A couple of posts on the Night Shade Books Message Board a while back got me thinking about some stuff. I was going to fire up a brief response and then, as usual, my response decided it was going to be a goddamn epic, and not entirely relevant to what other folks had said in the first place. So in the end I thought I’d blog these rantings, in the spirit of What-The-Fuckery...1. Be Vewy Vewy Quiet. I’m Hunting Wabbits.
"No SF novel ever won the Booker prize.” Mike Coombes notes, sparking off a little to-and-fro about whether or not SF has produced any talents to really compare with mainstream writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc., and whether the more recent literary fantasy writers like VanderMeer, Meiville, Ford, Bishop, and so on, might actually catch the until-now carefully averted eyes of the literary establishment.
No SF novel ever won the Booker. True enough. But Rushdie got the Booker of Bookers with Midnight’s Children, which may not be SF but is certainly a work of fantasy. And didn’t Moorcock get the Guardian Prize for one of the Cornelius books? Don’t they still teach Spenser and Milton and Shakespeare in English lit.? I seem to recall the mad ramblings of William Blake are still held in pretty high esteem. No. I reckon we genre bunnies sometimes overestimate the animosity of the dreaded Literary Establishment to non-realist fiction. We bemoan the dearth of imagination in what’s considered respectable, what’s considered literature
. We mutter bitterly of how those dreary mundanes think only kitchen-sink realism deserves respect. If it’s SF then it can’t be good, they think. If it’s good then it can’t be SF. That’s what they think, we’re so terribly sure. If an SF novel ever did win the Booker we know the critics would just say, well, that’s not SF - can’t be, it’s good. Poor us. Poor little genre bunnies.
Bollocks. Utter and complete tosh.
Maybe the question is more whether any SF novel, any genre novel, ever deserved
to win the Booker, whether any novel that did win the Booker or deserved to win the Booker also deserves the label SF, whether it could truly
be described as a genre novel. Maybe this is as much about us genre bunnies being all too happy to fuzz the boundaries between actual genre work and all
non-realist fiction, using SF and Fantasy as easy labels for anything remotely imaginative in nature. Midnight’s Children may be a work of fantasy; but it ain’t Fantasy, not by long shot. By what definition of Science Fiction do we classify the Cornelius Quartet as SF? By what definition of genre do we pigeonhole Moorcock as ours. He’s written New Wave SF, swords-and-sorcery Fantasy, realist works like Mother London, a one-man goddamn emporium of literary experiments. But one thing we know for sure, we think; he’s one of us, a genre bunny. And while he and others like him may have published straight-up balls-to-the-wall genre fiction, he and others like him have created masterpieces that, as the tired old phrase goes transcend genre
. They’ve proven that SF can be a valid literary form, over and over and over again; it’s just that the damned Literary Establishment just doesn’t see it. That seems to be the view from the ghetto. From the cosy, safe Watership Down warren of us genre bunnies. We poke our noses out, sniff the air and the merest scent of fox or farmer in the air sends us scurrying back to safety, to whine and whimper about the lack of respect given to genre fiction, to SF, Fantasy or Horror. How can those Literary Establishment types not see how cute and fluffy and eminently likeable we are?
But this is bullshit, I think. We’re peering out of the rabbit hole, peeking between the blades of grass at best; at worst we’re blinded by delusion, by a disease, this mixamitosis rife within our warren, spread by our living in such close proximity, a lie born of timidity that leaves us frothing at the mouth and twitching when we think of how those howwible howwible people don’t wike us. They’re out to get us, all the farmers and the foxes. It’s a cold, hard world out there. And we don’t deserve it, you see. We’ve shown them how good SF can be and they still don’t like us. They must be nasty, cruel, vicious. Oh, yes. Foxes bad, rabbits good. SF good, nasty Literary Establishment BAD.
Lemme just load up my shotgun here.2. Reverse The Polarity
No SF novel ever won the Booker. What does that mean? No Science Fiction
novel ever won the Booker? No Sci-Fi
novel ever won the Booker? No Speculative Fiction
novel ever won the Booker? No Science Fantasy
novel ever won the Booker. No weird-ass, experimental, non-realist, literary mind-fuck novel which just happened to be sold as pulp fiction with SF/Fantasy
on the back ever won the Booker? Because what the hell are we going to point to as the stuff that should have won the Booker, the works of SF that should have proven to the outside world how good SF can be? Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke? You gotta be shitting me. Phil Dick? A great Ideas Man, but maybe the pills and booze had an impact on his prose because it just ain’t that sparkly. Ellison? Delany? Zelazny? Gibson? Ellison’s power is a short story writer. Delany’s most ambitious work is experimental fantasy like Dhalgren or the Neveryon series. Zelazny and Gibson... hmmm... good but just how good?
OK... screw the Booker; let’s try and find a better comparison, a better measure of quality. Awards don’t always mean a whole hell of a lot; what we’re really talking about here is respect, critical kudos.
So let’s take, as a benchmark, for sake of argument a wee piece of absurdist comedy which offers a level of characterisation and a sense of the human condition that leaves most SF books looking like the pseudo-philosophical teenage wank-fantasies of The Matrix movies. Adventure stories. Techno-thrillers. Lettuce for the genre bunnies. Let’s take Catch-22 as a measure of the modern classic. The central conceit is, after all, an almost SFnal hypothetical, an invention of bureaucracy rather than technology but an idea that fires off the same “What if...” receptors. With this great idea at its heart - the self-referential law that damns us all - the book sets off to explore the strange world of WWII, a world so incomprehensible in places to the main protagonist, Yossarian, that it might as well be alien. It’s an entirely accessible book, using humour the way SF uses wonder, to give the reader a pleasure they won’t find in dreary, wearying realist tomes. It dances, it plays, it gives the reader a ludic inroad to its ideas, all the while extrapolating them to intrigue us, horrify us, to point us back at the reality being satirised, re-presented in an imaginative transformation. It shows us the unreal so that we see the real within it. Not unlike SF, I’d say.
