Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 26, 2011

Literariness & Science-Fictionality

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 12:00 am

Every so often (by my calculations, it’s on an average of once every 3.6 days) the SF blogosphere erupts with grumbling indignation over some mainstream critic or novelist’s impingement upon genre. Said impingement takes one of two forms; either the critic, whom we shall for the purposes of brevity refer to as Birdbolt, entirely dismisses genre as an irredeemable morass of tedium and invention, or he (Birdbolt is more often male than not) claims some author that SF regards as its own as literature, and often uses a phrase closely resembling “transcending the limitations of genre”. The latest breath of oxygen for this charcoal-burning pastime is this article in the Guardian by John Mullan, which is effectively an attempt to claim literary fiction for a worthwhile thing-in-itself—an recognizable artistic body of work of commercial value, or in other words a “genre”. Of course, Mullan in his role as Birdbolt doesn’t use that word; in fact, he specifically says:

What is literary fiction? It is not genre fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a historical novel. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, the leading British prize for science fiction. Yet you only have to think about these two examples to see how they escape their genres.

Birdbolt makes the same mistake as—hm, now we need a name for our second archetype, the fanatical defender of all things science-fictional. He (for this one too is almost always a he) shall be Moon. In any case, Birdbolt’s and Moon’s mistakes are each a mirror of the other. The principal one is to think of “science fiction” as a visible & definable Thing, a set whose members are all more similar to each other than to those of other sets. Another, equally serious, mistake is to assume that no work may be a member of more than one set.

Recently, I’ve read Air by Geoff Ryman; The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M Valente; Broken Angels by Richard K Morgan; Kraken by China Miéville; The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod; Blood Pact by Dan Abnett; Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren; and How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. There is very, very little that they have in common with one another, except that they are all “science fiction”… for varying reasons. Once we’ve dismissed the absurd canard of “speculative fiction”, we aren’t left with much beyond this sort of algorithm:

if present(x) else if (present(y) &!present(z)) else if (invoked(a) & T > t') else if vague_sensibility(b) return 'SF' else return 0;

Science fictions are peculiar things, a sheaf of complex curves plotted by an entire troop of drunken ramblers on a walk through L-dimensional bibliographic phase space. One set of dimensions (let’s call it Lq) we can describe as the quality of the book; part, but only part, of Lq is the reflexivity and self-conscious nature, the metatextuality, of the work. Mullan himself says, [Wolf Hall and Never Let Me Go] are both “literary” novels because they ask us to attend to the manner of their telling. We can, I hope, agree that no value of Lq can render a book “not science-fictional”.

Sadly, neither Birdbolt nor Moon agree with us! Birdbolt says that part of the definition of science-fiction is that Lq is below a certain range; going above that promotes it into the realm of works with a general interest & applicability, works that speak to human nature rather than to a childish love of guns and spaceships.

Moon, on the other hand, will often say things like, What do you mean, Lq? I call that Lc, the dimensions of Cool Stuff Happening. And you’re holding the graph upside-down. The stuff you like is too boring to be proper SF; it has a low Lc. (Although, to be fair, Moon probably wouldn’t use a semicolon.) Much SF very firmly avoids metatextuality; a lot of it, for that matter, tries hard to avoid even textuality, advocating the famous “transparent style” in the hope of giving their reader as close to an unmediated experience as possible.

These two gentlemen might seem to be agreeing here, exiling high-Lq work from SF into literature, but that’s an illusion based on a simplification we’ve made. SF is a large field, and neither Birdbolt nor Moon are anywhere close to omniscient. However, they don’t know this; so, instead of agreeing that Moon should not be forced to eat Birdbolt’s chalk, nor Birdbolt draw with Moon’s cheese, they argue with each other in general terms, as though all crumbly things were alike, and they very rarely cite specific examples.

When they do, it’s often rather embarrassingly paleontological, with Heinlein, ‘Doc’ Smith, and Van Vogt excavated as some sort of paradigm; or perhaps one or the other will hold up (triumphantly, or gingerly, according to taste) a garishly ornamented David Weber, John Ringo, or Neal Asher. None of these, of course, possess a high Lq; those works that do possess a high Lq will usually escape the notice of both Birdbolt and Moon entirely. Perhaps they will come to Birdbolt’s attention only through some other means; if so, their science-fictionality may well be treated in the same vein as an otherwise respectable co-worker’s hobby of spider-farming, kazoo-playing, or Daily-Mail-reading.

So Birdbolt’s favourite phrase, “the limitations of genre”, contains a fundamental misprision. “Genre” is not a thing-in-itself, in sulky binary opposition to literature. It’s a collection of convenient labels, which we can think of as a series of cones, sharp end oriented downwards along Lq. At the bottom, where Lq is lowest (or, if you prefer, where Lc is at its most pure and refined form) the genres are simple and distinct, clustered around centres; as Lq increases and complexifies, the boundaries of each genre spread out and begin to overlap. As Lq increases, a work’s genre becomes less and less central to its identity, and it’s possible to differentiate it much more easily from others of its genre. It begins to support more and more readings, more interpretation, until it nears the top and the varying pigments of genres meld into the rich muddy brown of literature.

So: what’s ascending the “science fiction” column? What rises above the simplistic fluff clustered around the base? (For some reason, I see the SF cone as being purple.) Well, there’s only one definitive quibble to make, and that’s to say that unless we have a trail of work from a given author it’s pointless to talk about “ascending”. A work is what it is; it exists in bibliographic phase space where it is. So near the top, brown tinged with purple, we can find LeGuin alongside Rushdie, Valente alongside Allende.

It must be an interesting state of consciousness to become used to reading only brown; I’m not sure I’d want to, myself. I’m fond of the middle to upper reaches of the diagram, bread as well as chrysanthemums.


  1. *applauds*

    I love this article so very much. :-)

    Comment by Elly — February 26, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

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  3. I’m just going to stand here and applaud for awhile, then forward this to all my friends who are currently being ground down by MFA programmes that insist that their hard-sci-fi/fantasy writing cannot possibly have literary merit for some reason.

    Comment by Kate — February 28, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

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