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.


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