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Science fiction and literary fiction… June 27, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
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Thinking about J.G. Ballard it struck me, and it’s far from an original thought, that he, like so many writers who have written what is vaguely termed science fiction, really sits on the border between literary fiction and science fiction. Ballard was to my mind always closer to the literary side of that border, however one defines it, than others.

And that brought to mind the Guardian’s 100 best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books, a slim pamphlet published earlier in the year which you can find online here, here and here

There’s a bit of a cottage industry of books made up of these lists these days but I’ve never quite seen the appeal. In part because they seem so subjective, in part because there sometimes seems to be a displacement aspect to them. In other words, read the list and don’t worry the books! You’ll know the plot, you’ll know how good they are thought to be and so on. And I remain sceptical in part too because they short circuit what should be a long process of engagement, reducing that which is irreducible into an truncated paragraph or two.

So I completely ignored the other similar lists which were published that week but I did look at the one entitled Science Fiction and Fantasy Books.

So, what’s to like? Well, it’s an interesting read. Astoundingly Ballard isn’t there. No entry at all. And although that omission is odd one suspects that for a traditional science fiction fan, and in particular those who are fond of hard SF, there’s a lot to dislike in the list. Dislike because the selection of those is a curious blend of classics and then certain books that are – frankly – too recent to be described as the best examples of a particular authors work. For example, let’s consider contemporary writers. Is Stephen Baxters’s the Timeships (a sort of sequel to The Time Machine by Wells) actually superior to any of his alternate NASA books, or indeed his Xeelee books? And it seems like an inexplicable choice when one considers that The Time Machine is included further down the list.

Ken MacLeod’s Night Sessions makes the cut. It’s a fascinating book, but having been only published in the last two years one might have expected they might select an earlier work, perhaps The Sky Road or the remarkable Stone Canal. That said Alastair Reynolds’ excellent Revelation Space is referenced. What though of Peter F. Hamilton, who – although his politics isn’t mine – is certainly a leading light in contemporary SF (I’ve been struggling through the Dreaming Void. Good, but not as good as his previous works). M. John Harrison makes an appearance which is fair enough.

And US writers? The list is a little thin on that score. Sure there is Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio. Darwin’s Radio? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Eon or Eternity would be more appropriate I’d have thought. Heinlein and Herbert make appearances, as do Niven, Walter M. Miller Jr. and Kim Stanley Robinson. But the selections feel odd, a bit forced as if they knew they had to make up numbers. Or, alternatively, that they had to keep the numbers down. As for Russian or Eastern European writers. Thin on the ground. Lem is there, but no Strugatsky’s.

There’s surprisingly little reference to New Wave, a section of the genre which I’ve always enjoyed almost equally with so-called ‘hard’ science fiction – even if initially its adherents were none too complimentary of the genre as a whole – although time mellowed many of them. So what of Zelazny (to an extent), Ellison, Le Guin, Brunner (in parts), Bayley, Disch, Watson (at least in the mid period of his career), and perhaps to some degree James Tiptree Jr./aka Alice Sheldon (whose Screwfly Solution remains for me one of the most potent and chilling examples of feminist SF there is). After all these were near-contemporaries of Ballard. But again no Ballard, so perhaps the New Wave has crashed. That’s a pity. So much of that was so important in infusing science fiction that came after with a new experimentalism that it seems as odd to disregard it as to ignore those like Algis Budrys (whose remarkable 1970s novel Michaelmas, about a media saturated world where one individual and his computer system might just control everything, seems prescient) who were its inspiration.

Moving back in time John Wyndham has two slots, one for Day of the Triffids and the other for The Midwich Cuckoos. No problem with one or the other. But both? Returning briefly to H.G. Wells… he gets two slots as well. And so on and so forth.

And after that the list shifts to fantasy, although few enough of the sword and sorcery genre and my knowledge of which is severely limited (although the interesting Richard Morgan has written an epic in that vein with a gay protagonist that sounds as if it is worth reading). China Miéville’s The Scar is there, which certainly makes the grade.

But here’s the interesting thing for me. I like to think I’m reasonably well read. But surveying the list of names on this time and again there appear what I would consider to be more mainstream non-science fiction and/or fantasy novels. And these appear to be corralled within the boundaries of the genre.

