Cheltenham 2010

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?

38 thoughts on “Cheltenham 2010

  1. Thanks for the link. A solid write-up and commentary, if, perhaps, a bit too one-sided (not unlike the one-sidedness you take Mullan to task for). I’m an admirer of Gene Wolfe (having read and found thought-provoking The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator), and haven’t read Coetzee as yet, so I can’t comment on the comparison, per se. However, I can make clear that as good as I think Wolfe is, his fiction — in my view — still can’t touch the likes of Peter Carey or Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy. The prose (and so, hence, the penetration and illumination of thought) of even the best sci-fi I’ve read just pales against the prose we see, time and again, from Carey, Robinson, McCarthy, etc. In the end, I expect it’s a question of what we value more: ideas for their own sake (sci-fi) or language as a vehicle for ideas (literary fiction). I still haven’t read Mieville, but I’ve got Perdido Street Station on my short stack of to-be-read titles.

  2. Well, that was Mieville’s point about value judgments as applied to aesthetic specificities, I think: they’re fine on a personal level, and problematic on the level of something like the Booker prize. To borrow his phrasing, if you must map a horizontal distinction (there are differences between types of fiction) onto a vertical one (this type of fiction is better than that type of fiction), you should at least be prepared to admit that’s what you’re doing.

    That said, if memory serves Mieville mentioned Wolfe (even more specifically, The Fifth Head of Cerberus) as an example of a category sf writer producing work that can do everything the work of an Ishiguro or a Coetzee does, including the sentences.

    As for one-sidedness: I am more naturally on Mieville’s side, yes, but his arguments were consistently more precise and better supported than Mullan’s. A description of the ways in which the plot of an Ian Rankin novel is predictable is not a convincing argument that a completely different category of fiction is also predictable. (It’s not even a convincing argument that predictability — that is, manipulation of a reader’s narrative expectations — is necessarily a flaw, although it was presented as such.)

  3. I see no one-sidedness in your account, Niall. Mullan was demonstrably illiterate in SF when the fuss kicked off last time, and this merely demonstrates the fact with even more clarity.

    It confirms my sensation that this is a deeply tribal issue, with the dominant tribe gaily complacent and self-assured in their sense of superiority – and shockingly ignorant of anything beyond their ken. Mullan as the Norman knight, french-speaking behind the walls of his castle and wondering with disdain and genuine bafflement why anyone would value that pigswill of a language the Anglo-Saxon peasants use. Meanwhile, a handily bilingual Mieville inflltrates the keep and sets about opening the portcullis to let the rabble in…….

  4. some of the rabble are already in and we are growing in numbers by the day.
    Sounds a fun event on the whole.

  5. “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?”

    It’s great to hear Banks endorse sf so absolutely, and I don’t doubt his sincerity the slightest bit. But, and I don’t mean to be cynical here, there’s another reason at work too. To quote from the 15 October of the Bookseller (emphasis mine):

    Iain M Banks’ latest novel set in his Culture universe, Surface Detail, is this week’s highest new entry in an Original Fiction list once again topped by Lee Child. Banks’ previous Culture novel, Matter, sold 38,400 copies in hardback – about 20,000 more than his last work of mainstream fiction, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, achieved in the same format.

    Unlike the first commenter, I didn’t find your reportage of the Mieville/Mullan panel to be one-sided. If there was any one-sidedness on show, to me, it comes from the fact that while Mieville engages with both sides of the argument, Mullan only fully engaged with his side. The part about “Never Let Me Go” says it all to me, really, and illustrates that Mullan may be able to argue about literary fiction on merit (or lack of), but when trying to argue about science-fiction he seems to only have long-formed prejudice to fall back on.

    I do hope that maybe in the future he perhaps finds himself reading and engaging with more science-fiction books. Even if he still doesn’t like it, I’d much sooner welcome an informed argument from him rather than one which supposes that, to paraphrase what you report, “Air won the Clarke not because it’s a better book than Never Let Me Go but because it fit a magic ‘sci-fi’ formula.”

    Hell – to give an example of what I mean about informed argument which ties in to this post: when I watched the Review Show where China discussed the Booker shortlist, I found myself disagree with a lot of what he said about several of the books. But because he’d actually read and engaged with them, I respected his arguments even despite the fact I disagreed (in some cases strongly).

    I seem to be rambling, so I’ll draw this comment to a close now.

