it wasn’t really sci-fi because it was beautifully written
April 19, 2019 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi? Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me, is a fiction about science – specifically, artificial intelligence. It is set in an alternative reality where Alan Turing does not kill himself but invents the internet instead; where JFK is never assassinated and Margaret Thatcher’s premiership ends with the beginning of the Falklands war. The near future of the real world becomes the present of the novel, giving McEwan the space to explore prescient what-ifs: what if a robot could think like a human, or human intelligence could not tell the difference between itself and AI? Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.
posted by octothorpe (141 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction

It's not porn. These are art pictures.
posted by flabdablet at 7:38 AM on April 19 [39 favorites]


There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here...

A whiff? More like an overwhelming, gag-inducing stench. I'm not reading his book, if he hasn't bothered to read any of the thoughtful, erudite, literary science-fiction treatments of this kind of subject.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:38 AM on April 19 [64 favorites]


“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.”

...says the guy who clearly hasn't read any decent SF, or even understands the genre. It was never about the anti-gravity boots. Farenheit 451 wasn't about fire. Children of Men wasn't about babies.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:40 AM on April 19 [81 favorites]


Sounds like an interesting read. But Christ, what an asshole!
posted by evilDoug at 7:43 AM on April 19 [9 favorites]


Someone on twitter noted that the cover of Machines Like Me says a lot about this sort of litfic snobbery, too - the power to imagine anything they want about humanity, and the best they can come up with is a plasticky version of a white man.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:44 AM on April 19 [23 favorites]


I was about to pop off about the fact that Le Guin had already addressed this issue eloquently, then I read the damn article, which said exactly that.

So read the article. It's good.

I liked this bit:

Not everyone agrees that science fiction would be improved by being more respectable. As a student, the American writer Joanna Russ was taught that women lacked the universal perspective from which to create literature (one of those who taught her was Nabokov). Genre fiction gave her a way back to writing: “Convinced that I had no real experience of life, since my own obviously wasn’t part of Great Literature,” she wrote in 1983, “I decided consciously that I’d write of things nobody knew anything about. So I wrote realism disguised as fantasy, that is, science fiction.”
posted by emjaybee at 7:46 AM on April 19 [40 favorites]


I mean, hello, everyone knows the entire ship would have been annihilated by the time it reached three times the speed of light with an anti-gravity device aboard.
posted by mubba at 7:48 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Reading various luminaries of the science fiction world respond on Twitter to McEwan's dumbass remarks, and then learning of Gene Wolfe's death the same way, was...it was really something. Reallllllly something.
posted by Ipsifendus at 7:50 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]




Notice that the SF stereotypes called on are around sixty years old -- space opera, FTL travel, and so forth. Sure, these tropes still get used in some SF, but taking them as a basis is as ignorant as a middle-aged person who still doesn't read novels because they weren't interested in The Catcher In the Rye or The Great Gatsby back in high school.

I wonder if this isn't driven also by subconscious biases against SF/F fans. I've been thinking a lot about this article "Who Are Nerds" since I read it; it lays out a pretty visceral case. Also, SF/F fiction, as it is marketed, does not suggest that you need a humanities degree to enjoy it or write it. In an SF/F book, there is an implicit promise that something exciting is going to happen, which has not traditionally been a guarantee in literary fiction. I was reading some interesting tweets lately (which I can't find) saying that too many genre fans dismiss literary fiction as stories by and about middle-aged professors lusting after graduate students, which is equally unfair.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:58 AM on April 19 [31 favorites]


the best they can come up with is a plasticky version of a white man

Wow, even setting the politics of it aside, that is just a terrible cover design.

(Embarrassingly awful book covers are kind of a running theme in the SF genre, though, so maybe it's a sly joke on the part of the designer? No? Am I giving them too much credit?)
posted by ook at 8:01 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Relatedly, I was pleasantly surprised to see Jeet Heer write such a respectful tribute to Gene Wolfe in the New Republic recently; he seems to get how silly the divide between Genre and Serious is.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:02 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


IT'S NOT A COMIC BOOK, IT'S A GRAPHIC NOVEL!!!

Seriously, I read literary fiction (it may be a social construct but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist), and I just find it depressing and embarrassing when literary writers proudly present old SF chestnuts exhumed from, like, 1950, as if they just invented them. Like the "Soylent Green is made out of people" moment in Cloud Atlas, which I saw coming for 200 (or what felt like 200) painful pages.

Of course, there's no reason why a non-genre novelist shouldn't be able to make effective use of genre tropes, but far too often they seem stuck at the level of novelty usage. These are not new ideas, you don't get credit just for having them, you have to do something interesting with them.
posted by praemunire at 8:04 AM on April 19 [18 favorites]


Wow, even setting the politics of it aside, that is just a terrible cover design.

(Embarrassingly awful book covers are kind of a running theme in the SF genre, though, so maybe it's a sly joke on the part of the designer? No? Am I giving them too much credit?)


It's no Saturn's Children.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:04 AM on April 19 [13 favorites]


I think honestly what gets me about this attitude is that it tells me the author who fears/dislikes sci-fi and I have very little in common. I mean, yes, there is sci-fi I read and enjoyed as a kid that now I find "meh." My tastes have gotten more refined. But I would never scorn that joy and pleasure that Robots in Spaaaace stories gave me. And the Big Ideas they introduced me to. AI makes you think about the nature of consciousness, and of death. Space travel makes you think about science, even the most hand-wavy stuff, and planets and different biospheres and so on. These are big, exciting ideas, especially if you're a kid who's never had them explained before.

And hey, maybe the author never really got into Robots in Spaaace. But didn't they have anything genre they enjoyed as a kid? Westerns? Horror? Romances? Superheroes? I find it hard to believe they went straight from Pat the Bunny to Proust. So why can't they talk about that? If you're a sensitive, noticing kind of kid, the kind who grows up to be a writer, even the most banal stories can have an effect on you. And that's valuable.

I'm reminded of the Lynda Barry comic where she talks about a childhood largely deprived of books, so she would read the classified ads and make up stories about the people who posted them; lost cats, people selling coffins and wedding dresses, etc. And then as an adult she would meet "literary" people who name dropped all the books they read as kids that she never did, and it would make her feel bad, like she wasn't a "real" author.

Gatekeeping is just crap, is what I'm saying.
posted by emjaybee at 8:07 AM on April 19 [57 favorites]


Here are some questions I don't know the answer to: up until, say, 2010, were SF/F writers and fans -- real, enthusiastic, open ones -- going to the right kind of parties? Were they getting hired to teach creative writing? Were they going to prominent writing workshops? If they weren't, or if they were under the radar, then we know a lot more about why established writers are doing this kind of thing.

I decided not to pursue further writing study after college in the early 2000s because of the contempt for genre among my teachers (although I had quite liked them and learned a lot from them). Fantasy was where I was at, but Raymond Carver was what I would get, so I thought I had better just go on by myself. (I changed my mind years later, after other people had.)
posted by Countess Elena at 8:09 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]


“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.

I'm not sure there's a better definition of science fiction out there than "using an alternate setting to explore human dilemmas."
posted by tzikeh at 8:14 AM on April 19 [37 favorites]


McEwan also made it crystal clear that he has either never read Frankenstein, or, if he did, he did not understand it: "[In Frankenstein] the monster is a metaphor for science out of control, but it is ourselves out of control that I am interested in."
posted by kyrademon at 8:16 AM on April 19 [42 favorites]


Contempt for genre permeates my field (music), as well, but it’s getting better. Personally, I think McEwan should write his (usually terrific) books and let them do the talking for him. Seems like every time he opens his mouth for his own personal speech, he just shows how snobbery makes smart people dumb.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:16 AM on April 19


"Sf's no good," they bellow till we're deaf.
"But this looks good." – "Well then, it's not sf."


Robert Conquest, in 1962.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:23 AM on April 19 [31 favorites]


If anyone would like to read a "literary" author who isn't stuck-up about genre fiction, may I direct you to Michael Chabon. He's currently on the writing staff of the Captain Picard TV series! He has also won a Pulitzer. Someone tell McEwan.
posted by Automocar at 8:28 AM on April 19 [33 favorites]


Is this debate still alive among younger writers, or are we just seeing the last vestiges of this battle being played out? I feel like I've been reading about the divide between science fiction and literary fiction my whole life--with a lot of sniffling on both sides--and I have never understood what the problem is. "Your genre is full of cliches!" Well, yes, of course, that's what genre does, it gives you a common language of cliches, and the work of the good author is to both use and transcend them. This isn't news, and I can't understand why now that we're living in The Actual Future of supercomputers and AI and forever wars and apocalyptic cataclysm, we are still being asked to have an opinion on Which Is Better, The Books I Like or The Books You Like? That's the genre we should be interrogating, the think piece on this great unpassable literary divide that somehow gets successfully passed every few minutes by good writers.
posted by mittens at 8:34 AM on April 19 [12 favorites]


I was really interested in the novel, but McEwan's snobbery is really off-putting. I'm not sure how to square the fact that the book sounds like it might be quite good, with the fact that McEwan sounds like he might be quite a spectacular ass.

It's not like giving money to Roman Polański, I suppose, but still—if he'd just kept his mouth shut I'd have bought the damn book already.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:35 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


I'm still not unwilling to allow as how I might perhaps be persuaded to enjoy the occasional art picture.
posted by flabdablet at 8:38 AM on April 19


Is this going to be like Atonement, where we get strung along for ages, only to learn that literary fiction had actually died of sepsis years earlier?
posted by belarius at 8:42 AM on April 19 [20 favorites]


Is this debate still alive among younger writers, or are we just seeing the last vestiges of this battle being played out?

It would be nice to believe that this snobbery is just a function of old age, but McEwan was only 21 when "Slaughterhouse 5" was published, and Vonnegut was never anything other than loud and cranky about how readily the literary critics dismissed SF. So his age won't excuse this stupidity.
posted by Ipsifendus at 8:45 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


I was reading some interesting tweets lately (which I can't find) saying that too many genre fans dismiss literary fiction as stories by and about middle-aged professors lusting after graduate students, which is equally unfair.

McEwan's dreary works like On Chesil Beach are pretty firmly in this tradition though, so it's a fair throw at him.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:50 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


Blah blah potted history of SF blah blah genre stereotypes and then... Related Stories: “The rise of the robot authors: is the writing on the wall for human novelists?” I find the contrast hilarious.

Personally my stereotype of the LitFic genre is not so much “middle aged professor listing after grad student” as “a white suburban couple almost, but not quite, contemplates a divorce”.
posted by egypturnash at 8:55 AM on April 19 [15 favorites]


Ian McEwan has written some good books, in my opinion, but this is not the first time he's decided to write a story in a genre he thinks he's better than. As a fan of spy fiction, I was deeply underwhelmed by Sweet Tooth, which I felt took a potentially interesting narrative and then just sneered at it for the length of a novel. I will resist the urge to rant at length about it, but this review by Maureen Corrigan sums up some of the annoyances I had with it.

