Andrew Crumey, Ann Leckie, Brian McHale, Christopher Priest, David Hebblethwaite, Hugh Howie, Hugo Gernsback, Ian Sales, J.M. Sidorova, James Joyce, John Scalzi, Karen Joy Fowler, Kate Atkinson, Keith Ridgway, Laurence Sterne, Marcel Theroux, nina allan, Paul McAuley, Ruth Ozeki, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Pynchon, Tom McCarthy, Tom Robbins, Tony Ballantyne, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson
It never goes away, does it? It’s two years now since I put into words (or, perhaps more precisely, into a word), some of my enduring dissatisfactions with science fiction. The word was ‘exhaustion’. And the debate I generated then still rumbles on. It takes other forms, of course, but at heart Nina Allan, in this excellent blog post, in turn referencing this excellent blog post by David Hebblethwaite, is making much the same point: science fiction is losing interest in the new.
To my mind, one of the key indicators of exhaustion is a turning back to the familiar. This resistance to change can take many forms. It can be embedded within the content of the fiction: a reiteration of old tropes and devices without attempting to make them fresh (a point that Ian Sales makes in this blog post also responding to Nina and David). It can be in our reading habits: preferring works by the authors we know and feel safe with. It can take the form of clinging to the same characters, the same stories, time after time: I gave up reading the list of books sold that appears in Locus every month on the occasion that every single one of the works listed was hailed as part of a trilogy or an on-going series or the latest adventure for such-and-such character or in such-and-such universe. There was no novelty in that list, because there was nothing that stood on its own.
In their respective posts, Nina and David both highlight further examples of this turning away from the new. Nina notes that current sf publishers are more and more reliant on familiar names, and resistant to work by new writers or work that is in any way seen as difficult. (Difficult, in this context, is a euphemism for anything innovative or challenging or structurally adventurous. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne was difficult, Ulysses by James Joyce was difficult; if either had been presented as a work of science fiction today, they would not get published.) In support of her argument, I would also point to the number of writers who get picked up by major publishers only after they have already proved their popularity by self-publishing (John Scalzi, Hugh Howie) or being published by a small press. It is not, I suspect, that the editors are actively opposed to finding new writers, but that the economics of publishing today is predicated on such levels of return as to militate against risk taking.
David, meanwhile, argues that formal experiment, the attempt to do something innovative or challenging either within the story being told or within the telling of the story, is no longer commonplace in science fiction. To be fair, from the days of Hugo Gernsback onwards, such formal experiment was not common within science fiction until the New Wave injected modernist techniques and avant garde stylisation into the genre. But from the mid-60s onwards sf has tended to use many different techniques as part of its storytelling. Or, at least, it has done so until the last few years, when there has been a distinct turning back to old subjects and old styles. For example, the current genre wunderkind, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, has been picking up awards left, right and centre. And yet the most noticeable stylistic innovation, the use of female pronouns as default, is something that can be traced back to works by Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany in the 1960s and 70s. Without that mannerism, it is a very familiar type of space opera that is reasonably well told (there are some glaring stylistic weaknesses in the book, but it is at least engaging and well-paced) but in all nothing that we haven’t seen countless times before. That is, I suspect, its main charm: the same but different.
Both Nina and David set this resistance to novelty within sf, this turning back to the familiar and safe in terms of themes and styles and what can or cannot get published, against what is happening in the so-called mainstream. David quotes Tony Ballantyne as saying: ‘If you look at mainstream literature, it’s about twenty years behind what we’re doing now’. That is an assumed truism that has, to my knowledge, been repeated, more or less word for word, since the 1970s at least. And for a while it was perhaps actually true. Certainly, there was a time when formal innovation was happening more frequently in science fiction than in the mainstream. There was a period when the mainstream seemed moribund, and the most interesting writers, from Thomas Pynchon to Tom Robbins, were appropriating tropes and techniques from the genre. For instance, in his 1991 essay ‘POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM’, Brian McHale details the feedback loop by which Pynchon drew on science fiction for his early novels, which in turn inspired cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson, whose work went on to reinspire Pynchon’s more recent work. If that does still happen (we think, maybe, of Michael Chabon), it is far less common now than it was then. The mainstream hasn’t been moribund in that way for twenty years or more, and science fiction now has far more to learn from the mainstream than vice versa.
