Science fiction playing catch-up

I’ve been shadowing a lot of award lists lately: I’ve read through the longlists for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for fiction in translation) and Desmond Elliott Prize (debut novels), as well as the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (science fiction). Add in last year’s Man Booker (the ever-nebulous ‘literary’ fiction) and Edge Hill Prize (short story collections), and you have all my main reading interests. So I think all that reading has given me a reasonable cross-section of current UK publishing in the areas I care most about; and something bothers me – there are books on all of those lists that I like very much, and books on all of them that I don’t think deserved to be there; but, taking each one as a whole, the Clarke shortlist comes right at the bottom for me in terms of quality.

Science fiction and fantasy are where I started as a reader, and I still believe that the fantastic as a whole has a vital contribution to make to literature. So it gave me no pleasure to see the Clarke lagging behind those other awards; but it bore out a trend that I see elsewhere in my reading (most of which falls under one of the five awards’ headings) – on average, contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight. I’m reminded of a comment made by the science fiction author Tony Ballantyne in an interview that I came across when I was reviewing his novel Dream London:

I…think that the most exciting and cutting edge work in writing is being produced [in sf and fantasy]. If you look at mainstream literature, it’s about twenty years behind what we’re doing now.

I’m not convinced that this could even be true hypothetically, simply because the cutting edge is more likely to be found in pockets among various kinds of fiction, rather than in a single one. But behind Ballantyne’s remark is a firm belief that sf is leading the pack. I think that, ten or fifteen years ago, it was certainly keeping pace: writers like China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer were emerging at the same time as (say) Sarah Waters and Michel Faber. These days, however, it seems to me that sf is struggling to keep up.

It’s not that sf is lacking books at the top end of the scale; the likes of James Smythe can hold their own. It’s that, generally, it has fewer of them than the literary ‘mainstream’, and that the average seems to be lower down the scale. If I take writing quality (the backbone of any piece of fiction) as an example, even when I look at my least favourite titles from some of the award lists – such as D.W. Wilson’s Ballistics or Emma Donoghue’s Astray – they’re at worst OK; but, from the Clarke shortlist, there’s stuff in Ramez Naam’s Nexus and Phillip Mann’s The Disestablishment of Paradise that makes me cringe.

One area for which I’d expect sf (with its imagining different ways of being) to be a natural fit is engaging with textual form. Sometimes it still is, in the work of writers like Christopher Priest, but they seem few and far between these days. When I reviewed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn earlier this year, I noted that there was a separation between its chapters that mirrored the novel’s fragmented setting, and that this stood out as an unusual engagement with form. The thing is that, in and of itself, it isn’t a particularly radical approach to novelistic form; but it still stood out to me as being relatively rare in genre science fiction. However, if I turn to the mainstream, and a novel like Nathan Filer’s Costa-winning The Shock of the Fall, I see a patchwork of different forms and styles integrated into a standard narrative, and it feels quite commonplace. In other words, I think there’s a level of experimentation with form in the mainstream that now seems unremarkable, which would seem remarkable in genre sf. Imagine what Nexus would be like if it were actually written as though its characters’ minds were linked; instead, it’s a pretty routine thriller – and this is something I see all too often in sf.

Predicting the future is not the business of sf, but it can engage with the future and explore the kinds of issues and choices that may face us. Even here, though, contemporary sf is hit and miss: James Smythe’s The Machine is (by some distance) the title on this year’s Clarke list that explores its issues the most searchingly, but it’s also the one published as mainstream. Niall Harrison has criticised The Disestablishment of Paradise for a lack of nuance in its treatment of ecological issues. When I watched ‘Be Right Back’ in the last series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, I was struck that a drama by a mainstream satirist was telling a robot story that examined issues of identity in a way that contemporary genre sf seemed largely to be shying away from. These are areas where sf truly can do better than the mainstream, and I only wish it would take up the challenge more often.

I’m excited to see authors like Eleanor Catton (who, to my mind, is squarely at the cutting edge of English-language fiction) and Eimear McBride emerging in the mainstream – and especially to see them winning and being shortlisted for multiple awards. But, when I look at genre sf published in the UK, I simply can’t see that they have equivalents emerging. I wish I could. All in all, though, my reading is showing me that sf has a lot of catching up to do.


  1. A very good, interesting and indeed courageous piece — I’m sure there’ll be a lot of flak flying your way because of it.

