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May/June 2018
 
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by James Sallis

 

TOURISTS AND NATIVE SPEAKERS

 

Playing with my band, whenever we break out the accordion or banjos I try to remember to issue a hazardous materials warning. So let me say here: I'm about to talk about "science fiction," "literary," and "mainstream."

Note that all are in quotation marks. We'll be releasing them into the wild soon enough.

As it happens, I'm writing this, should one accept Brian Aldiss's claim that publication of Frankenstein marks its birth, on science fiction's bicentennial. And I've spent recent months reading a stack of books from behind and across lines drawn in the sand, novels that self-identify as science fiction, others denying same: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey, The Stargazer's Embassy by Eleanor Lerman, Nina Allan's The Race, Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel, Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties. I also took another look at Find Me by Laura van den Berg, which I reviewed here a while back. Simultaneously I've been reading and rereading three pieces on the interflow of literary and mainstream fiction with science fiction, all of which has had me thinking pretty seriously about boundaries, passports, checkpoints, dialect and vernacular, tourists and native speakers.

In her column "Time Pieces" for the May-June 2017 issue of Interzone, Nina Allan wondered if it might not be time, with science fiction so strong a presence in what people are actually reading and writing, to question the tenability of genre distinctions.

 

From the dawn of science fiction…both readers and critics of science fiction have passionately maintained that science fiction is different, that it should not be forced to comply with the literary values of mainstream literature because as a so-called literature of ideas, its power and central purpose lie elsewhere.

Why should Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, be held to the same mainstream literary standards as John Fowles's The Magus—also published in 1966—when the aims and purpose of science fiction as literature are entirely different?

Are they, though? Or to rephrase the question slightly, are they now?

 

As of now, Margaret Atwood finds her 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale back on everyone's mind and selling fiercely. Following upon the blockbuster Hunger Games trilogy, Young Adult lists feature dystopias and walkabout fantasies of every sort. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, with its crazyquilt pattern of mimetic and arealist takes, frequently gets cited as a sort of imaginative breakwater. Novels like Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife are shortlisted for major literary prizes. Volumes of Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin issue from Library of America alongside Philip Roth, John Ashbery, and Peter Taylor.

Publishers' push? Readers' demand? Part of a general slide toward popular culture?

Meanwhile, theaters and TV spill over with Thors and flamers and fliers; remakes, sequels and prequels of everything from Planet of the Apes to Mad Max and Blade Runner; a dozen or more Star Wars movies and clones of same; heavy-lifters like Ex Machina, Logan, and Arrival.

Something is going on here, something beyond fond hopes, bold claims, repudiations, and disavowals.

One might wonder what the books editor for whom I reviewed years ago, who proudly professed never to read science fiction, might make of all this. Or the renowned fellow novelist who at a literary festival stated eloquently that he neither cared for nor ever read genre fiction, then proceeded to read one of his stories, which seemed (obviously I must have been wrong) quite a standard mystery tale.

Something's going on. Something we, as dedicated readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy always wished for, pushed for, awaited, expected.

Or did we?

Certainly approbation was our due. We—the field, the genre, whatever this thing got called—we were avant-ier than avant-garde. Good old sf got up every morning thinking about matters that had rarely if ever before been thought about. Wondering how vastly different lives would or might be, connecting the dots of all manner of stars, prodding at the underbellies of social structures, thumbing its nose at received wisdom, stepping back from the usual frame to show mankind's place in the universe in far larger contexts.

On the other hand, hunkered down here in our cabin in comfortable clothes, we've always felt kind of safe and warm, dissembling at all talk of aesthetic issues, cranky with literary writers who dropped toes in our pond, thinking of them as interlopers and carpetbaggers. Magpies, they were, thieving shiny things from others' nests.

We fully believed we tapped into a greater reality, digging our way beneath the countless surfaces of dailyness. Outsiders, literary and otherwise, saw only distortions of that reality, distortions that were at best silly and at worst—since the arts are supposed to improve our understanding of the world, to help us engage more fully with it—dangerous.

