Sunday, September 02, 2007

Placating the Border Cops

I’m not certain that Jeanette Winterson’s flat disclaimer, ‘I hate science fiction,’ (see Without Prejudice) was generated by real hatred and loathing of the genre. More likely, it was a reflexive blurt driven by anxiety. Winterson is an author with impeccable literary establishment qualifications. And part of belonging to the ‘literary’ establishment is the need to maintain a strong and impermeable barrier between ‘literary’ and genre fiction, between so-called high and low art, between ‘proper’ fiction and despised, degenerate pulp. So although Winterson has felt it necessary, for the purposes of her novel, to borrow from science-fiction’s toolbox of tropes, tricks, and imagery, she has to make it clear that she is in no way tainted by or sympathetic to science fiction. Saying ‘I hate science fiction’ is not only like displaying a properly stamped passport to a border cop, proof to the cultural critics that she belongs on what she perceives to be the right side of the barrier; it’s also a powerful disinfectant spray that cleanses the taint of genre from borrowings smuggled out of the forbidden zone.

It occurs to me that the champions of so-called mundane science fiction may be displaying the same anxiety about genre taint as Winterson and other literary novelists who have borrowed from science fiction. The mundane movement, rejecting ‘myths’ such as aliens, faster-than-light travel, parallel worlds, time travel, and so on, declares strict adherence to mimesis and realistic speculation about known scientific truths. They aren’t the first science-fiction writers to attempt to differentiate themselves from the rest of the genre - Heinlein, for instance, attempted to erect a wall between real science fiction and mere fantasy by declaring that fantasy is ‘any story based on violation of a scientific fact’ - and I doubt that they’ll be the last. But like all the rest they are doomed to failure not only because their internal borders are artificial and impossible to police, but also because they are attempting to argue a case for legitimacy before a court that cares not a jot for the differences they are attempting to define.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Al Reynolds said...

I agree with the above. I was at least sympathetic to the Mundanes (not that they seem to be saying anything that Chairman Bruce didn't tell us twenty years ago - remember all that stuff about rejecting "hand me down science"?) until I read some of the remarks on their blog. "Astrophysicists are full of crap", etc. Great - thanks for that. Nothing like reducing a discourse to the level of playground taunting to show what your true colours really are.

September 04, 2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Back in the days of OMNI, Ellen and I used to talk a lot about these very issues -- the ones of perception not of art (or craft or whatever) in practice. I used to have a lot of fun with advertisers who'd say for instance, "I didn't know Joyce Carol Oates wrote science fiction," when we had a story by her.

My response generally ran along the lines of "If you didn'tknow that, then you probably don't know that Barry Malzberg writes literature." Made my point, and on more than a couple of occasions made my case.

But I had started seriously reading sf -- and seriously reading non-sf too -- in the latter 60s and early 70s, when for all of the anti-trad venom of some of the New Wave, most of the Wave's real writers were more interested in broadening sf's toolbox. And did so, often astonishingly well.

The result for readers grounded in both sf and the rest of that explosively productive period's fiction (and its antecedents)was a simple calculus: bring the same care and attention to reading Aldiss that you bring to Mailer, savor Malzberg with the same standards you'd apply to Roth, Silverberg and Ellison measured with the same tape drawn against the accomplishments of Burgess or Fowles, et.al.

The same approach, in other words, that we (I don't think I'm alone) bring today to you, or Alastair Reynolds, Swanwick or Wolfe, Dann or Haldeman, name your own pleasure or poison.

If there's a movement identifiable among those writers it eludes me, except for this: you're all real writers, not (just) real sf writers.

September 05, 2007 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Paul McAuley said...

I've no problem with other writers playing a game by restricting themselves to certain themes or tropes. To paraphrase Rudy Rucker, there are people who write novels without the letter 'e', so there's nothing wrong with writing science fiction novels or stories that deliberately omit faster-than-light travel, time travel, and so on, and so forth. And I'm all for rexamining and remaking comfortable old tropes into something new and sharp and engaging rather than reflexive use of the same. But like Al, I do have a big problem with the puritan, bonfire of the vanities side of the Mundanes, the somewhat out-of-date view of where the cutting edge of science is presently at, the obsession with plumbing diagrams, and the idea that choking down the imaginative urge is the way forward for the 'literature of the imagination'.

September 06, 2007 11:09 PM  
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