  6. Nick: Those sales figures are fascinating, because Banks was also asked which sells better, his mainstream or sf, and while rambling around the question mentioned that when he started the mainstream work subsidised the sf — out-sold it by around four to one, apparently. He did mention that Surface Detail was doing “particularly well, for some reason”, but gave no figures. I wonder whether his mainstream numbers have declined, or whether his sf numbers have gone up, or a bit of both.

    And agreed, when Mullan knows what he’s talking about, he can be very good. I liked this piece on the use of the present tense.

  7. I should emphasise that Mullan was describing his suspicion that that was why Never Let Me Go lost, as a way of admitting his bias, he wasn’t asserting that that must have been the case. But he was very quick to pick up on Mieville’s mention of “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction” and say, yes, like that — which is why I wish someone had mentioned Chabon. (And why I’d love to see Mullan review the Clarke shortlist one year…)

  8. I’m not sure that the walls are all built from the mainstream side. If you look at the more public face of SF – say, i09 rather than here – one very quickly gains a view of a genre as sub-culture and (very agressive) marketing category rather than a literary mode.

    The trouble is that good writers (or “good” writers, if you prefer!) get swept up with the “part six of a ten book saga” types (who scratch a different sort of itch). For readers who aren’t familiar with the semiotics of sci fi book covers, all that stuff from Tor or Orbit or Gollancz looks kind of the same.

  9. Very good point Patrick. Genre publishers have a vested interest in the continued existence of a clear divide between genre books and non-genre books. If the ghetto walls are in place then the population is easily identifiable and can be marketed to with a minimum of fuss.

    Consider, for example, the current flap over the attempt to flog the decaying bones of Robert Jordan. Certain bloggers were given a signed copy of the ARC. This was a big deal for many of them. A big enough deal that they have been putting out dozens of pages of free publicity. Send that exact same ARC to the LRB and see how far it gets you. Publishers benefit from an audience that sees no further than the ghetto walls.

    Mieville is unusual not because he’s an author whose sensibilities are such that he has had some degree of success outside of the traditional genre audience. He’s unusual because he’s someone who clearly has both an interest in genre and in the stuff going on outside it.

  10. Patrick, Jonathan: You’re talking about something slightly different now, I think — in fact Mieville explicitly said he wasn’t arguing for categories to be abolished, but rather for different categories to be given equal consideration.

    So, yes, people at all levels — readers, writers, publishers — have a stake in the maintenance of the communities they enjoy, of course they do. The question is whether their investment is predicated on rejecting everything else. Without denying that there are plenty of sf readers who do take that approach, I’d argue that there’s currently less of it coming from the sf category than from the Booker category.

    To take the example of io9, for instance, they actually make quite a point of reviewing non-category sf books. And to take the LRB, while I don’t think the absence of a Jordan/Sanderson review says anything about its attitude to sf — surely the issue there is that they don’t review mass commercial fiction — I do think it’s telling that the only M John Harrison novel they’ve ever covered is Climbers.

  11. Yes, i09 does cover non-category SF, but it’s a very small aspect of its output (compared to spoilers for Fringe, eg, or set photos from Transformers 3) and those books are all SF of a type – they’re not reviewing Wolf Hall or Kalooki Nights. SImilarly, 1984 and Brave New World and even Lord of the Flies have always been considered part of the canon by SF readers, but far fewer of them read Keep the Apsidistra Flying.

    The problem of books of equal “quality” (scare quotes, cos the word makes me squeamish) published as genre SF not getting (we think) equal attention looks entirely like a marketing problem to me. Why doesn’t Mullan know about Gene Wolfe? Because Wolfe’s publishers, agent, whoever isn’t targetting him at those sectors.

    Take a look at this cover for “The Knight”:

    What does that say to you?

    It looks to me more like the literary gang who are curious about SF ideas, rather than SF readers going the other way. I think literary writers and readers are looking to their own for this stuff, because that part of the bookshop is impenetrable to them.

    I’m reviewing A Super Sad True Love Story for the Zone, btw, and will be covering some of this in that review, so it’s a timely topic for me!

  12. Agreed, the walls exist on both sides – plenty of Anglo-Saxons despising those hoity-toity french-speaking Norman pricks in turn.

