July 2007

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Does Anyone Even Know What Science Fiction Is Anymore?

So the Arthur C. Clarke Award has come and gone for another year. If you missed it, the worthy winner was Nova Swing by M. John Harrison. And, as has now become tradition, the award swept in on a tide of controversy.

All awards attract controversy; it’s what they do. If an award is worth its salt, it generates debate, and the usual controversy is just the more frenetic end of that debate. And often the nature of the controversy will be quite predictable. In the case of the Clarke Award it’s generally because a chosen book is deemed not to be science fiction. (I once heard a prominent figure on the British SF scene complain in all seriousness that a particular book should not have won because, “it doesn’t have a rocket ship on the cover.” That year none of the shortlisted books, including the one this person would have preferred to take the laurel, had a rocket ship on the cover.)

What makes this year’s Clarke Award controversy worthy of note is that it was exactly the opposite of the usual fuss. This year’s threat to Western Civilization was the fact that the judges failed to shortlist two books, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. So dastardly was this deed that one person, who had previously shown no interest in the award whatsoever, suddenly declared that the Clarke Award must be boycotted -- whatever that might mean.

Okay, let’s put to one side the simple, practical issues here. The jury can only consider the books that are submitted for the award. They can call in any title they want, but publishers are under no obligation to respond to that call. In this instance the chairman of the jury called in both books, but the publishers refused or at least failed to submit them. So there was no way either book could actually appear on the shortlist.

There is, of course, an interesting question about why the publishers might have acted this way. Ignorance of the award? (But McCarthy’s UK publisher, Picador, has form in this respect: they published The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, which won in 1997. And Pynchon’s publisher, Cape, has submitted books before now.) Incompetence? (One publisher once phoned me two weeks after the shortlist was announced to ask if it was still possible to submit books.) But generally the reason is that someone, author or more likely publisher, has decided they don’t want to associate their worthy, serious Pulitzer-contender with that nasty, common sci fi stuff. It’s an old, discredited and frankly ludicrous prejudice, but it’s still out there. But because it is so old and discredited, it’s not really worth pursuing here.

No, what is interesting about this little controversy is what it says about the science fiction community’s perception of science fiction. Let’s face it, The Road and Against the Day are mainstream novels; they were published as mainstream novels, promoted as mainstream novels, reviewed as mainstream novels. If either of them had been included on the shortlist ten years ago we’d have had the same old outcry. And from the same people. John Clute, who has attacked the Clarke Award in the past for abandoning science fiction by giving the award to mainstream writers Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy, was the first person to insist that McCarthy and Pynchon should have been included this year.

What is going on here?

These aren’t the usual suspects when it comes to making the genre respectable by roping in any passing mainstream novel you can make a case for. To be honest, they are more likely to exclude books that are not the true quill. Is it some unusual science fictional quality in the two books? The Road is superbly written, but in purely science fictional terms it covers familiar ground and doesn’t bring that much that is fresh to it other than a certain authorial sensitivity. Against the Day does make wholesale use of a variety of SF devices, just as it makes free with a variety of other devices also, and the reviews were frankly mixed. Is it (belated) acknowledgement of the way writers from outside the genre are now making serious use of science fiction without giving the distinct impression that they are slumming? But no one was clamouring last year for Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to be shortlisted even though it did contain the single best chapter (and, next to it, the single worst chapter) you are likely to find in any contemporary alternate history novel. Though, to be fair, no one complained about David Mitchell making the shortlist with Cloud Atlas, and the grumblings this year about Hav by Jan Morris have been more along the lines of whether it is new or a novel rather than whether it is science fiction.

Part, a small part, of what is going on, I think, is that the Clarke Award has done its job. Despite all the rumblings of discontent over the years, people have gotten used to the fact that the Clarke Award takes a fairly relaxed view of what is encompassed by the term science fiction, and are seeing it as one of the virtues of the award.

A larger part of it, however, is that we have lost our sense of what science fiction is. The genre is notoriously hard to define and most of us, whether we admit it or not, probably fall back on some form of Damon Knight’s ostensive definition: we know it when we see it. But now it’s not so easy to see. Look at the science fiction shelves in most bookshops and they contain a preponderance of fantasy, while a lot of what most of us would consider science fiction has migrated onto the general fiction shelves. Mind you, it’s easy to understand why this is happening when writers like China Miéville deliberately blur the line between SF and fantasy, when others like Jon Courtenay Grimwood blur the line between SF and crime, when fantasy authors like J.K. Rowling win the top SF award, and when an increasing number of supposedly mainstream writers use SF devices as if they are an unexceptional part of their literary arsenal.

It used to be that we knew where we stood. Serious literature had to be realist; anything that smacked of the fantastic was hurriedly brushed away where it wouldn’t frighten the horses. That’s no longer true. Realism has long since lost its monopoly grasp on seriousness, and that has meant that the ghetto walls have crumbled. But being despised had its advantages: there was always somebody telling us where our territory stopped. With the boundary markers gone, it’s not always so clear what science fiction actually is. Hence this new nervous uncertainty about what it is we talk about when we talk about science fiction, this new belligerent grasping at anything we might pull into our net. All we know is that the rules have changed. Where once, if it was good then it could not be science fiction, now, perhaps, if it is good then it must be science fiction.

Of course, not all of us consider this uncertainty to be a bad thing. I have always felt that the most interesting and exciting work is that which tests the boundaries. Which is why I am sure I will be returning to this vexed question of what exactly constitutes science fiction in future iterations of this skeptical column.