All of which is a preamble to something I’ve been thinking of writing for some time now. With my reading for the Campbell Award, I have looked at an awful lot of books in the first few months of this year and I have noticed, this year more than usual, that the books that have most caught my interest have been works from the borderlands: not fully or unquestionably mainstream, but not overtly generic either. Oh there have been works that are clearly science fictional that I have found very rewarding. I think, in particular, of The Adjacent by Christopher Priest and Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley, but these are both highly experienced writers who consciously work at expanding what can be done within the genre. But little else that was unequivocally science fiction seemed to have anything like the daring, the impact, the sheer novelty of these two books.
Given that science fiction is the literature of the new, a literature predicated on change, whose entire raison d’être is based on the difference wrought by space, time, the alien and so forth; then this resistance to the new is at the very least dispiriting. But newness, the sense of radical change that should be a hallmark of science fiction, is still being written; it is just not a characteristic of what we might call heartland or genre sf. Rather, it is a characteristic of works that occupy the borderlands. These are works that bring a science fiction sensibility to mainstream fiction, or mainstream techniques to science fiction. They have always been there, of course, in the last few years we have seen remarkable examples such as C by Tom McCarthy, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Hawthorn And Child by Keith Ridgway, but in this year’s reading I have found them more prominent, if for no other reason than that the heartland has felt so retrograde.
Five novels in particular stood out in this sense. One, The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova, I have already written about at Strange Horizons, so here I will concentrate on the other four. I note before I start that I do not necessarily consider these books to be flawless (though two in particular are pretty damned good), but they are all works that have been built around the sort of innovation that we used to consider the remit of sf, and they have done so more successfully and more satisfyingly than practically all of their genre contemporaries.
To start with the one that is most firmly rooted within the body of science fiction: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. I am frankly mystified as to how this novel has been omitted from all of the sf award shortlists (except for the Campbell Award, of course). In many ways it is the most familiar of sf tropes: this is a variation on Frankenstein, with elements of Jekyll and Hyde (or perhaps more relevantly, Confessions of a Justified Sinner) thrown into the mix. But Theroux takes the hoariest of sf devices and makes it new by the simple mainstream device of taking us inside the mind of the monster. Of course, no one is a monster to themselves, so the novel offers a fascinating and at times disturbing parallax view, in which we see a good man anxious about his family and concerned by the mysterious events in which he slowly finds himself caught up, yet at the same time we see someone ill treated by that same family for reasons that we cannot yet grasp. Hovering around this story of one man’s identity transposed into another body is the question of whether a mind that has experienced such a radical shift can be quite sane. (There were moments, in the latter half of the novel, when I found myself irresistibly reminded of the final stages of Walking On Glass by Iain Banks.) So what we have is a novel of the fantastic presented as a work of psychological realism, and it makes the fantastic more outré and the realism more disturbing.
If this novel demonstrates how science fiction can be made anew by treating it exactly as one would a mainstream novel, thus breathing fresh vigour into both forms, two other novels demonstrate how an injection of an idea from the fantastic can invigorate an otherwise mainstream work.
Andrew Crumey has flirted with the fantastic in other novels before now, but I don’t think he has ever seized upon it as resolutely as he does in The Secret Knowledge. On the eve of the First World War, a young composer proposes marriage to the girl he loves, then minutes later seemingly kills himself. Yet later, in post-war Glasgow, someone of the same name turns up as a political agitator. And again, as the century progresses, traces of the composer keep reappearing. Meanwhile, in contemporary Britain, a copy of the composer’s one great work falls into the hands of a once-promising but now failing concert pianist. He is in the early stages of psychological disintegration, a state that seems to be exacerbated by the music. Also caught up in the mix, staging posts in the transmission of the composer’s dangerous knowledge, are Walter Benjamin (encountered just across the Spanish border where he has successfully escaped Nazi Europe only to commit suicide), Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt. I ask you, how can you not love a novel that has Benjamin, Adorno and Arendt as significant players? The Secret Knowledge is not a complete success; I’m not sure that Crumey is in full control of the many-worlds idea that he pins his novel to. As a consequence, rather too many incidents feel as though they are in the book because a character or setting caught the author’s attention rather than because they form a coherent part of the story being told. And the book is probably too short, too thin, to contain all that Crumey expects it to. Nevertheless, there is a full steam ahead excitement about the book, a sense that ideas are important and urgent, that was once the sensation I would have expected to get from good sf but that is here more alive than in just about any of the sf that appeared at the same time.