Maybe he'll be less insufferable in this outing, but I will leave that to somebody else to find out.
posted by the primroses were over at 8:56 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Ian McEwan is an insecure douchebag, you say? I never would have expected that.
posted by chavenet at 8:57 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure there's a better definition of science fiction out there than "using an alternate setting to explore human dilemmas."

One of the things that I keep coming back to is how Liz Bourke about five years ago pointed out that just science fiction by women has reached the point where there's more published by women than she can professionally review. I've noticed that since then she's been increasingly shifting to work that's both feminist and queer. I've picked up my short story reading, and just read Machado's "Blur", originally from a literary fiction magazine but picked up by Lightspeed.

My thing is queer SFF. Part of that is that full normalization of my experience involves radical thought experiments of cultures where cultural heterosexuality is not centered to the same degree, unless you set the work in a commune or something.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:59 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


a plasticky version of a white man...

I don’t think it even matches the description in the book...

‘He was compactly built, square-shouldered, dark-skinned, with thick black hair swept back; narrow in the face, with a hint of hooked nose suggestive of fierce intelligence, pensively hooded eyes, tight lips that, even as we watched, were draining of their deathly yellowish-white tint and acquiring rich human colour, perhaps even relaxing a little at the corners. Miranda said he resembled ‘a docker from the Bosphorus’.’
posted by Segundus at 9:30 AM on April 19


McEwan's a funny one. I vaguely recall throwing a copy of 'Saturday' against a wall. I couldn't figure out if it was an intentional or unintentional parody of a highbrow novel.
posted by ovvl at 9:47 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Obligatory:

"I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' [...] and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." ― Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

McEwan's no Michael Chabon, that's for sure.
posted by Iris Gambol at 9:56 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


The idea that McEwan has any room to turn up his nose at genre fiction is pretty silly. I think of his work as the schlockiest junk in the airport bookstore. But, I am saddened to learn about Nabokov's take on Ada, which is among my favorite three books in the world and is absolutely science fiction.

This was an interesting, and much more thoughtful article than I expected. It wasn't until after college that I overcome a snobbish aversion to the loud cover art on SF books and actually read them and discovered that many of them were great. Sometimes I think genre enthusiasts hurt ourselves with branding.
posted by eotvos at 10:08 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Whitewashing covers is also a dubious tradition of science fiction (also YA). (Link to discussion of Babel-17 not only for the blonde figures on multiple editions but also because Babel-17 is metafictional Babel-17 for military-metaphor science fiction.)
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:17 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


In a sense the cover image is doing its job, in that it's bad in the ways we expect from a literary cover, not the ways we expect from a science fiction cover.

A lot of its "badness" is that it's ungainly. That's how you know it's serious. If it was too aesthetically pleasing, there would be the risk that the masses might enjoy it. By being a little off-putting, we can assure the reader that this is for refined tastes like yours.

While bad science fiction covers come across as more tacky or kitschy. They are at least trying to appeal to someone, however competently. But they're appealing to those people, who have poor taste.
posted by RobotHero at 10:17 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


McEwan is on the wrong side of history, & to ensure he stays there I will now activate the Temporal Stasis Field in the 0.38-0.41 Fermata range, starting in 3, 2, … stand clear! No, not you, recent Man Booker Prize winners Saunders and James! You’re safe where you are!

I’m grateful that the notion that genre fiction is something to be embarrassed about feels so creaky and ludicrous to me now, because it sure didn’t when I was in my super snobby (and, probably not coincidentally, deeply unhappy) 20s. The marketing divide between literary & genre fiction is something I really swallowed when I was a literary-minded teenager, & it took me years to get over it. Many people close to me still sniff at books that look like the ones I love to read—books that I find thought-provoking, and joyous, and politically relevant, and very fucking literary, thanks—and I catch myself still couching book recommendations for them in vaguely apologetic terms, though I’m trying to get myself out of this habit too. (The wide-ranging knowledge & appreciation of SF/F here on the blue and the green have helped me with this a great deal, precisely in threads like this one, so thanks for that!)
posted by miles per flower at 10:21 AM on April 19 [10 favorites]


Personally my stereotype of the LitFic genre is not so much “middle aged professor listing after grad student” as “a white suburban couple almost, but not quite, contemplates a divorce”.

Genre fiction is declassé because it does not confine itself to the human condition as it concerns the comfortable, small-"c"-conservative bourgeoisie, but descends into an infinite slum populated by all kinds of unsavoury characters, actual and potential. In other words, it's crawling with “those people sentiences”
posted by acb at 10:27 AM on April 19 [13 favorites]


See also *sad sigh* Banks' "No Place for Dabblers." (previously and previously)
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:37 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


During one of the previous go-rounds of this nonsense, I recall an essay by someone (Neil Gaiman, maybe?) in which the writer was vehement on the theme of "If you're going to write in a genre, RESPECT THE BODY OF WORK." Sadly my search-fu has failed and I haven't been able to find that post since.
posted by Lexica at 10:48 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


That cover looks like an unfinished Chuck Tingle cover. Pounded in the Butt by a Pretentious Literature Android, perhaps.
posted by JDHarper at 10:48 AM on April 19 [20 favorites]


For a slightly different perspective; I was interested to see William Gibson retweet this August C. Bourré/@fishsauce mini-thread on Twitter:
Every time I see SF-oriented folks on here mock someone like Ian McEwan for their (truly) ignorant opinions about SF, I recall the times when they've lauded SF authors for "innovating" with techniques that have been deployed by literary authors since [checks notes] 1757.

I'm also reminded how [checks notes] last week a number of popular SFF figures finally realized that litfic, which is a market segment roughly twice the size of SFF, might actually be capable of telling more than one kind of story in one way.

My point is not that SFF sucks and litfic rules or something--I am clearly an advocate for reading widely in many genres--it's that people in glass houses should be mindful of how they handle stones.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 10:54 AM on April 19 [17 favorites]


It wasn't until after college that I overcome a snobbish aversion to the loud cover art on SF books and actually read them and discovered that many of them were great.

Hooboy. Yeah, SF as done by some of the big publishers doesn't do itself any favors with its cover art. Not always—there are some books with very nice, tasteful, even understated cover art—but sometimes I wonder if there's not a drawer full of generic cover art and they kinda Mad Libs it together based on a two sentence plot outline or something. ("Does it involve space?" "Um.. yep." "Cool, toss a spaceship on there." "Actually I think it's more about—" "PUT A SPACESHIP ON IT. NEXT BOOK.")

I've always wondered whether the trend towards more reading on e-reader devices and phones, where nobody can see what you're reading or judge it by its cover, has changed consumption patterns at all. (I bet sales of Infinite Jest have cratered.)

"Romance" novels have also always been burdened by, uh, rather unsubtle cover choices, and I've noticed that let's-not-call-them-porn novels seem to do really well on the Amazon Kindle lists. A non-trivial segment of the "Top 100 Paid" appear to be romance books (particularly the "improbably buff dudes with beards and tattoos" subgenre), and none of them appear on the overall, non-digital-specific, top sellers list, which is dominated by children's books, nonfiction, self-help, and what appears to be self-consciously literary fiction.

It makes me think that there's probably a significant difference in consumption patterns when nobody can tell or judge what you're reading... but of course people who have e-readers may just have different preferences to begin with.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:55 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


“middle aged professor listing after grad student”

SPOILER: He fell over.
posted by biffa at 11:03 AM on April 19 [44 favorites]


a friend of mine's a bookseller, bookfinder, occasional bookshop owner. He's one of those guys who seems to have read everything ever published, or knows somebody who has.

His specialty is what I guess you'd call "cool genre stuff" -- works that though grounded in a particular definable place somehow find a way to rise above all the noise (ie: it's usually the quality of the writing). Lately, having concluded I had a grasp on all the necessary sci-fi, he's turned me onto the Parker novels by Richard Stark (the kind of crime fiction that makes me wish everything was crime fiction).

Anyway, I recently said to him (tongue not completely in cheek), "I guess I should maybe pause on this stuff for a while, go and read some proper literature."

His response: "Are you kidding? When they get around to writing a proper cultural history of the 20th Century, this stuff will be the literature."
posted by philip-random at 11:04 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


Every time I see SF-oriented folks on here mock someone like Ian McEwan for their (truly) ignorant opinions about SF, I recall the times when they've lauded SF authors for "innovating" with techniques that have been deployed by literary authors since [checks notes] 1757.

The difference is the SF folks aren't writing in the litfic genre and claiming they've innovated there.*

This is different. This is barging into someone else's house, not noticing the bathroom, shitting in their sink, and then criticizing their home design choices.

*...and anyway applying an old technique to a new genre is innovation.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:06 AM on April 19 [11 favorites]


William Gibson's sequel to the Peripheral (the first third of the book is his best, most virtuoso prose since Neuromancer) is an alternate history where Hillary Clinton became president. Sounds like it will be almost bad as Gibson's Twitter posts.
posted by JamesBay at 11:18 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


It wasn't until after college that I overcome a snobbish aversion to the loud cover art on SF books

Oh, man, I read Friday as an eighth-grader and the cover got noticed at school and me Taken Aside for A Conversation. You know, that "wet look" cover.
posted by praemunire at 11:20 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]


One thing I've never really understood about my own experience of SF is how it almost instantly became such an addiction.

How is it, for example, that on a Sunday afternoon when I was a junior in high school, it was such an effort of will to get through a couple of hundred pages of Middlemarch, which I liked and enjoyed, yet then I could immediately turn to the stack of SF I'd bought earlier that day at Jerry's Paperback Exchange, and read five SF novels in a row, including a couple of Poul Andersons, an Algis Budrys, and the truly dreadful Grotto of the Formigans, stopping myself at midnight only by another act of will because I had to write a paper that was due the next day?

I've read a total of perhaps a dozen science fiction novels at one go standing in the aisle at a bookstore, which always embarrassed me and has led to ludicrous attempts to creep (rather stiffly) out of the store without being noticed, only to come back later and buy another book out of guilt.

A mere handful of literary works have been able to evoke the state of total attention and concentration an average book of fantasy or science fiction can get out of me.
posted by jamjam at 11:30 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


The best part of all this is that probably none of us have read the damn book yet.
posted by srboisvert at 11:33 AM on April 19


We can tell by the cover.
posted by chavenet at 11:34 AM on April 19 [9 favorites]


I still hear anti-sf snobbery in American academia. Mostly from profs. Mostly humanists.

