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.
2nd June 2014 at 12:36 pm
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.
2nd June 2014 at 6:57 pm
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.
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.
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.
3rd June 2014 at 7:08 pm
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.
4th June 2014 at 9:36 am
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: http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/?p=1605