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What, exactly, is wrong with Science Fiction??? - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
What, exactly, is wrong with Science Fiction???
Okay, so there's a review of Margaret Atwood's new book in the NYT. Whatever, I'm neither an Atwood fan nor an Atwood detractor. She writes social science fiction with a left-leaning political slant, and she has a good command of the language. Pretty good grasp of story values, but at least with Handmaid, I felt like the "message" was overwhelming the story.

But here's where I got confused:
Yet fire or flood may belong to an Armageddon whose awful grandeur may not be our fate. Plague — unlovely, heroic, unstoppable, might well get us first. That’s what happens in Margaret Atwood’s new novel, “The Year of the Flood,” her latest excursion into what’s sometimes called her “science fiction,” though she prefers “speculative fiction.” If we have to have a label, that’s a better one, since part of Atwood’s mastery as a writer is to use herself as a creative computer, modeling possible futures projected from the available data — in human terms, where we are now. (emphasis mine)

Er... didn't you just describe, you know... science fiction? I mean, isn't that the definition of science fiction right there? It's the branch of speculative fiction (the others being fantasy and horror) in which you speculate about technological changes based on available data of where we are now, as opposed to fantasy, which speculates based on changing the rules of the natural world in one way or another and seeing how that impacts the behavior of human beings. If she were writing about a wizard who raised up a species of elves, it would be fantasy. As it is, she wrote about a genetic engineer who created a new species, ergo, it's science fiction. Horror can go either way, and is really just a subset of both.

I mean, that's like saying, "I don't write romances, I just write stories in which the major focus is two people meeting and struggling through the formation and preservation of their romantic relationships" or "I don't write historical fiction, just fiction set in a particular era of the past, with that setting taking a prominent part in the story." Or "I don't write crime procedurals, just thoughtful pieces about police and forensics experts in the process of solving a crime, with a focus on their professional expertise and the effects of their careers."

Of course, what she means is "Oh, darling, I'm not a genre writer. I just... well, it's not that, I'm an intellectual, not one of those... science fiction people." (Actually, parodying it that way, one can almost hear Uncle Vernon saying it.)

Why should this very talented and bright woman have, at some point in her life, been made to feel so ashamed about her literary proclivities and inclinations that she preemptively insists that she's not writing what she is, in fact, writing? There are plenty of very talented and intellectual writers working in the various branches of speculative fiction, including science fiction. Why have we allowed writing teachers and other opinion-makers to so tar all of them with the "pulp" brush that good writers writing in the field feel the need to make cringing declarations that they do not, of course, write that tripe?

All writing falls into one genre or another, whether that genre is "experimental prose" or "chicklit" or what I'd call "observational anecdotes." Why should science fiction and fantasy--which are apparently both elevated by calling them by their shared moniker "speculative fiction"--be singled out?


You're a science fiction writer, Ms. Atwood, and quite a good one. Embrace it. Shout it from the rooftops.
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serriadh From: serriadh Date: September 20th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ursula le Guin wrote an excellent review of one of (in fact, I think this one) Atwood's books, making this very point.

(And you do get people saying they don't write romances - or rather, you get books that would be classed as 'romance' somehow elevated to 'literature' and no one mentions it. 'Atonement', for example, is both historical fiction and romance, but it's notttt - as far as I've seen - classed as either of those).

Here's a link to the le Guin review.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 20th, 2009 09:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
How funny. I knew I liked LeGuin! But her review makes me less likely to want to read the book than the NYT one does, I must admit.
fiatincantatum From: fiatincantatum Date: September 20th, 2009 09:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Because "sci-fi" is mere entertainment for the unwashed masses, whereas SHE is Making Art?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 20th, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, yes, of course. Which is a very off-putting attitude that probably costs her sales!
author_by_night From: author_by_night Date: September 20th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wonder if it's the same reason the Sci Fi channel changed their name to Sy Fy - they're sick of the "loser" stereotype that is associated with Science Fiction. And sadly, there are people who think if you're an adult and into that sort of thing, something is clearly wrong in your life. I have a co-worker who dresses up at Star Wars conventions, and another co-worker was making fun of him for it and scoffing fan conventions in general. "We passed one when I was eleven and I was like, Mom, I'm scared." Yeah, well, your eleven year old self probably hoarded a scary number of Beanie Babies and had a scary number of Spice Girls CDs, what's your point?