A few years ago I led a workshop at a small liberal arts college. I talked with one prof, an anthropologist, about anthro-related fiction. She mentioned from books, then I raised LeGuin. Before I could go further, she stopped me. "I don't read sci-fi. I'm a girl." (She was about 45 years old, I guessed.)

A few years before that I was teaching at another liberal arts college. I was on tenure track, trying hard to make my (English) department happy. One prof had it in for me from the start, and tried various ways to stymie me. He hated science fiction and Gothic (the latter, my specialty). Over drinks he bragged to the department about how he had blocked the college from inviting Ray Bradbury to speak on campus. Eyed me the entire time. Hoping I'd flip out, no doubt.

But I hear less of this from younger folks. Two of my grad students (in their 20s) last term complained about having to read science fiction stories. The rest were quite pleased with the tales.
posted by doctornemo at 11:40 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


Over drinks he bragged to the department about how he had blocked the college from inviting Ray Bradbury to speak on campus.

You at least have to give him points for irony.
posted by Etrigan at 11:45 AM on April 19 [19 favorites]


I've always wondered whether the trend towards more reading on e-reader devices and phones, where nobody can see what you're reading or judge it by its cover, has changed consumption patterns at all. (I bet sales of Infinite Jest have cratered.)
I'm desperately trying to remember where I heard that sales of e-book romance novels were several times higher than physical book sales in the same genre. (It was probably mentioned on metafilter.) The conclusion was that when nobody can see what you're reading, most people read genre fiction.

I ride the commuter bus with people who read hard copies of Theodore Dreiser books and pretend to enjoy them. I suspect the cheesy SF audiobooks I listen to are a lot more fun.
posted by eotvos at 11:45 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


One thing I've never really understood about my own experience of SF is how it almost instantly became such an addiction.

I do think the déclassé need to actually, y'know, sell books, as quickly as possible, has incentivized a propulsive writing style that grabs a reader's attention quickly. I can't find the exact quote, but Warren Ellis discussed this in a newsletter regarding John Scalzi, comparing his writing style to some of the great crime fiction writers (who experience similar pressures). That tracks with my experience - I enjoy more difficult books sometimes, but sometimes you want to read something that doesn't require you to deeply engage with it to get pleasure out of it, and genre fiction has a lot of shining examples of that.
posted by protocoach at 11:49 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I now want to read a book about travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots.
posted by mono blanco at 12:03 PM on April 19 [9 favorites]


I ride the commuter bus with people who read hard copies of Theodore Dreiser books and pretend to enjoy them. I suspect the cheesy SF audiobooks I listen to are a lot more fun.

Did you develop psychic powers, such that you can tell someone is only "pretending" to enjoy a book?
posted by praemunire at 12:16 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I'm guessing it's less "psychic powers" and more deep rooted skepticism that anybody, even among those who champion his work, has ever literally "enjoyed" the work of Theodore Dreiser.

Kidding! I'm kidding. Mostly.
posted by Ipsifendus at 12:21 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


One of the many twitter threads on this the other day had a link to an Ian McEwan short published in a scifi magazine. I can't find it now, but it could be that he's just trolling for clicks. I guess it worked, since I can't remember the last time I saw this amount of buzz around one of his novels.

Sounds like it will be almost bad as Gibson's Twitter posts.
Hey, the Peripheral sequel doesn't sound great, but I like his twitter posts!
Maybe just because he's retweeted me a couple of times...
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 12:22 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Every time I see SF-oriented folks on here mock someone like Ian McEwan for their (truly) ignorant opinions about SF, I recall the times when they've lauded SF authors for "innovating" with techniques that have been deployed by literary authors since [checks notes] 1757.

I guess the difference between this and "wow I wrote a serious book about a rocket" seems to me to be that the fancy-pants Very Serious literary techniques deployed in science fiction are usually deployed relatively well, whereas the SFnal tropes in lit-SF are usually handled badly. When I want to recommend science fiction to people who like fancy-pants literature, I recommend them Samuel Delany, for instance, or some of the stuff that gets published at Aquaduct Press - and those are books where the fancy-pants techniques are used skillfully.

I just usually don't like literary science fiction. It almost always has a sort of emptiness to it, the inverse version of the kind of genre fiction where it really is rocket ships and strong-jawed heroes with white globular breasts or whatever. There's a sort of plaintive-yet-blank "voice" that seems to be used where I can't tell if I'm reading An Excess Male or The Year of the Flood or The Girl In The Road. Everything is bad, of course - "how bleak, baby?" "The bleakest" as the fellow said - and the stage settings are different, but the characters are basically the same and the tone is the same. It's like, the writers clearly think that they're injecting human feeling and psychological depth into the banal world of science fiction, but the "feeling" and "depth" that they use are themselves extremely banal.

And I think that the real problem is that they don't understand how science fiction produces the effects that it does - the layering, pacing, use of language and intertextuality that make science fiction stories work. Non-SF writers seem to think "ah, this story works because it tells a simple story about rocket ships - how much better it would be if it were about rocket ships and feelings". Science fiction tends to use language and landscape in particular ways (Samuel Delany writes extensively about this) and that's what makes SF stories work (or fail). Making the prose fancy and dropping in a thirty-ish woman who is conflicted about her relationship doesn't in itself make a good book.

There are certainly serious novels with science fictional or fantastical elements that work very well, but in general those are books where the SFnal/fantastic elements are firmly in the service of the "literary" plot rather than the substance of it.
posted by Frowner at 1:05 PM on April 19 [20 favorites]


SF as done by some of the big publishers doesn't do itself any favors with its cover art.

Baen Books are notorious for this.

I'm desperately trying to remember where I heard that sales of e-book romance novels were several times higher than physical book sales in the same genre.

Possibly this one: Why Romance Readers Love Digital Books?

One of the factors it mentions is that because of independent and self-publishing, many romance novels aren't even available as traditionally-published books.
posted by Lexica at 1:07 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]


I add that one of the things I like about science fiction is the move away from deep "realistic" interiority and toward landscape, deep time, weirdness, event. Not because I dislike novels that are substantially about interiority and mimesis but because those novels already exist. I don't need to read a sensitive treatment of the aging and death of someone's parents...but on another planet; I don't need to read Villette but set against the background of an interstellar tyranny. I want to read strange books that take advantage of the strangeness/distance/sensawonda/perspective shifts/vast landscapes that science fiction brings.

Obviously there's some vagueness to this claim - I really love, for instance, Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories and Indra Das's The Devourers, both of which are very much about individual experiences and feelings in made-strange versions of our own colonial, misogynist and racist histories. The difference is the depth, strangeness and primacy of the fantastic worlds described - they truly interject a note of the eerie instead of just a note of "the future is obviously going to be utter shit, get your dying in early".
posted by Frowner at 1:18 PM on April 19 [15 favorites]


Were they getting hired to teach creative writing? Were they going to prominent writing workshops?

Creative writing teaching pays much, much less than a successful genre-fiction career. And many of them were going to prominent SF writing workshops.
I'm also reminded how [checks notes] last week a number of popular SFF figures finally realized that litfic, which is a market segment roughly twice the size of SFF, might actually be capable of telling more than one kind of story in one way.
Oh, are we playing the size queen game? Is it time to bring in the marketing numbers for romance? (Wait, SFF is half the size of litfic now? Wow.)

LitFic works hard to sneer at genre fic on the grounds of "it's better art!" because it knows it can't match SFF, horror, or mystery for fan devotion, and it can't match romance for sales OR fan devotion.

And if we ever get to talk "artistic creativity" and "literary innovation" removed from money concerns, ohboy do I have some fanfic to share with you...
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:19 PM on April 19 [6 favorites]


I was reading some interesting tweets lately (which I can't find) saying that too many genre fans dismiss literary fiction as stories by and about middle-aged professors lusting after graduate students, which is equally unfair.

That's true, sometimes they're about bored sad rich people having sex with each other.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:43 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]


I do think the déclassé need to actually, y'know, sell books, as quickly as possible, has incentivized a propulsive writing style that grabs a reader's attention quickly.

Orson Scott Card (sorry) wrote an essay saying that SF needs to use more straightforward language because the things it describes are unfamiliar. If you say "The tear was a glistening jewel on her cheek," the reader isn't sure whether you're using a metaphor or telling them that the alien literally has diamonds for tears.

But then one of the things that made Gene Wolfe so great was that he leaned into that ambiguity and used it artfully rather than write books like lab reports.
posted by straight at 1:47 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


One of the factors it mentions is that because of independent and self-publishing, many romance novels aren't even available as traditionally-published books.

Romance is a genre with a robust secondhand book economy; there is no secondhand ebook economy. People almost certainly aren't reading more ebooks than print books (on average, I mean); they're just not buying as many new ones in print.

Their book-purchase statistics don't count how many people bought last year's romance novels used on Amazon for $1+shipping, along with a couple of new ebooks for $6.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:55 PM on April 19


If you say "The tear was a glistening jewel on her cheek," the reader isn't sure whether you're using a metaphor or telling them that the alien literally has diamonds for tears.

Starts writing story about aliens who cry diamonds and the human industry of making tear-jerker stories for them...
posted by 445supermag at 1:56 PM on April 19 [13 favorites]


Actually now I'm thinking of a list of Literary Novels for Science Fiction Fans (there are so many "if you like Very Serious Novels You Will Probably Like Dhalgren" lists out there).

My feeling is that if you like science fiction (or at least, if you like the science fiction that I like, or if you're me), you will probably like, off the top of my head:
The Leopard
WG Sebald in general
City of Night, if you like Dhalgren
Iain Sinclair
Angelica Gorodischer, if you like eighties Ursula Le Guin
Sylvia Ocampo
Virginia Woolf (if you like Joanna Russ)
Q
The Name of the Rose...

..now I'd sort of like to cross reference all my favorite non-SF books with SF books.
posted by Frowner at 2:02 PM on April 19 [20 favorites]


Lumpers v. Splitters, iteration #3579.

Team Lumper over here, fwiw.
posted by mediareport at 2:03 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


And I'll just recycle this comment from a couple years ago:

First things first: if you're a scifi fan and haven't read it yet, grab a copy of The Secret History of Science Fiction, co-edited by John Kessel. It's a fantastic collection that explores the area between literary and science fictions, with lots of great stories by Michael Chabon, Connie Willis, T.C. Boyle, Thomas Disch, Don Delillo, Ursula K. Le Guin, George Saunders, etc. The introduction alone, which jumps off from the thought experiment Jonathan Lethem once posed - "What if Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula in 1973?" - is worth the price.
posted by mediareport at 2:07 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Don't forget Samuel Delany's close friend Joanna Russ when you're making lists of literary SF writers. We Who Are About To... is, like, The Stranger written by an angry lesbian and also in space. And her very short story Gleepsite rewards endless rereading. Not to mention the extremely essential nonfiction book How To Suppress Women's Writing, which I wish I'd read at age 15.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:15 PM on April 19 [12 favorites]


Starts writing story about aliens who cry diamonds and the human industry of making tear-jerker stories for them...