    But the difference is, I think, that on the SF side, the critique-from-sheer-ignorance dynamic is mainly a feature of ground level genre fans, not respected critical authorities. Mullan is not some grass-roots home-grown nerd-rage blogger, he’s a respected and educated pundit in the field of literature. To get some sense of what this would like from the genre side, you have to imagine someone like John Clute or Niall here sounding off loudly about a whole area of literary fiction in which he has read barely anything (and absolutely nothing published in the last decade).

  13. I think, to be fair, that you’re extrapolating from a sample size of one Richard :-)

    An interesting spin on the phenomenon of ‘mainstream’ ignorance of genre writing can be glimpsed in Silverblatt’s interview of Charles Yu :

    Silverblatt is an astonishingly insightful critic. His opening assessments frequently cut to the bone of any book or author he is dealing with. Aside from Bill Gibson, I’m pretty sure that Bookworm has never dealt with SF (and even then it was once Gibson has safely transcended our little marketing category and refashioned his sprawl-dwelling ne’er-do-wells as swaggering hipster scumbags). So, much like Mullan, I think it is safe to say that Silverblatt is ignorant of SF.

    However, listen to Silverblatt’s opening comments and he is just overjoyed at the novelty of a collection of tropes that would appear old hat to most experienced genre readers.

    Mullan, when confronted with his own limited horizons, responds by seeking to justify those limits. Silverblatt, when placed in the same position, is delighted to discover a whole new sets of things to think about. That’s not a response that is dictated by culture, it is simply an expression of individual personality.

  14. Patrick:

    Yes, i09 does cover non-category SF, but it’s a very small aspect of its output (compared to spoilers for Fringe, eg, or set photos from Transformers 3) and those books are all SF of a type – they’re not reviewing Wolf Hall or Kalooki Nights.

    But now you’re moving the goalposts; your original contention was that io9 covered the marketing category, not the literary mode.

    I think literary writers and readers are looking to their own for this stuff, because that part of the bookshop is impenetrable to them.

    There are two ways of looking at this, though. One is to say: category sf books should be marketed in such a way as to appeal to category literary readers. The other is to ask: why haven’t category literary readers learnt that you can’t judge a book by its cover?

    Jonathan: Thanks for that link, I’ll listen to the interview later. What’s interesting to me about the reception of Yu’s book — broadly speaking — is that genre readers seem to be perceiving it as a mainstream intruder, and mainstream readers seem to be perceiving it as pure genre.

  15. Well, my original point was that SF’s public face is not one of sophisticated engagement with ideas!

    “There are two ways of looking at this, though. One is to say: category sf books should be marketed in such a way as to appeal to category literary readers. The other is to ask: why haven’t category literary readers learnt that you can’t judge a book by its cover?”

    I think what we’re trying to fathom is why an intelligent and interested person (let’s give Mr Mullan the benefit of the doubt) might be so ignorant about some great books, in this case SF books but it could be anything, really.

    “Critics are lazy and prejudiced” is one answer, one you hear a lot from Our Friends in fandom. “SF is shit anyway” is another unhelpful answer that comes from the other side of the fence. I think the real answer is tediously complex with a number of contributing factors, among them the history of fandom, the economy of ideas within literary criticism and academia, changes within publishing and bookselling. The pressures on these come from both sides of the fence.

    I think that Mr Mullan and his chums are judging books by a range of inputs of which the cover is just one (in this regard, the least important). I do the same thing, although my inputs are different. I am less inclined to blame individuals than I am to ponder the edifice that informs their opinions. Still, it’ll be interesting to see if Mr Mullan puts Gene Wolfe on his amazon wish list!

  16. “Critics are lazy and prejudiced” is one answer, one you hear a lot from Our Friends in fandom. “SF is shit anyway” is another unhelpful answer that comes from the other side of the fence. I think the real answer is tediously complex with a number of contributing factors, among them the history of fandom, the economy of ideas within literary criticism and academia, changes within publishing and bookselling. The pressures on these come from both sides of the fence.

    OK, that I agree with. But that’s a much broader definition of “marketing” than I assumed you were using!

    I believe that, as I left, I overheard Mullan asking Mieville to email him details of Wolfe’s work. So you never know.

  17. I hope that Mullan does read some Gene Wolfe and have a Road to Damascus moment, but I do think the Wolfe is an example of one of the difficulties for the non-SF reader. I am a great admirer of Wolfe’s early work, and Fifth Head of Cerberus or the short stories in the Dr Death book may well be accessible to the lit fic reader but much of his later work is filled with SF tropes and references which would probably baffle the reader without a background in SF.

