will make it to the general fiction section, and, from their point of view, they're close to being right. That doesn't excuse them talking ignorant smack about genre, of course.

Also, I think there are an increasing number of readers who graze on both sides of the hedgerow. I meet people fairly often who are equally interested in Crowley and Bolaño.

Because where's the lizard woman on my cover of Specimen Days, then? If it's irrelevant, who cares if it's there? It certainly shouldn't impede the sales, then.

I agree that cover semiotics tend to exaggerate the separation between genres. But (assuming Specimen Days, which I've never read, features a lizard woman) that means that they don't mind reading about lizard women, right?

TBH I'm suprised Literary Fiction types are not more suspicious of Atwood. These are clearly not books that are just about prose! They have plots and ideas and all kinds of other verboeten stuff! That's clearly not allowable unless you have a funny foreign sounding name! She's not even covering it up by playing silly games with punctuation or anything!

This is as silly as saying science fiction is about talking squid in space.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 12:14 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think you'd be hard put to find a literary fiction reader who disdained Don Quixote and Le Morte D'Arthur.

Like I said, my experiences with literary fiction writers in my writing program has shown otherwise. Maybe not Don Quixote, etc. But I was hanging out with some MFAs at a movie night recently; we were watching an old cassette tape with a trailer for Jurassic Park 3 and someone posed the question: "What do you think would happen if someone brought in a story like Jurassic Park? With dinosaurs and stuff? Can you imagine? I'd just be like, get the fuck out of here. Why are you in an MFA program?"

Already, we've seen some complex mental gymnastics made here in this very thread to render SF-that-a-lit-reader-likes as not-SF. My experiences is that this is common. Atwood and Hoban et al. aren't genre writers! Their use of genre tropes are irrelevant because they're good! And so on.

I might be wrong, but when I mentally subtract my life-long SF fandom from the equation and listen just to the part of me that likes litfic, I think this method would be an utter failure, like a classical music fan picking rock music based on album covers.

Man, how do you pick out books when you go to the library, then? This is how I've been choosing books for the past twenty years or so. It's never steered me wrong. And your simile is a strained one; browsing books is more like listening to a track or two in a listening booth than judging based on a cover.

I agree that cover semiotics tend to exaggerate the separation between genres. But (assuming Specimen Days, which I've never read, features a lizard woman) that means that they don't mind reading about lizard women, right?

1/3 of Specimen Days is a futuristic SF story with lizard people and androids. It's also the section of the book that The Economist said "stinks" (I found it pretty transcendent, but whatev). Anecdotally, out of all of Cunningham's books, this one tends to be ignored by the people I know, and I think it's precisely for these genre trappings. The book's other two thirds are a ghost story and a thriller, but it's the SF stuff that seemed risky, for whatever reason.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:33 PM on March 9, 2010


I'm suprised Literary Fiction types are not more suspicious of Atwood. These are clearly not books that are just about prose!

We literary fiction types -- or at least the one writing this thread -- don't like books ABOUT prose. We like books with good plots, fascinating characters, etc. But we like those things to be written about WITH good prose. We read a sci-fi book by Atwood because we'd read anything by Atwood. We trust her to write well.

I know I've reached a point where I don't care about genres much. Very occasionally I think, "I'm in the mood for a good mystery" (or whatever), but more often I think, "Oh, wow! There's a new book out by X. I love her writing. I will read it!" I don't really care whether the book is a comedy of manners or a western. I just know that X tends to take me on rides I enjoy, so I will read anything she writes.

I really think the reason why most "literary people" don't like sci-fi is lack of exposure to good stuff. You may be jumping up and down, championing Gene Wolfe or Octavia Butler, but you're being thwarted by other people who are recommending Tekwar or whatever.

Meanwhile, though most movies (like most books, etc.) that come out each year are crap, there generally are SOME good ones. And those are usually not sci-fi. If someone has been weened on a steady diet of Scorsese, David Lean, Orson Welles, etc., it's very easy for them to come away with the idea that sci-fi films are second-rate at best. How many sci-fi "Citizen Kane's" are there? Okay, there aren't a lot of "Citizen Kane's" period. But if we rattle off the movies that are continually lauded, we get "The Third Man," "Casablanca," "Vertigo," etc. There aren't too many sci-fi films on that list, other than "2001" and "A Clockwork Orange."

I don't see why you should care, but if your goal is to make a John Updike reader see that sci-fi has merit, you have to (a) yell louder than all the sci-fi fans who have never read (or don't appreciate what's special about) Updike and are suggesting sub-par stuff. And (b) you have to say, "here are the 50 sci-fi books that someone like you would like." If you say, "read Gene Wofle and Octavia Butler," that gives the impression that while most sci-fi is sub-par, there are a couple of writers who have managed to get their heads above the water.

To be honest, that's my impression. Not literally just two writers, but a relatively small number. My sense is that, traditionally, sci-fi has not been a genre that sold to people who cared much about prose style. So most people who cared about it didn't write in that genre. I know that when I was a hard-core fan, prose didn't much interest me. What I wanted were mind-bending ideas! If they were striking enough, I didn't care if the prose was blemished. Alas, I can't read like that any more.

But since many sci-fi readers (in my experience) DO read like that, when they discover that their Cheever-loving friend doesn't like sci-fi, they push whatever book has the coolest ideas, thinking of that book as an example of GREAT sci-fi. It won't work. And it will make the Cheever lover even more convinced that sci-fi is bad.

