I've been mulling over something for a few weeks now, and maybe the occasion of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's death is as good as any to try and organize my thinking. I heard Vonnegut speak on a few occasions, and while everyone will be talking about how much his fiction influenced them, it was actually his speeches and his essays that touched me profoundly as a young man. There's a fitting tribute in the works to the man starting up at the site of my friend and author Eric Spitznagel's blog, Vonnegut's Asshole, which I encourage everyone to check out. So I mean no offense if I use the occasion of the death of one of science fiction's most celebrated practitioners - and one who objected the most to the label of science fiction - as an excuse to look at our genre's struggle for literary respectability.
Recently, in a podcast on Adventures in SciFi Publishing, recorded at a speaking engagement at Mysterious Galaxy, Kim Stanley Robinson talked about the power that comes from being in genre:
"You pay a price for being in the world of science fiction in terms of essentially ghetto culture. In the larger culture you are marginalized in the way that everybody in a ghetto would be marginalized. But ... it's not the same as ghettos traditionally were in the origins of that word because you've actually chosen to enter it; you could leave it if you wanted to. So you go in there with the full knowledge that you may be marginalized in some contexts, but in other contexts you have actually been empowered. And you begin to speak with one voice. And also there's something very powerful about it, which is that it's the voice from the future. So no matter how marginalized you are in American culture - okay science fiction, these people, these fans - there's also this sense that, well they are speaking from the future, somehow they're two weeks ahead of the rest of us in some metaphysical sense that is very powerful 'cause it goes back to the power of prophecy. And prophecy is a very deep and ancient thing. When the shaman stands up and says, 'this is going to happen,' everybody says 'okay, where we've entered the magic space now.' So there is that power in science fiction that I try to focus on, whenever I get discouraged..."
I think I've made a case elsewhere that with great power comes great responsibility and why I think science fiction isn't just entertainment, but is "entertainment plus." I can, and have, spun off arguments for why this makes us literature, and damn important literature at that.
Meanwhile, a crop of recent films like Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and Sunshine aim to recover the dignified scifi cinema of Blade Runner and 2001, while an opinion piece in the Telegraph boldly declares, "It's now time to take Doctor Who seriously," comparing the series to The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and calling Doctor Who "an extraordinary study of loss." And all this positive attention to SF is having an effect, as over on the Guardian Unlimited, Sam Jordison wonders if there is good stuff in the genre he's missing due to the stigma, in his blog "Reading scifi for pleasure," where he asks:
"When it comes to the genre wars, science fiction is at a very curious disadvantage. As soon as someone writes a really good sci-fi book it nearly always seems to get reclassified as something else. It's a bit like the way members of the Ireland cricket team become English once they reach a certain level... Does writing brilliantly preclude Vonnegut et al from the sci-fi genre? Or is it just that there's so much more to their books than spaceships and aliens? Could it be that most sci-fi is just so bad that reasonable people can't stand to tar literary heroes like Angela Carter with its brush? Conversely, have I been unreasonably depriving myself of other great sci-fi works for years? Or is it simply the case that I'm barking up the wrong tree and that my approach to literature would be far healthier if I just ignored such semantics and the labelling policies of high street chains?"