 

*   *   *

 

And what of those claims we made to uniqueness? Might it only have been wisdom of the cloister? Had we hunkered down too securely, shut ourselves away in reaction to being shut away by others, then, in a closed system, circled the same tracks again and again?

Nina Allan:

 

[I]n a genre landscape almost wholly consumed by pumping out copycat series fiction, grimdark fantasy and endlessly repetitive YA dystopia—how many truly innovative, truly radical works of echt science fiction are actually now being published in any given year?

 

Absolutely. Too many high-fantasy trilogies, too many zombie novels and superheroes unaware. Swamps full of them.

On the other hand, how many truly innovative works get published any year—1966, 1968, 2017? For every Dhalgren there are dozens of Getalongs of Gor; for every Kij Johnson (At the Mouth of the River of Bees), a slew of cowboys in space.

So why the seepage? Why—now, as Allan specifies—are the boundaries blurring, why now this informal free trade agreement?

Doubtless part of the answer lies in the fact that many younger readers grew up with such imaginative literature as Madeleine L'Engle and the Narnia books integral to the formation of their own imaginations, this seconded by a surround of movies and TV: Star Trek, the Terminator films, Star Wars. An ongoing general questioning, if not a breakdown, of distinctions between high and low culture also contributed.

Some of these readers became writers, and they step from one room into the next humming "Don't Fence Me In" under their breath.

Some don't.

Given for some time now to writing what is clearly science fiction, Margaret Atwood in her book on same, In Other Worlds, exhibits great interest in science fiction as myth but little interest in or knowledge of the genre as its own regenerative world. In an earlier book on writing in general, Negotiating with the Dead, she cites the basic idea of a Theodore Sturgeon story without showing respect enough to bother looking up the title.

Other writers like Find Me's Laura van den Berg refuse to plead guilty to writing science fiction or, like Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven, see below), flatly deny it. A few, such as the remarkable Ottessa Moshfegh in regard to her novel Eileen, look about at writers like themselves who've had good fortune riding sidesaddle in science fiction or mystery fiction and freely admit to market considerations.

Years ago I asked New Orleans novelist J.M. Redmann why, with her abilities, as fine as any I knew, she'd chosen to write crime novels. Because, she said, she wanted to have readers.

 

*   *   *

 

The thing is, we're not the only ones wondering about these border crossings.

Laura Miller routinely writes, for Slate, some of the best, all-embracing commentary on books we have. In her May 2017 essay "Dark Futures: What Happens when Literary Novelists Experiment with Science Fiction," she notes that writers who once might well have turned out tender coming-of-age tales, wacky satires, or close-up views of how we live now, have opted for how we'll live then, that is, in some near or distant future.

 

Sometimes that future doesn't look terribly different from the present we know, and sometimes it's a smoking crater of hardship and peril. But in either case the line between literary fiction and science fiction has become harder and harder to draw.

 

Miller goes on to finger the usual touchstones: Orwell, Huxley, Doris Lessing, Atwood, Cloud Atlas. To these she adds "unimpeachably literary" Cormac McCarthy's The Road, drawing attention to its being, like all dystopias and postapocalyptic tales, a transliterated version of the frontier story that's at the heart of all American literature.

It is also, of course, to readers of science fiction, an abundantly familiar story.

Other ports in Miller's excursion include Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, a tale of endurance among the rag ends of civilization following ravages from a superflu (Mandel does not consider what she wrote to be science fiction), and Meg Howrey's The Wanderers, an unhurried tracking of the seventeen-month simulation in preparation for a manned flight to Mars.

Of Station Eleven, Miller notes that having literary novelists grapple on to the stuff of genre fiction supposedly helps prop up the mainstays of literary work—nuanced characters and the kind of aestheticized writing often referred to as beautiful—with exciting plots.

