Fellow Traveller - Amis' version of SF history
The Guardian Weekend Review section devoted itself largely to science fiction a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve discussed the lead article in the previous two posts. The special issue was designed to mark the opening of the new British Library exhibition ‘Science Fiction: But Not As You Know It’. There is an immediate air of special pleading to this title, which addresses an assumed scepticism about the merit of the form and its worthiness to inhabit such hallowed halls. The exhibition probably does exhibit SF as some of us know it, in fact, but the British Library is evidently trying to preach to those beyond the choir. The search for respectability or some kind of recognition has been a feature of the genre almost since its origins, with Hugo Gernsback, who came up with the proto-SF neologism ‘scientifiction’ in 1926 to define the contents of his new Amazing Stories magazine, claiming HG Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe as honourable ancestors. The desire for a more widespread appreciation beyond a loyal circle of aficionados increased as SF began to amass its own weight of critical evaluation from the late 50s onwards. Kingsley Amis’ New Maps of Hell, published in 1960, was an early example of a renowned literary figure paying serious attention to the field, although his appreciation rapidly curdled into his customary spiteful bile as it developed beyond his personal vision of the form it should take (rather as Philip Larkin directed considerable ire in his reviews at any developments in jazz beyond the mid-50s which transformed it from the cosily conservative music which he enjoyed).
The acme of SF criticismThis being The Guardian, there is inevitably much space given over to the continuing debate as to the relative qualities of SF and literary fiction (some of which you can sample here), and the hostility which each seems to feel towards the other. China Mieville provides the focus, as is increasingly the norm, acting as a conduit to rather than an outlier of genre as he puts it in his Guardian profile. It is an unresolved antagonism which has been evident since the 1960s, and highlights an occasionally aggressive factionalism on both sides. In a way, it’s gratifying that people can still get so worked up about the written word, and such a lively to and fro would seem to belie reports of its imminent demise. The literary world has traditionally looked down on SF, regarding it as a sub-literature beneath contempt and certainly not worthy of their attention. The SF world, in its turn, and perhaps with a certain reflexive defensiveness in the face of such disdain, has taken pleasure in scorning mainstream literary appropriations of generic material, mocking its derivative and poorly thought through usage. Conversely, crime fiction has always been treated with the utmost respect by the literary world, and there has been much fruitful cross-fertilization, probably because it largely confines itself to a realistic mode of storytelling. The literary world tends to be wary about the fantastic in general, adhering to a doctrinaire belief in the superiority of realism. Even when the fantastic is granted acceptance, its legitimacy is affirmed by being labelled ‘magic realism’, a term which assures readers that it hasn’t strayed too far from the dominant form. SF has been marked out as displaying a particularly egregious deviance from the authentically literary; it is seen as the frivolous fantastic, taking leave not only of a realistic, mimetic reproduction of the world, but often departing from that world altogether. It is strange that it should be so despised, since, as Peter Nicholls points out in The Encylopedia of Science Fiction (the acme of SF criticism) which he edited with John Clute, ‘SF…lies at the heart of the realist mode; its whole creative effort is bent on making its imaginary worlds, its imaginary futures, as real as possible’ (this from the entry on Mainstream Writers of SF).
Marvin pops out for 10 B&H - The marvellous and the everydaySuch an inherent distaste for the principles and pleasures of the genre leads many literary figures to dismiss it without the benefit of direct familiarity. They don’t have to read it to know that it’s trash. If a work comes within their purview which clearly uses non-realistic elements of a nature which would define it as being SF, but which is deemed to be of a high, literary quality, then its genre status is briskly and adamantly denied. Robert Conquest, a writer whose own literary credentials are impeccable (he had the dubious honour of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush in 2003, and his study of the Stalinist purges, The Great Terror, is considered a classic of historical writing) but who also edited a series of science fiction anthologies alongside Kingsley Amis in the 60s, wrote a little bit of rhyming doggerel which encapsulates the dilemma: ‘”SF’s no good”, the bellow till we’re deaf/”But this looks good” – “Well then, it’s not SF”’. Such an attitude is clearly not new, then, but of late it seems to be taking on a rather desperately assertive form. Peter Nicholls identified and cogently defined this outlook in his 1976 essay Science Fiction: The Monsters and the Critics, included in the critical anthology Explorations of the Marvellous, which he also edited. He describes ‘embittered ignoramuses who detest science fiction without knowing anything about it, imagining it to be a threat to cultural standards literacy, and the British way of life. They have usually seen a couple of episodes of Star Treak, and maybe the second half of Godzilla meets King Kong on the late-night television (chance would be a fine thing these days), and may have dim memories of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comic strips. They usually attack science fiction for its vulgarity, and if it is tentatively put to them that there is something to be said for HG Wells or Aldous Huxley, they simply snort, and say that Wells and Huxley didn’t write SF’.