My point is, there sadly is still a weird stigma against the sci fi world, and I can see why some people make an effort to avoid being part of it.

I think it's quite stupid, of course. I am a nerd, and I'm not one to hide it. And when I publish a Sci Fi/Fantasy novel someday, I will call it Sci Fi/Fantasy.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 20th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
That Sy Fy thing is just stupid. What the hell is it supposed to mean? Neither syllable means anything! So what's the channel supposed to be about?

What an idiotic thing to do.

Of course, I might watch SFC more if they ran the sort of stuff I actually like, or used their dedicated channel powers for the cause of good (like nice, long miniseries devoted to faithfully adapting long books and creating visual milieus for invented worlds... sigh).
alkari From: alkari Date: September 20th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
People who condemn sci fi, or look down their pseudo intellectual noses at it as being "non literature", always amuse me. I assume they don't think that the Orwell classic "Nineteen Eighty Four" was sci fi? Or do they make an exception of that one, seeing it often finds itself on school reading lists? And of course, HG Wells and Conan Doyle were both really lousy writers, so admitting you have read and enjoyed their works (including things like The Lost World or The Time Machine ) immediately labels you as a low brow.

Clearly, if you enjoy sci fi, you are but one terrible step from admitting that - oh, the horror of it! - you like stories in the horror / supernatural genre. And you cannot possibly be a person of Literary Taste if you would stoop to reading works by authors such as Oscar Wilde and Saki.

Margaret Atwood writes sci fi, whatever she likes to call it. Given the high quality of writing one often finds on the sci fi shelves, I wonder why she is so determined that she doesn't write it?
keestone From: keestone Date: September 21st, 2009 02:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Wilde had some pretty pithy comments about Realism. I find I agree with him. Non-mimetic literature is much more artistic. :)
From: severely_lupine Date: September 20th, 2009 10:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Indeed. I'd have hoped we were past such prejudices by this point.
maidenjedi From: maidenjedi Date: September 20th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC) (Link)

I really have problems with writers not willing to embrace what it is that they are actually writing - let's be intellectually honest with ourselves already! And if Atwood's not writing science fiction, then what was all the fiction about science doing in her novels....
emilieheidel From: emilieheidel Date: September 20th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hear, hear!

In (yet another) defense of SyFy (*shudder*), the reason they are citing a lot recently is that SyFy is copyrightable, whereas SciFi is not. I have decided to pretend this is the only reason: after all, copyright issues are the GOVERNMENT's fault. Sorta.

-a lurker
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: September 21st, 2009 12:07 am (UTC) (Link)

Ess Eff

When I used to read that stuff, they called it SF to include science fiction, speculative fantasy, science fantasy, speculative fiction, anything with a substantial made-up component in its worldbuilding. I did notice that when female authors were involved, the word "fantasy" was almost always involved. Whether or not it got called "literature" depended on how good it was.

Atwood's stuff is too girly and doesn't have enough hard science to be science fiction, so I'd have to agree with her.
aerrin From: aerrin Date: September 21st, 2009 12:54 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Ess Eff

Science fiction does not require 'hard science' to be science fiction.
alphabet26 From: alphabet26 Date: September 21st, 2009 12:44 am (UTC) (Link)
I loved the scene in "Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy" when Darcy calls Elizabeth's book a romance and she gets all defensive. He says, "That's not a put-down, it's a category." Exactly!

Here's a link to the scene if anyone wants to watch. Love this movie!
alkari From: alkari Date: September 21st, 2009 02:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Apparently Atwood's attitude is shared by others. I read somewhere that Harlan Ellison also disliked being categorised as a "science fiction" writer - yet that is certainly the genre with whcih he is most associated, and where he has garnered so many awards over the years.

Of course, whether you categorise his classic I Have No Mouth But I must Scream as amazing sci fi or pure horror is up to you! It's certainly haunted me since I first read it ...
keestone From: keestone Date: September 21st, 2009 02:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Don't you know? If it's good it can't be Sci-Fi and if it's Sci-Fi it can't be good. :-p

I have had some very frustrating conversations with some people over this prejudice.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Expand
From: milady Date: September 21st, 2009 02:21 am (UTC) (Link)

Pardon me for just dropping in like this

Just happened upon you on somebody's friendslist.

