Jul 12 2011 1:41pm

Genre in the Mainstream: The Secret History of Science Fiction

The Secret History of Science FictionIf there are two guys who are interested in the discussion of how SF lit relates to mainstream lit, those guys are James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. In 2009, they published The Secret History of Science Fiction, which essentially took the exact same premise of this column and applied it to their editorial and curatorial process. Instead of convincing you with a series of essays, (like Genre in the Mainstream) Kelly and Kessel pushed their thesis forward by laying out a bunch of stories from various authors in order to demonstrate cross pollination between genres has been happening for ages. Along the way, they included some great mediations on genre from the various authors. If you missed this volume in ’09, here are some highlights.

The book starts off with a great introduction by the editors which heavily references the infamous 1998 Village Voice article written by Jonathan Lethem in which he postulates an alternate universe in which Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow won the Nebula award in 1973. A gross encapsulation of Lethem’s argument at the time is this: such a win from Pynchon could have helped breach some of the genre divide which he perceived pervaded the present day. Kelly and Kessel use this as a jumping off point to not necessarily contradict Lethem, but to instead demonstrate that mainstream literary authors have been writing science fiction since the 70s, often making no bones about it. They talk about a lot of great stuff in this introduction including the differences between science fiction 100 years ago (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) to more modern trends in literary SF. The most compelling of these introductory topics is probably the section titled “Science Fiction Without the Future” in which the editors highlight the various reasons why this sort of SF is more popular with contemporary fiction writers than SF depicting far-flung future worlds.

One of my favorite quotes from James Patrick Kelly occurs later in the book where he says:

Science fiction has been undergoing a kind of crisis of confidence. Some have worried that our stories are too often pitched at that narrowest of science fiction audiences, those who have spent lifetimes reading the stuff. The world building had gotten so complex that readers who are new to the genre get confused, then frustrated, and then many give up. There has been a call for a more accessible science fiction, which still maintains the virtues of the genre.

This I think is probably one of the wisest statements uttered about the state of the genre, and also probably one of the hardest to hear. Kelly and Kessel are obviously well-established SF writers, and clearly have no hang-ups indentifying as such, and yet, these are people who read other stuff too, and recognize that occasionally there is a disconnect between the fans and everyone else.

On the flip side of this sentiment, on the same page of the book comes a wonderful statement from T.C. Boyle.

…Literature can be great in all ways, but it’s just entertainment like rock’n’roll or film. It is entertainment. If it doesn’t capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn’t work. Nothing else will come out of it. The beauty of language, the characterization, the structure, all that’s irrelevant if you’re not getting the reader on that level – moving a story. If that’s friendly to readers, I cop to it.

Here Boyle is coming out in support of stories that have big plots, big ideas. He isn’t a writer that makes a distinction between the various genres. It’s all good stuff and bad stuff for Boyle, entertaining or not. Which when you’re reading a volume of science fiction stories, mostly written by people not considered to be SF writers, a statement like that is extremely refreshing.

But the stories are the real stars of this anthology. From heavyweights like Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, Michael Chabon and many, many more, the simple fact of the matter is this is one of the best collections of short fiction in general. Even if there wasn’t a sort of phantom thesis being presented through the curration of these stories, they are all fantastic pieces of literature in their own right. Don Delillo’s story “Human Moments in World War III” depicts two astronauts orbiting the Earth talking about their lives while adjusting various futuristic weapons from their military space station. Molly Gloss demonstrates one of the best stories about genetic engineering I’ve ever read in “Interlocking Pieces” while Steven Millhauser closes out the book with his brand of bizarre magical realism in “The Wizard of West Orange.”

There are two stories I’d like to mention that really stuck out for me however. The first is “Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Your Crisis” by Kate Wilhelm. Now, SF readers are very familiar with Wilhelm already, but this story is interesting for a few reasons. It tells the story of a couple, and kind of trashy couple at that, watching a future version of television. Even though the story is from 1973, Wilhelm predicts reality television as her characters are basically watching a 24/7 version of Survivor. What’s interesting though is the story is ultimately about the couple and how their terrible behavior towards each other is affected by this program. They find analogs of themselves in the “characters” on the show, or use their allegiances to the competitors as jumping off points into arguments. Basically, the story is a slice-of-life story straight out of something from Raymond Carver or Mary Gaitskill. But the futuristic element of the reality show is what drives home the human drama.

The other story I really loved is called “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Carter Sholz. This story reads as a series of letters between a writer and an editor of science fiction magazine regarding the submission of a story that seems to be a word-for-word rip-off of the Arthur C. Clarke story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Throughout the correspondence, the author keeps insisting the appropriation of the story constitutes an original work of art, while the editor continues to assert that a plagiarized story is no story at all. Eventually, the writer character reveals that he has built a machine that writes his stories for him, and the machine randomly wrote “The Nine Billion Names of God.” The concept of infinite numbers of monkeys with infinite numbers of typewriters is transformed here into a bona fide science fiction story, with really satisfying results. The story is also hilarious.

If you’re interested in reading a bunch of stories written by some of the best contemporary writers out there, you’ll like this anthology. If you also want to read some of the best science fiction stories since the 70s, you’ll love this anthology. Finally, the various quotes and mediations that bookend the various sections throughout the story are some of the most profound statements about genre I’ve ever read. In short, if you like what we talk about in this column, this book is for you.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

Soon Lee
1. SoonLee
That's a great quote from T. C. Boyle.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
2. supergee
If Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula, the award would have been discredited in the eyes of the sf readership, and the mainstream would have said, "Isn't that cute! They gave one of their little awards to a real book." One could also make the case that while Gravity's Rainbow is an infinitely better book than Rendezvous with Rama, it is way behind it as science fiction.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
Good point! However, I'd argue that Super Sad True Love Story is pretty darn good science fiction, and it wasn't even nominated for anything!
Eugene R.
4. Eugene R.
While I fear to contradict the mighty Supergee (hi, Arthur!) about the loss to sf in bypassing Gravity's Rainbow for the Nebula, I would also like to see the fans of the genre overcoming our own "separation anxiety", as witnessed in cases like the furor over how we are "losing" writers like Jonathan Lethem to the mainstream. I find anthologies like this one to be a good palliative to such fears, since it helps demonstrate how "losing" someone is merely in the eye of the beholder and how we can claim as many as we presumably lose.

Also, Mr. Britt, you need a small fix in paragraph five ("literally"), unless, of course, Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, and Michael Chabon tip the scales at more than 200 lbs. *grin*
Ryan Britt
5. ryancbritt
@4 Eugene

I wrote this article on a planet with heavy gravity. So sorry. :-)
(Thanks btw)
sj l
6. sjl
It looks like a great anthology. Paul Di Filippo's The Lost Pages might be a good counterpoint.
Ron Stamm
7. rkstamm
Beggars and Choosers by Nancy Kress is a real interesting Book that has even more relevance today than when written, taking current political trends and slapping SF on top of it. IT is more of an essay on dependence of the masses on the state than it is a SF story, but yet the plot moves along nicely and has some interesting suprises and decisions by the characters. I have yet to read the rest of the Trilogy though.
Eugene R.
8. JohnnyYen
Unless you consider there to be a real danger the readers will mistakenly infer that Fowler, Saunders and Chabon are professional wrestlers or boxers, or perhaps sideshow performers, most editors woudl not require you to qualify the term 'heavyweight"; from context and usage, it's reasonable to assume the reader will get it.

I prefer to think of them as 300-lb gorillas but it's all amatter of taste, as the lady said when she kissed the pig.

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