    I remember a few years ago on some con panel mentioning that these days a lot of f/sf was these days being published as mainstream, and being shouted down at great length by two quite distinguished US sf editors, also on the panel. It seems to me — and I’m of course very far from the first to observe this — that this sort of territorial genre blinkerdom can only act to f/sf’s detriment.

    The suspicion many sf readers and professionals have for what you call “engagement with form” may be a relic of the New Wave era when, in among the many undoubted gems, there was also published a great deal of fairly unreadable crap that was nothing except engagement with form. I once heard two sf fans talking about Damon Knight’s Orbit series: to one it was where, back in the day, all sf’s best treasures were to be found; to the other it was, back in that same day, a series to be avoided like the plague because the stuff there was the pits. They were, of course, both right.

  2. Interesting stuff. I admit it would be nice if more SF writers would Tristram-Shandy things up a bit. Or maybe we should campaign to create some kinda SFF Oulipo? You know, to give the genre a bit of a kick up the proverbial… inspirationally speaking, of course.

    There is some experimentation in SF, I think. I like M. John Harrison’s post-structuralist take on Space Opera with the ‘Light’ trilogy or whatever it’s called. There’s also Michael Cisco, whose personal oeuvre is among the most extraordinarily difficult avant-garde writing I’ve ever encountered (but maybe I’m just not as up-to-speed on my East European Modernism as I need to be (his ‘Narrator’ is an incredible piece of narratological tomfoolery. And ‘Member’ contains some passages that must rival Finnesgan’s Wake in the what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this department.) Still, nice to see such things influencing genre work. Shame he doesn’t win/get nominated for much(/anything?).

    There’s also what’s-his-face (let me look him up….)…. Mark Danielewski, whose 2 horror-esque novels ‘House of Leaves’ and ‘Only Revolutions’ are very formally experimental (although you could get into all kindsa arguments about the difference between layout and form, I guess…)

    And last year I read a post-apocalyptic epic poem in blank verse called ‘Thaliad’ by Marly Youmans, which did interesting formal things by mimicking, structurally, The Iliad, but bending this through the lens of contemporary Americana and a fantastically playful interpretation of that tiresome post-apocalyptic genre cliche of ‘salvage’ (in the poem the narrator, speaking many years after the events she describes, has learned her skill as a poet via plundering the ruined world’s libraries and reading, so it seems (and somewhat humorously) exclusively Classic (capital ‘C’) literature. It’s awesome.

    But I know what you mean re: quality. When I’m really, really hankering after some very good sentence-by-sentence writing, I’m increasingly turning to writers outside of genre: Tom McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Helen Oyeyemi (though her writing often comes out of Fantastic traditions..), Damon Galgut, Eleanor Catton, Ned Beauman etc. and etc.

    Sorry.. rambled on a bit there.
    Fascinating article.

  3. David H

    3rd June 2014 at 4:49 pm

    Realthog: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. More and more, I find myself looking in the ‘general fiction’ section for interesting sf and fantasy. It’s not always better as sf/f, but I do think mainstream authors have more latitude at the moment to try something different.

    You know, I’m really changed my mind about novels that experiment with form over the last few years. I never used to care for them much: now some are among my favourite books, and I’ve come to value them even if I don’t necessarily always like them.

  4. David H

    3rd June 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Tomcat: Thank you! I wasn’t trying that there’s no experimental work being done in sf these days, just that there doesn’t seem to be as much from emerging voices as there was (say) 10-15 years ago. I think it’s telling that the sf writers you cite are all pretty well established. It’s also interesting thaf the outside-genre writers you list have all (with the possible exception of Galgut) worked with the fantastic to some degree.

  5. You’re right… I can’t think of a single up-and-coming pure SFF writer who’s doing anything truly experimental; form or style wise. Sheesh that’s worrying. You’d think 10 years after ‘Light’ and the New Weird and the rise of Michael Cisco etc, that there would, indeed, be more new writers trying(/influenced by) that kinda stuff. Does SF need it’s own David Foster Wallace to write a novel in fractals, I wonder?
    Of course, you could always resort to my own, personal solution to this problem. Whenever I can’t find any genre stuff that piques my interest, I just buy a “mainstream” novel and read it as though it were actually a piece of Science Fiction. I call it “misgenre-ing”, and even like to go as far as writing willful, dead-pan misgenred reviews on my blog. Did you know Richard Madeley’s romance novel from last year is actually set on a giant space ship?
    Or that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is really a horror story:
    etc. and etc. 🙂
    I guess the fact that I’m turning to mainstream writing in order to invent some good SF for myself is a proof-in-action of the relative aridity of anything in modern SFF that really grabs me….
    … All of which is strange, because when I read your article for the first time yesterday, I was ready to vehemently disagree with you. But the more I think about it, the more I agree with everything you’ve said.

