Friday, February 10, 2012

"...a way of logic that bypasses a lot of nonsense"*

By Russel D McLean
Its come up more than once this week in various situations and conversations. But I’m still amazed by the “ghettoization” of Science Fiction as a genre.

One of Stuart MacBride’s most unashamedly fun novels was the brilliant HALFHEAD – a near future fantasy where the weapons all had onomatopoeic names and where he mocked the establishment quite thoroughly with even more ludicrous beauracracy and a horrific sense of social justice that proved just how savage “human” punishments could be. If I may be so bold, I found it even more fun than his Logan McRae books and was hoping that there would be more. But that, apparently, is not likely to happen because sales were less than for his crime novels.


Well, he was a debut author all over again. Because SF readers had yet to discover him and crime readers acted in a strangely conservative manner. They missed out on the fact that HALFHEAD did everything they loved in his crime novels and more. Just because the synopsis had the word “future” in it. Of course, this assumption is based on mostly anecdotal experience, but that was what I tended to hear when asking people why they hadn’t bought that one book of MacBride’s.

Is this fair?


It’s the same with Iain (M) Banks to a degree. Now, he’s established as an SF author, but so many of his mainstream fans stay away from the SF stuff as though its toxic. Why? As I heard Banks once say at an event its because it has the word “space” in it, and people are scared. They hear the word SF or space and they get weird clichéd ideas about geeky social misfits and probably odd looking aliens in rubber masks (a-la classic Trek). Or perhaps they see the endlessly complex worlds of computer games like HALO that appear incomprehensible if you’re not on the inside.
What they’re missing, of course, is that SF is a literature of ideas. Yes, it has its clichés, the same as any genre, but move past those and some genuinely philosophical and inventive fiction can be found within the genre. Philip K Dick, of course, is a prime example of an author who uses the form to do something deeper and explore philosophical and metaphysical ideas that mainstream fiction can only dream of. China Mieville** takes this to an extreme and loads his fantastical imaginings with allegory and symbolism that would make most literary writers weep with jealousy. And if that’s all getting a bit heavy for you, Alistair Reynolds writes amazingly accessible and fun adventure stories that still contain real smarts and some very witty undercurrents.

I also find it very interesting that many people who claim not to like SF often adore SF movies without realising it. BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, ALIENS, GATTACA, THE MATRIX, these are all examples of mainstream SF movies that people don’t seem to realise are actually SF. Why is it so different for movies? And let’s not start on THE X FILES…

Earlier this year I did a library event with Ken McLeod. This was a reader’s day where readers came along and signed up to hear writers talk about one book they loved and one book of their own. Interestingly, there were no SF fans on the day. I was a little worried for Ken who is, after all, an SF writer. And yes, even people in his group had SF reservations. But by the end of the day, many of them were willing and excited to try a whole genre they had ignored due to their preconceptions of it.

I accept – nay, willingly agree – that there’s a lot of lazy, clichéd writing in the SF genre. I mean, seriously, I’ve stopped reading the genre for years at a time due to a slew of novels that just don’t “get” what makes SF special, that spend too much paying homage to other writers ideas and forget to make their own, or concentrate so hard on world building that they ignore the human element that often marks great SF. But when the genre gets it right, its more than a force to be reckoned with.

I guess we’re back to the old argument – the simple one. A good book is a good book regardless of genre. And you shouldn’t be put off just because you see the word “space” or because you expect to somehow “not understand” the conventions at play. Good SF is accessible (with a bit of work; you have to adjust yourself to the terms, in the same a reader of crime fic has to adjust themselves to the conventions and technical language of that genre) and capable of supreme and brilliant storytelling with brains and heart at the centre. Its not just for geeks. Its not just for insiders.

And it very rarely uses the phrase “warp factor 10”.

*Gene Roddenberry, talking about SF

**Who, with multiple PhD’s is as smart as a chap with three heads


Gigistar said...

Yep, that involuntary "ghettoization" is something I tend to do myself. That's why one of the literary resolutions I did for 2012 is to read at least one important SF novel, in the hope that it might prompt me to read more of them.
After stumbling on stacks of terrific reviews about Dan Simmons' "Hyperion", I selected that as a potential candidate. Its length might be a sort of psychological barrier ("How many cool noirs/mysteries will I miss out on while trudging through that tome??") but I'll carefully select the time of the year when I feel fit to embark on that quest!

Russel said...

Gigistar -

Simmons is great, although potentially heavy going. Some amazing stuff going on in there though. I find Mieville or Reynolds a little more accesoble so even if oyu do find yourself lost, maybe give something shorter a buzz. I stil love PKD - fiction of amazing ideas (although sometimes his prose leaves something to be desired, but if you read a certain style of noir pulps you'll be used to occasionally forgiving that) in usually less than 300 pages.

I do love Simmons' horror stuff, too. CARRION COMFORT was great. And the book he did with Wilkie Collins/Charles Dickens (DROOD) was also excellent. Not forgetting THE TERROR which was the first of his I read.