Obooki Does Sci-Fi [ed. SF]

There’s been quite a few articles in The Guardian on Sci-Fi [ed. SF] recently – which is odd on the whole, because, of course, The Guardian doesn’t cover Sci-Fi; it only covers middle-brow middle-class Literary Fiction; – to the extent that I’ve got the impression that, among all genres, Sci-Fi seems to have a bit of a chip on its shoulder. It seems people don’t pay it enough attention, and when they do it is only to ridicule it. – Which is fair enough: because this is, in general, exactly people’s attitude. (People don’t, indeed, read it: romances, thrillers, horror and fantasy all outsell literary fiction; sci-fi doesn’t – despite the odd claim you’ll hear to the contrary (check out this list of the best-selling writers of the first decade of this century – Ian McEwan, 37th; Iain (M) Banks, nowhere to be seen)).

One of these articles is by Iain M Banks, who really does seem to have a chip on his shoulder. He thinks that, if literary fictionalists are going to come along into sci-fi territory with their fancy prose style, their coherent plotting and their understanding of the human condition, then they should have the grace to read some sci-fi first so they can up-to-date with the most recent sci-fi discoveries. This is, of course, (as you’d expect on this blog) because Iain M Banks believes the worth of any in literature is based in its “originality”:

And, standing on the shoulders of … giant[s], [to] write something initially similar but developmentally different, so that the field evolves and further twists and turns are added to how stories are told as well as to the expectations and the knowledge of pre-existing literary patterns readers bring to those stories. Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what’s been done, what’s been superseded, what’s so much part of the furniture it’s practically part of the fabric now, what’s become no more than a joke . . . and so on. It’s just plain foolish, as well as comically arrogant, to ignore all this, to fail to do the most basic research. In a literature so concerned with social as well as technical innovation, with the effects of change – incremental as well as abrupt – on individual humans and humanity as whole, this is a grievous, fundamentally hubristic mistake to commit.

Perhaps he is mistaking Science Fiction here for Science itself. But one wonders: perhaps this is the very problem with science fiction: that it praises the “idea” beyond everything else, relegating such things as the ability to construct sentences to some strangely irritating and smug parallel universe … I wonder though, if you really examined the classics of Sci-Fi, how many would actually stand up to being demonstrated to be “original” …

All of which is to say, I thought I should read some Sci-Fi – another of these projects of mine doomed to failure. Actually, I did try this one already last year (I think), starting with some Alfred Bester (who’s apparently one of the greatest SF-writers ever, though I found it laughably bad – writing / plot / human understanding etc. – and gave up early), though I did quite like Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem (the Lem I’m reading now is particularly good); – but a project aside from the Sci-Fi I’m reading anyway – based entirely on “what’s in my local library”, and starting, apparently, with M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device.


OK, that’s quite enough of The Centauri Device. I’ll get another book out tomorrow.

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17 thoughts on “Obooki Does Sci-Fi [ed. SF]

  1. I find the defensive SF position increasingly strange. SF defenders: You won! You’re in the canon, you’re taught in universities, academics win tenure writing about your books. This is what victory feels like! Disappointing, isn’t it?

    I would say that I agree with you about Bester and Harrison, but I remember nothing of those books beyond their titles. So, to be accurate: I seem to remember that I agree.

    You have tried Aldiss and Ballard and LeGuin, I suppose? They’re usually decent writers, as is Robert Silverberg. And then there’s John Crowley, but that’s almost cheating.

  2. I’ve read some Ballard (but never finished any), but nothing by Aldiss, LeGuin, Silverberg or Crowley (who sounds interesting). – I was looking fruitlessly for LeGuin in the library today.

    Today I’m reading Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It’s not that well written, I guess, but in a sort of old-fashioned, slightly awkward way – rather than just a puerile way, as other sci-fi. And it’s interesting, thoughtful – which is far more than can be said for Harrison.

  3. It’s the side of SF that the defensivists never want to talk about, that almost all of the writerly writers, the class acts (Wolfe is a great example), are merely mediocre to good, and even mediocre ain’t that common.

    I thought of another exception – Tom Disch.

  4. You sound like you’ve read a lot of sci-fi.

    Anyway, I decided to give Bester another chance, and got out The Stars My Destination (since it’s supposed to be the greatest sci-fi novel ever). – And also some Arthur C Clarke (who I have read before, very long ago).