The key word that describes SF (whatever the fuck that stands for) is ‘conceit’, it seems to me - not in the Petrarchan sense, not even in the patented John Donne Metaphysical sense, but by analogy to those, I think, we can look at the futurological projections, technological McGuffins, sociological thought-experiments and metaphorical suppositions which underpin this type of writing as conceits. And since Catch-22 works on a similar basis, it seems a far better comparison to SF than any work of contemporary realism. A work which is both a commercial and a critical success, garnering as much cash during its time in publication as it has kudos. A popular work but not a populist
one. A book which has achieved some degree of ‘cult’ status and which should therefore, if we genre bunnies are right in our myopia, be excluded from the canon of modern classics because of that ‘cult’ status. The Literary Establishment don’t like cult books, we think, because They
are their own cult, worshipping at the kitchen sink, allowing no other gods before them but the One True God of Realism.
So why does Catch-22 stand as one of the 20th Century greats when so many of our favourite works of SF lie sorely neglected at the bottom of the rabbit warren of genre?
Turn that question around, I say. Reverse the polarity. Why are so many of our favourite works of SF buried in the genre warren when a work like Catch-22, not so very different in its nature, can stand upright, walk out across the field and be met with dropped jaws and awed silence? Foxes turn tail and run. Farmers piss their pants in fear. My God, that book walks on its hindlegs. That ain’t like no bunny I’ve ever seen.
Maybe its hard to win respect when you don’t respect yourself.
Catch-22 is a novel set in wartime, but it’s not a member of some strange genre we might label War Fiction. Fans of Commando comics and John Wayne movies, Alistair Maclean novels and other militaristic pap do not puff their chests and preen with pride over how their genre of War Fiction is great despite what anybody says because, look, it has produced such works as Catch-22, because, look, such masters as Hemingway and Faulkner wrote War Fiction novels. War Fiction is an under-rated genre. It deserves respect. Yes there is some crap (99% of anything is shite, we say) but, hey, the genre itself is not the problem; there’s no reason to dismiss the whole genre. No. War Fiction fans have more sense than to witter on about traditional WF, New Wave WF, WF writers and WF novels written by non-WF writers. To call Catch-22 War Fiction would be just plain silly.
Are there any SF novels written by SF writers that measure up to Catch-22? Well, yes and no. The works of Ballard, Burroughs, Moorcock, Vonnegut, Bester - surely there’s a list as long as my arm of books with power and insight and ambition to match this modern classic. Surely there are diamonds in the dross. But are they the same stuff as the dross? Really? Honestly? Was William Burroughs writing SF or was he actually a Beatnik writing experimental fiction? Why did that Mr Vonnegut spit in the faces of his fans by denying his True Nature as an SF writer? Is Ballard following some genre formula in writing ‘post-apocalypse’ stories, catastrophe fiction, SF novels... or is he just writing, uh, J.G. Ballard novels? Maybe us genre bunnies calling all of this SF is just a little like a nut who’s seen Guns Of Navarone a hundred times calling Catch-22 a War Fiction novel.
It’s all very egalitarian to gather the good, the bad and the ugly of imaginative writing - writing founded on an imaginative conceit - all together into a nice, cosy warren called SF; but after a while, it seems to me, what you’re left with is a construction so complicated, of so many tunnels burrowing this way and that, that the whole thing’s in danger of collapsing into one big fucking hole in the ground, an empty space where meaning used to be. If we’re going to say that this or that work is SF because SF isn’t just Science Fiction, it’s Speculative Fiction, it’s Science Fantasy, it’s Alternative History, Space Opera, Experimental Fiction and so on, not one genre but a whole host of genres and cross-genre, interstitial, slipstream, New Wave, New Weird, New Whatever, genre-busting fiction, then ultimately we’re playing exactly the same game as our dreaded high-brow, high-society nemeses. They say “SF = bad; good = not SF”. We reverse the polarity and switch ‘good’ for ‘imaginative’ and, hey presto, suddenly SF is a great and noble art form. “SF = Imaginative; Not imaginative = not SF”. And since a lack of imagination equals uninspiring equals dull equals boring equals bad, we then dismiss all realism with a wave of the hand, as mundane fiction, written by mundane fiction writers, for mundane fiction readers. They are not like us, those Mundanes, those Muggles. “Mundane = bad; Not bad = Not Mundane”.
It’s our very own Catch-22, an irrational “We-like-it-so-it-must-be-SF” rule which glosses over the gaping disjunction between formulaic drivel and fiction which takes genre by the balls, squeezes hard and says, “We play by my rules.” The truth is, the good stuff treats the genre as its bitch. It takes a sledgehammer to the formulae. It tears pulp into bits, chews it up and spews it out in huge spitballs to be sculpted into extraordinary forms. It is not genre but anti-genre. Maybe we shouldn’t call it SF then. Maybe it’s time for us to reverse the polarities, think the unthinkable, speak the unspeakable, say:
They’re right, you know. SF is shit. Whereas this stuff, this non-generic, non-formulaic fiction which shares superficial features with SF just as Catch-22 shares superficial features with some fucking John Wayne movie, this stuff is goooood. So why the fuck should we lump it in with that shit? Why the fuck are we calling this SF?3. The Bitch Whore Slut Mother Of Us All
See, here’s the real point, I think. Has any Crime novel ever won the Booker? Has any Mills and Boon Romance? Has any Western? Has any festering lump of Kirk/Spock slash fiction ever won the Booker? Has any work of formulaic genre pap? This is fuck all to do with a lack of recognition for a valid literary form, an antipathy to imaginative fiction, to fiction founded on the use of a particular type of imaginative conceit. Midnight’s Children. Booker of Bookers. Think about it. No, this is about pulp fiction. This is about genre fiction, about commercialised, production-line, junk fiction. So no novel with the words Science Fiction on the back and a picture of a spaceship on the front ever won the Booker? No shit! You mean the high-brow, high-class Literary Establishment never invite the crack whore in the red leather miniskirt to their cocktail parties? Well, duh. Because that’s why SF doesn’t get respect. That’s why SF gets dismissed with a wave of a hand and the “Oh, I don’t really like Sci-Fi” comment that sends every right-thinking genre bunny into waves of apoplexy. SF, ya fuck, we mutter under our breath. It’s called SF, not Sci-Fi. Our faces burn, our fists clench and our eyes twitch. But you know, we’re really just standing there in our red leather miniskirt, saying “I’m not a whore; I’m a professional masseuse.”