The good news is that I think we're going through a subtle cultural change. So-called high art and so-called low art are colliding more than ever. There was a time when serious filmmakers avoided television. I suspect they thought working in TV would mean putting pearls before swine. TV audiences just didn't seem that discriminating. (I'm talking about the situation in the US only. The UK has a fine tradition of "literary" TV.)

But now we're seeing people like Scorsese making shows for HBO. We have "Deadwood," "Rome," "The Sopranos," "The Wire," etc. Friends of mine who, ten years ago, would never have done such a thing, are reading graphic novels. In general, I think many popular forms are finally being taken seriously by fine artists.

This convergence is going to be clunky and lead to some bad blood. When Scorsese takes over TV, what is the maker of "Mork and Mindy" supposed to do? In the end, though, I'm sure it will all settle down. There will always be high-brow, middle-brow and low-brow. We see this in film. For a long time, the cinema has been a totally acceptable place to peddle works of genius and utter crap.

Even if it leads to irritation, such as people thinking Atwood came up with some age-old, sci-fi trope, I think it's good for everyone (sci-fi fans and literary fiction fans) that all these lit types are suddenly writing sci-fi and sci-fi-ish books. It make the genre get more attention and more acceptance.

Here's another tip for those of you who want to get your friend, Bill, the lit-fic lover, to see that sci-fi can be well written. Don't just suggest books (Bill's life is short, and tons of people are suggesting things to him), show him some passages. It doesn't have to be much. I got instantly hooked into "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" and "Neuromancer" via their first sentences. I knew, in both cases, I was in the hands of someone who knew how to wield language.

Show us the MONEY! I keep hearing about Gene Wofle and Octavia Butler! Someone here wrote that I'm silly to think that Salinger is a good stylist and that Butler is way better. That would be great if it's true! I would have another great writer to read! But don't just expect me to take your word for it. Type in a little bit of Butler's prose. It doesn't have to be much. Just a couple of representative sentences. We prose lovers are ADDICTS. Show me a couple of good sentences and I will HAVE to read more!

PS. Salinger (chosen at random):

"I don't like people that dance with little kids, because most of the time it looks terrible. I mean if you're out at a restaurant somewhere and you see some old guy take his little kid out on the dance floor. Usually they keep yanking the kid's dress up in the back by mistake, and the kid can't dance worth a damn anyway, and it looks terrible, but I don't do it out in public with Phoebe or anything. We just horse around in the house. It's different with her anyway, because she can dance. She can follow anything you do. I mean if you hold her in close as hell so that it doesn't matter that your legs are so much longer. She stays right with you. You can cross over, or do some corny dips, or even jitterbug a little, and she stays right with you. You can even tango, for God's sake."

Okay, some people hate Holden, some like him. Whatever. I'm just talking about prose style here. I get high off the image of the old many yanking (great verb) up the kid's dress and the one about dancing close, even though your partner's legs are too short.

I need to see examples like this -- ones that make me clearly see, feel, taste, smell and hear stuff -- from lots of sci-fi writers.

Paste 'em!
posted by grumblebee at 12:44 PM on March 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is as silly as saying science fiction is about talking squid in space.

Well... yes.
posted by Artw at 12:49 PM on March 9, 2010


Though actually, come to think of it, there's a pretty strong correspondance between literary types who like telling stories and literary types who might kind-of, sort-of fit into a genere category... Chabon, McCarthy, those particular books of Atwoods...
posted by Artw at 12:52 PM on March 9, 2010


"What do you think would happen if someone brought in a story like Jurassic Park? With dinosaurs and stuff? Can you imagine? I'd just be like, get the fuck out of here. Why are you in an MFA program?"

I am guessing this is true, and it's OUTRAGEOUS. It means that lots and lots of terrible teaching is going on (big surprise). It's just like telling art students that they can't paint landscapes or directing students that they can't direct comedies.

It's not the job of art teachers to steer their students towards or away from subject matters. That is the worst kind of stiffing and it does the opposite of teaching. Teachers need to help students realized THEIR subject matters as fully and artfully as possible. By all means, write about dinosaurs. Write about them WELL.

And that stuff about, "I can't teach students how to write sci-fi because I don't know enough about the genre" is utter bullshit. The "genre" is fiction. Maybe you don't know anything about robotics or faster-than-light-travel, but that's not what you should be focusing on, anyway. Is your student using words well? Is he creating believable characters? Does he appear to be doing research? Is he plot free of holes?

I am not a fan of experimental theatre, yet, as a director/teacher, I am totally confident that I could teach a young director how to improve his experimental plays. The genre is theatre. I understand of theatre works. I can help him with that. I would never try to steer him towards Chekhov. It's about HIS voice, not mine.
posted by grumblebee at 1:03 PM on March 9, 2010


Dude, I'm sitting at work so it's sort of hard for me to whip up examples for you. But here's a snippet from Octavia Butler's short story "Bloodchild":
I sat down at my mother's table, waiting for quiet. The table was smooth and worn, heavy and well crafted. My father had made it for her just before he died. I remembered hanging around underfoot when he built it. He didn't mind. Now I sat leaning on it, missing him. I could have talked to him. He had done it three times in his long life. Three clutches of eggs, three times being opened up and sewed up. How had he done it? How did anyone do it?
Her prose tends to vary highly between books and with different speakers, though--this story is sparsely told, but effective. I love the jump from the sensory description of the table, to the memory, to the MC's desire to talk to his father about his current predicament (which is . . . gross.).

