Literary sci-fi?

18 February 2009

The nominations for sci-fi literary prizes are looking more like the Man Booker each year. What's going on?

This week the nominations for the Arthur C. Clarke award were announced. Now you may not be familiar with this most esteemed prize but it is the UK's premier science fiction and fantasy award, each year recognising the finest writing in the genre. What was interesting was that this year Paul Auster was on the shortlist.

Auster isn't what you would call a classic sci-fi writer. Brooding, masterful, intense, literary, post-modern, well yes you would, but it would be a step to call him a full on sci-fi writer, a writer in the spirit of, say, Arthur C. Clarke. Two other nominations also exist outside of the sci-fi mainstream and hover on the uncertain border territory between "ordinary" fiction and full blown SFF (as it's known). Nick Harkaway and Neal Stephenson are both published by imprints not usually involved with sci-fi, both writers have a fiercely high brow stance and their books have appeal across generic boundaries.

Last year the story was very much the same. There was a controversy in the SFF community as not one of the six shortlisted titles came from a background of what might be called hard sci-fi or high fantasy. Rather there were two books from the archly literary Faber and Faber, the wonderful The Raw Shark Texts, a rip roaring slipstream adventure and several others that flirted with their own generic playfulness.

The trend is one we can track across the Atlantic, with the Hugo award, America's version of the Clarke, showing a similar propensity to literariness over the traditional fayre offered up for geek consumption.

What's going on? It's tempting to say that all of a sudden generic boundaries are coming down. That literary writers are exploring new areas, and that sci-fi, so often and for so long associated with bad writing, is beginning to grow up and polish it's prose.

For me though that's too short term a view. Actually I think there has never really been an opposition between the two. Think of Margaret Atwood in novels like Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale. Think of the advocacy of Doris Lessing and Kingsley Amis for sci-fi. What else but fantasy is Magic Realism? How else can we think of the crazed imaginings of writers like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis?

Going back further where would we classify H.G. Wells and Jules Verne? Are they Literature, to be studied in schools and discussed in reverent journals, or sci-fi boys adventures about space ships, battles and stuff that isn't likely to happen. Or are they both? And where in the crisp fold of the generic boundary falls Mary Shelley? Why stop there - Paradise Lost is rather fantastical in its bent, as is almost the entire corpus of the ancients, replete as it is with battles, magic, a cornucopia of Gods and enough monsters to keep even the most demanding fantasy fan in business for quite some time.

My point then is that there never really was an opposition. The walls are in our heads, not the writing. It doesn't surprise me one bit that Paul Auster should turn up on the Clarke Award shortlist; just as it shouldn't surprise us if China Mieville were to turn up on the Man Booker. Genre's a useful shorthand, a nice label for us to stick to things. Many fans of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer wouldn't think of themselves as fantasy or horror readers, yet they manifestly like reading what we would call fantasy and horror. It seems that if a writer is big enough or old enough they can transcend genre - so where does that leave genre in the first place?

Perhaps then it's time to stop thinking so rigidly. To stop talking about good this and good that. To start thinking about good writing, from whatever background it might come from. The Arthur C. Clarke award has taken a step in the right direction.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, is the winner of the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award.

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