Why science fiction authors can’t win

Science fiction authors have long been outcasts from the literary world, in some cases critics using the worst examples of the genre as ammunition against it. Unfortunately though, at times even science fiction authors themselves can turn on their own kind: “Science fiction is rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space,” mocked Margaret Atwood (The Guardian, 28 January 2009), one of her many attempts to convince people that she is not a science fiction author, even though one of her most famous novels, A Handmaid’s Tale, is exactly that.

Science fiction writer struggling to survive in a hostile environment
Science fiction writer struggling to survive in a hostile environment

In an article in the New York Times (4 October, 2009) publicising her new novel The Year of the Flood, Atwood declared that her dystopian novels are not science fiction. The article described The Year of the Flood as a novel set in “a violent future society created by a man-made plague” with  “genetically-engineered humans and animals amid a ruined environment”, which sounds a lot like science fiction to me.

Taking even the narrowest definitions of science fiction, I’d suggest Atwood would have trouble arguing that some of her novels are not part of the genre. Apparently, as long as you persist, you can convince the established order that your heart and mind is in the right place. Just keep insisting that everything science fiction is tacky, silly and sad and ridicule its creators at every opportunity. Disown the genre as emphatically and publicly as possible. As a writer, there are tremendous advantages to avoiding the label science fiction, and Margret Atwood has successfully done that throughout her career and gained literary credibility in exchange.

In her defence, Atwood’s apparent fear that once the label “science fiction” is attached to a novel the literary establishment will treat it differently seems well founded.

“I am going to stick my neck out and just say it,” begins Sven Birkerts’ review of Atwood’s science fiction novel, the Oryx and Crake, “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L'” (New York Times, 18 May, 2003).

In a letter to The Times, Brian Aldiss, one of the grand masters of science fiction, responded to Margaret Atwood’s stance and claims that some of her novels are not science fiction:

“Her life would have been more difficult had she not cleverly denied that her early science fiction novels, such as A Handmaid’s Tale, were science fiction,” Aldiss wrote. “Had she neglected this strategy, there would have been for her no more literary festivals, no more reviews, no more appearances on BBC breakfast programmes.

Aldiss went on to write:

“It is a truth widely acknowledged that SF is not worth consideration by sane minds. Kurt Vonnegut and J. G. Ballard have adopted Atwood’s gambit. When Vonnegut grew tired of being a guru, he returned to SF and wrote such brilliant novels as Galápagos. No reviewer spoke its name. When — possibly because of my age — I was invited on Desert Island Discs this year, I was told that SF readers were nerds who were poor and could not ‘get a woman'”.

Considered by the literary establishment, and frequently by non-SF award-giving institutions, to be trashy, pulpish, commercially driven lightweight gutter fiction (only a slight exaggeration, believe me), it’s no surprise that very few works of science fiction have won major literary awards. Recent notable exceptions include Cormac McCarthy winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Road (arguably science fiction), and Ray Bradbury receiving a special citation from the Pulitzer Board in the same year. On the whole, the accolades are few and far between.

In an article about the death of science fiction author J.G. Ballard in the New York Times (April 21, 2009), Ballard’s American editor at Norton, Robert Weil, said “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984

Apart from demonstrating that Robert Weil is amazingly silly, this quote highlights the problem: if you’re a famous writer in the literary world who writes a science fiction novel – and Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 are clearly science fiction works – then you’re not writing science fiction as far as publishers and the literary establishment are concerned. Great literature can never be science fiction. When established “great” authors are writing it, it’s something else entirely. No wonder science fiction is always viewed as second rate. Anything good or even above average is simply reclassified.

On her website, science fiction and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin, responding to Robert Weil’s quote in the New York Times, beautifully sums up the science fiction/literary dilemma:

“It is shocking to find that an editor at the publishing house that had the wits to publish J.G. Ballard (as well as the Norton Book of Science Fiction) can be so ignorant of what Ballard wrote, or so uninformed about the nature and history of the science-fiction genre, or so unaware of the nature of literature since the 1980s, that he believes — now, in 2009! — that to say a writer wrote science fiction is to malign or degrade his work.”

She continued by homing in on the hypocrisy of the literary world’s view:

“To define science fiction as a purely commercial category of fiction, inherently trashy, having nothing to do with literature, is a tall order. It involves both denying that any work of science fiction can have literary merit, and maintaining that any book of literary merit that uses the tropes of science fiction (such as Brave New World, or 1984, or A Handmaid’s Tale, or most of the works of J.G. Ballard) is not science fiction. This definition-by-negation leads to remarkable mental gymnastics. For instance, one must insist that certain works of dubious literary merit that use familiar science-fictional devices such as alternate history, or well-worn science-fiction plots such as  Men-Crossing-the-Continent-After-the Holocaust, and are in every way definable as science fiction, are not science fiction — because their authors are known to be literary authors, and literary authors are incapable by definition of committing science fiction.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the award-winning (not “literary” awards obviously) Mars novels recently hit out at the literary establishment, accusing the Man Booker judges of “ignorance” in neglecting science fiction, which he declared was “the best British literature of our time”.