But I do find it odd that you keep hearing about these writers here but you just haven't read them yet--still!--and instead keep insisting that most SF prose sucks. Read the stuff we've been suggesting to you already!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:05 PM on March 9, 2010


But I do find it odd that you keep hearing about these writers here but you just haven't read them yet--still!

Easy, easy. It's only been a few days since this thread has started. I WILL read them. I have to get through the four books I'm currently reading, first. Then, I promise you, I'll read something by Butler or Wolfe. I'm looking forward to it.

I'm not the enemy. I don't really believe that all sci-fi writers suck. And I LOVE sci-fi -- at least in theory. If there were dozens of great stylists in the sci-fi ranks (maybe there are, and I don't know it), I would probably read nothing else for the rest of my life.

My only goal here is to explain (assuming they are similar to me) the barriers that many lit fic folks have when it comes to finding sci-fi that is palatable to them. In my experience, the sci-fi fan and the lit-crit fan talk apples and oranges when they have these discussions:

Lit: I just want to read well-written books. Show me a well-written sci-fi book and I'll read it. [Mistake: failed to define well-written.]

Sci: Oh, you should read X. It's REALLY well written. [Mistake: Sci loves X, because it's filled with mind-bending ideas. He assumes that by "well-written," Lit means thought-provoking or at least considers a thought-provoking book a type of "well-written book."]

[Later.]

Lit: Um, I just read some of that book, and I didn't like it. I thought you said it was well written. I was talking about the language. The prose wasn't all that great. [Mistake: not defining what constitutes "good prose" to him.]

Sci: Oh! Well, read Y. It has excellent prose. [Mistake: assuming Lit's love of prose means that he likes really flowery, showy language.]

[Later.]

Lit: I said good prose -- not PURPLE prose!
posted by grumblebee at 1:26 PM on March 9, 2010


But, grumblebee unless I'm mistaken, didn't you start an ask.me thread asking for suggestions along these lines a few years ago? . . . Here it is--fantasy, not SF, sure, but Gene Wolfe is still the first recommendation. I hope you understand my frustration at repeating myself, if only because I feel like we must have had this conversation a few times before!

I agree that SF fans sometimes don't get it when asked for suggestions (can't tell you how many times I've heard Niven recommended in these situations. Though his prose is, again, functional, his books are better for their concepts than they are for their writing). With your clarifications, on the off-chance that you haven't yet, pick yourself up Vonnegut's more SF works (Sirens of Titan is great). He's the writer that comes closest to what you're talking about with Salinger.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:35 PM on March 9, 2010


...you have to say, "here are the 50 sci-fi books that someone like you would like." If you say, "read Gene Wofle and Octavia Butler," that gives the impression that while most sci-fi is sub-par, there are a couple of writers who have managed to get their heads above the water.

By my count, we have about 48 candidate authors from this thread alone, going by the admittedly loose definition of "authors who write well and successfully deploy speculative ideas and tropes:"

Gene Wolfe
J.G. Ballard
Iain M. Banks
Thomas Pynchon
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ted Chiang
Doris Lessing
China Mieville
Michael Chabon
Theodore Sturgeon
Thomas Mann
Richard Powers
Don DeLillo (S.F. status debated)
David Foster Wallace
George Orwell (debated)
Avram Davidson
R.A. Lafferty
Thomas Disch
John Crowley
John Clute
Samuel R. Delany
Carol Emshwiller
Ursula K. LeGuin
Barry Malzberg
Paul Park
Christopher Priest
Joanna Russ
Geoff Ryman
James Tiptree, Jr.
Cormac McCarthy (debated)
Marilynn Robinson
Paolo Bacigalupi
Nalo Hopkinson
Anna Kavan (debated)
Octavia Butler
Italo Calvino
Russell Hoban
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
George R. Stewart
Kazuo Ishiguro
Donald Kingsbury
Greg Egan
Felix C. Gotschalk
Gregory Benford
Elizabeth Bishop
Clifford Simak
Tim Powers
H.G. Wells


And to get us over the top, a few who haven't been mentioned yet:

Robert Sheckley
Mikhail Bulgakov
J.L. Borges
Ray Bradbury
Angélica Gorodischer
Roberto Bolaño
Anatole France
E.M. Forster
Cyril Kornbluth
Raymond Roussel
John Varley
Jonathan Lethem
Karel Čapek
posted by Iridic at 1:48 PM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


My memory of that thread is that the responses were much more varied than they are here. So I didn't really know who to believe. I find that, in general, whenever anyone asks for a book recommendation on MeFi, the conversation devolves into people listing their favorite books, even if those books don't fit what the OP wants. People will find a way to pound their favorites into any form imaginable.

It's actually really funny. Someone will be very specific: "I am looking for a book about kittens eating popcorn." And by the end of the thread, you start seeing things like, "I don't know about kittens or popcorn, but I just read 'Remains of the Day' and LOVED it."

Another genre I love is the Thriller -- John Clancy sort of stuff, though I'm not specifically a Clancy fan. I once made the big mistake of asking for books like this on AskMe by calling them "page turners." I thought that phrase was pretty much synonymous with "adventure story."

Mistake.

Before long, people were recommending things like "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," because "I couldn't put it down."

I also made the mistake of saying that I only liked books with strong prose, and so I got lots of suggestions that were flowery. Totally my fault. I assumed everyone else had in their heads what I had in mine.

