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 Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what’s been done, what’s been superseded, what’s so much part of the furniture it’s practically part of the fabric now, what’s become no more than a joke .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.