Admitting SF to the canon - The open-minded critic
This is not true of all literary critics, of course. Harold Bloom, a prominent US literary academic, is one exception, perhaps due to his preference for the Romantic tradition and his location of the roots of literature in Shakespeare and Dante, both writing at a time when qualitative distinctions between realism and the fantastic were entirely absent. Bloom’s traditionalist survey of literature, The Western Canon, is addressed to the ‘common reader’ identified by Doctor Johnson and Virginia Woolf rather than the academic. It ends with his own suggestions as to what might constitute a comprehensive canon of books worth reading. This includes several SF titles, along with associative works. You could argue that Beckett’s Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot are all post-apocalyptic works. It all depends on how you personally read an interpret them. Bloom includes what he describes as the science fiction novels of HG Wells (no carping about generic labelling here) in preference to any of his social realist comedies or philosophical novels. David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus is a book which so enthralled him that he produced his own sequel, The Flight to Lucifer. Huxley and Orwell are there, of course, but so is Ursula le Guin with The Left Hand of Darkness, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (one of his undeniably science fictional novels, and also one of his best), Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and The Investigation, and John Crowley with Little, Big, Aegypt and Love and Sleep (the final two volumes of the Aegypt quartet, Daemonomania and Endless Things, had yet to be published when he produced his list, but would no doubt subsequently have been added). With earlier appearances by Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allan Poe (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and William Morris (News From Nowhere), Bloom would seem to agree with JG Ballard who comments in an interview (published elsewhere in The Guardian’s SF issue) ‘I think of SF as being part of the great river of imaginative fiction that has flowed through English literature, probably for 400 or 500 years, well predating modern science’.
New Worlds - Smash the iconsNicholls, in the same essay quoted above (whose title is taken from Tolkien’s 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics) points to the rather cosy nature of the science fiction world at the time, whose insularity protected it from the critical scrutiny to which other literature was subject. What little generic histories and studies had been published at the time (the mid 70s) tended to be fannish paeans of praise which treated the favoured SF pantheon as special cases whose work was of a wholly separate and distinct nature and thus inviolate when it came to ‘outside’ criticism, which was invariably harsh. In the 60s, the genre started to produce some serious (and seriously ruthless) criticism, particularly from the young punks at New Worlds, who were keen to shake things up and wake the genre (for which they clearly had some feeling, even if they didn’t admit it) up to the wonders of the wider literary and artistic worlds. Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard, Charles Platt, Brian Aldiss, John Sladek and M John Harrison all produced significant and sometimes excoriating reviews and polemics. M John Harrison’s marvellously titled ‘To the Stars and Beyond on the Fabulous Anti-Syntax Drive’ from New Worlds Quarterly 5 (published in 1973) is a thorough and merciless demolition of Donald A Wollheim’s insider history of the genre the Universe Makers (which Peter Nicholls also has a pop at in The Monsters and the Critics). ‘If I have misinterpreted the message of The Universe Makers, I may not be to blame’, he writes. ‘Its awful prose style rising like thick fog from the depths of its author’s private grammar, permits only brief, tantalising glimpses of subject matter and intent’. ‘It can provoke only the contempt of which Wollheim accuses pundits like Kingsley Amis. The genre doesn’t need Amis – who does? – but it doesn’t need public illiteracy, either. In defending his favourite read against the slurs of the uninitiated – in imagining it as a citadel beleaguered by unbelievers – he has merely revealed it as a pathetic’. Ultimately he ‘simply cannot understand why this book was published at all. Rubbish under a grandiloquent title…it adds nothing to the critical literature of the field’. Ouch!
