A couple of weeks ago one of my writing group comrades passed along to me this Laura Miller article from Slate on the incursion of “literary novelists” into the field of science fiction. I often find the premise of such articles cringeworthy–that there are good, serious writers out there who used to write good, serious fiction about failing marriages and suburban malaise but who now have decided, who knows why, to write crap about lasers and robots with big boobs.
Miller’s article is more nuanced than that–it acknowledges that the line between literary fiction and science fiction has always been blurry, and that calling a book “literary fiction” is no more a guarantee of its quality than calling a book “science fiction” guarantees that it is trash. Miller’s basic argument is that life is changing so quickly now that a contemporary story is dated almost before it is finished: if I am a literary novelist writing about a Tinder romance that goes sour, who knows what online romance trend will have replaced Tinder by the time I finish my book five years later? Wouldn’t it be better for me, then, to imagine a near-future dating app, so that when my book comes out I seem “buoyantly dystopic” and “a literary polymath” to reviewers?
I don’t dispute Miller’s reasoning: I hadn’t thought about it before, but surely some of the near-futuristic “serious fiction” out there is meant as a commentary on the pace of change in our lives and how maddening it is for us to try and keep up with it all.
But I’d like to suggest another hypothesis to explain the huge influx of Columbia MFA grads and New Yorker raconteurs into the slums of science fiction. Part of the shift, I’m sure, is that the last two generations of writers have grown up watching science fiction movies and TV with good production values and believable special effects. Science fiction was often regarded as shlocky in the pre-CGI era, and certainly before the breakthrough of Star Wars, partly because so many sci fi movies looked so clunky and fake. (Of course, there were excellent exceptions in the years before Star Wars, movies like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet, and George Pal’s War of the Worlds, but these were rare glints of gold in a sea of Plan 9 From Outer Space dross).
Today, however, it’s possible for even a modestly-budgeted TV show–to say nothing of a big budget movie–to have the kind of truly believable special effects on which good sci fi viewing depends. And the existence of commercially successful, well-made science fiction movies catalyzes the creation of more such work, attracting writers and filmmakers with serious artistic chops–no one needs feel ashamed anymore that they like science fiction (at least the highbrow literary “speculative fiction” of Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon).
One might argue that the crossover popularity of a writer like Vonnegut is what opened the floodgates to good science fiction. I disagree: Vonnegut was regarded for most of his career as a literary oddball, someone who would be a major writer if only he didn’t write science fiction. And Vonnegut’s popularity in the seventies did not facilitate the mainstream popularity of other science fiction greats like Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem (both of whom, thank goodness, have since received some of the attention they deserve).
The fact is that until recently, practically the only speculative writers who were unequivocally welcomed into the literary canon were authors from the non-English speaking world: people like Kafka and Borges, and later García Márquez and Calvino. And some would still argue that their inclusion in the canon is proof that what they were writing was something other than sci fi or fantasy–if you want to make a college English professor flip out, try calling “The Metamorphosis” or “The Library of Babel” a science fiction story.
Am I bitter about it? I suppose I must be–why else would I write 700 more words in defense of science fiction writers? In the long run, though, if David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Egan get the highbrow readers to crack a science fiction novel, if that brings them to look, eventually, at Octavia Butler or John Crowley, then who am I to complain?