In an essay in The New Scientist (16 September 2009), Robinson claimed that the Booker judges consistently rewarded “what usually turn out to be historical novels”.

“Speaking as an outsider from California and as a science fiction writer I see these very brilliant writers doing excellent work who are never in the running at all, for no reason except their genre and who their publishers are – the so-called club members. It just needs to be said. The Booker prize is so big, the way it shapes public consciousness of what is going on in British literature, but the avant-garde, the leading edge, is being ignored or shut out of the process entirely.”

Interestingly, one of the Booker judges, James Naughtie, in an article in The Guardian (18 September, 2009), admitted that Robinson “may well have a point”, but suggested the publishers, not the judges, are to blame.

“We judge books that are submitted. The fact is that the science fiction component this year was very, very thin. If it is the best contemporary fiction in this country then most publishers haven’t yet tumbled to the fact.”

Another judge, John Mullan, a professor of English at University College London, was quoted in the same article as saying that he “was not aware of science fiction”. He argued that science fiction has become a “self-enclosed world”.

“When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but recently “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”

This quote makes no sense, especially the bit about “special weird things”, but it demonstrates clearly that James Naughtie’s claim that the “publishers are to blame” is only part of the problem. If this is how a Booker Prize judge views science fiction readers, how can anyone be surprised if publishers don’t submit science fiction works or that when they do they fail to even make the long list, let alone the short?

What is he suggesting science fiction readers are doing in special rooms in bookshops anyway? I’ve never come across any of these special rooms myself, nor have I been participating in “special weird things”. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing out on?

The article quotes Professor Mullan again later:

“We as judges depend a great deal on what publishers submit. There are certain kinds of genre fiction which get submitted – thrillers and detective books – which publishers think have literary quality, but this year I find it hard to think of any science fiction which was submitted.”

Of course, this establishment snobbery and naivety are not confined to the literary world. In the world of films and television, judges are equally unforgiving regarding anything tainted with the label science fiction. There has never been a major science fiction film to win the best picture at the Academy Awards for example, and with television, too, excellent writing or productions are not science fiction, but something else entirely. David Langford, in his science fiction newsletter Ansible, has a regular section titled “As Others See Us”, which is always worth a look as it paints a clear picture of the naive, limited views publishers and the press have of science fiction. He recently reported that Torchwood director Euro Lyn, claimed that the third series Torchwood: Children of Earth, “reaches out beyond the sci-fi genre. It’s a human story of epic proportions.” Of course, epic human stories would never be a part of science fiction, would they?

Earlier, Langford quoted from a revealing review of Battlestar Galactica on Mlive.com:

Battlestar Galactica prominently features evil robots, some of which are sexy… Yes, there are numerous rousing space battles. And yes, there are enough discussions of airlocks and jump coordinates and FTL drives that mentioning the show in public will get you made fun of by at least one person within earshot.  But, other than providing yet another warning about why not to create artificial intelligence, it’s not really a science fiction show.”

Presumably, it’s not a science fiction show Langford responded in Ansible, “Because it’s good”.

For a genre that produces some of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, creatively challenging works imaginable, it’s hard to understand how they could be overlooked so aggressively and consistently for so long. Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, the list of worthy possibilities is endless. Philip K. Dick is one of the few authors who occasionally crosses the dividing line, and appears consistently on university curriculum, especially in the US.

According to Jett Heer in Lingua Franca magazine (June 2001), literary theorist Fredric Jameson called Dick “the Shakespeare of science fiction”. Unfortunately, Dick never returned the favour, with revelations that he wrote letters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation denouncing many of his academic supporters. Dick claimed that Jameson and other literary theorists were agents of a KGB conspiracy to take over American science fiction. Presumably, Dick wasn’t in a clear and level headed mental state at the time.

Philip K. Dick is a notable exception in an otherwise long history of science fiction abuse by publishers, the press and sometimes even science fiction writers themselves. Is science fiction destined to remain drowning in the gutter, unappreciated by the so called “judges” and “arbiters” of great literature? Will science fiction authors ever escape the publication ghetto? If not, if the works of science fiction authors remain unrewarded and unloved by the literati, I’ll happily remain in the gutter with SF readers and writers alike. The gutter is obviously the place to be.

Article originally published on Science Fiction World / 6 October 2016