There’s a definite sense of social stratifications being mapped in the assertion of superiority on the part of those safely settled in the established inner circles of the literary world, and there’s no doubt as to who’s at the poor end of town. ‘Prole art alert!’, as Mark E Smith might once have said, almost (maybe). The SF community (and this is one instance in which a ‘community’ can be said genuinely to exist) has often been said to inhabit a ghetto, with all the negative connotations (alongside the positive aspect of the sense of belonging to a well-defined and self-supporting group) which such an analogy implies. Samuel Delany, in an interview first published in the Spring 1990 issue of the journal Callaloo and reprinted in the collection Silent Interviews under the title Sex, Race and Science Fiction, comments on the realities of ghetto life. He elaborates on his own experience of being defrauded of a considerable amount of money by his publisher, and banishes any delusions about the romance of outsider status. He perhaps also draws on his own background as an African American growing up in Harlem, albeit in relatively comfortable circumstances. ‘A ghetto is a ghetto’, he told his interviewer. ‘Life there is usually harsher and harder than life in those precincts that drain money, goods, and energy out of that ghetto, and whose own vitality, if not survival, would be seriously compromised without the ghetto – as “mainstream” culture would be compromised without its constant invigorating thefts and more covert appropriations from the precincts of popular culture, be they that of popular music or of mysteries or of science fiction or of what-have-you’.
The worst of the literary writers, in terms of their tentative relations with the genre, which are usually played out in the broadsheet papers or on late night review shows, display a lofty superciliousness which seems designed to rile those at whose tastes they are sneering (it certainly works in my case). They exude that sense of self-certainty which comes with the background, the absolute assurance that whatever you say on any subject matters. Instead of offering opinions they make pronouncements, their language tends to the precious rather than the precise, and they give off an unbearable air of hauteur which invites gurudom, the assumption that anything they say is an utterance whose wisdom must be mused upon at length or treated as an instant aphorism. Margaret Atwood serves as an examplar of this tendency, and she and Ursula le Guin have been the most visible recent combatants in the literature vs science fiction debate. Indeed, their disagreements where recently given a formal airing in a staged tete-a-tete, although the affair appears to have passed off in an impeccably civilised manner, with a good deal of tactful skirting around the issue. Atwood’s attitude to SF is outlined in her review of le Guin’s short story collection The Birthday of the World and Other Stories from the September 2002 New York Review of Books, which is reprinted in Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing. It is a masterclass in condescension which manages to be almost definitively patronising, right down to its title – The Queen of Quinkdom. It turns out she quite likes the book. But she feels the need to start the review with a lengthy apologia, in which she makes an awkward and ill-informed attempt to define SF in order to validate le Guin’s work within its borders (much as she repeatedly does with her own novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) and by implication her reviewing of it; to chant Conquest’s ditty, in short.
'Sci-trash' and all the better for itShe writes of the ‘family room of the socially realistic novel’, and admits of SF that ‘some of its literary ancestors are of the utmost respectability’, but that it now has a ‘sluttish reputation’, all of which betrays a preoccupation with position, appearance and propriety. You can almost picture her holding her nose as she talks of the ‘odoriferous cache’ of SF devices, and the way in which proper writers can make ‘virtuoso use of sci-trash material’ (what clumsy and inelegant phrases). Calling attention to the cheapest and most throwaway examples of the form is an easy way to raise a laugh (pace Nicholls above) and conjure consensual contempt. Attwood does so by citing the 50s and 60s b-movies The Creeping Eye, The Head That Wouldn’t Die and The Attack of the Sixty-Foot Woman, following her prefatory ‘who can forget’ with a dismissive ‘why can’t we forget..?’ It would certainly be easier if they actually existed. The films which she is failing to recall are presumably The Creeping Terror, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and it would take a particularly humourless person not to find something to enjoy in their barmily blundering b-movie brio. But why bother with accuracy and proper research when dealing with material beneath your regard? Once she gets round to reviewing le Guin, Atwood offers faint praise, but it is expressed with a brittle and unfunny jocularity, punctuated by words such as ‘jolly’ and ‘fun’, which serves to communicate and underlying disdain whilst maintaining the required façade of politeness. The whole piece gives of the air of duty fulfilled before moving on to more serious matters. Matters which can be found in her ‘Letter to America’, included elsewhere in the Curious Pursuits collection and first published in The Nation in 2003. In this, she sombrely chides the personification of an entire nation. You just can’t argue with an ego of that magnitude.