But I am finally getting the point about Wolfe and Butler. I promise.
posted by grumblebee at 1:50 PM on March 9, 2010


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

House of Leaves... it gets recommended for fucking everything.

(That little visual joke probably works better on a professional white background)
posted by Artw at 1:57 PM on March 9, 2010


Some of M. John Harrison's writing is absolutely beautiful as well.
posted by dng at 1:57 PM on March 9, 2010


My memory of that thread is that the responses were much more varied than they are here. So I didn't really know who to believe. I find that, in general, whenever anyone asks for a book recommendation on MeFi, the conversation devolves into people listing their favorite books, even if those books don't fit what the OP wants. People will find a way to pound their favorites into any form imaginable.

Agreed about Ask Me recommendations generally, but there is definitely a Gene Wolfe pattern in that thread.
posted by grobstein at 2:04 PM on March 9, 2010


House of Leaves... it gets recommended for fucking everything.

Ha! I thought that was Cloud Atlas, but apparently that has six fewer recommendations.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:05 PM on March 9, 2010


Yeah, but Cloud Atlas is good... House of Leaves is just a pile of not-that-innovative gimmicks.
posted by Artw at 2:09 PM on March 9, 2010


The Pirsig lovers are lightweights by comparison... 110.
posted by Artw at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2010


Donald Kingsbury, Greg Egan, Felix C. Gotschalk

I mentioned these guys as being excellent despite not conforming to conventional literary standards. Not quite what grumblebee is looking for.

Like I said, my experiences with literary fiction writers in my writing program has shown otherwise.

I've always heard that MFA writing programs are completely wack. I don't know if it's true, but in any case I would expect attitudes to be different there than among general litfic readers. (I have an MFA myself, in electronic music, and nobody had a hate on for pop.)

Already, we've seen some complex mental gymnastics made here in this very thread to render SF-that-a-lit-reader-likes as not-SF. My experiences is that this is common. Atwood and Hoban et al. aren't genre writers! Their use of genre tropes are irrelevant because they're good! And so on.

True. And irritating. But no more common, in my experience, than SF fans (and writers--I've heard this from Gene Wolfe) busting the "adultery in Westchester" move and claiming that SF is superior because it's the literature of the imagination, doesn't restrict itself to one puny planet, etc. Reginald Bretnor really went for it: "let them have their corncob rapes."* Mee-ow!

Man, how do you pick out books when you go to the library, then?

I usually have a very long list of books I want to read based on word of mouth or reviews, especially in SF. So I don't need to browse cold. Remainder stacks are a different story; part of my opinion is based on finding it much easier to gank good litfic out of remainder stacks than good SF (although I did discover Banks-with-an-M that way).

And your simile is a strained one; browsing books is more like listening to a track or two in a listening booth than judging based on a cover.

It would take a lot longer to browse books in that depth than I would ever have time for, unless I did some pre-screening based on the cover gestalt.

Probably, as with UI design, only some controlled trials could resolve this question to both of our satisfaction.

*Somebody has to do it:

Metafilter: let them have their corncob rapes.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:12 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd suggest another way into Wolfe, grumblebee: try Peace. It's not s.f. so much as - well, have a look.

(Terrible, non-indicative cover, naturally. Don't let it dismay you. This is a book among books; subtle, traitorous, horrific, and deeply sad.)
posted by Iridic at 2:13 PM on March 9, 2010


Yeah, it took a while, but Gene Wolfe got through my skull. I would still like to hear what sci-fi fans take is on this:

Lit: show me some well written (as defined by grumblebee, above) sci-fi.

Sci: oh, I can absolutely do that, but don't expect a hundred authors. Given your tastes, there are authors you will like, but there aren't that many.

Is Sci's assessment true or false?

If it's true, then I think more sci-fi fans should be clear about it when debating this stuff. I know this is tough, because it sounds like admitting that sci-fi is flawed. Well, I don't think that's true. I think it's flawed IF weak prose ruins books for you. That happens to be true for me, but that's just a matter of taste.

My feeling is that, if the fans are honest, they will say, "There are hundreds of writers and books that we love, but we don't care as much about prose style as you guys do. We care -- just not as much. If a book has lots of good Xs in it (Xs = great ideas or whatever), we find it relatively easy to overlook mediocre prose. If that's not true for you, then you probably will only like a small percentage of the stories we generally recommend."

True or false?

My bias is that I believe it's true. But I'm not so biased that I've closed my mind to the possibility that I'm wrong.

But if you ask me to recommend literary novelists with good prose styles, I COULD list hundreds! Fitzgerald, Chabon, Updike, Austen, Atwood ... (don't worry, I won't really list hundreds here) ... Bronte, Cheever, Hemmingway, etc. And if you asked me to list genre writers who are also good stylists, I could make a pretty long list, too. But most of the writers on that list wouldn't be sci-fi writers. They would be people like Le Carre, Greene, Mcmurtry, Tevis, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 2:18 PM on March 9, 2010


As you can probably guess, I'll go with true... with the caveat that there are also SF writers whose prose might seem clunky in another context but is right for their books.

My recommendation list was based on prose quality, not ideas, sensawunda, etc.

And Tevis wrote a lot of SF.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:24 PM on March 9, 2010


And Tevis wrote a lot of SF.

Well, relatively. He didn't write a lot of anything, alas. He died young. I think he only wrote two SF books, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Mockingbird."

there are also SF writers whose prose might seem clunky in another context but is right for their books.