And it’s our mother’s skirt. We are the sons and daughters of the bitch whore slut mother called Sci-Fi and it’s time we made our peace with that.
I mean, what do we SF writers and readers mean when we twitch uncontrollably, slam the closet door behind us and say very loudly over the noise of our bitch-dam’s protests, It’s not Sci-Fi! It’s SF! And what do They mean (you know... Them... the mysterious Literary Establishment and media types that constitute our dreaded Them) when they blithely describe it all as Sci-Fi, blinking uncomfortably at our sudden irrational hostility, unable to comprehend our strange territorial defensiveness? They don’t really like Sci-Fi, they say. So we push them and prod them and find out that they think Kubrik’s 2001 is one of the best movies they’ve ever seen, that 1984 profoundly affected their political awareness, and so on. But they don’t really like Sci-Fi. And we undergo this schizoid freak-out, grabbing them by the lapels and muttering Ancient-Mariner style about how it’s not called Sci-Fi, it’s called SF, and SF is a valid art form that’s produced blah blah blah...
And they nod and smile at the crazy person.
We’ve had our backs to the closet door so long, running this mantra over and over in our minds - it’s not Sci-Fi, it’s SF, it’s not Sci-Fi, it’s SF, it’s not Sci-Fi, it’s SF.
Fuck that shit. Let’s open up the closet and let the bitch whore slut mother out. Let’s all go on Jerry Springer’s My Mother Is A Slut show, throw a few chairs around, get weepy and maudlin and have done with it once and for all.
All that They are saying, maybe, just maybe, is that, well, they don’t like generic fiction. They don’t like a particular form of generic fiction. They don’t like the formulaic, generic dross that they call Sci-Fi, because, well, that’s what it’s sold as. They don’t like generic, formulaic fiction in general. We, of course, think they’re dismissing all of our beloved SF out of hand because we think that’s what they’re talking about. But maybe, just maybe, if they’re then happy to turn around and say, yes, this story is great, that novel is a masterpiece, etc., and maybe, just maybe, if their reasoning for this is that they don’t perceive those works as “Science Fiction” or “Sci-Fi”, (the latter being merely an abbreviation for the former coined by the bloody writers themselves), well maybe it’s time we started fucking listening to them.
Our Sci-Fi slut mother is a crack whore who gives blowjobs for ten dollars a pop. That’s what genre fiction does. That’s what pulp fiction does. It gets down on its knees, unzips your fly and uses all the sensual skills of its slick tongue to give you a few minutes of loveless but ecstatic pleasure.
Here’s a thought: The reason for that argument that “if its good, well, then it can’t be Science Fiction” is quite simply that it’s true. They’re right. The sophistic distinction between genre fiction and generic fiction is a fucking double-think. Genre fiction is generic fiction and generic fiction sucks; while fiction that does not suck, does not suck because no matter how many familiar tropes and techniques and conventions it shares with this or that genre, it does not gain its power from familiarity. It is not merely a thoughtless regurgitation of those tired old tropes and techniques and conventions. It is not formulaic. It is not recycled pap. It is not simply commercial dross designed solely to satisfy our craven appetite for escape, a shallow, gutless, spineless, ball-less pornography of wonder. Hey baby, me show you good time! Ten dollah, suckee suckee.
Zzzzzzzzzzip. Oh, baby. You make me feel so good.4. Hamburgers At The SF Cafe
I have no objections to the pornography of wonder, to simple escapist entertainment, to the junk food fiction I grew up on. I love my slutty slapper of a Sci-Fi harlot mother, cause ya know, she does give real good head. A million teenage boys will testify to that. But when so much of what we call SF is touted as “breaking the boundaries”, “transcending the genre”, blah blah blah, well, it seems a little schizo to call it genre fiction. It’s genre fiction but it’s not generic. It’s SF, not Sci-Fi. Don’t look at the slut behind the curtain fellating the fourteen year old boy. Look over here. Look. Look at the dancing fingers. Then I start to see the reason for their incomprehension.
- I don’t really like Big Mac’s, they say.
- Don’t call them Big Macs, we scream. Big Macs is just the populist shit that all those dumbasses over there like. The proper term is “hamburger”. So you’re really saying you don’t like hamburgers. And how can you not like hamburgers? Look! See! Try this! Isn’t it tasty? Isn’t it gooood?
- Actually, that’s steak tartare.
- No, it’s not, it’s hamburger! See the red meat? See? See? Hamburger!
- It’s raw. Hamburgers are cooked.
- No! No! Hamburgers don’t have to be cooked. See, the hamburger makers have long since moved on from that fry cook stuff. That’s, like ‘trad’ hamburger, Golden Age hamburger. That’s, like, soooo 50’s. The New Wave came along, you see, and did away with all that, broke the boundaries, came up with whole new ways of making hamburgers! Hamburgers are so much more now. It’s a completely valid form of cooking. Look at this!
- That’s pate.
- Or this.
- That’s tournado rossini.
- Or this.
- That’s chilli con carne.
- But it’s all red meat! So it’s all hamburgers!
And they nod and smile at the crazy person.