Late in the day, you realise that Ruth Ozeki is playing with exactly the same underlying idea as Crumey in her novel, A Tale of the Time Being. But she holds the idea back until it can be deployed at just the crucial moment in the plot, and when she does raise the idea she treats it with rather more assurance than Crumey does. Unlike Crumey, Ozeki has not previously played with genre ideas, so it comes as something of a surprise here, and indeed for the greater part of the novel there is no indication that anything out of the ordinary is happening. A novelist called Ruth Ozeki finds a package swept up from the sea; it proves to contain a diary written by a young girl in Japan before the tsunami. We alternate between Ruth, blocked on her latest book and caught up in the story she finds in the diary; and Nao, bullied at school and contemplating suicide. Both discover a sort of enlightenment, but as we realise that there is an impossible feedback loop beginning to develop between Ruth and Nao, so Ozeki gradually begins to allow Hugh Everett’s many worlds theory to shape the narrative. This is, I think, the first time I have encountered the many worlds theory used shape what is essentially a mainstream novel, and there is something of a disconnect between the late introduction of the scientific idea and the subtle novel of character that we have been reading to this point. Nevertheless, there is an engagement with both character and ideas in the novel that is ultimately refreshing and satisfying.
Finally, there is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Fowler is undoubtedly a science fiction writer, isn’t she, taught by Kim Stanley Robinson, emerging through the Writers of the Future Contest, co-founder of the Tiptree Award, winner of Nebula and World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards. Except that of her six novels only the first, Sarah Canary, is unequivocally fantastic, and there are possible suggestions of the fantastic in Sister Noon and Wit’s End. She is, in other words, not one or the other, but a mainstream writer who also writes science fiction. As such there is a bleed-over between the forms, so that a mainstream novel like The Sweetheart Season, a novel about women’s baseball in the 1940s, has an indefinable science fictional sensibility, while her science fiction short stories are written with the restraint and nuance that we most associate with the mainstream. It is this cross-fertilisation that makes her, to my mind, one of the half-dozen most exciting writers working today. And nothing illustrates the cross-over as brilliantly as We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. We start in 1996 with Rosemary Cooke, 22-years-old and a perpetual student at the University of California, Davis. Over the course of a few weeks her life is thrown upside when she befriends an anarchic fellow student which twice lands her in the arms of the law, and when her brother, whom she hasn’t seen for ten years and who is wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism, reappears. There is enough here to sustain a novel, but the emotional heart of the book concerns the disappearance, when she was five years old, of her sister, Fern. Gradually we learn that Fern is a chimpanzee, and this was one of those experiments when a chimp is raised among humans to see how it responds. The experiment falls apart at the end, as all such experiments have done, but Rosemary has always blamed her five-year-old self for the disappearance of her sister. What gives this mainstream novel its science fictional feel, however, is not simply the fact that it concerns a scientific experiment. What Fowler has done is consider that influence works two ways. Although the experiment was all about how chimps learn from humans (and late in the novel there is an interesting aside about what the now older Fern has taught to her own daughters), Fowler’s book is about what Rosemary learned from her sister. It is that change of perspective, that new angle on what seems familiar, that makes this such a wonderful novel. And it is the sort of perspective, the sort of emotional engagement with the effects of such change, that we should be demanding of our science fiction, and that science fiction today so rarely delivers.
I repeat what I said two years ago: science fiction today has reached a state of exhaustion. This is not to say that every work of science fiction is moribund, or that nothing published as science fiction is radical, challenging or adventurous; that is patently not the case. But there is a general malaise, a general retreat to the familiar, a general resistance to anything that is too different. As David Hebblethwaite says: ‘I think there’s a level of experimentation with form in the mainstream that now seems unremarkable, which would seem remarkable in genre sf.’ As Nina Allan shows, it comes from the publishers as much as from the readers and the writers. A genre that should be about the new seems increasingly afraid of tackling newness in any form. That novelty, that challenge, that innovation, that excitement, is still there to be found, but more and more it hovers in the works that cluster around the borderlands of science fiction rather than within the genre itself.