When Dan Green reads Dave Itzkoff:

Itzkoff’s take on science fiction in general (or at least that branch he calls “military sci-fi”) leads me to think I might not clearly understand the ambitions of science fiction, at least among its more serious-minded authors and critics. Although I have only relatively recently begun to sample noteworthy science fiction novels and writers (that is, I am most assuredly a johnny-come-lately), I have done so under the assumption it is a genre that seeks to provide an alternative to “realism” and other conventionally “literary” practices, not just by evoking speculative worlds and looking to the future rather than the past or present but also by creating alternative forms and experimenting with the established elements of fiction (plot, setting, point of view, etc.). That SF is inherently a kind of experimental fiction is a proposition I have been convinced to take seriously by some of the more intelligent critical discussion of the genre, both on SF litblogs and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find this proposition very persuasively confirmed. The novels I have attempted, by among others Philip K. Dick, China Mieville, and Samuel Delaney, while they certainly do engage the imagination well beyond what is offered in most humdrum literary realism, do not seem to me especially preoccupied with formal experiment or stylistic innovation. (Which is not to deny that the latter two, at any rate, do write well.) Traditional plotting prevails, setting is described in the kind of minute detail a Flaubert-inspired realist would almost certainly admire, and point of view (at least in the particular novels I have read) remains transparent and undisturbed. They are, finally, resolutely traditional novels, if anything overloaded with conventional storytelling, marked as “other” only by their deliberately exotic subjects.


Perhaps having “no position at all” on real war isn’t very “commendable,” but declining to take positions in fiction, even if war is the ostensible subject, brings no moral opprobrium at all. In purely literary terms, refusing to “take a position” by sticking to, well, literature, and leaving the moral or political discourse to other, more suitable forums is as much of a “stance” most fiction writers ought to feel comfortable assuming. If John Scalzi thinks his job is to write engaging works of fiction rather than “cultivate a philosophy” by indirection, it’s all to his credit. But is Itzkoff’s own position, that the work of the science fiction writer can be reduced to the attempt to stake out a position on this or that, really shared by most writers and readers who lay claim to this genre? Is it the literary “philosophy” of SF?

Oh, crumbs. Where to start? As ever when Green writes about sf, I find myself having to translate everything he says; we have different enough starting assumptions about reading and fiction in general, never mind our approaches to sf in particular, and never mind that in this instance he seems to be under the unfortunate impression that Dave Itzkoff knows what he’s talking about. (I actually have more time for Itzkoff than some, but he’s really not the man I’d go to get a coherent articulation of what sf does and why.) As John Scalzi noted in response to the review at the time, sf isn’t short of writers who use their novels to articulate a philosophical stance of some kind, but they can hardly be held to represent a central ambition of the genre, because the genre doesn’t really have a central ambition.

Which means that sf also can’t be summarised as ‘a genre that seeks to provide an alternative to “realism” and other conventionally “literary” practices’. For starters, assuming there is a broad division of fiction into “realistic” and “fantastic”, as I understand it there is at least some debate about which camp sf should sit in. Certainly, on an intuitive basis I can see arguments on both sides — a science-fiction world is an extension of the realistic world; but of course it’s a world that doesn’t exist. But readers more knowledgeable than myself (I know you’re out there) should feel free to weigh in any time now, since I feel that I’m on quite tentative ground both here and below.

To a certain extent, I can think of examples of sf that play with the examples Green gives of the established elements of fiction. Whether or not sf is a form of realism, for example, there is something distinctive about the way language is used to create setting in sf: hence the history of discussion about sentences that are distinctively science-fictional (“The door dilated”), or that read differently depending on whether you’re approaching them as science fiction or not (“She turned on her left side”). That is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing I would expect to get from the work of China Mieville and Philip K. Dick. Similarly, I can think of stories that do interesting things with point of view, either by portraying characters who perceive the world according to radically different frameworks than our own (“Story of Your Life”, Ted Chiang, or “In Blue” by John Crowley), or by mixing up the identity of narrator, writer and character (The Female Man, Joanna Russ), or by trying to integrate standard approaches to character with a contermporary scientific understanding of how we actually think (Peter Watts, Greg Egan). I’m drawing a temporary blank on experimental plotting (the work of Hal Duncan, possibly?), but I’m sure examples exist there too.