  6. Thanks so much for this post, David – a lot here that needed saying. I’ve logged some follow-on thoughts of my own here at my blog:

    • An excellent and thought-provoking essay of your own, Nina. (I wanted to say as much at your own blog but I think my various blockers are negating the comments machine; so I’m saying it here instead!)

  7. neilwilliamson

    4th June 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Hi David – I know we talked about this on Twitter the other day, and I’ve been thinking about it a bit more since then and am wondering if your ongoing dissatisfaction with form is perhaps related to the sheer quantity of books you read. I don’t read nearly as many books as you so perhaps I’m not so worn down by repetition of “structure of a thriller” or of a “fantasy adventure” as people like yourself. In which case I can see why it might be easy enough to overlook other factors of craft when you just can’t enjoy a book because it’s simply not different enough.

    And, actually, I do feel a bit of that too even at my low level consumption, so I can see what you’re saying.

    On the subject of which SF writers might be playing around with form and structure, can I add as a data point that Hal Duncan is currently writing a “Big Gay version of Stevenson’s Kidnapped, on Mars” which relies heavily on the original for its form and Burroughsian pulp for its content. He’s also written an associated pastoral novella in which the Kidnapped exists as a work of fiction. But for details, you should really as Hal.

  8. Thank you, Realthog – and thanks for saying. Perhaps unfairly I don’t allow comments at my blog (so much correspondence, so little time) but it is always lovely to get feedback. I found David’s piece accorded so closely with my own feelings that I wanted to explore the issues a little further. It’s great to see these matters in discussion.

  9. I would also like to add that Nina’s essay is brilliant. I was psyched to be quoted on your blog (and many thanks for correcting my misapplied apostrophe 🙂 ).

  10. David H

    5th June 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Tomcat: You know, I’d really love to be able to disagree with myself on this… 🙂

    I’ve actually started to find in some ‘mainstream’ the same kind of estranging effect that draws me to sf (Jon McGregor springs to mind), and this has changed how I view my reading tastes.

  11. David H

    5th June 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Nina: Thanks, that’s a wonderful response – actually, both yours and Ian’s put into words some thoughts that were only on the fringes of my consciousness when I wrote this post.

  12. David H

    5th June 2014 at 8:48 pm


    …am wondering if your ongoing dissatisfaction with form is perhaps related to the sheer quantity of books you read.

    That’s a valid question; but no, I don’t think so. For one thing, as your second paragraph implies, you don’t need to have read many stories of a particular sort to become familiar with the typical patterns. For another, I think that any structure or archetype can be made to sing in the right hands. I could read a hundred thrillers (or fantasy adventures, or social realist novels) if they were the best they could be. It still might not be wise to read them one after another, but that wouldn’t be a reflection of their quality.

    You’re quite right about Hal Duncan; it’s interesting to note how times change – Vellum and Ink were both published by a big publisher; I wonder whether they would be now.

  13. David H

    5th June 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Another thought: Eimear McBride’s winning of the Baileys Prize seems to underline my main point even more.

  14. You are correct that “predicting the future” is not the business of SF. But it IS the business of SF to “model” the future. Without such extrapolation, you can’t call it SF.,

  15. neilwilliamson

    6th June 2014 at 12:44 pm

    >I could read a hundred thrillers (or fantasy adventures, or social realist novels) if they were the best they could be. It still might not be wise to read them one after another, but that wouldn’t be a reflection of their quality.

    That’s a fair response.

    >You’re quite right about Hal Duncan; it’s interesting to note how times change – Vellum and Ink were both published by a big publisher; I wonder whether they would be now.

    And that’s a good question. I really don’t know

  16. Hi David

    This is a really interesting article – it reminds me of my response to Mieville’s The City and The City. I was utterly taken with the ideas in The City and The City, but completely underwhelmed by the execution – as a read I found it pedestrian, bordering on unimaginative. I was perplexed by the decision to use detective fiction (which I’m generally very well disposed to) as a vehicle for expressing superbly complex social structures and felt the book lacked any kind of emotional or experiential depth. If Mieville is a example of a great sf writer, then I can’t imagine bad sf writing. It’s a genre that I dabble in (I’d always give it a go) – I love ideas, but am generally disappointed (Glasshouse by Stross is another example of a fantastic idea being bludgeoned by a crude action-adventure type narrative).