Looking at the Evidence - a non-literary approach to SF criticism?
Le Guin’s later review of Attwood’s The Year of the Flood in the Guardian on 29th August 2009 acts as something of a riposte to her disdainful attitude towards genre, and perhaps also of her fumbling attempts to place le Guin’s work within a generic context (whilst conversely refusing to allow her own work to be so located). She writes ‘I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could take about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern SF criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and inventions suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance’. Elsewhere (and elsewhen), she observed that ‘if the mainstream definably exists, then I think it is itself a genre; one among many ways of writing fiction – one of many modes I myself work in’. It’s a point which M John Harrison reiterates in a recent blog post (mentioned by China Mieville in his Guardian profile), suggesting also that the modern manifestation of literary fiction has reached a point of exhausted anomie. The walls of the SF genre have largely been dismantled over the last decade or so, leaving only the outline of foundations, as a greater openness to external influences has become common. Those of the literary tower, meanwhile, have been renovated and reinforced, with security alarms and cameras affixed. SF has, after initial reluctance, welcomed the healthy infusion of literary influences, but its gestures of rapprochement and attempts to demarcate areas of common ground have tended to meet with a cool reception. John Clute has objected (in pieces included in his collection Look At the Evidence) to the pointlessness of the Arthur C Clarke Award being given to two novels by mainstream writers, neither of whom (and certainly neither of whose publishers) showed any signs of feeling particularly honoured to have received Britain’s top literary science fiction award. He comments on the 1988 Clarke, ‘on whose panel of judges I sat, and still regret not fighting harder against the eventual winner, the estimable Margaret Atwood, who received the award with polite bewilderment that her dry, decorous Handmaid’s Tale could be mistaken for a ghetto blaster’. He was even more disappointed by the 1993 winner, Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass, which he observed ‘fatally gives off that gingerly feel one often detects when a mainstream writer is manipulating SF devices and scenarios to illuminate her own concerns’, and which he feels is ultimately ‘like a primer-level guidebook-to-the-future, on the pattern of most mainstream SF’.
Clute’s preference for the best novel of that year was Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary, which he regarded as ‘a brilliant SF meditation on First Contact’, but which was excluded from the list, perhaps because of its allusive nature and lack of any explicit science fictional apparatus. Fowler went on to enjoy huge success with The Jane Austen Book Club (a Richard and Judy choice, no less), which is a perceptive and immensely enjoyable look at the effect which literature has on people’s lives and the choices which they make. It also addresses the sf vs literature debate, with Ursula le Guin once more rising to the fore as the figurehead of literary sf. Two of the novel’s characters meet at a hotel in which contrasting conferences are being held. Jocelyn is attending the annual meeting of the Inland Empire Hound Club, and Grigg (who will go on to become the only male member of the Jane Austen-based book club) a science fiction convention. Their relationship, sparking off from this initial encounter, will be conducted as if across a class divide. When the other members of the club hear that she and Grigg first met at a science fiction convention, they are astounded. ‘We would never have guessed she read science fiction. She certainly never said so. She hadn’t gone to any of the new Star Wars movies, and she’d never stood in line for any of the old ones’. Jocelyn soon puts their minds to rest, saying ‘oh, please…as if’. Grigg offers her two books by le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, as a way into SF. She thanks him, although ‘she really hadn’t planned to begin reading science fiction and still didn’t’. He, however, shows an openness to new literary experiences, suggesting ‘I’m perfectly willing to be directed, too. You tell me what I should be reading, and I promise to read it’. And he is as good as his word, providing a fresh, outsider’s perspective to Austen’s novels, and particularly favouring Northanger Abbey (Fowler perhaps bearing in mind Brian Aldiss definition of SF as being in ‘the Gothic mode’). Jocelyn doesn’t reciprocate, however, and the le Guins go unread. ‘Why should she apologize over not reading two books she’d never asked for?’, she muses. ‘She didn’t have to actually read science fiction to know what she thought of it. She’d seen Star Wars. When would Grigg get off her case about those damn books. After she voices her reservations, which echo those expressed by le Guin herself in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown (‘I like books about real people…science fiction books have people in them, but they’re not about the people. Real people are really complicated.’), Grigg provides an answer which could stand as a general response to literary dismissal: ‘There’s all kinds of science fiction…when you’ve read some I’ll be interested in your opinion’.