Explain.
posted by grumblebee at 2:27 PM on March 9, 2010


My feeling is that, if the fans are honest, they will say, "There are hundreds of writers and books that we love, but we don't care as much about prose style as you guys do. We care -- just not as much. If a book has lots of good Xs in it (Xs = great ideas or whatever), we find it relatively easy to overlook mediocre prose. If that's not true for you, then you probably will only like a small percentage of the stories we generally recommend."

I think this is off, at least slightly. I think it's pretty rare to encounter genuinely terrible prose, or even mediocre prose, in speculative as well as other sorts of fiction. I think far more common is adequate prose--writing that gets you through the story without being particularly offensive.

But to me the issue is always that speculative writers have a lot to juggle, so to speak, in writing a successful SF novel: there's those ideas--they have to be big and innovative, not to mention well-executed. There's characters. There's plotting. There's prose. There's setting, which gets much more common in a lot of SF&F than it does in literary fiction. Realist writers just aren't doing quite as much, by definition. I enjoy realist writing, too. But the writer that's crafting a realist novel just doesn't have to worry about worldbuilding and successful implementation of a creative, innovative conceptual framework for a story (and you can see how awkwardly some mainstream writers manage these when they try to write in-genre; one can hardly blame McCarthy for letting his apocalypse go unexplained. To do so without detracting from other elements is really, really hard!). And this is where you get writers who do the idea stuff really well, but their characters feel like stock characters. Or maybe they're great at worldbuilding, but their prose is cliche. Or their plotting is, well, plodding. A really artistically successful SF novel sits at the center of a Venn diagram of many overlapping things. That's why it's so rare to find authors that fall smack dab in the middle of all of it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:36 PM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, relatively. He didn't write a lot of anything, alas. He died young. I think he only wrote two SF books, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Mockingbird."

Some short stories as well: "Rollerball" (yes, that "Rollerball") and "The Big Bounce" being the ones I remember.

Explain.

Hard to explain without quoting. Suffice it to say that if you ever run across Growing Up In Tier 3000 by Felix Gotschalk, A Feast Unknown by Philip José Farmer, or The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad, you're in for a unique experience.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:37 PM on March 9, 2010


I've always heard that MFA writing programs are completely wack. I don't know if it's true, but in any case I would expect attitudes to be different there than among general litfic readers. (I have an MFA myself, in electronic music, and nobody had a hate on for pop.)

Agreed! But brace yourself for the new lit world millennium, though: there are dozens of new MFA programs with each passing year, and applications are booming. The world of writing is going to be an interesting, and maybe terrible, place, once these new writers start publishing--or if they do.

It would take a lot longer to browse books in that depth than I would ever have time for, unless I did some pre-screening based on the cover gestalt.

Hmm. That explains why I tend to lose my Saturdays in the library!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:38 PM on March 9, 2010


which gets much more common in a lot of SF&F

My brain is exploding. More complicated, I meant.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:39 PM on March 9, 2010


A really artistically successful SF novel sits at the center of a Venn diagram of many overlapping things. That's why it's so rare to find authors that fall smack dab in the middle of all of it.

What PhoBWanKenobi said. In a sweeping sensawunda novel, practically by definition, the characters are going to be sketched rather than drawn; what you hope is that the sketches are graceful. (This is one of the main reasons why Clarke is better than Asimov.)
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:40 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hard to explain without quoting.

You're not talking about first-person narrations that are written in character, are you? Such as "Ridley Walker" and "A Clockwork Orange." Sometimes books like that have poor or odd prose, because their characters are illiterate or from some future world in which people talk differently.

In those books, the tough stunt to pull is to make the prose evocative despite its eccentricities. To me, Salinger pulls that off well in "Catcher." As does Hoban in "Walker" and Burgess in "Orange."

Or are you talking about something else?
posted by grumblebee at 2:43 PM on March 9, 2010


Yeah, I agree that's why it's so hard. Ideally, you need to have the prosemanship of an Updike and the world-building skills of a Tolkien. That's very hard to attain, but it's what's required if the book is really going to be great.

I doubt most writers would be into this, but it would be cool to see some collaborations. I would love to see an expert world-builder team up with a fantastic stylist. Trouble is, most stylists who want to try their hand at sci-fi think they can do the world building well themselves, and most world builders don't think they need help with their prose.
posted by grumblebee at 2:46 PM on March 9, 2010


Or are you talking about something else?

Something else. I'll try to throw you a chunk of Gotschalk if I get a chance. Ideally, one that won't get me arrested.

It occurs to me that Crash by J.G. Ballard is another example; he's channeling medical and scientific literature to produce an artificial flat affect (it is written in first person, but the style infects the dialog too, which is why even Cronenberg couldn't get people to act it).
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:46 PM on March 9, 2010


That's very hard to attain, but it's what's required if the book is really going to be great.

John Clute's Appleseed certainly gives it the old college try (and it worked for me). It's a total immersion experience.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:48 PM on March 9, 2010


Now I'm tempted to start an Ask the other way... what recent Literary novels have the good aspects of genre fiction but are not themselves stealth genre?
posted by Artw at 3:12 PM on March 9, 2010


It occurs to me that Crash by J.G. Ballard is another example.

This stuff is so hard to discuss intelligently without extremely concrete examples. You can read through the opening pages of "Crash" on Amazon.com. To me, he's writing very good prose that is simply very good prose. Sure, it has a specific style to it, but it's not bad in normal context and good in the context of his book. It's just good.