What's that quote about if you're story just has laser guns, it might just be a techno-thriller, but if it has posters demanding the right to own laser guns, it's science fiction?
posted by straight at 2:19 PM on April 19


Creative writing teaching pays much, much less than a successful genre-fiction career. And many of them were going to prominent SF writing workshops.

Absolutely; what I'm wondering is, had there been a lot of "cross-genre" friendships and working relationships until recently? Were literary writers and SF writers socializing? I don't mean to sound bitter or conspiratorial by pulling out the old saw "it's who you know." Knowing people is how you can come to understand and respect what they do.

I saw Misery for the first time a while back. It's a good adaptation of the novel, but I was struck by one change. In the end, Paul does not publish the hallucinatory and extraordinary adventure novel he wrote for Annie Wilkes, but instead publishes a high-class-looking "serious" novel that we are meant to understand was his reward and reinvention of himself as a writer. Today, it looks like it's been sitting alone on a library shelf for thirty years.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:21 PM on April 19


Well, don't tell Ian McEwan that Amazon lists Machines Like Me as "#1 New Release in Alternate History Science Fiction"
posted by ShooBoo at 2:24 PM on April 19


I stopped reading McEwan's books a while ago -- he kept doing the same sort of endings "it's really a novel my character is writing!", but I actually gave up when he had some woman lie about being raped so she could buy a Playstation. He seems to dislike people and especially women, who might not actually be people, he's unsure. I tend not to read books that get big interviews by white male authors who explain how wht they're doing isn't SFF, it's BETTER, so this really wasn't getting there on any front.

(Is alt-history science fiction is an interesting question, which I generally lean to answering no to. It isn't literary fiction, it's in the same areas as sf and f, but I find it just different enough that in my mind I have it as a separate category.)

The good news is that I see Jeanette Winterson has a new book coming out.
posted by jeather at 2:27 PM on April 19 [7 favorites]


And one more comment, because this is such an interesting topic and I keep trying to figure out why I don't like literary science fiction but do like, for instance, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Leonora Carrington's short stories: A lot of the literary science fiction that I don't like seems to be asking the question, "what if science fiction happened to an average person", and I think that's absolutely the wrong approach.

First off, the "average person" as envisioned by literary fiction - very mainstream, not too bright, kind of a sad sack, very generic relationship conflicts, very generic life goals, probably a Big Trauma which they are either bearing bravely or suppressing or both - isn't a particularly interesting character. And I'd argue that the "average person" of literary fiction is like any other average - a bland mixture of other more interesting things, and not something you encounter in real life.

If you said to me, "what if science fiction happened to....David Bowie? Or a graphic designer and member of ACT-UP in 1990s Rochester? Or a woman blues guitarist in Georgia in 1940? Or a traveling scientific services provider? What if science fiction happened to someone who was interesting but not A Warlord Of Saturn's Moons? What if science fiction happened to a nine year old who was obsessed with ballet and skateboarding?"...Well, I'd be right there with you. (And I think you get that a bit in, eg, Dear Cyborgs and The Arrival of Missives, one of which gets bracketed with "literary" fiction and the other of which does not...unsurprisingly, the less well known one is about a woman, and published by a woman-run press.)

And second, "what if science fiction happened to an average person" gets you into the galactic suburbia problem - if we're in a science fiction world, why is the "average person" our average person? Why aren't they different? Why do they still have the same plaintive-sad internal voice and meditations about love? (They may have a poly triad in the tunnels of a lunar city, but their romantic problems and the possible solutions are still the same.) If people are living in anything but the nearest near-future, they're going to be very different from us - and while science fiction isn't, like, seeing the future, there are science fiction writing methods to create an effect of strangeness and difference to give the feeling of future humans even if we, as present humans, can't really write anything but written-by-present-humans stories.
posted by Frowner at 2:32 PM on April 19 [12 favorites]


... when he had some woman lie about being raped so she could buy a Playstation.

What. Ugh. I remember when I read Atonement and privately thought that the erotic note that catalyzed the whole plot, a note that was supposed to be so hot that the lady it was addressed to melted straightaway, was gross as hell. But then I supposed that there was something wrong with me for thinking this, as I tend to do.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:35 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Well, I hear you all, but... there is definitely SOMETHING there. There is a "sci-fi" that has valiant space captains and alien monsters and mobile daughters. And I like it, because I'm a middle-aged straight white man. Sure, there's "literary sci-fi", usually more fantasy or politics. And nowadays there's "lefty sci-fi" which is all feminist. But there's definitely a Thing. Maybe it's called "military sci-fi" now? Or "40K" or "Star Wars" spin-offs? And it's... not fashionable.
posted by alasdair at 2:46 PM on April 19


What bugs me even more than literary authors like McEwan, Ishiguro, and - to me (though this will be controversial, esp here where she's loved) - Atwood rolling out hackneyed ideas that display their wilful ignorance of genre history, current landscape and tropes, is when critics - equally ignorant - jizz all over it, acting like the the turgid, 30-year-old ideas in these pallid genre dabblings are strikingly original.

That being said, skimming the surface of SF/F can reveal some pretty shite books. I hang out on Reddit Fantasy, and the number of people call Rothfuss's indulgent wish-fulfillment books "literature" is staggering.
posted by smoke at 2:47 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]


> "... whereas the SFnal tropes in lit-SF are usually handled badly."

I can't agree. I've read plenty of SFnal books by lit fic writers that I thought were great -- stuff by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Emily St. John Mandel, David Foster Wallace, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, Naomi Alderman, and many others. I've also read plenty whose SFnal work did nothing for me -- Lidia Yuknavich, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, etc. But there's plenty of science fiction authors whose work does nothing for me, either. Similarly, I've read both great and terrible lit fic by authors who normally write sci fi. (Some of whom are arguably the exact same names as the ones I've listed above.)

There is, I think, genuinely something of a glass house issue. I've heard SF fans argue that all literary SF is terrible, and sneer at non-SF writers trying their hand at it. There's gatekeeping attempts within SF as well, with people trying to insist that their personal narrow definition of "real" SF is the only true SF -- in fact, it's been a huge problem in the past few years, as many here no doubt know well.

None of this takes away from the fact that Ian McEwan said some stupid bullshit.

But it's always wise to be wary of the difference between "I don't like this book" and "no one should like this book".
posted by kyrademon at 2:55 PM on April 19 [10 favorites]


I don't think that anybody irritated by McEwan's bloviations is arguing that there isn't formulaic, trite, purely commercial science fiction on the store shelves. I'm certainly not.

I'm arguing that the ratio of good-stuff-to-garbage in science fiction isn't noticeably worse than that of so-called literary fiction, and is probably a smidge better.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:57 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Oh, and also that the bias in favor of literary fiction among book critics and academics is pretty galling, particularly when they haven't read any of it.

And that McEwan is a fool.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:59 PM on April 19


mediareport: " "What if Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula in 1973?""

Well, he wouldn't have turned up to the ceremony, we know that.
posted by chavenet at 3:07 PM on April 19 [10 favorites]


But then one of the things that made Gene Wolfe so great was that he leaned into that ambiguity and used it artfully rather than write books like lab reports.

I fell in love with Yoon Ha Lee's writing with "This story is about the eschatology of shadow puppets." Which is really fucking brilliant because in spite of the 20th century careerist division of science vs. humanities (driven, in part, by the race to keep up with the Russians and the Japanese) science has always involved metaphor, simile, and story. Great astronomers penning symphonies and quartets, the first modern microbiologists looking down telescopes and seeing something like monastic cells, the Big Bang, Einstein's boy on a train with a flashlight, King Terror-Lizard (or my favorite Zuul Ankle-Crusher), the Alvarez-Alvarez hypothesis. You open a glossary and the figurative language peeks out through the use of loanwords. We often miss that because one generation's figurative becomes the next generation's literal as language evolves.

So right there, I feel in love with the sense of play, thermodynamics and branes juggled with the formal elements of Brothers Grimm and language, creating a sense of curiosity as to the boundaries between the figurative and the literal within that space. Delany's Babel-17 is about flipping the military metaphor on its ear, the navigators are in a plural arranged marriage, the sergeant is deeply concerned about the welfare of the crew, the space battles use Freudian vocabulary, and winning the war requires developing empathy for the alien. (I'm now wondering if Delany was influenced by Elizebeth Friedman, the English graduate who became one of America's leading codebreakers through two world wars.)

When I look for really great SFF, what I want to see is a sense of play with language, literature, form, and the implications of whatever subject the writer is using to create that sense of curiosity, wonder, and dread. I don't see Fantasy as all that different than Science Fiction in that regard. Fantasy plays with the humanities in much the same way that Science Fiction plays with science and math, but ideally the goals and methods are very similar.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 3:20 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]


I can't agree. I've read plenty of SFnal books by lit fic writers that I thought were great -- stuff by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Emily St. John Mandel, David Foster Wallace, Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, Naomi Alderman, and many others. I've also read plenty whose SFnal work did nothing for me -- Lidia Yuknavich, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, etc. But there's plenty of science fiction authors whose work does nothing for me, either. Similarly, I've read both great and terrible lit fic by authors who normally write sci fi. (Some of whom are arguably the exact same names as the ones I've listed above.)

To clarify: I'm not talking about lit fic written by science fiction writers - I'm trying to talk about science fiction writers incorporating high culture literary techniques (and being overpraised by readers who've never read anything but SF). So, for instance, Samuel Delany didn't invent (most of) the writerly techniques that he uses in Dhalgren, and Joanna Russ's writerly voice is so strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf that if you come to Woolf after Russ you'll have this extraordinary shock of recognition. In general, science fiction writers have been, IMO, more successful in incorporating literary techniques than literary writers have been successful in writing science fiction novels. (In general, I don't notice literary writers incorporating science fiction techniques.)

When I think about the type of literary SF that you list, I end up feeling that a lot of it is just sort of affairs of the heart in various extremely recognizable futures - you're having an affair in post-apocalyptic America, you're a grandmother in a climate change dystopia, etc etc. When I read those, I always wonder why they need to be science fiction - what science fiction actually adds to the story of the affair, the childhood reminiscences, the aging process, etc other than a gloomy near-future setting and some additional ways of death.