This is just the SOS. "If it's sci-fi, it's not good, and if it's good, it's not sci-fi." Elitist Literary/Academic prejudice. It's been going on for decades, and is still strong enough that most writers of speculative/fantastic fiction, whatever their academic ambitions, steer clear of graduate programs in writing.

My undergraduate mentor advised me--sadly--that I had no chance for a MFA if I insisted on writing "genre" fiction. Later, I thought I had beaten the odds and been accepted to an MA program with the understanding that I wrote fantastic fiction. A month in, I went to a meeting with the senior Fiction professor and was told that I had been admitted without his knowledge (I was the department FELLOW) and that he hadn't read my admission submission because of the "weird names" on the first page, but that was proof enough that I had no business in graduate school or in a class with "serious writers" and so on and so forth for a good hour. I was too shocked at the time to give him the kind of response he so richly deserved. The rest of my time there was much the same. That school has since hired a successful writer of "fantastic fiction" as a writer-in-residence. You would think this was a sign of improvement. Far from it.
Along with her CV she was required to submit letters from previous students who wrote "realistic" fiction as proof that she was capable of teaching it!!

This elitist crap is not reasonable or rational and I don't understand it. I also don't really care anymore. We're not going to change their minds. Might as well go on writing what we write and writing it as well as we can, and Ms. Atwood and her reviewers can say whatever makes them feel good about themselves.
keestone From: keestone Date: September 21st, 2009 02:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Pardon me for just dropping in like this

Tell them it's Magic Realism? (I was rather amused to find out that Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie are friends. Oh bugger. Now I want to compare thematic elements in Sandman and The Satanic Verses.)
(Deleted comment)
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 21st, 2009 05:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Most romances don't work for me - some make me feel rather ill - but some of my favorite books are romances - Jane Austen, Georgetter Heyer, the Brontes (although I also like to laugh at some of the Brontes over-the-top stuff).

The thing is, I know enough to say _why_ I like some and _why_ I didn't like the others.

A lot of people who trash SF don't have that knowledge base. They seem to have a vague idea that all SF is Flash Gordon serials from the thirties or else action adventure movies where they didn't even get around to writing a plot or casting the actors till they'd finished the special effects and the battle scenes, a sort of video game on a big screen with the downside that they didn't even give you some kind of button to control when the lasers fire.

The first SF review I read of Ms. Atwood (don't remember where or who) complained that she hadn't learned some of the basic rules and was reinventing the wheel.

Early SF writers would frequently stop the story and explain the nifty device or world. Then, someone figured out that it was better to _show_ rather than tell. Hence, "The door irised open" rather than a history of mechanical doors and even longer explanation why the characters take this technology for granted (if this was LeGuin, oops, Atwood isn't the only one reinventing the wheel).

I don't know if this is a legit complaint, by the way, since I mostly skimmed The Handmaid's Tale and wasn't quite buying this particular culture's response to its interesting combination of cultural and environmental problems. But I agree it felt message driven. I never felt like the author asked, "If this happened, how would people in this world respond?"

Oddly enough, that's the same complaint I make about a lot of romances.

From: (Anonymous) Date: September 21st, 2009 05:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Clarifying the LeGuin comment: I meant, if this was in the essay cited above, I'm the one reinventing the wheel (not LeGuin) since I'm restating this stuff instead of reading the essay.

sonetka From: sonetka Date: September 21st, 2009 05:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, Atwood's been trying to draw that distinction for a while now. It just makes me wonder how much she really knows about sci fi, or if she thinks it's all 1950s pulp stories - regardless, it does make her come off as thinking herself far too good for that unwashed-masses business.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: September 21st, 2009 01:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
it's liek the label i discoverd i nsome bookstores over here. literary thriller. i know what thrillers are i think, but what on earth does that kidn of book need to suddenl ybecome literary.
matril From: matril Date: September 21st, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Go ahead, Ms. Atwood. Bite the hand that feeds you. Turn up your nose at your own genre. Just know that I, like many unabashed fans of science fiction, will not be buying any of your books. :P
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