It's good because it's clear and evocative. Almost every sentence is sensual in some way. Here are a few random things that popped out to me (on just the first few pages!)

"...his car jumped the rails of the London airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus fulled with airline passengers."

"The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a hemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the vinyl seats... "

"...she placed a gloved hand to her throat."

"... veiled by a delicate lacework of blood."

"... I tried to lift him from the car, but his tight buttocks were clamped together as if they had seized while forcing the last drops of fluid from his seminal vesicles."

"Their tight faces and strained thighs were lit by bis polaroid flash, like the startled survivors of a submarine disaster."

THAT'S a writer who really wants to put his readers into the scene. Also note that he almost never uses "to be" verbs. He doesn't write flowery prose, but his verbs, though simple, are almost all active: jumped, plunged, lay across*, placed, lift, clamped, seized, lit.

*lay across isn't active, but it's notable. It would have been so easy for Ballard to write...

"The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a hemorrhage of the sun, were lying across the vinyl seats... "

Just that little nudge towards activeness helps!
posted by grumblebee at 3:20 PM on March 9, 2010


Sci: oh, I can absolutely do that, but don't expect a hundred authors. Given your tastes, there are authors you will like, but there aren't that many.
Is Sci's assessment true or false?


Well, to a certain extent, it's true, no matter what your tastes are. There are simply fewer science fiction authors, good or bad. Plus, the vast majority of the genre's been written in the past 50 years. When listing the best literature (of any definition), you're drawing from a much larger number of authors over a much longer stretch of time. However, I'd argue that the resulting smaller number of truly gifted science fiction authors has little to do with either the quality of the best science fiction or the potential of the genre. Don't let the fact that we can't list hundreds of truly great science fiction authors keep you from reading the best of the genre.

I'd also agree with PhoBWanKenobi: writing a good science fiction novel involves all of the challenges of traditional literature, plus extra challenges specific to the genre. The author's skill at facing these challenges should play into your overall judgment of the quality of their work. Which is why sci-fi fans are willing to give books that are flawed in one area more of a chance: they've added extra criteria by which they're judging the book, and so the absolute weight of any one factor is perhaps smaller. The reverse, of course, is also true: When I read Atwood's non-sci-fi books, like Cat's Eye, I'm not concerned with her world-building abilities, and so I judge her more on her prose style, her characterization, etc. When I read Oryx and Crake, or The Year of the Flood, they fall flat partly because she's simply not that good at giving me a future, a world that I can believe in, and even flawlessly styled prose (or any factor present in mainstream literature) would not fully make up for that.
posted by ubersturm at 3:43 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


TBH If I was listing out all the qualities that an SF novel could be lacking in that might detract from my enjoyment then the prose style not being fancy enough would be way behind beleivable characters and dialogue.

Neither being excusively an SF problem, of course.
posted by Artw at 3:56 PM on March 9, 2010


The author's skill at facing these challenges should play into your overall judgment of the quality of their work. Which is why sci-fi fans are willing to give books that are flawed in one area more of a chance: they've added extra criteria by which they're judging the book, and so the absolute weight of any one factor is perhaps smaller.

This sort of argument always confuses me. I get confused in a same way when people say things like, "Well, the book was so good in way X, that I was willing to forgive the fact that it wasn't so good in way Y."

I totally understand, "there were problems with Y? I didn't even notice them because I was so caught up with X" or "From time to time, I did notice problems with Y, but it rarely bothered me, because X was so enthralling." Those are statements about reactions to the STORY, not judgments about the AUTHOR.

Judge?

It conjures up a reader who is keeping score. One who, perhaps, might be really disturbed by a bad passage in the book but might later "forgive" it because he found out that the author broke up with his girlfriend on the day he wrote that part.

If we're talking about whether or not we can understand how it might be hard for sci-fi authors to get all the balls into the air at once, then fine. Sure, I can forgive them as human being for not being able to always do that. I sure as hell couldn't do it.

But that's different from one's raw reaction when reading. There's a flaw in the book: you notice it. You have a reaction to it. No? If you're busy judging, not judging or forgiving, then you're already thinking outside of the story. You're thinking about the poor author and all the stuff that's on his plate.

My goal is to stay embedded in the story as much as possible. And I want to achieve that with fantastic literature even more than with "realism." I want to BE on Mars and I don't want anything to interfere with that -- including judgment or forgiveness or an understanding of what challenges the author was faced with. And I'm either on Mars or I'm not.

If the author gets his Mars science wrong (and I am knowledgeable about Mars), my bubble will be burst and I'll remember it's just a story. If the plotting is clunky or the psychology doesn't make sense, same thing. And the same is true if the prose is clunky. If it's clunky, I will notice it. I will notice the holes in its construction. And at that point, I will think about the fact that it IS constructed. That it's all just a story, and that I'm not on Mars.

I don't have any judgment. I just want to be on Mars.
posted by grumblebee at 4:08 PM on March 9, 2010


TBH If I was listing out all the qualities that an SF novel could be lacking in that might detract from my enjoyment then the prose style not being fancy enough would be way behind beleivable characters and dialogue.

Fancy? Who said anything about fancy?
posted by grumblebee at 4:09 PM on March 9, 2010


Now I'm tempted to start an Ask the other way... what recent Literary novels have the good aspects of genre fiction but are not themselves stealth genre?