But with that in mind it is with no great pleasure that I see the following included… Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Poppy Z Brite, Mikhail Bulgakov, Anthony Burgess, William Burroughs, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Douglas Coupland, Umberto Eco, John Fowles, Russell Hoban… skipping on to Patrick McCabe, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Rupert Thomson… I’ll stop there. You get the idea. It’s not that their inclusion is wrong. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed more or less each and every one. It’s certainly not that many of the works aren’t either fantasy or science fiction tinged. Nor is it that I think that genre boundaries should be drawn tightly. It’s great that they’re regarded as being suitable for inclusion in such a list. Nah, it’s none of those, just the dawning realisation that if they sit within those genre boundaries them the scope of my reading beyond SF is clearly a lot more limited than I though…

And if they’re the official wing of SF/fantasy, as it were…

Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t pick up any of the other lists.

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Comments»

1. Starkadder - June 27, 2009

I don’t really care for these “100 Best Books” lists-they’re nearly
always made up of either bestsellers or canonical novels.

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2. WorldbyStorm - June 27, 2009

Yeah, very true. Although there are some great writers, both hard SF and literary fantasy, snuck in on the list, and not just the ones I name check above. Although I’m not sure if Peter Hamilton is a *great* writer… entertaining though and interesting to read such an unapologetically right wing approach (and in fairness to him a million miles away from the like of Jerry Pournelle’s and other US right wing/right libertarian corporate fetishism).

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3. Scifi Picks » Science fiction and literary fiction… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - June 27, 2009

[...] Follow this link: Science fiction and literary fiction… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution [...]

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4. Sharon E. Dreyer - June 27, 2009

This is an excellent article! The lists of best books are sometimes nothing more than “beauty pageants” and do not always contain the best works of the genre. Science fiction and fantasy has so may sub-genres such as hard or light science fiction; or science fiction fantasy, that it becomes complicated to isolate the correct description of some books. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

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5. skidmarx - June 29, 2009

Looking at Part III I’m reminded of Clarence Worley’s comment to Lee Donowitz in True Romance that all the Oscar winners since Deerhunter have been unwatchable movies from unreadable books.

If I had to pick one John Wyndham novel it would certainly be The Chrysalids. And although The Sirens of Titan is good, Cat’s Cradle is better.

There is a problem that mainstream writers writing borderline SF are over-represented, perhaps inevitably with lists like this.

Riddley Walker is a very good novel, amusing for the nouns that survive the apocalypse being hash and rizla.
The first Stephen Baxter novel of the Destiny’s Children series was very good, but the two about the Xeelee were hard work and fairly pointless.

Samuel R.Delany has no “e” in his surname.

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6. Joe - June 29, 2009

Anyone know which science fiction writer it was (Heinlein?) who, when an interviewer put it to him that “90% of science fiction is crap”, replied pretty effectively with “90% of everything is crap!” ?

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7. Conor McCabe - June 29, 2009

I think it was Theodore Sturgeon.

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8. EamonnCork - June 29, 2009

Check out my recently released fantasy novel, “The IMF report on the Irish economy.”

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9. skidmarx - June 29, 2009

A quick google and:

Here’s Theodore Sturgeon’s original statement: “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.”

http://jslr.tumblr.com/post/68824213/sturgeons-law-is-90-of-everything-is-crap

There should be a “second” before ‘ “e” ‘ in comment 6.

Looking back through, only the Haldeman and the Asimov(and the Bester, though I’d have taken The Demolished Man and I think the British edition of The Stars My Destination is called Tiger!Tiger!) reflect the best of genre SF. When I first read A Canticle For Leibowitz I thought it was pretty good, but there were probably a couple of hundred SF novels I’d recommend ahead of it.

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10. WorldbyStorm - June 29, 2009

I wouldn’t disagree with you there skidmarx, and well spotted on Delany… a mistake that living in Ireland might be at least in part responsible for.

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11. red - July 2, 2009

I am presenting a new science fiction writer Romualdas Draksas. His new book „Man.The Awakening“ has just been published. Here is a short presentation of the book.

Man—the galaxy’s most fearsome creature, constructed as a unique war machine, who rose up and escaped from his creators and ended up a captive on a planet inhibiting most of his powers. But what were to happen if Humans again found themselves beyond the limits of their incarcerating planet’s effects, and they regained all of the awesome abilities their creators had given them? In other words, what would it mean if they started the process that the other races of the galaxy referred to as “the awakening”?
Just as a single rock can suffice to set a lethal avalanche in motion, so can a lone awakened Human be enough to rattle the entire galaxy.

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12. Destination: Amaltheia and other artifacts of Soviet Science Fiction literature and art… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 20, 2012

[...] thought of linking to science fictions stories on the web. Actually, some years back I linked to this by the fabulous James Tiptree Jr. (real name Alice Sheldon), a disturbing short story that while [...]

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