    This is, in my opinion, why Wolfe has not broken through to the outside readership despite recommendations from many eminent critics. It also makes me think of the other panel at Cheltenham which asked if their was a special way to read SF. The panel, including M John Harrison, Toby Litt and Nalo Hopkinson, came to the conclusion that there was no special way, and that the reader should just jump in, sink or swim.

    I don’t quite agree because in my opinion to fully appreciate some-one like Wolfe it helps to have some idea of the themes that he is riffing off. This is one of the barriers to the wider readership, and one that will be impossible to break down unless the reader is open-minded enough to do some background work.

  18. “But that’s a much broader definition of “marketing” than I assumed you were using!”

    My scope expanded a little as I warmed to the topic.

    I think that marketing – in the more limited scope – is also important, but there is definitely merit in the argument that critics should be able to see through that.

    “There is merit in the argument” is, of course, a rather niggardly way of saying “you are correct”.

  19. The sink or swim thing (and its probable failure) is, I think, another case of raw emotional tribalism coming into play. Large numbers of mainstream literary fiction readers are unable or unwilling to play catch-up with science fictional terminology or reference, but those very same readers won’t have a problem reading a novel set in Asia, Africa or the Aboriginal context of Australia which makes free with local/ethnic terminology or reference. It’s a similar thing with names, where the same readers who’ll cheerfully sit still for a bunch of Thai or Turkish or Native American names rebel at the made-up names in a fantasy novel. The reading “trick” that you have to deploy in each case is actually exactly the same – cope with the exotic on the fly, pay attention, acquire – but the emotional response behind it is very different. SF and Fantasy, being about “made up” stuff and people, is seen as faintly ridiculous, kid’s-game-like, geeky, at best/most charitably “not my kind of thing” – whereas genuine “ethnic” names, vocabulary, context etc is seen (in that slightly wearying white-liberal-guilt fashion) as “worthy”, ergo “worthwhile”, ergo get on and cope. And since these responses are so deeply emotional (often hidden too deep even for those who possess them to admit to), I question the likelihood of sufficient of the open-mindedness Allan mentions ever coming on tap in the general reading public.

  20. Allan, I’m inclined to agree with Richard on this one — the examples that sprang to mind for me were David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, both of which, I think, ask for and repay similar kinds of readerly investment. Similarly I don’t really think any writer works in a vacuum; surely you get as much added value by knowing about Coetzee’s influences, and the tradition within which he works, as you do from knowing about Wolfe’s?

  21. Yes. But even if Mullan follows up on Wolfe and makes the investment etc and others follow suit, the most likely result is that Wolfe would be appropriated to the mainstream in the same way that Ballard was. I doubt it would change general attitudes to sf.

    But that i think is to miss the point. The point is not really whether John Mullan or any other critic changes his view – the point is whether the general terms of the debate are starting to move. And surely the fact we are talking about the panels at big literary festival suggests that the debate is moving. There is more serious coverage of sf. Its not just a ghetto. For me, one marker would be if the Guardian do the Clarke shortlist next year as a reader offer in the way they did with the Booker this year.

  22. I do think that China Meiville should be congratulated on organising the Future Fictions thread at Cheltenham. I spoke to him after the Booker debate and asked if he would be willing to do a similar thing at Hay-on-Wye. He said that he would love to, but had no contact with the organiser, Peter Florence.

    I would have thought that Hay Festival, being sponsored by the Guardian, would have been more open to SF than Cheltenham sponsored by the Times, but I spoke to one of the directors a couple of years ago suggesting more SF at Hay. She asked me who to invite. I suggested Iain Banks as an extremely popular writer who had been to Hay before.

    Her response was “But I don’t like him”. So much for open-mindedness.

    It would be nice to see a comparable programme at Hay, (or Oxford) so anyone who has access to Peter Florence might like to put some pressure on him.

  23. People have already mentioned what I think of as the geography within SF but I think this needs to be emphasized more. When there are hundreds (thousands, maybe, if we’re including fantasy) of SF books published each year, readers have to learn how to find books that they will like. Someone who has read a fair amount of SF is able to categorize books he or she hasn’t read within fairly specific subcategories and make decisions accordingly. Just within SF right now there’s stuff like Military SF, New Weird, New Space Opera, “Gap-Year SF”…the sort of people who read this blog can locate a book in one of those categories based on very little information. Usually the authors quoted on the cover is enough.