Similarly, this is a problem I have with Doris Lessing's seventies "realistic" SF, like The Summer Before The Dark [oops, thinking of Memoirs of a Survivor]. She's obviously talking about late sixties/seventies social breakdown, very thinly disguised as a "near future". I happen to like her eye for material detail, so I enjoy reading those books, but they're extremely banal if considered as SF, and could just as easily be set in the slummier end of 1970s bohemia.

And again, I think this is a technique problem. Samuel Delany has a couple of interesting essays about language and world-building in science fiction - describing how to use language to give a sense of newness, distance or estragement, how to "build" a world with a series of concise, new images rather than laying it out with kitchen sink realism. (He talks about using the image of the video booth in Triton this way, for instance.) The worlds of lit SF often seem really leaden to me, and I feel like it's a failure to understand how language is used in science fiction worldbuilding.

By contrast, when I'm reading a historical novel - some David Hollinghurst, let's say - I'm conscious of the small material details as a form of documentary, as a political gesture, as scene-setting in a way that doesn't make sense in a science fiction novel. The methods that Hollinghurst uses to conjure up the past work effectively and make sense, because he's sort of layering these images of the past on all the other images of the past that I've gotten from experience or from other books/movies/etc. This kind of "layering" doesn't work the same way in science fiction, because what's being layered is "the idea of the killer robot" or whatever - the "reality effect" in science fiction needs to be lighter if it's going to be effective. (Hence terrible info-dumps, not being effective.)
posted by Frowner at 3:21 PM on April 19 [9 favorites]


When I think about the type of literary SF that you list, I end up feeling that a lot of it is just sort of affairs of the heart in various extremely recognizable futures - you're having an affair in post-apocalyptic America, you're a grandmother in a climate change dystopia, etc etc. When I read those, I always wonder why they need to be science fiction - what science fiction actually adds to the story of the affair, the childhood reminiscences, the aging process, etc other than a gloomy near-future setting and some additional ways of death.

Oh man, I read a recent 'best of the year' SF anthology which I hated about 50% of, and this was exactly my problem with it. In many cases, it just didn't feel like the writer was interested in science fiction as anything other than a background setting. If the major beats of your story could be easily transposed into a modern or historical Earth setting with only minor fudging, it's really just not what I'm looking for when I seek out science fiction.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:11 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Let's talk money. Here is a list of the top 5 genres by 2014 revenue numbers. Here is another breakdown of numbers and explains why agents may ask for works that do not bear great revenue numbers (hint: agents make more in certain genres)

I have always been irritated by faculty and authors who are contemptuous of readers and feel themselves "above" such things as "other" genres as if their writing is all sui generis. McEwan and others who display a willful ignorance of the large body of work present and past shows an intellectual famine on their part. It cannot escape me from wondering if there is buried jealousy related to popularity and revenue; that, afterall, is a REALLY old story trope.
posted by jadepearl at 4:37 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Jeanette Winterson is, as I recall, fairly explicit about writing SFnal work, even though it is generally categorised as litfic.
posted by jeather at 5:42 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Part of me says that this is a novel not to bother with. Part of me wants to lead a campaign to nominate it for a Hugo.
posted by nubs at 5:51 PM on April 19 [4 favorites]


'not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.”

HALT AND CATCH FIRE
posted by clavdivs at 6:01 PM on April 19


Children of Men wasn't about babies.

Interesting example, given that it was written by PD James - not an SF writer or reader herself, and also one who "[doesn't] like to describe it [Children of Men] as science fiction".
posted by smoke at 6:06 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


> "When I think about the type of literary SF that you list, I end up feeling that a lot of it is just sort of affairs of the heart in various extremely recognizable futures - you're having an affair in post-apocalyptic America, you're a grandmother in a climate change dystopia, etc etc."

I think we must be talking past each other, because I can't see how any of that applies to the authors I listed as liking. You might or might not like The Handmaid's Tale, Cloud Atlas, Station Eleven, Infinite Jest, The Stone Gods, 1Q84, or The Power, but I cannot for the life of me see how any of them could be thought of as "just sort of affairs of the heart in various extremely recognizable futures" except MAYBE Station Eleven (which out of all of them was by far the most popular among the traditional sci-fi crowd.)

I'm also, I will admit, a little bit at a loss as to why just-affairs-of-the-heart-in-a-sci-fi setting would necessarily be a problem. Sounds great to me.

Ultimately, I think it boils down to me liking a certain sort of book that you don't. Which is fine, and I also like a lot of books that you clearly also do. But you're not going to convince me that books I think are great science fiction (whatever the authors choose to call them) are actually bad science fiction because our tastes differ to some extent.
posted by kyrademon at 6:29 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]


Lexica: Baen Books are notorious for this.
The worst entry on that list is impressively terrible — and I was quite amused to see that Eric Flint had blocked the image from loading on that page. It works as a direct link for anyone with a taste for design malpractice.
posted by adamsc at 6:30 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


It's not like giving money to Roman Polański, I suppose, but still—if he'd just kept his mouth shut I'd have bought the damn book already.
I was all set to buy the book based on the brief description, so his horse’s-assery was ineffective. What stopped me is the effing thing is being “preordered.” As an ebook. Screw that nonsense. I can just barely understand preordering a physical book, but if they’re shilling it and they’re going to hit the return key in a week but take my money now: humph. I’ll get it from the library if I read it at all.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:34 PM on April 19


McEwan and others who display a willful ignorance of the large body of work present and past shows an intellectual famine on their part. It cannot escape me from wondering if there is buried jealousy related to popularity and revenue; that, afterall, is a REALLY old story trope.

Atonement sold a million and a half copies and was made into a movie. There are very few SF writers who are as financially successful as McEwan. The trope that literary fiction writers look down on science fiction writers because SF writers make more money is true of some people, I'm sure, but I think it's mostly people imagining, without evidence, the success of other people.
posted by Jeanne at 7:11 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Did I miss this somewhere in the thread? Relevant - Sturgeon's Law: 90 % of everything is crap.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:15 PM on April 19 [4 favorites]


Jeanne, why do you think there is such contempt towards genre? No seriously, what are the roots of the contempt? Simply the construct of prestige vs. popularity? Why the willful ignorance of a large body of work? When I asked writing faculty at my university why the refusal to have ANY courses in genre the reply was always dismissive contempt that any genre course was unworthy of being in the schedule even with the support of the chair and dean. It was maddening because the demand was there even if the courses were not applicable to degrees.

I guess what I am asking is literary fiction punching up, down, sidewise? I do not ask this to be a rhetorical jerk; it is me trying to understand motivation in the face of potential self-harm, e.g., undercutting one's course enrollments or alienating potential reading audience.
posted by jadepearl at 8:53 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,”

We have scaled this mountain long before you claimed its peak in the name of Literature, Mr, Explorer.
posted by hat_eater at 12:18 AM on April 20 [1 favorite]


I dunno, this article, like most I've read on the subject, seems to approach the idea from something like the wrong way around if one wanted to really get to the objection some writers have about genre. In broad terms, genre writing is defined by surface elements, the setting, situation, or objects in the story without regard for quality. In that sense Battlefield Earth and Ada are shoved together under one heading as if that was the natural way to categorize them to best make sense of them both. The shared surface elements fitting some vague sense of futuristic/fantastic "otherness" that is somehow more important for linkage then their differences.

Science fiction as a genre is largely incompatible with the idea of "literary fiction" as a genre in that manner of categorization as the latter is a definition of category by something like quality of writing or thought involved. (That's meant in general, not debating the particulars of any given work that some might claim as representative.) I don't think there'd be many authors, academics, or critics given a complete list of works that contained "sci-fi" elements wouldn't find a number of them also fit their definition of "literary fiction" as well. The difficulty is in the manner of categorization, not the exclusivity of either genre. There is no inherent reason science fiction as a genre category should be defining any more than hundreds of other possibilities not regularly used as boundary markers for "genre" reading, like stories set in New York, or adultery stories, the categorizing is useful only for discussing shared themes and tropes and, more importantly, for sales.

I think sales and readership is significant because genres do tend to draw "fans" that stick to certain genres primarily or exclusively without much regard for content. People read science fiction because it's science fiction and its tropes by themselves fascinate. Some of those who write so-called literary fiction might be understandably put off by this because it essentially celebrates surface over interior, in a sense, which is not how they see their work. While there's no question that some genre writing is as great or better than much literary fiction that doesn't fit an easy genre category, genre writing can lead to artificial rules lawyering, where its less about expressing anything much about the world "today" or humanity than refining its own tropes endlessly through a narrow sense of cleverness.

Think, for example, of how the idea of prophecies keep finding refinement in fantasy stories, where the game is taking the precise words of the prophecy in an unexpected but still literally "true" direction or how fictional beings like vampires are expected to follow certain rules that have no relevance to actual reality or risk readers getting deeply upset. Those things may be fun in how they deal with genre conventions, but they have little meaning in themselves beyond that. It basically is an assertion that the genre should define the writing more than the writing gives reason to the story whatever path it takes. The insistence on the importance of genre carries limits for authors that some will chafe at for hampering what they are interested in expressing, while others embrace for being a field of tropes to play with that needn't respond to the outside world much at all.

Those aren't really compatible points of view for how to approach a work, though many readers certainly can slide back and forth between them on their own. It more creates a problem of value comparison, "liking" both Battlefield Earth and Ada is saying different things, even if the reader themselves may not care about distinguishing between them. "Liking" is part of the issue some writers seem to be reacting against. It's easy but empty to "like", it expresses personal taste but little else in itself and in aggregate works against "literary fiction" that sets its standard in asking more from a reader in what it hopes to express. While some will find value in that kind of challenge when the writing lives up to the task, the easier path is towards tropes that ask little from a reader more than familiarity with the basic rules of the game to enjoy. Simple pleasure certainly has its place but it does pose a threat to more challenging works when that pleasure is celebrated as equivalent to that which comes from understanding gained through effort.

I have no idea whether McEwan's book deserves that kind of effort but he clearly thinks it does and that's where I believe a lot of the conflict lies between genre writing and those who don't want to be labeled as genre writers.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:29 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


I think SF is particularly prone to these kind of arguments because it’s such a loosely-defined genre. It’s really only characterised by subject matter, and a broad range of subject matter at that: anything to do with the future, or space, or AI, or robots, or aliens, or time travel…

In genres where the conventions are much tighter, like romance novels or perhaps detective fiction, the genre boundaries need less policing. Every novel that contains a romantic relationship is not automatically considered a romance novel. Although at one point I noticed that the highest-rated book in the ‘historical romance’ category on Amazon UK was Anna Karenina.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:39 AM on April 20


leotrotsky: It's no Saturn's Children.