 

Beautifully written is a phrase often applied to any fiction that involves a lot of poetic landscape description, but to Mandel's credit she doesn't indulge too much in that. She does, however, produce a lot of passages like this:

 

That evening on the beach below her hotel, Miranda was seized by a loneliness she couldn't explain. She'd thought she knew everything there was to know about this remnant fleet, but she was unprepared for its beauty. The ships were lit up to prevent collisions in the dark, and when she looked out at them she felt stranded on a dark shore, the blaze of light on the horizon both filled with mystery and impossibly distant, a fairy-tale kingdom.

 

That, Miller remarks, is the basic temperament of all the characters, awash in melancholic, static reveries you'd expect to find in someone who writes literary fiction. "These people are, when you get right down to it, all pretty much the same person. So much for the promise that literary writers will bring something more than stock characters to their science-fiction scenarios; Mandel's rueful musers are just a different kind of stock figure."

For Miller, The Wanderers succeeds where others of her cited works fail, fusing the pleasures and demands of genres so often presumed discrete.

Author of two literary novels and, under a pseudonym, of a fantasy series, in The Wanderers, Meg Howrey sets out to represent realistically the rigor and challenges of space travel and the life of each astronaut. The astronauts are fully aware that everything they do, every gesture, every action, is being scrutinized—for meaning, for weakness—by their trainers. They make gifts for one another. The Japanese astronaut's wife programs a robot for companionship, the Russian's son deals with an early outbreak of homosexual desire.

Textures, in other words, more endemic to "literary" or "mainstream" fiction than to "genre," offering a portrait of humanity in the whole of its variety, intricacy, and nuance. Life as lived—at the edge, and closer in.

"Science fiction has always promised its readers fictional wonders they can't get in other genres, stories in which the stakes are high and the ideas are heady," Miller writes near the end of her essay. "What's surprising is not that literary novelists are increasingly taking up science fiction's tools, but that more of them didn't try it sooner."

 

*   *   *

 

Mark Tiedemann's "Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction," a 2014 blog entry, underscores the genre's fluidity. Inexorable change is at its heart, he holds. Concerning itself with how knowledge and the aftershocks of knowledge change us, science fiction throws into question all our assumptions, everything we think we know, reshaping the world around us as we read. The ordinary becomes strange; the strange, experienced.

A certain savagery is implicit to such investigations, and many of us working the genre mines have always seen ourselves as outriders, outsiders, renegades, mavericks.

Tiedemann would agree, I think.

 

Way back in my youth…I found an album by Andre Kostelanetz, who led an orchestra that specialized in symphonic renditions of popular music…. This album was his take on the band Chicago. I remember listening to it bemused. It was interesting and it was "accurate" but it lacked some vitality that I at first couldn't define. But then I realized that he had stripped everything out of it that said "rock'n'roll" and all that remained was the melody, the chord changes, and the form, but none of the guts…. He'd taken music that could, in its original, get you churned up, excited, and agitated in a particular way and converted it into something palatable.

 

A commercial culture sees everything as commerce; discord and rebellion are absorbed, incorporated, portioned off into lots for sale.

Are we pleased that Chip Delany's books, even his notebooks, are in print from an excellent academic publisher, that Le Guin is in Library of America, that writers accorded major critical attention are sidestepping to science fiction? You bet. But we worry and fret over gentrification.

Forgive us that. Forgive our hesitations. We carry Ace paperbacks and Ed Emsh covers in our memories the way others line family photos on shelves. We love our language, our customs, we want to take them with us, preserve them, in the new world. Forgive our love of real warts on imaginary frogs.

The truth is—whatever it becomes, whatever it gets called—at some level, longingly, we want our science fiction not to be palatable, want the rawness of it, that sharp taste in our mouths that we can't quite get rid of. We want science fiction to feel dangerous, to show up at the party uninvited and wild-eyed, to take us to the edge of everything and force us to look over.

We need that.

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