Oct 6 2008 8:05am

SF gems from the literary ghetto

A lot of SF readers dismiss literary fiction as worthless: turgid, mazy, self-referential prose, annoying characters, stories that meander for hundreds of pages without really going anywhere, and a blinkered obsession with the world of today (or yesterday), with scarcely a thought spared for tomorrow. A few authors such as Michael Chabon (author of the Hugo- and Nebula-winning The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) have managed to break out of the literary ghetto, but most such fiction still languishes among an insular audience of tediously clever hipsters and academics, ignored by the SF-reading masses. I can’t deny that the stereotype is often true, but it turns out that if you dig into that ghetto’s back alleys, you’ll find a lot of excellent SF.

I just read a perfect example: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, a big deal in the literary world, and winner of the "Richard and Judy Read of the Year" (kind of the UK equivalent of being anointed by Oprah, but more fun) it’s a book of six storylines nested like a set of Matryushka dolls which take us from colonial-era Pacific islands, through an alternate-history today, into a corporate dystopia and postapocalyptic wasteland. Does that sound like annoying meta postmodern crap? It’s really not, I swear—it’s hugely engaging. And best of all, the SF storylines are actually written in an SF mode.

A lot of the time when literary writers try their hand at science fiction, they lose faith in their readers and feel the need to explain all the SFnal elements in their story in detail and at length, robbing their story of whatever urgency it might have had. (See Doris Lessing’s Shikasta and sequels, or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife—I liked both, but both could have done with a lot of scalpel work.) Mitchell, clearly an SF reader himself, deftly avoids that trap; and his work is as dense with what my fellow blogger Jo Walton calls “incluing”—building the story-world by implication rather than exposition—as any Stross or Heinlein novel. Cloud Atlas is a literary novel with a terrifically crunchy science-fiction core.

The same SF-wrapped-in-literary-fiction tack is taken by Margaret Atwood in her stunningly brilliant, Booker-winning novel The Blind Assassin, in which the titular fantasy story is wrapped within layers of historical fiction and present-day memoir. (Bias disclaimer: Ms. Atwood and I share an agent, though I’ve never actually met her, and for what it’s worth, I found The Handmaid’s Tale hamhanded and overly expository.) Atwood followed it with Oryx and Crake, out-and-out genre SF replete with incluing and interesting speculation. We can write off her bizarre claims that it’s not science fiction as brave loyalty to her much-maligned literary roots.

Speaking of Booker winners, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was recently awarded the Booker of Bookers, i.e. named the best of all books ever so acclaimed—and deservedly so. It is one of the great fantasy novels of all time, a tale whose central concept is that those children born in India at the moment that country achieved independence were granted fantastic powers. Kind of a Hindu-flavoured Heroes, if you will. I’ve read it several times, and to this day, when I crack open its pages, they sweep me away.

In fact, the last three books to devour me whole in that way were all literary/SF crossbreeds. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts is a phildickian story of a man pursued by a conceptual shark. Yes, you read that right. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro—a stylistic chameleon who also wrote the stately Remains of the Day and the surreal, dreamlike The Unconsoled—treads well-worn SF territory, but with astonishing grace and power. And Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a tale of a desperate struggle for survival in a burnt-out postapocalyptic future, is the bleakest, most harrowing, most unputdownable horror novel ever written.

Still suspicious? I can’t blame you. 90% of all literary fiction is still crud, and while I can rave all I like about that last 10%, you’ll never be convinced until you try it for yourself. So if you’re a hardcore purist SF reader, I beseech you, next time you’re in a bookstore, cast your misgivings aside for a moment and pay a visit to the lonely and unloved “Literary” section. You might stumble upon some of the best SF being written today.

eric orchard
1. orchard
My own disdain for literary SF or fantasy has always come from the lack of energy and engagement. There's a bleakness to much contemporary literature. A sort of obsession with sad minutia that is absent in SF and fantasy even at it's darkest.

However, I started reading Kelly Link's collection of short stories and may be converted.

I think what I'd like to see is genre writers writing upwards, challenging themselves to be more original and write even more beautifully about wonderful things rather than have literary stars write down to the level of genre.Because that's what it feels like.When you read Vonnegut or Atwood talk about their genre work there's an insincerity to their words.In critical terms I've always found it more interesting that Moorcock has been compared to Bosch then Atwood was a member of the SF book club when she was a teenager.
eris esoteric
2. eris esoteric
OK, what alternate universe is Ms Atwood from that she honestly believes she's not a science fiction writer? Is this the same universe in which 1984 isn't science fiction?
CE Petit
3. Jaws
One general comment, then some suggestions for others to consider:

I suspect that a large part of the problem is neglect of Sturgeon's Law. It's not just 90% of that's crap, it's 90% of everything that's crap... and those resident in a particular publishing category are either more willing to forgive their indigenous crap than the crap of the durned furriners or unable to recognize the indigenous crap as crap at all. It reminds me a great deal of one of Voltaire's parables on beauty. But then, I have that "classical education" so derided by everyone, so I'm perfectly willing to criticize The Iliad and The Odyssey as marginal works of "art" while accepting their place in culture.