Hamburgers are Soul Food. Fry cook fast food from a greasy spoon cafe. And that’s where we came from, from the soul food science fiction of the 1950’s. We’re the enterprising ones who came up with the catchier trade-name of “So-Foo”, so we shouldn’t be surprised that everyone else is still using a now-excruciating abbreviation. We can mutter about it being properly called Soul Food, or we can shorten that to the snappy-as-can-be SF. We can even invent new terms “SF” might stand for - Soul Fusion, Speculative Food - but the point is we’re still basically selling our product as hamburger, insisting that it’s hamburger, that our fry cooks are just as good as master chefs, but that what they make is still, regardless of the ingredients and methods used, hamburger.
But if the variations in basic ingredients and methods of preparation are radical enough and divergent enough from the drech of mass-produced junk fiction, if the best and the brightest - even the middling and mediocre - are actually working without a recipe, deliberately and consciously rejecting the formulaic production-line values of design-by-committee-and-focus-group, media-spin-off fiction, then what’s the difference between SF and any other type of post-modern, trope-snatching, grab-bag approach to writing where anything and everything can be thrown into the mix? We might use nanotech or spaceships, remote viewing, future dystopias, Lovecraftian gods, Sumerian mythology, theories of climate change, robots, aliens, hard-bitten detectives, historical characters, and so on... but so might any poncy artsy-fartsy neo-post-modernist who’s never read Asimov in his puff and never will. We use tropes from fantasy, horror, western, noir. We cannibalise the bona fide pulp fiction of every fucking genre around. SF as it stands now is a crazy fusion cuisine.
But we still call it all “hamburger”.
Of course, some of it is hamburger, and good hamburger at that. All hamburgers are not Big Mac’s. Sometimes master chefs slum it as fry cooks. Sometimes the fry cooks are still better than those master chefs at making hamburger, and sometimes the master chefs put the fry cooks to shame. You’ll find burgers on the menu in a lot of fancy restaurants, sold for a damn sight more money and not seen, in that context, as junk food, but still, basically burgers. Just like you get the classic “SF-but-not-really-SF” novels and writers that genre bunnies claim are genre but which the rest of the world regard as mainstream because they’re not fucking generic. No, we explain, they’re not generic, but they’re still genre; just like all these other masterpieces of the genre are not generic. Hmmm. There’s that double-think again. It’s hamburger. It’s just not hamburgeric.5. Ya Want Fries With That?
On the Night Shade Books thread, Mike Coombes says:
“Consider - the 2 most significant SF novels of the 20th century - whose titles have entered the English language - were written by non-SF writers... And you don't need me to tell you that the books were 1984 and Brave New World."
Well true... if you consider 1984 and Brave New World works classifiable within the SF genre. (If you do though, then I say you have to call Orwell and Huxley SF writers, part-timers, sure, but Asimov wrote Crime, Phil Dick wrote some realist works and they’re still SF writers. If Jack wrote an SF novel, then Jack is a writer of SF, an SF writer. QED.) But do we call it SF? Well the books are certainly both dystopian novels, set in the future. That’s got to be pretty definitive, no? Say, doesn’t George Bernard Shaw have a wacky play that starts with Adam and Eve and ends in the far future? Ah, that’ll be SF then too. Or wait, is it Fantasy because it uses Adam and Eve? Is Kafka a Horror writer just like H.P. Lovecraft, just exactly like H.P. Lovecraft, because The Trial is dripping with fear and paranoia, its main character pitted against profoundly disturbing irrational forces?
Thing is, Orwell and Huxley weren't writing fast food fiction, hamburger novels full of fat and sugar and salt and artificial flavourings, the way many contemporary bona fide ghetto-born Science Fiction writers were. Whether in defiance or ignorance of genre convention, the fact is even as dystopias 1984 and Brave New World weren’t written according to a traditional recipe. They weren’t cooked in the same way, and while they do feature red meat they’re more steak tartare than Big Mac’s. They’re not Sci-Fi.
These aren’t adventures in space. They’re not clever-clever thought experiments. It’s not about gosh-wow technotoys and adolescent robowank. It’s not unconsidered anti-Commie paranoia. I mean, if we’re really honest, (and hammering the food metaphor to death) a lot of Golden Age SF just isn't cordon bleu cuisine, even the stuff written by the big names. It might be mighty tasty and filling and at it’s best it’s real honest-to-god soul food and good, as proper soul food is, on that basis. At its worst though it’s glop. Maybe the clientele or the cooks just didn't have a sophisticated palate at the time. Maybe it was ketchup on everything then because that’s what you do when you’re cooking for kids. Either way while the work may well involve just as much skill, the result just isn’t, for the most part, as subtle as the work of those non-pulp writers. Is that heresy? Asimov’s characterisation is fairly fucking dodgy in places. Heinlein quickly descended from nice little stories like “The Roads Must Roll” into self-indulgent didactic drivel. Oooh, red-headed twins with perky nipples! Fuck that shit. So a bunch of geeks with hard-ons for the future don’t pack the same punch as Orwell tackling the 20th Century head-on, reimagining Stalinism and fascism from his direct experience of it during the Spanish Civil War? No shit.
Yes, there’s some truly great SF from that period, but there’s a lot that just isn’t aiming to be anything more than a good burger with ketchup and fries. The good stuff, the great stuff, always offers something more than the plain old burger in a bun. Cheese’n’bacon-burger, chilliburger, whatever, there’s at least something more than the same old fucking burger in a bun with ketchup and fries. Pepper and onions ground in with the beef. Big chunks of jalapeno in the chilli. Refried beans on the side. An extra kick, an extra tang, just something that grabs you by the taste buds and tells you someone actually put a bit of effort into making this taste gooooood. It’s not just some pre-wrapped patty-on-a-bun handed to you by a spotty adolescent who needs to learn some hard truths about personal hygiene. If there’s any sort of distinction to be made between *ahem* “genre” Science Fiction and *ahem* “generic” Sci-Fi then it’s here, between those who take the basic burger as their starting point but add their own individual touches, offering quality and variety, and those who simply take the packaged product off the shelf and say, Ya want fries with that? But when we call it all hamburger, ignoring the cheese, the bacon, the chilli, the jalapenos, the refried beans, etc., when we ignore the qualities, the variances, that distinguish one dish from another, the outsider cannot be expected to understand our empty distinction between, uh, good hamburger and bad hamburger.