Speaking as the author of Saturn's Children, that rankles. Hint: "Why did you pick such an awful cover for your book?".
posted by cstross at 1:45 AM on April 20 [28 favorites]


I find it hard to care whether Ian McEwan or anyone else a) respects the genre I work in, b) has to pretend they're not writing science fiction when clearly they are, in order to perpetuate their own self-image of relevancy. Science fiction (and genre/geek culture generally) is perfectly mainstream in terms of sales and cultural presence, and certain writers' snobbery on the matter is largely immaterial to that point. Likewise, genre work survives the cultural "sifting" of time as well as any other work (which is to say, most of it falls away, but a few examples carry forward).

In other words, both the present and the verdict of history values genre and what it has to offer perfectly well, so, meh. Whatever, McEwan, et al.
posted by jscalzi at 2:15 AM on April 20 [13 favorites]


There's no great mystery as to why sci-fi is despised in some circles. It's the same reason lit-fic is despised in some circles. It's because there's a not inconsiderable chunk of it which is, frankly, bad, and if you only count the bad stuff for whatever reason -- you've been taught to believe that the bad stuff is all there is, you haven't read it widely, you're a narrow-minded snob, you're inclined by taste not to like it much anyway, or some combination thereof -- you're not going to have a high opinion of it.

Sci-fi has a reputation for having two dimensional characters who serve as little more than mouthpieces for the author's ideas, introducing concepts in tedious narrative exposition, featuring leaden lifeless prose, and being either mindless escapist adventure fluff driven entirely by plot or heavy-handed cautionary tales where the theme is served via sledgehammer. Is there any truth to that? Sure. It's the same thing many sci-fi authors and readers started complaining about more than 50 years ago now.

Lit fic has a reputation for being near-plotless navel gazing about the banal emotional travails of white male middle class men who want to trade in their wives for a younger model and treat it as a deep metaphysical journey. Is there any truth to that? Sure. It's something many lit fic authors and readers also began complaining about decades ago.

But obviously, that isn't all there is to either genre, both were never only that anyway and they especially aren't only that now after all those decades of complaining, and it's particularly galling when someone remarkably ignorant of a genre you enjoy regards themselves as an expert and spouts off about how terrible all of it is and how they will do much better by introducing something which has been a commonplace feature of the field for *checks* 200 years.
posted by kyrademon at 2:31 AM on April 20 [7 favorites]


the latter is a definition of category by something like quality of writing or thought involved.

I actually disagree with that characterisation, I think a lot of lit fic has just as many tropes and archetypes, and subgrenres and they are adhered to just as much as in other genres - which is to say often, but not all the time.

Any characterisation of quality is swiftly dismissed by a perusal of the highly variable winners of the booker prize, for example, where you can put up a masterpiece like Disgrace one year against tosh like Life of Pi or Vernon God Little the next.
posted by smoke at 2:38 AM on April 20 [1 favorite]


I actually disagree with that characterisation, I think a lot of lit fic has just as many tropes and archetypes, and subgrenres and they are adhered to just as much as in other genres - which is to say often, but not all the time.

Yeah, that wasn't meant to suggest any random work of lit fic is better for the claim than any sci fi is, just that the way they are choosing to categorize the works differs in a key way that seems to be at the heart of the reoccurring arguments on the subject.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:53 AM on April 20


Oh, and I also don't think it's really fair to assert literary fiction has somehow been more male oriented than sci-fi has been over their histories. Many women have written "literary fiction" and at least some have been acclaimed for their work before getting notice in the sci-fi world, which only became important as a thing more recently. Some of this is liking arguing whether Willa Cather should be given credit for writing westerns since the setting and era could fit the fringes of that genre, even as the way she approached her subjects doesn't make it a particularly useful comparison.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:17 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Imagine an alternate universe where the standard for publishing sci-fi was to use the same imageless, but elegant cover design for every book, like Reclam.
posted by gimonca at 5:49 AM on April 20


The difficulty is in the manner of categorization, not the exclusivity of either genre. There is no inherent reason science fiction as a genre category should be defining any more than hundreds of other possibilities not regularly used as boundary markers for "genre" reading, like stories set in New York, or adultery stories, the categorizing is useful only for discussing shared themes and tropes and, more importantly, for sales.

I don't think this is true. (And if I were a better person rather than an internet bloviator I'd go and read some theories of genre rather than writing this comment, since it's not like they don't exist.)

On the one hand "what is science fiction" is one of those better-at-a-bar conversations like "star trek or star wars" and "mayo: delicious or disgusting", and while I really like that kind of conversation I know a lot of people find it annoying.

Also, right now I feel like the collective "what is science fiction" conversation is at "science fiction is what I point at when I say science fiction", but I feel like it's more useful to look at how "science fiction" came into being - the mixture of authorial, readerly and publishing networks, the kinds of genealogies that people have used at different points, the way that books are sold and marketed, the specific science fictional language stuff (ranging from the recurrence of the ansible to the good old door dilating, etc).

Science fiction is as real as dinner - you can absolutely have donuts for dinner if you want, you don't need to have candle light or a soup course and certainly dinner among fifth generation Welsh-Americans is going to look different than dinner in an old Beijing intellectual family, but even so, if you invite friends over for a dinner party which turns out to be interpretive dance and gambling for spoonfuls of low-cal ice cream, they're not really going to feel that they've dined. Dinner isn't just what you point to when you say dinner - it's constrained both by history and by place.

I think science fiction is the only kind of genre fiction (if you're thinking of horror, romance, mystery, etc - "paraliteratures") where it's common to say that the genre itself doesn't really exist. No one says that romance as a genre is just random and arbitrary, or that Bleak House is best understood as sib to The Cat Who Could Read Backwards and Death of a Red Heroine because of the mystery of Ester Summerson's parentage. On one hand, science fiction plots are a little less structured than romance or mystery plots...but on the other, not less structured than horror, right? Horror's pretty broad.

To me, the practical value of understanding science fiction as, like, a thing isn't so much gatekeeping as understanding some of what gives effective science fiction its force, and why it's not enough to just dot your text with spaceships and near-future dystopias (I have to admit, I am 100% sick of near-future dystopias) to make it work.

When I ran a science fiction reading group/class (more structured than a group, yet totally amateur) we did a really depressing unit in which we read Oryx and Crake against a John Brunner novel, either The Sheep Look Up or Stand on Zanzibar, I don't remember which. It was very instructive, because it highlighted the ways in which Brunner was about a billion times better a user of science fiction tropes than Atwood, even though Atwood is a far more inventive writer than Brunner in terms of voice and plot, and even though you could drop everything Brunner thought about women, feminism and gender into a teacup*.

Like, I very strongly recommend this exercise if you want to see a clear illustration of the difference between literary and genre SF. Both SoZ and SLU are brilliant books, clearly influenced by Dos Passos and modernism. They share many concerns with Oryx and Crake - colonialism, environmental disaster and collapse, criticism of the crassness and venality of contemporary "ethical" capitalism, fears about the emptiness of contemporary life under capitalism. All three books use satire of commercialism/"woke" capitalist enterprises.

There are a lot of reasons why I think the Brunner is great SF and the Atwood isn't, but to avoid a boring nitpicky argument, I'll just say that when you compare a really fantastic Atwood novel like The Edible Woman or Catseye to Oryx and Crake and then consider the Brunner novels, you can see how making Atwood's concerns fit into a clumsy science fiction template weakens what she does, where using the tropes of science fiction gives Brunner's work force because he's sailing with the tide. If you said to me, "who is the greater writer", I'd say that of course Atwood is - despite Brunner's modernism and innovation, he's a much smaller and more one-note writer than Atwood. But you can understand a lot about how science fiction works when you consider each of them as science fiction writers.


*John Brunner was an interesting guy, actually. He wrote the CND song "Can You Hear The H-Bomb's Thunder" and pioneered a lot of proto-cyberpunk ideas, among other things.
posted by Frowner at 6:16 AM on April 20 [17 favorites]


(I mean, Brunner writes about women as active, capable and major players in his stories - he's not some kind of anti-feminist or anything - but he doesn't seem to devote a lot of brainspace to questions of gender, socialization, interiority, constraint, etc, the way Atwood does.)
posted by Frowner at 6:23 AM on April 20 [5 favorites]


No one has mentioned, McCarthy's The Road which won the Pulitzer but when I read it, it seemed like a re-hash of the same post-apocalyptic tropes that had been around since at least the 50s.
posted by octothorpe at 7:46 AM on April 20 [5 favorites]


I mostly agree with you Frowner, I'm not saying science fiction doesn't exist, it clearly does because that's what so many people rally around as an identifying category for their work or favorite writings. It's just that the way it gets talked about treats genre as if it is some natural occurring phenomenon rather than a set of semi-arbitrary boundaries that are artificially imposed but rigorously guarded by fans and practitioners. McEwan's "genre" is equally arbitrary and artificial, but imposed from a entirely different kind of criteria.

Writers like McEwan don't think of themselves as writing science fiction because they aren't by their organizing criteria, they're just writing as they always do where genre concerns in a categorical sense isn't of interest to them. Writers who embrace genre, whether sci-fi, historical romance, mysteries, or whatever tend to view their work as part of a ongoing body of work that has boundaries they may or may not push, but they accept as informing their work. They write to or for the genre in that sense, which doesn't make their writing worse any more than embracing lit fic makes someone a good writer.

To me, the practical value of understanding science fiction as, like, a thing isn't so much gatekeeping as understanding some of what gives effective science fiction its force, and why it's not enough to just dot your text with spaceships and near-future dystopias (I have to admit, I am 100% sick of near-future dystopias) to make it work.

That is also where I see the value of genres, or organizing by categories it can reveal in bulk what may be hidden in individual works alone and it points to shared likenesses of handling or values that come up in dealing with the grouped subjects and in better showing unusual treatment in the same fashion.

Grouping by what we've accepted as important genres, romance, horror, sci-fi etc has the added value that comes from the "rules" or tropes of the genres being so much more closely examined and defined. Writers who embrace the category explore the genre aware of what came before and will engage with it. That's how it appears to work in all the arts and their various genres. But that same value can and often does lead to genres becoming increasingly insular and more about their own histories and rules than anything else.

We could group works by other forms of likeness, ignoring the conventional genre boundaries and creating new ones that would also show likeness in whatever story elements we examined and could be used for further study as well, but as they wouldn't have the conscious effort and awareness of there being boundaries and rules, however rough they might be, influences would have to be traced differently. Lit fic values the individual writer and their relationship to other writers as their organizing criteria and find more value in tracing literature from voice to voice than in story elements, which has its own merits and drawbacks.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:31 AM on April 20 [7 favorites]


What bugs me even more than literary authors like McEwan, Ishiguro, and - to me (though this will be controversial, esp here where she's loved) - Atwood rolling out hackneyed ideas that display their wilful ignorance of genre history, current landscape and tropes, is when critics - equally ignorant - jizz all over it, acting like the the turgid, 30-year-old ideas in these pallid genre dabblings are strikingly original.