But I'm starting to think respectability will take care of itself, or doesn't really need to be addressed at all. Looking at all the teenagers - soon to be adults - that I saw at Boskone 44, who are graduating to adult SF&F as we speak, I suddenly had a revelation, which is that science fiction and fantasy are both a good deal more popular and more mainstream than is generally represented. It’s just that a large percentage of SF&F these days is being consumed outside the SF&F section of the bookstore. To begin with, a large portion of what is labeled as children’s and teen fiction is straight genre, whether we’re talking about the Harry Potter books or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy. These are shelved outside the SF&F section and thus aren’t counted as SF&F sales, but it’s preposterous to label tales of wizard academies and genetically-engineered beauty as anything but fantasy and science fiction. While casting our gaze onto the other side of the bookstore, you find an increasing number of “mainstream” authors utilizing generic tropes in their efforts to address our increasingly technological present. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a straight alternative history set in a world where the events diverged in WWII, a direct narrative descendant of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, (a classic work that is itself about to be published in a prestigious Library of America edition, with an introduction by another literary writer who swims in genre waters – Jonathan Lethem.) Add to that writers like Susanna Clarke, Keith Donohue, Kazuo Ishiguro, Walter Mosley, Audrey Niffenegger, and Cormac McCarthy. Oprah's Book Club has just picked a post-apocalyptic novel, for god's sake! You can't get more mainstream than that! Then consider how obvious genre writers like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, China Miéville, and Neal Stephenson have been accepted by the mainstream. Meanwhile, 9 of the top 10, and 16 of the top 20, highest grossing films of all time are SF&F (17 of 20 if you’ll let me count The Passion of the Christ as either fantasy and/or horror!) To say nothing of gaming. Obviously, the appetite for SF&F has never been higher and extends well beyond a few shelves in the back of the bookstore, reaching out in all directions and through all media.
So while the New York Times gives a grudging acknowledgment that Vonnegut was an SF writer, saying "Some critics said he had invented a new literary type, infusing the science-fiction form with humor and moral relevance and elevating it to serious literature," ultimately I think Charles Stross was right when he said it's apples to oranges, making his comparison to the difficultly of persuading jazz and classical aficionados of the relevance of the others preferred music.
Where I think the ultimate validation lies is in your pocket book. When those kids I saw at Boskone finish reading The Deathly Hallows and wonder what next, anyone who actively discourages them from remaining as consumers of SF&F is doing a grave financial disservice to writers, publishers, distributors, and booksellers everywhere. So while I will continue to extol the literary values of SF&F within genre itself, my new approach to outward-focused discussions is going to be a financial one, deriding anyone who still peddles outdated stigmas as, well, a fool. The challenge for us now – and by us I mean authors, publishers, booksellers and journalists – is to recognize the obvious; quit purveying and subscribing to outdated stereotypes and stigmas that are in no one's best interests; and find ways to connect readers who are already consuming genre in other packaging and other media directly with the source. When an entire industry’s quarterly fiscal reports fluctuate in direct relation to whether or not the period contains a book with a boy wizard in it, it’s time to admit that science fiction and fantasy are mainstream and quit worrying about whether or not it's literature. Just as the whole notion of what a geek is has altered from the image of the classic nerd with thick glasses and a pocket protector to goateed, pierced & tattooed kids with PSPs - have you looked at the real Comic Con audience lately? These geeks are cool! So it's time to acknowledge that it's a hell of a lot more fun to actually, well, have fun than it is to pick on those who are enjoying themselves. The stigma applied to the genre books relegated to the back of the bookstore is nothing less than money being left on the table. Quit looking down your nose and pick it up.
Update: I am thrilled to see this article from Jason Silverman over on Wired.com, entitled "Writers, Directors Fear 'Sci-Fi' Label Like an Attack From Mars." Jason is pointing out the absurdity of denying that something isn't SF when it clearly is. As he writes:
"You won't find the words 'science fiction' in Random House's bio of Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author China Miéville. Instead, he's called the 'edgiest mythmaker of the day.' Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep? It's classified as comedy, drama, romance and fantasy, but not sci-fi, at Amazon.com. Even Battlestar Galactica, the flagship show of (hello!) the Sci Fi Channel, keeps a distance. 'It's fleshed-out reality,' explains executive producer Ronald D. Moore in the sci-fi mag SFX. 'It's not in the science-fiction genre.'
I love "fleshed out reality" to describe a show with androids, lost civilizations, planetary colonization, and spaceships. If Battlestar Galactica isn't science fiction - then nothing is! Not that I don't sympathize with Ron Moore's attempts to widen his audience, and Moore does have a very grounded knowledge of our genre - he is speaking at the Nebulas, after all. BSG is doing a good job of restoring awareness to SF, whether they feel the need to fight the label in public or not, and we need more shows like this on TV. But we need more articles like this Wired one as well. Thank you Jason. (And thanks to both Sean Williams and Paul Wargelin for pointing me to the article.)