Martin Lewis has been wondering just how many (or how few) contemporary science fiction writers are really stretching with their art – not just writing well, but going further to create works which are uniquely their own, rather than cleaving too closely to the well-worn paths of the genre. People like M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts… I joined in with the comments, which concluded that it’s hard to think of many such authors.

This discussion comes in the wake of a review by the science fiction critic Paul Kincaid of three ‘best of the year’ anthologies, in which he argued that many of the stories in those books felt tired, carried a sense of going through the motions. Responses to Kincaid’s review included Martin Lewis’s one about aesthetics, and Jonathan McCalmont‘s more political take, where he suggested that sf authors were shying away from serious engagement with the issues facing us now and in the future.

I recognise the problem McCalmont highlights, but I’m closer to Lewis’s view here. Partly this is because, by inclination, I’m more interested in the artistry of fiction than its politics. But it’s also because I think there are many valid ways of using the tropes of sf to create fiction with substance – and that it’s substance in general that is most lacking from contemporary sf  (to be clear, by ‘substance’ I mean the kind of artistry for which Lewis is calling).

There’s a clear reluctance in the published genre right now to write across established conventions rather than within them. Martin Lewis comes up against some of the problems inherent in this when he sees ‘resource sf’ take contemporary issues of scarcity and consumption and then fall back on traditional narrative patterns, thereby losing its edge. Fiction can’t engage fully with the specifics of issues unless it develops specific approaches to writing about them. This is why Adam Roberts’ By Light Alone speaks so loudly to the present: not just because its concerns are current, but because there’s also a freshness to how it treats them.

But the tropes and tools of science fiction don’t belong solely in the box marked ‘science fiction’, and haven’t for some time. I would go so far as to say that you are more likely to find creative approaches to sf (however successful) in works published as mainstream. It’s there where writers seem to feel most inclined to go their own way with sf tropes. However successful you consider (say) Girl Reading, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, all present a distinctive vision; their authors shape the material of sf in ways that others wouldn’t. The field is richer because of that.

This is not to say that genre sf couldn’t also show the mainstream a thing or two. A couple of months ago, Max Cairnduff argued in a blog post that contemporary Anglo-American literature wasn’t doing enough to engage with the contemporary world. It’s not all that different from the challenge Jonathan McCalmont makes towards sf. I could see mainstream realist literature drawing usefully on the techniques science fiction has for making arguments about the world (the question of whether genre sf needs to draw more on those techniques notwithstanding). But I also think genre sf could do with taking notes from its mainstream cousins on how to strengthen its own art.