This is the problem with "literary" SF. And it just goes to show you how so much of contemporary "literature", like the writings of Peggy Atwood, is all about the personal brand of the writer, not the writing itself.
posted by JamesBay at 8:33 AM on April 20


Brunner is a criminally underrated writer and prose technician.
posted by JamesBay at 8:35 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


The big problem with definition discussions is that most of them seem to be driven by a list of tropes. In that view fantasy is fantasy if it has recognizable supernatural beasties, while science fiction has spaceships and gravity boots. My take is that fantasy and science fiction are united by a sense of play. Fantasists play with history, religious studies, literature, and folklore, while science fiction plays with science, technology, philosophy, and math. In that respect, I think it's possible for a work to be both fantasy and science fiction. (Book of the New Sun, "Combustion Hour") Granted because of my headspace I'm not reading long-form work currently, but I'm much more likely to be bored by a story that reads like a shopping list of "SFF things" where they're laid out as ritual objects to be addressed.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:36 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]


It's because there's a not inconsiderable chunk of it which is, frankly, bad, and if you only count the bad stuff for whatever reason -- you've been taught to believe that the bad stuff is all there is, you haven't read it widely, you're a narrow-minded snob, you're inclined by taste not to like it much anyway, or some combination thereof -- you're not going to have a high opinion of it.

I didn't realize this was a disco heavy metal rap country music thread.
posted by philip-random at 8:37 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


Writers who embrace the category explore the genre aware of what came before and will engage with it.

This is a good point, and thinking it over, I think some of the best "genre" writing happens when the author is aware of and embraces the genre, and doesn't do the thing where they pretend the reader has never run into it before (special dispensation to YA, though, where that's a legitimate concern).

There is a fine line before you get into outright fan service, which isn't inherently bad but tends to get "inside baseball" and start to feel exclusionary ("wait, did I miss the joke?") pretty quickly, but the better writers—IMO, obviously—within various genre both appreciate and respect the conventions of the genre while also playing with them. I suppose it's just an extension of respecting your readers.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:40 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


Yeah, and even within the broader trappings of genre, there are breakdowns where different writers are approaching the elements from very different perspectives and "rules". See the divide between "hard" and "soft" sci-fi for example. Mass appeal genre writing largely indulges reader fantasies and uses rules meant to give those fantasies a stronger footing rather than seek to examine human behavior, science, the art of writing, or other more involved ideas that involve the reader applying some greater knowledge of the world than will be provided by the story and one's imagined self. (That doesn't make that kind of writing "good" just asks for something different than the lighter fantasy types of writing do.)
posted by gusottertrout at 8:56 AM on April 20 [2 favorites]


In some ways, this is just the fanfic problem writ large.

These days, fanfic is so vast and plentiful a field that you can easily read 25 stories in which the characters in a popular fandom are in an alternate universe where they're all baristas. If you examine the ways these 25 stories handle the situation and characters differently, you may discover some interesting ideas about the characters or the world they're in and the ways that varying styles can convey those ideas. And indeed one or two of those stories may be crazy standouts that are moving, or thrilling, or heartbreaking, or profoundly thought-provoking, even if you have to have some familiarity with the source material or the concept of a barista AU to fully appreciate them. But sometimes you're just reading what is to you the 25th *(&(&*^^ barista AU, and the next person over is reading "something that doesn't really have anything new to add, but they don't care, because they just like the idea of the characters interacting in a small cozy enduring institution, and they're reading for comfort or for a sense of community with other people who like the characters." Genre convention there controls totally.
posted by praemunire at 8:59 AM on April 20 [4 favorites]


Margaret Atwood is PART OF the genre's history and tradition -- she won the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award more than three decades ago, for god's sake -- so this discussion is becoming increasingly surreal to me.
posted by kyrademon at 9:03 AM on April 20 [6 favorites]



that wasn't meant to suggest any random work of lit fic is better for the claim than any sci fi is, just that the way they are choosing to categorize the works differs in a key way

My personal take on so-called Literary Fiction (having spent way too much of my life in and around those who take it very seriously indeed) is that:

A. it's a terrible moniker, one that can't help but encourage its purveyors to wear its inherent snobbery like a badge. "What I'm interested in is lit'rature first" etc. As if all published fiction isn't by broad definition literature. My response to those who use the term is usually a no doubt annoying, "What do you even mean when you say that?"

B. it's a trap. Because it's lazy in a counter-intuitive way, rather similar to so-called Prog Rock, which is a genre of music where one of the key identifiers is instrumental prowess (how complex, how difficult the music is to compose and play). Which to some instantly means you can say it's superior to other musics, particularly stuff like Punk that tends to get by on being something even fifteen year olds can do. This being one of those arguments that can be dissolved by a bemused shrug and "So? What's your point?" In other words, if your justification for your literary genre is degree of technical difficulty, my comeback tends to be, "What about imagination or research, or for that matter relevance?"

Worth noting, my take on why so much so-called Lit-Fic does go down the "... near-plotless navel gazing about the banal emotional travails of white male middle class men who want to trade in their wives for a younger model and treat it as a deep metaphysical journey" rabbit hole (even if you switch/modify the inherent gender) can be laid at the "Write What You Know" door step. Most "serious" writers (like everybody else) just don't have much genuinely interesting life experience to draw on beyond their own personal soap operas, office politics, everyday whatever. Which becomes, I suppose, why I just keep loving good genre stuff more and more. It's not that it eschews complexity of character, theme etc -- it just has other places it can go. In fact, it's supposed to.
posted by philip-random at 9:42 AM on April 20 [4 favorites]


dinner among fifth generation Welsh-Americans

Can they get access to enough fresh Brains?
posted by biffa at 9:48 AM on April 20


445supermag: Starts writing story about aliens who cry diamonds and the human industry of making tear-jerker stories for them...

Tiptree did a grim version of that in "We Who Stole The Dream", aliens that cry a particularly delightful intoxicant, and:
We have developed a ruthless industry of capturing these creatures and torturing them to death so that we can capture the chemical as they excrete it during the torture sessions. In fact, human beings try to capture mated pairs because when the creatures watch their loved ones tortured to death it increases the yield and potency of the chemical.
posted by tavella at 12:29 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


I've always considered that the literary problem with science-fiction (and to some extent of most genre fiction except perhaps crime fiction) is less an issue of subject matter (anti-gravity boots vs human dilemmas) than one of style and ambition. I love sci-fi, dearly, half of what I read is sci-fi, but sci-fi/fantasy writers are typically more concerned about ideas, concepts, what-ifs, wonders, invention, atmosphere and actions than about words, their beauty, mystery and ambiguity. Of course, there's no shortage of SFF writers that are fantastic stylists, from Bradbury to Miéville, and SFF is probably more literary today than it ever was. But still, much of the best SFF remains quite utilitarian from a literary perspective. For instance, I enjoy reading the Expanse series for the stories (or Asimov, or PKD, or PJ Farmer, or John Brunner etc.), which are exciting, but less so for the writing, which is mostly made up of phrases such as "The intruding ship spun, burning hard, and zipped through a different gate, kicking the curve back up again as it escaped." Let's be clear: it is good writing, it does what it's supposed to do, it's efficient for narrative purposes and for world- and atmosphere-building. But it's different from the kind I want from literary fiction, where words are played with, transformed, and given a new, singular life ("The secret life of France, into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died. And in ten minutes, Paris is gone. The horizon, dense with buildings, vanishes. Already I feel free.").
posted by elgilito at 3:53 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]


gimonca: the British publisher Gollancz were the 500 kg gorilla of SF publishing in the UK in the 1970s, and were famous for their plain yellow dustjackets—exactly what you're asking for!

It in no way convinced anyone (who wasn't already reading SF) that the likes of J. G. Ballard, Christopher Priest, or Brian Aldiss were writing literature.
posted by cstross at 2:50 AM on April 21 [3 favorites]


McEwan also made it crystal clear that he has either never read Frankenstein, or, if he did, he did not understand it: "[In Frankenstein] the monster is a metaphor for science out of control, but it is ourselves out of control that I am interested in."

He certainly didn't read Mary Shelley's own preface:
THE event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, 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 develops; 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.
This is Mary Shelley inventing a genre. Boom. Mic drop.
posted by BrashTech at 6:19 AM on April 21 [9 favorites]


I would vastly rather re-read Mary Shelley over anything by McEwan OR Michael Chabon, both of whom I find painfully overrated.

I've always considered that the literary problem with science fiction . . . is less an issue of subject matter . . . than one of style and ambition.
Absolutely. Particularly with the best of the 60s/70s stuff, SF was just trying to do a different job with words than the myriad contemporaries in the "literature" game who at the time seem to have primarily focused on the interior monologues and neuroses of an America that had just discovered Freud in translation, and had determined to work it into everything.

I'd say criticism of SF is generally just low-hanging fruit - it's much easier to cast aspersions based on gatekeeping or genre-policing than on bad writing, which is in fact ubiquitous. Is there more bad writing or lack of style in contemporary SF than in e.g. the pretentious and misogynistic ramblings of McSweeney's darling William Vollman, who AFAICT makes up in volume what he lacks in ability to compose a coherent paragraph? Dude is like the Zizek of American letters, intentionally controversial to mask how bad he is at what he's ostensibly doing.

I'm rapidly approaching the point of never again reading a white male author who is still alive. I think they've gotten enough attention, frankly.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:27 AM on April 21 [1 favorite]


Relatedly, I was pleasantly surprised to see Jeet Heer write such a respectful tribute to Gene Wolfe in the New Republic recently

Jeet Heer was a comics critic first before he became all respectable.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:48 AM on April 21


I'm so glad there's a couple hundred comments worth of SciFi fans in here.
posted by hugbucket at 11:41 AM on April 21 [2 favorites]


hugbucket: "I'm so glad there's a couple hundred comments worth of SciFi fans in here."

Some of us will read just about anything and while we aren't always sure if what we read is good or not, we are extremely happy to have a coalition of people who we can more or less count on to supply five-six titles or authors worth having a look at in just about any genre. That's been worth the $5 over and over again right there (though the "to read" list is so incredibly offputtingly long and grows like kudzu).
posted by chavenet at 1:41 PM on April 21 [5 favorites]


Every reader of science fiction who is annoyed with people who don't read science fiction because "I don't read science fiction" should look up John M. Ford's (aka Mike Ford's) essay "Rules of Engagement," which you can find in his small collection volume From the End of the Twentieth Century.