Yeah, I'd be interested in a list of recent lit'ry novels with really fucking great stories. I like a beautiful line of prose as much as the next English major, but sweet baby Jesus I dunno how many reviews of contemporary mainstream novels I've walked away from knowing the novelist wrote like an angel but not having any idea what his/her book was actually about.

To be fair, I've been reading (from my own preferred genre) the Peter Straub-edited Poe's Children, a horror anthology that's full of so much great writing it's kind of insane, and even there -- where the stories tend to be written in voices that would make any MFA proud if the stories themselves weren't about, y'know, ooky shit -- the whole New Yorker dilly-o has affected matters to such a degree that the pieces often end nebulously or in disintegrating anticlimax. By which I mean to say, these are people writing horror stories who have absorbed both the best of academe (i.e., gorgeous writing) and the worst (i.e., stories that pay off in some meaningful way aren't Serious). Could it be that literary effect and satisfying storytelling are somehow at cross-purposes with each other? I fucking hope not, and to be really honest I don't think so, but I think somehow this rather perverted message has gotten out there and stuck with some of us. Or, maybe, the poetic part of the brain just doesn't keep pace with the plotty part of the brain, and vice versa. That said, I appreciate the stories in Poe's Children much more than I do any other horror short fiction I've seen in years (well...mostly). M. John Harrison's piece is amazing, if frustrating in its lack of a conclusion, and Elizabeth Hand's novella "Cleopatra Brimstone" is just fantastic, something I absolutely love, if...frustrating in its rushed semi-conclusion.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:16 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


What recent Literary novels have the good aspects of genre fiction but are not themselves stealth genre?

First, we need to know whether or not you consider purely character stories can possibly have good plots. Some people do; some don't. In other words, do you consider "Mary decides to leave her husband" a plot element on par with "aliens invade Earth"? What about "Mary comes really close to leaving her husband, but, in the end, chickens out and stays with him"?

If these are, to you, equally riveting plot elements to the ones in genre books, then we can come up with thousands of titles. If they're not, then I DO think you have to veer towards genre. To me, the defining characterization of genre stories (what westerns, mysteries and sci-fi novels have in common) is that their plots are less subtle than those in literary fiction. And their plots are rarely 100% based around character relationships.

(There are exceptions, of course, but if someone says, "I feel like reading a genre story," I think they usually mean one in which the plot is overt and not 100% character based.)

If you need that sort of plotting but still yearn for something that feels less genre-ish, then I'd suggest reading some really good historical novels, such as the Patrick O'Brien sea stories, or some literary mysteries/thrillers, such as the ones by Graham Greene and John Le Carre.

When I say I'm looking for the Jane Austen of science fiction, it would be more accurate to say I'm looking for the John Le Carre of science fiction.
posted by grumblebee at 4:32 PM on March 9, 2010


Sure, it has a specific style to it, but it's not bad in normal context and good in the context of his book. It's just good.

You know what? You're right.

What recent Literary novels have the good aspects of genre fiction but are not themselves stealth genre?

I can't meet the "recent" criterion, because I'm years behind on everything, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head:

Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations (fiction about science, but not science fiction)
John Barth, The Floating Opera (contains philosophy that seemed deeper to a young writer in the early Fifties than it will to you in 2010, but still great)
Graham Swift, Waterland (Faulkner in East Anglia, kinda, but with normal language)
posted by doubtfulpalace at 4:43 PM on March 9, 2010


And Ken Kesey, Sometimes A Great Notion (very literary in style, but about the kind of competent men that SF fans sometime like to claim don't exist in litfic) (I use the term "men" advisedly, this is definitely a guy book, not to say women wouldn't like it)
posted by doubtfulpalace at 4:46 PM on March 9, 2010


To be fair, I've been reading (from my own preferred genre) the Peter Straub-edited Poe's Children, a horror anthology that's full of so much great writing it's kind of insane, and even there -- where the stories tend to be written in voices that would make any MFA proud if the stories themselves weren't about, y'know, ooky shit -- the whole New Yorker dilly-o has affected matters to such a degree that the pieces often end nebulously or in disintegrating anticlimax.

Wow, to me this is really funny, because I'm reading that book as well, and when I opened up this thread, it was the first book I thought of. There are some terrific stories in there, such Dan Chaon's "The Bees," Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghost," and Thomas Ligotti's "Notes on the Writing of Horror", which combine witty, mature prose with the ooky shit, and it generally works. That really is a terrific anthology, warts and all - it shows the variety that can occur in the very-broad genre of horror. I was less bothered by the anticlimaxes than you were, although I will say that I thought Stephen King's story was unusually weak.

Anyway, I'm less experienced with regard to scif-fi. I don't know what the Poe's Children for sci-fi would be.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:47 PM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I say I'm looking for the Jane Austen of science fiction, it would be more accurate to say I'm looking for the John Le Carre of science fiction.

An interesting thought. I'd like to find the John Le Carre of science fiction as well.

Incidentally, I'm reminded of Rupert Thompson's The Insult (not really sci-fi, although it does indulge in some bizarre medical fantasy) and Will Self's Great Apes (not really sci-fi, I guess - more of a fantasy).
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:56 PM on March 9, 2010


Rupert Thomson, even.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:12 PM on March 9, 2010


You guys are killing me. My Amazon cart is up to like eleventy jillion bucks now!
posted by Mister_A at 5:22 PM on March 9, 2010


That explains why I tend to lose my Saturdays in the library!