Especially not when we’re pointing at steak tartare as an example of good hamburger.6. Miso Soup For The Soul
The Soul Food Cafe that is the SF community got new management in the 60’s, and the menu radically changed, but the junk is still out there. There’s the New Wave, Cyberpunk, the New Weird offering up bizarre creations of fusion cuisine, and there’s a whole load of cooks-cum-chefs who are actually doing interesting things with the hundred different variants of burger, but the junk is still out there. SF’s bitch whore Sci-Fi slut mother is still very much alive and she’s working the same street corner as us, wearing the same red leather miniskirt, and it’s hard to deny the family resemblance at times, so really it’s disingenuous of us to get our knickers in a twist when They, the pernicious They, continually get us mixed up. When we’re blindly insisting that it’s all still SF - New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird, whatever - we’re just following the family business, standing out there underneath the streetlight, saying “You know what I’m selling, honey.” Nice bit of genre fiction, for ya, if ya want it. You know you like hamburger.
I remember going into a Japanese restaurant in a little town in North Carolina once. Cool, I thought. Japanese. Miso soup, tempura, ramen, noodles, hot and spicy, tangy, flavour-filled food to make your eyes water and your taste buds tingle. Oh no. No miso soup on the menu here. Swear to god what you had was:
Beef in soy sauce with rice.
Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Chicken in soy sauce with rice.
Beef & Chicken in soy sauce with rice.
Prawns & Beef in soy sauce with rice.
Chicken & Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
Or, hey, wow, the “special”...
Beef & Chicken & Prawns in soy sauce with rice.
How fucking exciting.
That is what a genre is. That is what generic fiction is. And SF - what we blindly, blithely, dumbly call SF - is the exact opposite of that. New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird, and yes, even the traditional Space Operas and Alternate Histories and so on and so forth - we’ve got Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, French, Italian and God knows what all on the one menu. But all that menu says is SF. Might scare off the more conservative customers, you see, if we had all them fancy foreign words upfront on the menu on the window. Lamb Rogan Josh and Chicken Pad Thai. Better to just call it all hamburger.
And the Literary Establishment stands outside, looking in the window at the menu, and it doesn’t appeal to them one bit. Looks pretty samey, you know. I mean, all they serve in here is hamburger.
Thing is, the distinction between SF and mainstream is an artifical distinction made by us, by the writers, the readers, the industry folks in-between. Is Brave New World SF or not SF? Sci-Fi or not Sci-Fi? Is it more respected because it was written by a non-SF writer? Is it - WHO GIVES A FUCK? You can call it SF if you want. Or you can exclude Orwell and Huxley on the basis that they didn't come from within the genre, that they didn’t work solely or primarily within it, that they didn't learn their craft in the marketplace of magazines and publishing houses. You can go further, say that the books themselves are not SF because they don't come from the barrio any more than the writers did. They didn’t sprout up from the cracks in the literary sidewalk. They didn’t grow out of the gutters clogged with trash. If it's ghetto roots that matter then 1984 and Brave New World are not SF... not if their writers aren't.
Frankly I don’t give a fuck. Whether the miso soup is being served in a fancy uptown Japanese restaurant or in the SF Cafe, it’s miso soup. It’s not hamburger. It’s not New Hamburger. It’s not Hamburger/Fried Chicken, if we’re looking for an equivalent of that even more fuzzy SF/Fantasy label. It’s fucking miso soup.
“[T]he 2 most significant SF novels of the 20th century... 1984 and Brave New World.”
Hmm. I’m not really convinced that Brave New World (whose title entered the language from Shakespeare, anyway, long before Huxley nicked it) is anywhere near as good a dystopia as Fahrenheit 451, or that it had as much cultural impact as Stranger In A Strange Land, for example, if we’re talking about significant in that sense. Sure, a lot of SF writers were serving slop compared to the non-SF writers who dabbled in the field. Sure, a lot of them were great fry cooks, brilliant within a narrow field but limited in range. But Bradbury, for one, stands up fine against the fancy restaurants uptown. He might have been cooking in a greasy spoon cafe but, boy, he was doing Eggs Benedict as often as eggs over easy. In fact, he was serving miso soup while the New Wave writers were learning to read never mind write. How the fuck do you label Bradbury as an SF writer when his work is as much fantasy and horror and bloody pastoral and gorgeous little mysteries of stories that defy easy labels? The problem isn’t that what Bradbury was doing isn’t in and of itself respected by the Literary Establishment because They are inimically opposed to such fanciful fluff. Those poncy motherfuckers love that sort of stuff. They love Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine, miso soup and all that shit. The real problem is that the menu in our SF cafe would never for a second have anything as poncy as ‘Eggs Benedict’ on it. What the fuck is ‘Eggs Benedict’? Who’s ‘Benedict’? That sounds kinda faggy and intellectual. ‘Ben’ is OK but fuckin ‘Benedict’! And miso soup. Is miso a vegetable or an animal? No, boy. People don’t come here looking for that fancy shit. They want hamburger. Just write hamburger on the menu.
So even before the New Wave broke the goddamn “boundaries of genre” people like Bradbury were cooking whatever the fuck they wanted to, but no matter how fucking unique and individual and exquisitely crafted their work was, it’s still even today called hamburger. And we wonder why SF gets no respect.7. The Harlots And The Harlequins
The division is not between SF and non-SF writers. There is no SF. At most there’s this pulp genre that used to be called Sci-Fi and frankly might as well still be, for all our huffing and puffing and defensive posturing. But even that is only a loose federation of different bona fide genre forms, so diverse that it’s had who knows how many different definitions thrown at it over the decades, none of them really sticking very well. Even that is more of a inchoate amalgam of traditional tropes and devices which can be slung together in a whole host of different formula. The real distinction we’re making when we mutter madly about SF, not Sci-Fi is between those who follow formulae and those who don’t, between pulp hacks and writing that actually has an ounce of creativity. Between the harlots and the harlequins.