But I get the impression that Green is looking for sf to do something formally new not found in other kinds of fiction, and I suspect he’s doomed to fail, particularly if — as his current reading list suggests — he’s sticking to canonically recognised sf writers, because they are often the writers with the most traditional plotting, the most transparent points of view. (Delany seems like he should be the exception here, but I haven’t read much Delany and I don’t know which Delany Green has read, either.) This is not to say that sf can’t be formally experimental — I’m not sure there’s much possible in sf that isn’t possible in other kinds of fictions, although I’m comfortable with the idea that there are approaches to which sf is particularly well-suited. But to the extent that sf can be described as inherently experimental fiction, I would say it’s almost never experimental as an end in itself; it experiments with the world, and any experimentation with the conventions of fiction will be a consequence of that. Or to put it another way, sf stories won’t often look like experiments, because the point is the subject.

7 thoughts on “Experimentation

  1. I think Green’s problem is that he’s trying to treat SF as a discreet entity within mainstream literature.

    Most mainstream literature (like the sub-genres and movements within SF) is composed of a series of reactions to important books, trends and real world events. A lot of criticism is historical in approach and so emphasises this characteristic. So, not unreasonably, Green, when confronted by SF, tries to dip into his litcrit toolbox and finds out that actually, SF doesn’t have much of a relationship with mainstream literary trends at all.

    So you plug Flaubert into SF and you’ll not get much of a response.

    This, I suspect, is because SFF isn’t a movement, or a genre, or a sub-genre but a literary tradition as distinct from mainstream literature as analytical philosophy is from continental philosophy.

    Sure there are some common influences and occasionally someone jumps the fence between the traditions but there’s really not that much talk between the traditions at all. In fact, the endless list of people who maintain that they’re not SF is very similar to the endless trail of people from the analytical tradition who maintain that whatever the fuck it is that Derrida’s doing, it’s not philosophy.

    It’s also why you get lots of cheeky people pointing out that the West Wing is SF or that Ballard, despite his protestations, is still very much writing SF.

  2. You’ll always have this sort of response as long as sf is regarded as one thing, and therefore definable. It’s not, it’s not one genre or one tradition or one movement or one anything else. Science fiction is a whole mass of overlapping styles and manners and tropes and ideas. That’s why John Clute can insist that sf is a realist mode and I can insist that it belongs within the literary fantastic – and we’re both right.

    Of course you can use litcrit tools to examine any individual work of science fiction – but not to examine sf as a whole. Nor can you draw conclusions from one work of sf that apply to all sf – or even, necessarily, to any other example of the form. No more than you can draw conclusions from an Ian McEwan novel that apply to all ‘serious fiction’; or from a Dan Brown novel that apply to all ‘bestseller fiction’.

  3. It is hard to describe the journey this post has just taken me on. I have followed links, and links of links, all over the place, reading critiques and criticisms and all variety of political rants. It has been wonderful. Perhaps the most interesting this was observing how gracious John Scalzi is to people who disagree with/criticize him. It was all very enlightening. Thanks.

  4. What in interesting discussion. Coming from traditional lit crit, but working at the moment very firmly in the field of the fantastic, I would have to say I couldn’t see any way of setting sf in either the realm of realism, fantasy or the marvellous (the latter being the place of fairy tales where clearly magical things happen). I would guess that they draw from, experiment with and subvert all three. I suppose (and you could easily argue against me if I’m wrong) what does draw sf writers together is investment in the ‘technological imaginary’, or the way that science and technology are continually questioning the metaphors and structures by which we understand and represent life. I also agree with everyone above who suggests that no book can ever be paradigmatic of a genre, at least, not one that’s any good.

  5. A comment from Judith Berman, originally posted on the lj feed:

    Well, all I can really do is agree, especially about the realms in which sf is or wants to be experimental. Regarding point of view, yes, it’s not wildly experimental in a formal sense, but it is experimental with its treatment (investigation?) of selfhood, memory, and identity, and that’s a long list with Dick at the top.

    The whole realism thing… in my son’s first grade class they are supposed to bring in a book every week and one of the things they do is learn to classify books by genre. This evidently is something as fundamental to learning about books as reading itself! The day I learned about this was when he had taken in The Borrowers, which we had recently read together. The teachers told him it was “fantasy.” But one of the very interesting things about the Borrowers books is their scrupulous treatment of the real world… the only fantastic element in them is the existence of a race of human-like beings 5 inches tall.

    The difficulty with classifying sf as one or the other is of course with the notions of “realism” vs. “fantasy” as global characteristics of a book, rather than as a characteristic of one or another components thereof. And with the blood-quantum classificatory mentality–a minute fraction of a fantastic element makes the whole fantasy rather than realism. I would say that some genre fantasy (say Mieville) is in some ways much more realistic than some sf because of its groundedness in a human sensory reality–taste, smells, textures–something sf proper is often not so good at.

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