I got tired of spending a half-hour every other morning trying to decide which of my 300 or so unread books to tackle next, so I wrote a Perl script to parse my LibraryThing data and pick one at random. Works like a charm (and I still dither over them when I'm in the mood).
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:16 PM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


And to get us over the top, a few who haven't been mentioned yet:

Good summation of the recs. Thanks. I have two more good oldies:

Stanislaw Lem
Olaf Stapledon

I've tried to enjoy Philip Jose Farmer, but I cannot say it worked.

What recent Literary novels have the good aspects of genre fiction but are not themselves stealth genre?

Jonathan Lethem's novels have been hit or miss for me, but I enjoyed Chronic City a lot. I suppose it's slipstream (about virtual reality and identity in a fake Manhattan).
posted by mrgrimm at 9:52 AM on March 10, 2010


I've tried to enjoy Philip Jose Farmer, but I cannot say it worked.

PJF was not a good writer in any ordinary sense, and I can't recommend most of his books, but his obsessions with Tarzan and (often alien) sex produced some sui generis work that is worth putting up with his style for: A Feast Unknown, Lord Tyger, Tarzan Alive, "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" (Tarzan as if written by William Burroughs), and Image of the Beast are all rewarding in their icky, sticky way.

He also wrote Venus On The Half-Shell as "Kilgore Trout," the role he was born to play.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:07 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe this is obvious to everyone, but it just sorta crystallized for me: Sci-fi and fantasy are overwhelmingly adventure stories.

Obvious, right?

Well, the usual theories about what makes F/SF distinctive tend to focus on setting and world, which are very important. Even the epithet "talking squids in outer space" appears to focus on the material settings of the genre. But there's also a tendency in the narrative subject matter, which disproportionately is about some kind of heroic adventure. (Not always, but often; more often in the novels than the shorts, I think; other caveats but you see my perhaps obvious point.)

Now, there's nothing inherent in the idea of SF worlds that forces SF stories to be adventure stories. I was reading John Crowley's Aegypt (omg grumblebee you are obliged to read this kthx) and trying to decide whether I thought it was a fantasy. It is, but for various reasons it didn't feel like it. Partial answer. Etc.
posted by grobstein at 7:11 AM on March 25, 2010


I agree with you, but that's not a special trait of sci-fi. It is true of all genre forms, and it's part of what makes a genre book a genre book. Mysteries are adventure stories, as are Westerns and Romances. Which is to say that they tend to value overt plots and are often melodramas or contain melodramatic elements.

A literary-fiction novel, such as "The Corrections" or "The Great Gatsby," absolutely has a plot, often a well-wrought one, but the plot is generally not in the forefront. Readers of such fiction, in general, don't notice the plot as much as they do when they read genre stuff. The hook, in most literary fiction, is not, "Oh my God! I have to know what's going to happen NEXT!"

Of course, there are all sorts of exceptions -- literary works with strong, noticeable plots and genre works where plot is in the background -- but I agree that this is the general trend.

Straight-forward narrative is incredibly powerful to most people. (Think page-turners, ripping yarns, can't-put-'em-down books.) This is why, in my view, genre works are, and always have been (and always will be), the most popular works.

I also think this is why they are often poorly written, form a stylistic point of view. If you're a literary-fiction writer, and you're not going to thrust the plot forward, then you'd damn better well be using great language and creating compelling characters. Who is going to read a book that not only isn't a page-turner, but which also has cardboard characters and crappy prose. What would possibly recommend such a book?

On the other hand, though there are outliers like me, who can't tolerate genre works if their mechanics are sub-par, most people will enjoy a story as long as the plot is strong. They may enjoy stories MORE if they have strong plots and strong mechanics. But all that they absolutely demand are strong plots. And maybe also likable characters.

So while there are plenty of master craftsmen working in genre fiction, it's easier to get away with being a hack there than in the world of literary fiction.

When I talk about movies that I don't like, I often hear people say, "I didn't think it was good, either, but I had to finish watching it, just to see how it ended." To me, that's a testament to the power of plot.

Some of us may have value systems that prefer literary fiction to plot-based works (I don't, but I need my plot-based works to be well-crafted), but genre works will always be more popular. To me, the PERFECT read, the one I'm always searching for, is the adventure story (Western, Sci-fi, Fantasy, etc) with the craftsmanship of "The Great Gatsby."
posted by grumblebee at 7:54 AM on March 25, 2010


I'm not sure this is exactly what I mean: is an adventure story simply one in which plot is prominent, or is it one in which a particular kind of plot is prominent?
posted by grobstein at 8:18 AM on March 25, 2010


An adventure story involves exploring and grappling with strange places. I am unconvinced that this describes most sci-fi, though it definitely describes a large sub-set of the genre.

Of course, most sci-fi involves places that are strange to the reader, but in a classic adventure tale, they have to be strange to the hero, too. So, for instance, I wouldn't call most cyberpunk novels adventure tales. They typically involve heroes who stay within their own society.

"Star Wars" is a pretty classic adventure tale, because its hero leaves his home and goes places he's never been before. With "Battlestar Gallactica" and "Star Trek," it depends on the episode. Many are adventures in the classic sense. But some are entirely (or mostly) set aboard the ship. They tend to be mysteries (why do crew-members keep dying of a strange disease?) or straight-forward melodramas (a bad guy is trying to take over the engine room!).
posted by grumblebee at 9:17 AM on March 25, 2010


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