What we call SF may have been born out of and nurtured by the pulp genre of Sci-Fi, suckling at the paps of our harlot dams, but our hatred of that label, our defensiveness when we hear it in the mouths of those brought up on the right side of the tracks, is because we know what our mother is and we are just a little bit, perhaps, ashamed of that. But deeper than any shame is a certainty, a fierce certainty, that we are not that kind of girl. We cannot quite say it outright because we love that slut of a mother in many ways, for all her faults, and part of us is proud of her as... an honest working girl. We do not wish to deny her. So we never dare to say it out loud:
What we call SF is not a genre. We are not writing genre fiction.
Still we continue to market ourselves as pulp, as trash, as genre. We sell our works as pulp, as trash, as genre. And when someone says they don’t like pulp, they don’t like trash, they don’t like our genre, we throw incoherent vaguaries at them as self-justification. It’s not Sc-Fi. It’s SF. We wear the harlequin costume underneath, offering wild dances now instead of ten dollar blowjobs, but still we do so with our mother’s dress on top, selling our athletic feats as pole dance peep shows because we know the punters will splash out the cash for that when they would run a mile if we described it as Commedia De l’Arte.
The problem is we’re buying into the idea of SF as a marketing man’s label, a matter of commercial glossy packaging. It's accepting a definition of SF that's based ultimately on how it's sold... and SF sells well when it’s painted pretty colours and can be bought cheap on the street-corners. That is the outsider’s perspective of SF, the painted harlot selling cheap thrills to sad johns, and we’re fools to be surprised by this. Or it’s the pimp’s perspective, the perception of the bookstore buyer in the fur coat and gold rings who doesn’t care about his ten-dollar whores other than as a source of revenue, who knows they’ll make more money in red leather miniskirts and heels. You’re Science Fiction, bitch. You’ll always be Science Fiction. So we remain stigmatised by the ghost of 50’s pulp, as Mike Coombes says on his Night Shade post. If we let the pimps and johns define SF, I say, we might as well call it Sci-Fi and have down with. Stack us beside the Star Drech novels and damn us all to hell.
No. There are literary forms, tropes and techniques, that unite certain works of fiction. 1984 and Brave New World. Naked Lunch and A Clockwork Orange. Slaughterhouse Five and Tiger, Tiger. They may be sold as SF; they may not. The best of those which happen to be sold as SF are almost invariably described as genre-busting because they are not generic novels. They are not genre novels. They are not Sci-Fi. We just call them SF, slipping and sliding between SF as marketing label, SF as genre, SF as a bunch of radically different literary movements, when all the time there’s no real unity. We define, redefine, reject definitions of SF constantly. It’s Science Fiction. It’s Speculative Fiction. It’s SF, and we’re proud to be SF, but hey, don’t call it Sci-Fi, fucker. There’s nothing inferior about genre writing. But man, that shit is so formulaic.
In the words of the Three Stooges, woop woop woop woop. We’re just trying to have our cake and eat it. We’ll wear the red leather miniskirt and stand on the street corner because it’s expedient (hey, SF’s just a marketing label, just a way to sell my shit) but we don’t want people to think we’re slappers for the love of God. Tough titty, I’m afraid. We made our bed and now we’ve got to spread our legs on it, bite the pillow, and think of England. SF is the bastard offspring of the Sci-Fi slut and a thousand fathers; we grew up hustling our ass and we ain’t ever gonna be respectable in polite company as long as we’re still hustling. So they call what we do Sci-Fi and we call it SF. We’re different from that media shit, we protest. We’re not Star Trek. We’re not X-Files. We’re not Highlander: The Raven, oh God, please God, not Highlander: The Raven.
Fuck that shit. We’re in denial.
To my mind, it just feels like those literary bigwigs who had one or two SF novels amongst their output, but who somehow escape being frowned upon as mere SF writers, aren’t really that different in sensibility from a hell of a lot of, say, New Wave writers who had or have one or two non-SF novels in their output. It’s not that they’re not SF writers; they’re just not slutty, slatternly Sci-Fi hacks in fishnet tights. They’re not *pulp*. They didn't use those SFnal devices over and over again to churn out short stories and potboilers for mass consumption in that big Golden Age marketplace. They weren’t turning tricks every night, giving a little sensawunda satisfaction for a few dollars a shot. They weren’t the *commercial* dross that turned Sci-Fi into a derogatory term. But what we call SF was never just that dross. There have always been harlequins amongst the harlots or, for that matter, working uptown in the theatres - Moorcock, Delany, Huxley, Orwell, Burroughs, Burgess. Hustling their asses now and then to pay the rent, perhaps, some of them, but as often as not simply dancing, prancing maniacs blowing flutes instead of johns.8. Living In The Ghetto
Thing is, the SF marketplace may have become a little more chi-chi what with these beatniks and artistic types moving in above the brothels and the crack dens, but it’s still the same marketplace, still the same ghetto with plenty of hookers willing to slap on the lippy and hustle their asses. And if what we call SF is a bit more avant garde street theatre than prostitution it’s still, a lot of it, one big sensual experience for sale. There’s no point whining about your area being badmouthed when your next door neighbour runs a crack house and, well, you do like a bit of a puff on the old hash pipe now and then. We’re still in a pretty disreputable part of town but in a lot of ways, I think, we’re still in this ghetto because we like it here. This is a place where freaks and weirdos feel at home. Some of those hookers on the street corners are actually drag queens and performance artists. The bars here are more fun, and, hey, the rent’s cheap. More to the point this market often seems a lot more dynamic, a lot more exciting, and a lot more relevant than some uptown gallery full of middle-class bores clinking champagne glasses and droning on about how jejune the latest wunderkind is really, darling, just sooo trite, really, overhyped. There’s a trade-off between the social stigma and squalid trappings of the SF ghetto and the freedom that it gives to work outside the dreary, tight-ass, uptown strictures of contemporary realism. Screw the Booker, we say. I’d rather have a hookah.
