Science Fiction steps out

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Readers of Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, and other respected fiction writers who often work in the genre  know that while “speculative fiction” (science fiction, fantasy, horror, vampires, etc., etc.) is still not getting the respect that more “straight” literary fiction gets, it’s moved much more firmly into trade paperback territory in recent years.

Who knows why this has happened? (You could speculate all day, really.) But it’s infinitely enriched my reading life, and I think allowed many readers and writers who would otherwise have been vaguely ashamed of their proclivities to openly embrace the weird. We all have our favorite tropes–I like dystopic future societies, so Atwood is a favorite of mine with her Year of the Flood books, and meeting someone else who shares your passion in this regard is like finding out they’re a member of the same secret club (and not one Groucho Marx belongs to, either!)

Another wonderful trend, in which Jonathan Lethem is a big participant, is “slipstream”, which seems uncomfortable defining itself in any way, really, other than that it makes you feel somewhat strange to read it. I mention it not because it’s the only other “otherworldly” literary trend going on right now, but because writing defined as “slipstream” (such as it is) is so very literary (if you look at this list of slipstream novels compiled by a couple well-known science fiction/fantasy critics, there’s some pretty fancy stuff on there.)

Recently a couple things have come across my desk that have made me think about speculative fiction and how we think about it. One was from nearby—an article on St. Lawrence University’s web site about a SLU physics professor, Daniel Koon, who translates Cuban science fiction stories and maintains the largest Cuban science fiction site in the English language. Who knew?

I also came across an interesting article on the site of online “fantastika” magazine Strange Horizons which lists some of the story tropes the magazine’s heard too often from potential contributors. Fantastic!

These included, for your information, “Scientist uses himself or herself as test subject”; “evil unethical doctor performs medical experiments on unsuspecting patient”, and “the narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they’re mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.”

These are a few of MANY—and they’re really great. I highly recommend you give this a read when you have a moment to laugh nerdily at some of these very familiar premises.

We’ll be thinking more about genre fiction (including “speculative”, as well as romance, mystery, and grab bag) over the next several months, and I’m interested to see your thoughts here.

Are you thrilled when your favorite author dips his or her toe into the waters of science fiction? Irritated? What’s your genre of choice? What’s your guilty pleasure—and why is it a guilty one? Or have you been voraciously consuming huge fantasy novels since you were a kid, and never looked back?

  1. Brian Mann says:

    I’m a devoted reader of “strange” fiction, and one of the cool elements of the genre is that it has, slowly and painfully, begun to recover some of its street cred.

    Here’s the Brian Mann version of all this:

    For most of human history, great literature was “strange.”

    From Homer to Goethe to Henry James to Thomas Mann, the great writers were telling stories where incredible elements co-existed naturally and comfortably with realism.

    Most of Shakespeare’s plays rely on some element of the fantastic for their power and plot machinery.

    But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “literary” fiction embraced pure realism, while the “slipstream” vibe that Nora describes was relegated to pulp outlets.

    There were still some great writers using fantasy and science fiction as their metier — Borges and Lovecraft for example — but the genre was dominated by stuff that, while sometimes really fun, was pretty horribly written.

    By the 1970s, the very best writers in the genre were guys like Isaac Aasimov and Stephen King. Popular, sometimes interesting, but hardly first-rate.

    (There were some exceptions, even in that dark era. Richard Adams, Peter Beagle, Mervyn Peake, Gene Wolfe…)

    The last two decades this has all changed in joyous ways. I could list thirty writers — and not just literary writers like Chabon and Atwood who have “crossed over” — whose stuff is every bit as good and powerful as the best New Yorker-esque prose.

    China Mieville, R. Scott Bakker, Susanna Clarke, Lev Grossman, Mike Mignola…

    The cool thing is that all these writers have realized that strange fiction has something important to say to our time and place.

    We are surrounded by stuff that we don’t understand. Our lives are framed by illusion, by voices out of the ether, by a constant stream of data and imagery that blurs the lines of traditional experience.

    Shakespeare and Dante would have had a field day, exploring speculative ways of reacting to modern life. Fortunately, we have a new cast of writers who have (finally) picked up the banner.

    –Brian, NCPR