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The Poor Cousin’s Defence

Time to take Science Fiction seriously?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

When I’m not working on popular science books, I enjoy writing in two genres: detective fiction and science fiction. Each has something of a shady past, reaching the mass market via pulp magazines and penny dreadfuls. Yet detective fiction has largely shaken off its origins. It has become respectable. It’s accepted that, for example, the late P. D. James could write quality fiction that happened to be in the detective genre. But, somehow, science fiction remains the poor cousin, unable to make the same leap.

When science fiction writing is considered of literary quality – think Margaret Atwood, for example – it is often hurriedly given a genre transplant, avoiding the ‘science’ part to make it seem more acceptable. Atwood herself scurries to defend her work against the ‘S’ word. Infamously, in a BBC breakfast interview, she is said to have claimed that science fiction was limited to ‘talking squids in outer space.’ It’s a bizarre cliché, like suggesting that literary fiction is only concerned with the angst of middle-class, middle-aged, white people.

There seem to be several possibilities for this disregard for what is arguably the more imaginative and far-reaching genre, one of which might be seen as a ghostly remnant of C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’. Charles Percy Snow, a chemist and civil servant, made his observations in a 1959 lecture, in which he suggested that there was a cultural divide between the humanities and sciences, with the establishment, largely drawn from the humanities, tending to disparage the science side. Worse, he accused those from the humanities, who ‘by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated’, of simultaneously looking down on the illiteracy of scientists, while being themselves almost proud of their scientific ignorance. Snow likened their inability to respond to a question about the Second Law of Thermodynamics as being the scientific equivalent of answering ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’ in the negative.

In my experience, certainly, it is still far more common to find a scientist with an interest in the arts than someone from an arts background who shows enthusiasm for the sciences. Although in general this dismissive approach has faded somewhat, it seems possible that the curled lip has remained active where science dares to take a step into the world of the arts. The view seems to be that science fiction – not infrequently written by scientists – provides a vehicle for the more important culture to be influenced by its inferior cousin. And that, surely, is a reason to consider it unworthy as literature.

As the late, much lamented, Ursula K. Le Guin (who was always happy to have her writing labelled science fiction) commented in a review for The Guardian, Atwood’s insistence that SF had to be ‘fiction in which things happen that are not possible today,’ seems to be ‘designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.’

And this seems not to be an idle concern. Take the opening words of Sven Birkerts’ New York Times review of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: ‘I AM going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ”L,” and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.’

Of course, it is possible to offer a defence that Le Guin was wrong and Birkerts was a lone throwback to an outdated attitude. But does the evidence support this? When has a science-fiction novel won a major literary prize? There’s no sign of SF on the Pulitzer or Booker lists. The best that can be offered is Naomi Alderman’s win of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction in 2017 with The Power. Yet the novel is more fantasy than SF, requiring half the human race to magically acquire the power to deliver electric shocks. And with a solid back-catalogue of literary fiction before this venture, Alderman already had her cultural credentials.

We might also expect that some of the greats of science fiction would have had their work acknowledged, by now. Consider, for example, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury and Le Guin. Admittedly Ballard won the Guardian Fiction Prize – but for Empire of the Sun, his autobiographical novel about a boy surviving a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Aldiss has had no recognition outside science fiction. Bradbury is primarily a fantasy writer, and Fahrenheit 451, the title that is best recognised outside the genre, is atypical of his output. Le Guin probably comes out best as a runner-up for the Pulitzer — but she was very clear in the quote above about her opinion of the way the genre was treated. And one example out of hundreds of SF authors hardly makes a persuasive argument.

Could it be the science itself that gets in the way? Is modern science simply too baffling for the general public? The popularity of science programmes on TV and the continuing success of popular science books (often outselling literary novels) suggest otherwise. It’s also worth considering that science fiction is not intended to be a vehicle for explaining complex science or predicting the future.

The odd thing about the contrast with detective fiction is that science fiction had, if anything, a more sophisticated birth before the pulp period. Where detective fiction originated in short stories published in magazines – think Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as many less distinguished works – science fiction began with philosophical novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Admittedly, Jules Verne’s work bore a resemblance to later pulp writing, but we shouldn’t ignore that strong early showing.

What I am sure of is that science fiction no longer deserves any stigma — either for readers or writers. Of course, it has and will always have its pulp-fiction side — especially in the cinema, where even the most sophisticated of SF movies do not come close to the best novels. To characterise all written science fiction as being about space battles with aliens compares with suggesting that there is no literary difference between Fifty Shades of Grey and a Booker Prize winner.

]I challenge anyone who has avoided anything labelled science fiction to read, for example, Adam Roberts’ superb The Thing Itself and to admire the excellent quality of the writing. It remains that good SF is not about science or technology or what will happen in the future. They are no more than the setting. Just as good detective fiction explores the emotional response of victims and suspects, good science fiction’s focus on the reaction of humans (or other intelligences) to the setting is as powerful in its assessment of ‘moral and psychological nuance.’ It’s time Margaret Atwood came out of the closet, and SF became respectable. But not too respectable.

A Brian Clegg studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and Operational Research at Lancaster then worked at British Airways before setting up his own business creativity company. He now writes full time and has had over thirty books published, including The Reality Frame and Gravitational Waves.

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