But we do have a choice, maybe, a chance. JKS on the Night Shade board points to the New Weird writers as the point where a potential breakthrough might come. I do think there’s at least a scent in the air of a shift in focus, a shift in which type of writing is winning the commercial and critical attention that merits being called mainstream. If the SF ghetto hasn't produced a talent to compete with the modern classics, well, I'm not convinced that the Contemporary Realist field has produced any such competition either in the decades that it’s been flavour of the month, and as its time in the spotlight wears thin I start to wonder if any Contemporary Realist is likely to produce something to measure up to the kudos and cash success stories of 20th Century literature, the mainstream of writers that include Joyce alongside Hemmingway, Faulkner alongside Steinbeck, that actually - holy shit! - includes writers like Rushdie, Calvino, Garcia Marquez, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Heller, etc. There’s a hell of a lot of those modern classics that don’t sit any better in the Contemporary Realist penthouse than in the SF flophouse.
Living in the ghetto we’ve become embittered at the straw man of Contemporary Realism, bitter that our ‘genre’ is neglected, while this other ‘genre’ gets stacked on display tables at the front of the bookstore, this mundane fiction which critics have tended to prefer in the last thirty, forty years, perhaps because they see it as somehow more worthy than the latter-day Romanticism we love. This bitterness, this view from the ghetto makes us forget that the mainstream of literature is just what’s in the *main stream* - i.e. what garners kudos and cash (as opposed to just one or the other). We confuse mainstream and realism, forget that the mainstream has shifted and shifted again over the centuries, with different tastes and aesthetics competing and clashing. Romantic and Realist genres have been knocking lumps out of each other for the past three hundred years, with each of them dominating the market at various points, being the *mainstream*. Tastes change and writers and critics both like to overthrow old orthodoxies. Yes, realism has been mainstream for a good while now. Maybe it’s some sort of hangover from the kitchen-sink realism of the 60’s, a reaction against the ‘pretentious’ abstractions of the Modernists and Post-Modernists; realism is no-frills fiction, no-nonsense fiction. It doesn’t really do weird. But I think it’s a flash in the pan. Contemporary Realism is only mainstream because right now it is in the mainstream. If it hasn’t always been that way, then there’s no reason, to my mind, why it should stay that way.9. The Future Is History
I don't find it unlikely that a new generation of readers and critics might reject what seems to be a current orthodoxy of "mundane good, outré bad". The Literary Establishment - despite our best efforts to shirk respectability and maintain our intransigently freakish status as outsiders - might well be starting to nose around the ghetto, getting interested in what’s happening down here where the harlots and harlequins hang out together. The cocktail parties are getting stale now, maybe, and hey, darling, I hear Meiville’s monster shows actually have ideas in them. How quaint! And this VanderMeer chap’s apparently dancing the Nabokov of all things.
But looking at Rushdie, Calvino, Garcia Marquez, etc., I wonder if that orthodoxy has ever even been as strict as we perceive. Living in the ghetto, we see Realists as the dreaded foe, the persecutors of our latter-day Romanticism, but I think we fail to see how much of what we call SF is not purely Romantic, how much of it has long since abandoned the trite self-serving fantasies of pulp, how much we actually sell ourselves short by aligning ourselves with that generic junk when we are in fact creating something else entirely. What we lumpenly call SF or Fantasy, New Wave or New Weird is, I’d argue, not the essentially Romantic genre fiction we allow it to be confused with. What makes us differentiate SF from Sci-Fi is that it has a far more Realist preoccupation with the mundane world; it wields its imaginative conceits as tools, weapons with which it confronts reality, rather than as mere vehicles for temporary escape. What we lumpenly call SF is a hybrid of Romaticism and Realism. It is, in fact, Modernist.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, it seems to me, Romanticism and Realism came smashing together in the form of Modernism, when a bunch of nut-jobs had the audacity to think they could wire together the best parts of both, create this Frankenstein fiction which was more virile and more imaginative than the middle-class melodrama of Victorian Realism but more relevant and more subtle than the flouncy escapism of Romantic pulp. In the Industrial Era, in the world of new disciplines, new ways of understanding humanity and history - psychoanalysis, evolutionary theory, archaeology - where the ancient world and the human psyche was seemingly being revealed strata by strata, where other cultures were being opened up to us in an increasingly interconnected world, and where humanity was coming face-to-face with the horrors of mechanised warfare, a new form of fiction, some thought, was required to represent a world as savage as it was civilised, as driven by passion as by reason, and the result was Modernism. Like Romanticism it freely utilised the mythic, the fantastic, but like Realism this was no easy ride, no penny-dreadful diversion. Like Realism it understood the power of simply documenting the details of reality, but like Romanticism it accepted dreams and delusions as a part of that reality. The Romantics and the Realists were reactionary, afraid of this incomprehensible world and either revelling in the chaos or rationalising it away. Modernism heard Neitszche’s dread pronouncement on the death of God and rolled its sleeves up. Time to get to work.
Unfortunately the Modernist monster proceeded to rampage through the literary establishment, destroying conventions left, right and centre, gobbling up genres and spewing them out in pastiche, searching for meaning everywhere, anywhere, out in the Fourth Dimension or in the lint stuck in a belly-button, and, in the absence of any absolute certainty, it was left howling its emptiness, or simply laughing madly at the futility of it all. In the end, it was such a damn FREAK that the resulting backlash of horror and incomprehension left it out on the frozen wastes. The Modernist experiment and the post-Modernist fall-out left all but the most intellectual, academic audience recoiling in horror. What the fuck is this madness, this gibberish, this stream-of-unconsciousness, self-absorbed, self-referential, fiction-which-ate-itself? Take your Finnegans Wake and get the hell away from me, ya goddamn loon. So the Realists step in, offering a nice, safe, comfortable form of fiction for readers and critics averse to the outre. And the Romantics, the pro-freaks, step in, offering a nice, safe, comfortable form of fiction for readers and critics averse to the mundane. But on either side of the barricades, uptown or downtown, amongst the whores in the ghetto or the bores at the cocktail party, there have always been a few people carrying on the Modernist tradition.