On a cheerier note, here are a few other pieces of "lit'rary fiction" that might be of at least some interest to thoughtful readers of speculative fiction. They are all at least somewhat quieter in speculative volume than more overtly speculative fiction, but are nonetheless worth consideration. Alpha by author:

Julian Barnes, History of the World in 101/2 Chapters
Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before
Günter Grass, The Tin Drum
James Hynes, The Lecturer's Tale
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System
Paul Howard
4. DrakBibliophile
Eric, I suspect that Ms Atwood has a view of what SF is that most readers of SF would disagree with.

Drak Bibliophile
alastair chadwin
5. a-j
According to an interview with Brian Aldiss I read some years ago, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children was origionally going to be marketed as a SF book (as was Rushdie's first novel, Grimus) but at fairly much the last minute the publishers decided to push it as a literary novel.
eric orchard
6. orchard
Paul (Drak)-here's Ms. Atwood's definition of Sf according to her piece in the Guardian:
"For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth,"
It's an interesting article, here's the rest:
eris esoteric
7. Tournevis
I'll add one other recommendation.

Thomas Wharton. The Logogryph. It's little know, because it was published in Canada by Gaspereau Press in 2006, but it is extraordinary. Read it if you can find it.
Torie Atkinson
8. Torie
@2 eric

She's a strange bird. I attended a Q&A/interview of her several years ago, when she was promoting Oryx and Crake. The interviewer asked her something about women in science fiction that I can't remember and she got angry and clenched her teeth, replying: "I do not write science fiction."

Needless to say the interviewer blinked, confused.
eric orchard
9. orchard
My wife saw her in Paris and was similarly baffled by her behavior.
I think the steampunk, automated, long distance ,signing-hand-device thing she uses is really neat, though.
Re: Literary SF, sometimes I want to yell"leave our tropes alone!" lol.When they publish with Tor I'll change my mind.
Sandi Kallas
10. Sandikal
Well, if "Oryx and Crake" isn't science fiction, then nothing is. Atwood can protest it all she wants, but it won't change what it is. That doesn't mean it's not literary. It's very literary. So is "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. LeGuin. Frankly, the line between genres is becoming so blurred that they don't mean much anymore. Why are Jasper Fford's Thursday Next books in the literature section when they are clearly fantasy? Why do you find vampire books in the horror, the SF/F and the romance sections? (I do not read vampire books; I just see them in every section.)

It's getting so confusing, I usually have to ask where a book is if I'm looking for a particular title.
eris esoteric
11. Mike Ray
This was laugh out loud funny. Perfect pitch. I must have read the exact same article twenty times (with roles reversed, naturally). Nicely done.
Hannah X
12. h4nn4h
I haven't read much SF yet, but I've read plenty of literary fiction, and I loved this article! It is very funny, indeed, and in addition to that I think the tips that are given here are very good. I read every book you mentioned except for the one about the shark (which is now on my reading list, sounds promising!) and I loved every one of them. Especially "Never let me go", that one was really spectacularly good. Probably the best book I've read this year, I'd say.
I'd like to mention "Under the skin" by Michel Faber too. That's one of my favourite books of all time, too, and it's most definately science fiction.

I hope you're going to do the reverse article too! As I said I'm pretty new to SF - I've only read a few big names and a couple of anthologies, and although I liked most of what I read so far, I still feel a bit lost in SF space. An article about SF gems for us poor literary fiction-lovers would be great!
eris esoteric
13. Nick Mamatas
Why are Jasper Fford's Thursday Next books in the literature section when they are clearly fantasy?

Because they sell better there, of course.
eris esoteric
14. Dan Blum
Another recommendation: Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil. Sort of an alternate or secret history, or an alternate secret history. With lots of 1920s speculative engineering.
René Walling
15. cybernetic_nomad
h4nn4h: you might want to check out Jo Walton's posts on, she does exactly what you are asking for.
eris esoteric
16. Mouser
I thought that Oryx and Crake read very much like a SF novel written by someone who doesn't read much SF. Obviously it's Margaret Atwood so there's no doubting the quality of the writing, but it left me thinking "Yes? And then what? That's your whole idea?" It seemed like something a SF writer would begin with as a premise, or establish in fifty pages and then use it as a backdrop. But I know plenty of genre fans who love it, so maybe it's just not my cup of tea.

Other mainstream authors who write (or rather wrote) great fantasy and science fiction:

Jorge Luis Borges
Italo Calvino
Ernest Bramah
Primo Levi
E.M. Forster (read 'The Machine Stops')
17. rogerothornhill
Hear, hear! I think if these literary chaps keep applying themselves they can be almost as good as our lads someday.

And oh yes Jaws you are so right. I always refer to that as the Banacek rule, voiced by George Peppard to Christine Belford in Detour to Nowhere, the pilot for the series. He concludes by saying something like "So there are always going to be more good old things than good new things," but I think sifting through the detritus of the present--both ghettoized and nonghettoized--to get to the good stuff is a lot more fun than most people reckon.
eris esoteric
18. Mouser
Just remembered: in addition to Midnight's Children (still a contender for the finest novel I have ever read) Rushdie wrote a wonderful short novel for younger readers called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. If you want to give him a try but don't want to dive into a full-sized volume, have a go at this one first.

