My main complaint about the sf programme at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival is that I couldn’t spare the time and money to go to more of it. As it was, I spent a very pleasant weekend in Cheltenham, staying with friends, and went to three events over two days. All three were worth attending, if only for the pleasure of seeing serious items at a mainstream literary festival take sf seriously. Of course, though it should go without saying that my recollections are likely imperfect, there were also some frustrations.
Most of those came in the first event, China Mieville and John Mullan, in conversation:
Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them?
This was a follow-up to last year’s brief fuss on the same topic, and as Mieville emphasised more than once, all credit to Mullan for turning up to defend his remarks. Each man set out their stall for about ten minutes, then there was some back and forth, and then they opened the floor to questions. Mieville’s contention was that the Booker prize should do one of two things: either be genuinely open to all types of fiction; or admit that it is concerned with a specific category of fiction, no more or less a category than the many others with which bookshops are stocked. Mullan’s reply, stated with increasing firmness as the discussion wore on, was that literary fiction is a category apart, primarily because it eschews formula.
There were, I think, two problems facing the debate, one embedded in the panel description, the other in the panelists. The former was the assumption — pushed at slightly, but never to the extent that I would have hoped for — that a work published outside the category science fiction, and not stocked in the “special room in bookshops” that Mullan talked of, is not science fiction. So Mullan, for instance, mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world). The assumption buried in there did not go uncommented on — Mieville even dragged out sf’s no good/they bellow ’til we’re deaf. But, although I wouldn’t wish to claim that that attitude towards “outsider” sf doesn’t exist, it would have been good to be able to suggest a bit more strongly that Air is indeed a novel very worth Mullan’s time; and to be able to emphasise that Ishiguro is far from the only non-category-sf author to be shortlisted for, or to win, a science fiction award; that David Mitchell, Jan Morris, Marcel Theroux and Sarah Hall have all appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist in recent years, and that a couple of years ago Michael Chabon won a Hugo and a Nebula. If, as Mullan contends, the borders have hardened since he was younger, the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side.
The second problem was related to the first, insofar as it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction. His astonishment, for instance, that Mieville could suggest that a science fiction writer — Gene Wolfe, to be specific — might be the equal of JM Coetzee, seemed to be genuine. And it meant that he had no real way to engage with Mieville’s suggestion that different categories of fiction might have different, but equally valid, “aesthetic specificities”; and that one of sf’s specificities might be estrangement, as compared to literary fiction’s preference for recognition. When making his case for the importance of formula to genre it was telling that Mullan pointed over and over again at crime fiction, describing a template detective story. It would have been good to ask: what is the template story of a science fiction novel? The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly. (And in fact, I’d argue the metaphysics of Yu’s novel are constructed — not even subtly! — to articulate, among other things, precisely the sorts of points about literary categorisation that Mieville was trying to make.)
After all that, the second event — an interview of Iain M Banks by the editor of the Guardian Books website, Sarah Crown — was thoroughly refreshing for the unabashed enthusiasm for sf that radiated from Banks. Indeed, the first audience question could have been a plant, so completely did it seem to justify every caricature of literary snobbishness ever constructed by sf fans — the guy actually stood up and asked, in so many words because I wrote them down, “I realise this may provoke a fight, but I have to ask: why does Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers, spend so much time wasting his prodigious talent on science fiction?” — and so fully did Banks seize the opportunity to offer a full-throated and crowd-pleasing endorsement of sf as “the most important genre of the modern age”. (It was also rather cheering to hear Banks refer to himself off-handedly as writing “in two genres”…) Surface Detail sounds, in many ways, like Culture business as usual; but Banks did a good job of reminding the audience of how appealing that business can be.
Sunday’s event, also ably moderated by Sarah Crown, was probably the one I went into with highest hopes:
British Science Fiction From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.
Inevitably — and not just because three of the four panelists were respondents to the survey! — there was familiar ground covered, but it was covered thoughtfully. So, we had a consideration of how the loss of empire shapes British sf, and the extent to which in some cases it may be an assumed influence, even imposed by expectation rather than springing from within. We had The Politics Question, with the observation that it’s not so much that American sf is right-wing and British sf left-wing, but that American sf has both right and left wings, and British sf, generally speaking, has not heard from the right, plus a discussion of how individualistic vs communitarian philosophies work themselves out at the level of narrative. And we had some discussion of how sf has been positioned in relation to mainstream literature, with Michael Moorcock suggesting (not for the first time, I think) that where American sf has a stronger tradition of writers who express their ideas through sf, British sf has a stronger tradition of writers who seek to express science-fictional ideas: that is, more writers for whom science fiction is not an entire career, for whom the idea comes before the form.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion came when it strayed into what-next territory. Nic, braver than I, raised the topic, pointing out that the recent history of British sf has been a self-described golden age, particularly in the resurgence of space opera, but that other developments, such as the reduction in the number of women writers, suggested a narrowing of the field, and asked which the panel felt was the more powerful trend. Gwyneth Jones suggested, in line with recent discussion here, that British space opera, at least, is no longer a growth industry and may be starting to stagnate; and that women writing sf and feminist sf in general may have suffered for being positioned as “the next thing” in a genre that is always hungry for the next thing, rather than more usefully seen as a an evolution. (Mieville, in turn, suggested that it may be worth looking to what he characterised as an “underground tradition” of British sf — involving Katharine Burdekin, Jane Gaskell, and another writer whose name I forget — for a more congenial reception of women.) And speculating on the next thing, the panel suggested that the sf to look for may be that coming from elsewhere — from the Pacific Rim, or Africa — and may not necessarily be prose sf. Or it may be — and this was the point missing from the earlier debate for me, even bearing in mind Moorcock’s comments — that more and more interesting fantastical writing is coming from writers positioned outside the current category; Mieville cited Toby Litt, David Mitchell and Helen Oyeyemi as writers to keep an eye on, all picks I’d cheerfully agree with
All good clean fun. Perhaps not all attendees agreed, mind you; as we were leaving the panel discussion, an elderly gentleman behind me was heard to wonder why, oh why, do sf writers always seem to be so interested in navel gazing?