One of the features of Modernism is a paradoxical, it might seem, interest in the historic or the prehistoric, the archaic. Picasso influenced by cave paintings, painting the Minotaur-like bull in his Guernica. Joyce’s use of the Ulysses myth, of Daedalus, of the giant Finn MacCool. Perhaps this comes from the nature of its project, constructing its representations out of fragments of perspective, fragments of experience, fragments of knowledge. Whether through cubism or collage, Modernism and Post-Modernism alike are in some way attempts to tackle the chaos of our world, to deconstruct and reconstruct it into a semblance of order; and that’s a project so grand that the whole of history must be material. The mechanical landscape of the Machine Age was as much of a concern for the Futurists who fetishized the dynamics of steel in sculptures that fragmented form in order to show movement, change. The psychological landscape, to the Surrealists, was as much grist for the mill, a similar terrain of fragments thrown together out of context, mundane images juxtapositioned to create cognitive dissonance and, perhaps, new meaning.
A man in a bowler hat with an apple where his face should be. A man in a bowler hat with one false eyelash. Fish people. Mushroom people. The best of that which gets called SF is a similar cut-up-and-fold-in of the imagery of reality, of the structures of history and myth, steel dreams of a new Daedalus. Take a little bit of this culture, a little bit of that, splice and dice. The best of that which we call SF is engaged on the same old project, using the same techniques, the same tools, often as not, as the most high-brow of the high-brow, the Modernists whose ambition was so grand it leaves Romantics and Realists alike looking at their work and seeing only madness. And we talk about breaking the boundaries of genre. Genre is for the rabbits, Romantic and Realist alike. It’s time we accepted our slapper of a mother’s streetwise nous but ditched the red leather miniskirt, turned instead to our big old monster daddy of Modernism with all his insane ambition. To me that's the future of this non-genre of imaginative fiction lumped together under the label of SF. Call it New New Wave. Call it New Weird. Call it the fucking New Modern Army. Together we can rule the universe. Come to the Dark Side.
The Sci-Fi bitch whore slut mother is our birth mother, I think, but Modernism is our Frankenstein monster of a father, a lumbering, lowering patchwork creature obsessed with all the grandiose tales of creation but craving empathy, participation in humanity, at heart. If we try to keep our slutty slapper of a mother hidden in the closet, the old man, well, shit, we’ve got him chained up in the cellar, the poor old bastard. The ghetto is accepting of freaks but not that accepting. He’s just too damn out there for most folks. But if we learned as many tricks suckling on our dear old mother’s plentiful paps, learned, in fact, how to turn tricks like real fucking pros, well, we learned as much from listening to his mad but eloquent mutterings in the dark about Prometheus and God and Adam and the Devil. It’s him we get our ambition from; but we repress it. Shut the fuck up down there, we yell. But there’s something kind of compelling about his big ideas and the overwhelming sorrow in his voice. We straighten up the red leather miniskirt and stare at our face in the mirror as we put the lipstick on and we glimpse this strange thing looking back at us, the part of ourselves that we inherit from this cannibalised creation which is not commercial, not painted up in pretty colours to hawk its wares on the street corner, but is instead ugly and miserable and awful to look at, what with both eyes on the same side of the face and all. It ain’t gonna win any popularity contests. It ain’t gonna have the punters oohing and aahing with that old sensawunda satisfaction. But it’s got fucking dignity.
But that’s not us, we tell ourselves. No, we’re weird but not that weird. We’re outre but not that outre. We’re not Sci-Fi, but by God, we’re not Modernist. No. No. Let’s just call ourselves SF, because then no one can ever accuse us of being avant-garde, experimental... pretentious
. And we fix our dress and head out into the street, a harlequin in a red leather miniskirt.Update 19/03/2005
Since this rant seems to be getting a fuckload of traffic more than my usual ten readers, I thought it might be advisable to make a few things clear for those unfamiliar with my Big Fucking Potty-Mouth and therefore quite liable to misinterpret the colourful rhetoric:
a) Women are good. I have nothing against women. I rather prefer guys in bed, but for general conversation and friendship and suchlike, women are damn fine. More women in the field, as readers and writers, would be no bad thing if it would mean less juvenile power-fantasies for boys. I did miss out Angela Carter and Katherine Dunne in that list of mainstream fantasists a la Rushdie, Calvino, etc., which does rather concern me as a typically blokish oversight, but the use of the mother-whore metaphor is in no way, shape or form a reflection of some deep-seated misogyny on my part; it just seemed quite apt for a form of trashy fiction designed to pander to the juvenile fantasies of 14-year-old boys. And had I made it a hustler in ripped hipster jeans, this rant might have gone off in a whole 'nother direction. Probably to the side of my bed.
b) SF is good. I have nothing against SF. I don't really think it exists as a genre, but that big pile of books from the last five decades or so distributed around the bookshelves of my flat... that's SF. That's what the covers say anyway, and that's why they're sitting on my shelves. And it's because I like SF that I'm fucking tired of trying to get these books on the shelves of numerous, quite intelligent friends by persuading them that SF is not solely designed to pander to the fantasies of 14-year-old boys, it just looks that way because, well, that's how it's packaged, because that's how it sells. To a small but secure niche market made up of 14-year-old boys who'll buy any old shit that might pander to their fantasies, of overgrown 14-year-old boys who'll buy it for the same reason, and of mature intelligent readers who respect imaginative writing and know where to find it. Despite the big flashing sign that says "Shite Formulaic".
So, in short, if I've pissed anyone off for the wrong reason, Good Me apologises while holding his hand firmly over Evil Me's Big Fucking Potty-Mouth. If I've pissed anyone off for the right reason, feel free to harangue and abuse me here or at this message board thread.