    People from outside the genre giving SF a try don’t have this advantage. If you like popular fiction that’s not too bad…I’ve met plenty of people whose genre exposure is limited to Ender’s Game, a Neal Stephenson book or two, etc. and they like those a lot (and so do I, basically, I’m not slamming them, just saying they have broad appeal). Literary critics are probably going to be interested in a narrower subset of books and I can understand why they have trouble finding them since I have this problem in reverse. I’d like to read more mainstream fiction but to me it all looks like an undifferentiated mass, so I have a low hit rate when I try to expand my horizons.

    It’s probably impossible but I’d love to see some kind of literary map that makes it clear that (to take the one connection I’m familiar with) Gene Wolfe is far closer to Borges than he is to most science fiction authors.

  24. I think that literary fiction is a genre with its subgenres and conventions (suburbia, boarding school, academia, family drama, social drama…) and it intersects with sff in places (David Mitchell, some Margaret Atwood, Never Let Me Go, Sarah Hall…) as it does with historical fiction (a place of Greater Safety, Wolf Hall, the Children’s Book, Peter Carey, Barry Unsworth, Iain Pears, Gregory Norminton to name recent or favorite reads of mine) as it does with the mystery/thriller (books like Magus and the Collector by J. Fowles are mysteries/thrillers to a large extent as is Blind Assassin or When we Were Orphans or the recent one I reviewed Trespass) so I think that The Booker does its job reasonably well as a literary genre prize.

    As for reading more literary fiction, I used to read the Nobel prize winners (and rumored candidates) until that got politicized too much, now the Booker longlist//shortlist gives me ideas and then it’s Amazon “you like this, you may try this” and browsing bookstore shelves if all else fails…

  25. A couple of points.

    I was one of the judges that gave Air the Clarke over Never Let Me Go. I can assure everyone that wasn’t because we considered Never Let Me Go less than SF.

    Secondly, I’m trying to think of UK SF writers from the right. Neal Asher springs immediately to mind, and Richard Morgan (of this parish) might be considered a contender. The lefties have some big hitters in Banks and MacLeod (and Stross?), but I honestly think, as a whole, we’re more nuanced than a straight left/right bias.

  26. I shall get my apologies in early, then :)

    It does, however, raise the point as to how to judge the politics of a book that may or may not be about politics. Some authors will essentially Mary-Sue their political leanings. Others will, whilst having strong opinions, use a variety of political positions and philosophies without ever saying which one they personally believe in.

    If Peter Hamilton (who I’ve now met) is on the political right, and he’s one of the Big Beasts of SF, the charge that UK SF is all collectives and cosmonauts is surely bunkum.

  27. Richard – I shall buy you a pint and apologise in person for impugning your reputation. Having read several of your books (and thoroughly enjoyed them), it was the impression I got: clearly wrong!

  28. I can see why the mistake would be made. Richard does employ the vocabulary of the Right even if his sympathies lie elsewhere. I think it is one of his more admirable characteristics actually… I think he’d be a far less interesting author if he was more straight-forwardly liberal or left-leaning.

    Black Man would have been completely unreadable had it been written by someone like Ken MacLeod.

    Hamilton is a fascinating writer because he is one of the few SF authors to project a genuinely Tory (as opposed to Libertarian) vision. Mindstar Rising is spectacularly Daily Mailish in its spittle-flecked hatred of socialism and its horrific fetishisation of Sloane Rangers. Where most male genre authors leer over long red hair and chainmail bikinis, Hamilton lusts for twin-sets, pearls and alice bands. There are passages in Hamilton’s books that could only ever have been written by an English (as opposed to British) Tory.

  29. …And there are passages in some of my books (as noted by American critics in particular) that could only have been written by a Brit-with-attitude from an immigrant working-class family. After English teachers lauded the stories I wrote in my first few years at grammar school, when I entered the 4th form (in the old nomenclature), a certain English teacher said of my first effort that year: “This is not the sort of thing one expects in an O-level class.”

    And of course it was SF (and not too shabby, to the extent I’d ripped off A.E. van Vogt). But here’s the thing: I have always been proud of my ghetto SF culture, and disdainful of the One True Genre of small-minded lit crits. Why would we want recognition from the Booker guys? They lack the education to appreciate books that transcend their tiny boundaries. They are to be pitied, not associated with…

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