I'm also a fan of Carter Beats the Devil, though I don't know enough history to say how much of it is speculative.
David Lev
19. davidlev
I just checked, and I'm going to be reading "Midnight's Children" for my Postcolonial Lit class soon! (I'm a college student, if you can't tell). I'm excited. If I like it, I'm sure it will be one of those college books that I never end up selling back to the bookstore.

And my favorite "denial of writing genre" story has to be J.K. Rowling's insistence that she didn't realize she was writing fantasy when she was writing "Harry Potter." Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors and an unabashed fantasy and science fiction writer, responded with something like "Oh yeah? I would have thought all the magic and unicorns and wizards would have been a clue."
Chuk Goodin
20. Chuk
I thought that Oryx and Crake read very much like a SF novel written by someone who doesn't read much SF.

That's the feel I got from it, too. It reminds me of some of Stephen King's SF, where sure, the prose and characterization are great, but the SF stuff was all mined out by others about forty years ago.
Linden Wolfe
21. Lilith
"Why are Jasper Fford's Thursday Next books in the literature section when they are clearly fantasy?"

I asked a clerk in my local bookstore that very question and was told it's because they are 'meta fiction'.
Sandi Kallas
22. Sandikal
Okay, dare I ask; what the heck is meta-fiction?
Carlos Hernandez
23. Yokozuna
Hey Sandikal -- metafiction is fiction about fiction: the process of writing portrayed in a piece of writing, like a novel about a novelist writing a novel, is one typical example.

More generally, let me say that I find the original post and the beginning comments of this thread disappointing. Thank goodness later posters listed some of the good speculative work being done by the so-called literati.

I side with J.G. Ballard when he says that science fiction is "the most authentic literature of the twentieth century" and would add the 21st to that as well. But then, in this interview, he goes on to say that "Sadly enough, most science fiction is being written by the wrong people nowadays. The constraints of a certain kind of commercial fiction have tended to formularize the field over the last 50 years."

Which, if read the right way, can, I hope, lead us to a more fruitful discussion of genre. If we're going to use genre as either praise or pejorative, then let's at least get our terms straight. The more formulaic a work of fiction is, the more it belongs to a genre, and the less formulaic, the less genre-bound. I would call anything literary, no matter what so-called genre it belongs to, that is original and less fettered by the constraints of genre: though I am not convinced anything ever gets written that is wholly outside of one genre or another -- Bloom's anxiety of influence, etc.

The problem with these conversations is that we get our terms confused. There is, of course, "genre literary fiction," though to the ear the term might sound contradictory. The fact is, most literature of every variety is genre -- precisely because it is extraordinarily difficult to be original.

Mr. Evans is lambasting genre literary fiction in this post while asking us to look at some works that, while labeled as "literary" by bookseller-types, are somehow still able to be good reads -- that is, they are original. But do people really need to be told that not all literary fiction is bad? I certainly, certainly hope not.
Paul Andinach
24. anobium
Yokozuna, I suspect you're missing some of the context necessary to understand the original post.

There's a certain type of article we see too often in the mainstream press, lambasting sf genre fiction while asking us to look at some works that, while labeled as "sci-fi" by bookseller-types, are somehow still able to be worthy of literary esteem.

(Do people really need to be told that not all science fiction is bad? I certainly, certainly hope not -- but you wouldn't know it from the articles.)

What Jon Evans has done here is to write one of those articles, only the other way around. And I would be astonished if he didn't write with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
eris esoteric
25. Giant
Serious here, The Nova Series (Soft Machines, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express, Naked Lunch) by Burroughs has in its many cut-up vignettes, huge doses of SF--nascent cybernetic themes, intergalactic Nova Mob and Police, the cutting up of time and space, odd-world Mugwamps, politico-media interference, interstellar colonialism. There is a lot to be said about the work he accomplished, even though some if it is over-sexed, drug-crazed babel. He is most definitely a part of the "Post-modern" literary canon and "SF" to boot. I'm surprised he's not mentioned earlier in this discussion.
Jon Evans
26. rezendi
@Anobium, #24: There was indeed a visible convexity in my cheek as I wrote this.
zaphod beetlebrox
27. platypus rising
Some more international favourites,in the spirit of post-Nobel anti-isolationism:

Dino Buzzati,The Tartar Steppe
Juan Rulfo,Pedro Paramo
Bruno Schulz,The Street of Crocodiles
Harry Mulisch,The Discovery of Heaven
Flann O'Brien,The Third Policeman
Murakami Haruki,Kafka on the Shore
Victor Pelevin,The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
Sheila Watson,The Double Hook
Tom Robbins,Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Michael Ende,The Neverending Story
Karel ?apek,The War with the Newts
Kingsley Amis,The Alteration
Jean Ray,Malpertuis
Michel Tournier,The Erl King

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