Actually, anyone who likes reading should read it.
posted by tzikeh at 2:05 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]


I really don't read enough literary fiction or literary science fiction or even genre science fiction to have anything valuable to say about distinguishing them, but I feel like this discussion needs to include this weird-ass attempt by researchers to try and examine the different effects of literary vs science fiction. Specifically, their attempts at making equivalent texts by, uh... writing a literary fiction passage, and then randomly replacing words with space stuff?

I far more well-versed in the fantasy than science side of SFF, but I'm pretty sure that's not how genre fiction works, in general.
posted by brook horse at 3:08 PM on April 21 [2 favorites]


Atwood has presented her perspectives and views on Sci Fi in a book of essays: 'In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination'. So you can't say that she's never pondered the issue. Thing is, she often tends to leap sideways across 60s/70s modernist SF, back to more 40s pulpy roots. This tangentially touches on her work in the pastiche sections of 'The Blind Assassin'. 'Oryx and Crake' also uses some generic old cliches, but they are intentionally ironic (and fairly sarcastic at times, of course). Atwood gets some razzin for her silly Space Opera tussle with I.M. Banks a few years ago, mostly deserved I think.
posted by ovvl at 3:50 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]


McEwan's unfortunate and uninformed comments offer the way into a much more interesting debate, as the comments of kyrademon, ErisLordFreedom, mittens, and GenderNullPointerException indicate. I find the question of subject matter versus conventions versus style and linguistic innovation gets at the heart of things, for me at least, and I found the points elgilito and Countess Elena and Frowner making really resonating with me, and especially the question of "surface elements" as a matter of focus rather than other elements that gusottertrout raises. I'd position my own non-academic reading tastes around the blurry "experimental fiction" terra incognita to the southeast and ten o'clock (touching the foothills of "weird fiction") of so-called "literary fiction" and so-called "science fiction," and what I've seen in teaching some intro to fiction writing classes is that for many undergrads, a focus on the the "surface elements" and genre trappings of science fiction hinders and obcsures attention to more basic elements of plot mechanics, character development, and even world-building consistency / scene and setting.

So my readerly aesthetics are influenced in part by my own pedagogical and professional prejudices. But I think that problematic attention to surface elements carries over into the popular market, as well: N. K. Jemisin, for me, is superlative in the way she manages to tell excellent science fiction stories, whereas Nnedi Okorafor is so ham-handed in terms of style, plot development, expository prose dumps, and character clichés that it reads like a one-good-idea Mad-Libs approach to science fiction writing. Or to take a different case, Ada Palmer to my mind does a masterful job of using the trappings of science fiction to investigate the problematic implications of what we imagine to be utopias and their human cost, whereas Ernest Cline tries (sort of?) to investigate similar questions, only to laughably and unintentionally give a perfect representation of what an unfortunately stereotypical sci-fi geek's white supremacist utopia would look like: the trappings of the genre hold Cline back from understanding what the ethical implications of Ready Player One would be (in other words, consider who is culturally most capable of wining Halliday's game and controlling the world).

Certainly the world of "literary fiction" is just as blinkered by individual prejudices, as the comments about novels with "professors lusting after students" indicate, and can be dull in how out-of-step it seems with an individual's experiences (after all, who would want to read about a neurotic second-rate academic indexing the 999-line final work of his dead poet friend, or about a young man's life at an all-black college and subsequent involvement with a radical organization in Harlem?), but does that mean that the trappings of the science fiction novel or the fantasy novel or the ghost story (say, a novel about a former slave and her daughter living in a haunted house in 1873 Cincinnati) will somehow engage us more if they're excitingly disconnected from what we think of as our quotidian real-world lives? Maybe that last example is a good illustration of the previously mentioned LeGuin dictum about what the "weird toolbox" of speculative fiction can do.
posted by vitia at 4:32 PM on April 21 [1 favorite]


Here's the thing about Sturgeon's Law: It gets quoted two different ways, and as far as I know, they're both correct.

What I've heard is, Ted was in an interview, and he was asked why he bothered writing SF, since so much of it is crap.

Ted's answer was, Sure, 90% of science fiction is crap, but 90% of everything is crap.

It's always interesting to see the decision made by people when they choose which of those premises to quote. Especially since it's the combination of both that really makes Sturgeon's point.
posted by aurelian at 6:59 PM on April 21 [3 favorites]


So is Nick Mamatas basically correct when he asserts that the lit/genre split goes back to what managers and workers were reading during the factory age? twitter (threadreader)
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:51 AM on April 22



So is Nick Mamatas basically correct when he asserts that the lit/genre split goes back to what managers and workers were reading during the factory age?


Okay, I'm only speaking as someone who did a little reading about the debates over the origins of SF for a group that I ran - so I'm not a real expert and I'm sure that any academic could do twenty times better a job, but:

I think it depends on what you mean by "correct". If you say, broadly, that "literary" and "genre" fiction came into being because of class divisions, and that industrialization produced a more literate, urbanized working class and therefore the market for penny dreadfuls and popular romances, I think that's true. I think it's a useful enough statement if you're trying to say, "you can write a novel that is both ambitious about words and ambitious about space" or "there's no reason to think that you shouldn't read detective stories because they're declasse", or "genre boundaries are artificial".

At the same time, I think that strong statements of this type can obscure as much as they clarify. For instance, the pulps are definitely an....inflection point? moment of crystallization?...for science fiction, and they were substantially for a sort of lower middle class striver/white collar male audience (at least there's an essay in China Mieville's Red Planets book which says this). If I recall the essay correctly, a lot of the concerns and self-definition of science fiction, especially in its technocratic aspects, develop because of this audience. Pulp science fiction wasn't especially "for workers" or for the factory floor; if anything it was for lower middle class junior engineers. (Of course, this doesn't actually mean that no one else read or wrote it.)

And then there are a bunch of other questions about audience in the UK and the US during the 19th century (I say this because I have not the foggiest about anywhere else on this topic) - what about mass circulation periodicals that ran, eg, ghost stories or popular serials? What about the way that fiction itself was often coded female (and hence frivolous/bad/louche)? Women workers were a big audience for cheap fiction, but it wasn't always the pulpy kind. I think there's also a lot of very interesting stuff about nationalism (creation of a national canon by publication of "best of" sets of novels, for instance, which is an additional way that distinction between "literary" and "genre" was created)...and then there are worker self-education projects...and then if we fast forward in to the twentieth century and mess up our paragraph, there are all the early Penguins and so on that are intended as cheap and accessible editions of "literary" (or at least middle class) novels that are being published at the same time as the pulps, etc.

To me, it's a useful statement if you're trying to write something or to destabilize values-based narratives about reading, but it's not as useful a statement if you're trying to work out a genealogy of a kind of book.
posted by Frowner at 7:33 AM on April 22 [7 favorites]


And the mere fact that something is "artificial" doesn't mean that it has no real, material effects, or that the "artificial" thing doesn't have its own effective and ineffective techniques.
posted by Frowner at 7:34 AM on April 22


Yes, I agree with Frowner's take on the merits of the claim, it has some ready use in some descriptive historical sense but the inferences it draws seem to stop short of really capturing enough to be entirely satisfying.

For example if we forget lit fic for the moment and just look to just genre writing one can still see splits develop within readership of that genre alone that echo the splits between lit fic and sci fi. Genre lends itself to both formulaic and esoteric appreciation for having some rough boundaries of expectation around it and many people invested in the genres tend to drift towards one or the other "sides" of that division. James Bond or Punisher readers enjoy their books because they are almost entirely familiar in their story telling, in plotting, character, and acceptable levels of invention. The pleasure derived from the books comes from the repetition of set up and pay off being followed, with minor twists thrown in to provide a sense of the new.

For many readers that's all they are looking for, but others seek ever more interesting speculative concepts or like to see the familiar boundaries pushed in surprising directions. The conventions they are interested in are entirely different than formula, they are looking more for how new ideas to overturn old situations or open possibilities for future events. The interest there is in the quality of speculation and/or the imaginative leaps made in creating alternative worlds and ways of seeing them the more esoteric the better if there is some basic sense to it or if it still feels "real". Talking about genres as if they were uniform does genre writing and readership a disservice.

At the same time, the notion of "escapism" which is alluded to by Mamatas is an important one, but isn't as neat as he makes it seem. for most of us, the earliest stories we take to are fantastic ones, with talking animals or other impossible creatures and actions involved. That experience is the forerunner to other aesthetic appreciation high and low. It makes the known strange and somehow beautiful or exciting for doing so.

We all develop our interests and involvement with the arts through different paths as we grow, some taking to art as expression, a mediated way of seeing the world through the eyes of another, and are drawn into the realm of so called high art, where the manner of expression and how it is captured is as central as what is being shown or said, others find more interest in the ideas in the works and the way the fictional world matches to our own in some fashion. They enjoy the works for how well they read towards fitting real life needs and possibilities for speculation. Others just like the works for the stories they tell and the characters within them, how likeable they are and how thrilling their encounters.

These aren't hard lines for appreciation though, many of us will find pleasures in each manner in different works, but some find their greatest pleasures in those different ways that may not readily translate to others. The why of that is somewhat mysterious. Our personal histories and knowledge surely plays some part as we can learn to better appreciate works as we grow, but there does appear to also be something more innate about the process as well. Some children at young ages are taken to art and/or find it more natural to express themselves through art, whether music, drawing, or writing, than others, just as some children take more readily to other forms of activity and interests. Trying to summarize all that into some quasi-marxist class based appreciation alone is going to miss the mark.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:08 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Review by Nina Allan: Ghost in the Shell? Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
At this point I would like to posit my own counterfactual, a world in which Ian McEwan, when asked that inevitable question about science fiction, had the nous and the background knowledge to answer simply: ‘Yes, you could definitely say that Machines Like Me is a science fiction novel. At the very least, it makes use of science fictional materials. But then, this is nothing new for me. One of my early stories was published in a science fiction magazine. Several of my other novels make use of speculative conceits. If you look at my TV play, Solid Geometry, or read the story ‘Dead as They Come’ from In Between the Sheets, you will see I have been interested in these kinds of Ballardian themes for a long time. Science fiction is simply one of the many useful tools at a writer’s disposal’.

Such a response would not only have been more truthful, it would have been more interesting for everyone involved. Rather than simply reiterating familiar arguments, we could now be discussing how science fiction has impacted and influenced the contemporary novel. Faced with McEwan’s theoretical Damascene revelation, the science fiction commentariat (such that it is, these days) might have felt obliged to stop snarking from the sidelines and actually read his novel before damning it to hell.
posted by rollick at 7:11 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


tl;dr of the Nina Allan review: when given a fair read in this manner, the book still isn't very good.
posted by kyrademon at 9:53 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]


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