    Thanks for putting these frustrations into context and sharing your considerable experience.

  17. I know I bang on about Michael Cisco a lot (he really is excellent), but I can’t recommend his books enough. Those looking for the avant-garde in Science Fiction should try out his books ‘The Great Lover’ and ‘Member’. They are extremely challenging, but very rewarding. Go on. Read them 🙂

  18. Totally agree re Michael Cisco – a magnificently idiosyncratic writer, and the fact that he’s not better known, that he doesn’t get wider distribution, is symptomatic of the issue we’ve all been discussing. (Really glad you liked the post, Tom – that’s great to know.)

  19. Very nice piece. One reason I don’t read much sf is it’s general lack of ambition. I read it for adventure and excitement, in other words for entertainment, and not for the ideas. I don’t see it as a stylistically interesting genre (though it’s less afraid of innovation than pretty much any other genre I’d suggest).

    Your telepathy example reminded me of Bester’s The Demolished Man, where the overlapping and fluid nature of telepathic conversation is represented by the layering of the words on the page for those sections. Stylistically interesting, but of course hardly a recent innovation.

    I think there’s always been a tendency for the more innovative sf to come from beyond the field. Sputnik Caledonia is solidly sf, but marketed as literary fiction, see also anything by David Mitchell. I’d argue that The Crying of Lot 49 is SFnal, and of course there’s the experiments with language in Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker.

    That which comes out of the genre has to consider the reaction of fandom, which in the main is hideously conservative. That which comes from outside the genre can ignore, and may well be completely unaware of, fandom. That gives the freedom to experiment.

    As I’ve said before, first thing we do, kill all the fans.

  20. David H

    15th June 2014 at 9:41 pm

    Bianca, thanks for your comment. I rather liked The City and the City, but it is a book that gets a very wide range of reactions from people. For what it’s worth, Perdido Street Station was the book I had particularly in mind when I wrote this post; and in general I think Miéville’s work is better conceptually than it is stylistically.

    On the sf front, perhaps Christopher Priest or Adam Roberts might be more your cup of tea. Try The Prestige, New Model Army, or Yellow Blue Tibia.

  21. David H

    15th June 2014 at 10:04 pm

    Hi Max. Personally, I read sf more for some nebulously-defined feeling of ‘estrangement’ – but increasingly I find that I can get that feeling more from non-sf than sf; so I guess I need to think that through a bit more…

  22. I actually really like China Mieville as a stylist. I think his persistent and creative use of unusual pre- and suff-ixes adds a very estranging layer to the language (un-, ab-, -naut, -urgy, -ocracy, dis-, -punk, -sect, -city, de- etc and etc.).

    So when he wants, for example, to describe a creature that travels through various cultures’ end-times (as in Kraken), rather than neologising some fantastical terminology, he’ll create a compound noun by adding one of these pre/suffixes onto some already existing (albeit often abstract) terminology, to create words like “eschatonaut”. The fact that he uses so many such prefixes and suffixes to colour, estrange and to “other” everyday language (rather than the genre-standard of often unpronounceable neologisims), gives his writing a stylistic identity truly its own.

    I also think that, on the level of the sentence, he writes very, very well. Take this from Iron Council:

    “Time was stilled. Cutter walked through a ghostworld, the earth’s dream of its own grasslands. There were no nightbirds calling, no glucliches, nothing but the dark vista like a painted background. Cutter was alone on a stage. He thought of dead Ihona. When at last the lights were close he could see a kraal of heavy houses. He walked into the village as brazen as if he were welcome.”

    There’s so much going on here: themes include wilful loneliness and grief; the language becoming suitably poetic in order to handle such things; perhaps an attempt at finding a narrative register appropriate to the lofty (dare I say ‘tragic’) emotions being described. A head count of the rhetorical devices in the above paragraph includes: psychological abstraction (‘Time was stilled’), portmanteau neologism (‘ghostworld’), description via negatives that reinforce the themes of loss and absence (‘no nightbirds, no glucliches’); there’s simile (‘like a painted background’), as well as metaphor, (‘alone on a stage’), simple direct sentences (‘He thought of dead Ihona’), contrasting imagery (‘dark’ / ‘light’), as well as subjunctive mood (‘as if he were welcome’).

    Sure, it may not be as in-your-face poetic as many non-SF “mainstream” writers who’re stylistically lauded, but through close reading, I always find CM to be a highly developed stylist.

    That’s my two cents, anyway… 🙂

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