  5. The recent sci-fi / SF outbreak on the Guardian site was mystifying, but seems to have been contained now. I find the chippiness of the online sci-fi enthusiast quite extraordinary: it now also frequently takes the form of aggressive excursions into non-sci-fi blogs, articles etc for the sole purpose of parading said chip. Surely their time would be better spent reading or re-reading all the wonderful material their favoured genre supposedly contains?

    I tried to conduct a similar experiment to your dabbling in sci-fi last year, but with the slightly narrower scope of deciding to try one book by China Mieville. Ludicrous name aside, he seems to be regularly hailed as the bleeding edge of sci-fi in terms of technique, imagination and cross-over appeal. So I duly picked up the widely and extravagantly praised The City and The City, only to give up 80 pages in in despair at his reliance on cliche and the cack-handed exposition of the admittedly interesting central conceit.

    On a brighter note, I did read and quite enjoy The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis a while back.

  6. I blame that DGW. He’s on a one-man mission to convert The Guardian to the dark side. You’d think, if you wanted to read about science fiction, you’d read a paper or magazine devoted to it;- and not read a paper which has no interest in it and continually demand that they cover it. Or am I mad?

    China Mieville (which I just pronounce Melville, because it’s simpler) is one I’m avoiding, since I can tell without reading him what he’ll be like. I’d be amazed to be wrong on this.

    I’ll post up a round-up soon, but at least one book I’ve enjoyed a lot so far. – I just got out a Robert Silverberg book today.

    I’m presuming The Man Who Fell To Earth is the basis of the largely incomprehensible Bowie film of the same name.

  7. For the first three years of my PhD work, I did not have the energy or concentration to read literature that was too challenging, so I read a lot of SF and “fantasy”. But since I had some standards, I read “classics.” I guess I could have read “classic” mysteries instead.

    It occurs to me that I have not read anything in the genre published in the last 20 years.

  8. Yes, it was DGW I had in mind.

    The Mieville thing also shines a light on the quality of mainstream reviewing: I haven’t read anything, anywhere about him other then glowing, practically fawning praise. Are the reviewers mad? Is it a plot?

    I haven’t seen the film (Roeg directed) but I’d heard it was worth a look. Might help to have read the book, but it’s a straightforward story so am intrigued as to how it has been rendered to poorly on screen.

  9. “Glowing, practically fawning praise” is what every book receives these days. It reminds me of a complaint Rushdie made about book reviews: that they didn’t seem any longer to concern themselves with the most basic element in writing – that is, the quality of the writing itself. – Actually, I almost bought a Mieville book the other day, but oddly put it back on the bookshelf after I’d picked it up without even opening it.

    I don’t know if Roeg’s film was rendered “poorly” exactly; just strangely, as perhaps befits Roeg. I’m sure I quite enjoyed it. – Krasznahorkai’s Werckmeister Harmonies I suspect is a little the same: I was so glad I’d read the book, but otherwise I’d not have understood any of the film – I don’t see how you could have.

    I might have to give M John Harrison another try. I was reading his Wikipedia page, on which even he disparages The Centauri Device.

  10. Paul Theroux made an excursion into SF with ‘O-Zone’, which I thought was a cut above anything else I’ve read in the genre. I do like Larry Niven: the ideas in his earlier books were always interesting and the storytelling is pretty good.

  11. The trouble with Larry Niven is that he sounds like a comic actor, and I find it difficult to take him seriously (obviously, without ever having read a word he’s written). – Paul Theroux I seem to be avoiding altogether, out of loyalty to his brother Alexander.

  12. Larry David or David Niven?

    ‘Ringworld’ is his masterpiece, I think: the invention in that book is outstanding.

  13. I went to the big library today, and they had a lot more SF. I got out: Ringworld, Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Robert A Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Dark Mistress.

  14. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Ringworld. I think I liked the Heinlein, but it’s a long time since I read it.

    If you happen to come across it, I recommend The Devil Is A Gentleman, Phil Baker’s biography of Dennis Wheatley. A fascinating book.

  15. I see that Ringworld has made the Obooki Prize Short-List, but I can’t find a review. Have you done one?

  16. No, not yet. I was going to put it in a general sci-fi update, but maybe I’ll review it separately. (The little review in Books Read will be out at the end of the month, of course). It was a strangely enjoyable book.

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