Dabblers welcome

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Iain M. Banks wrote a comment piece for the Guardian, ‘Science fiction is no place for dabblers’, in which he complains about writers with no familiarity with the genre who publish novels that unknowingly repeat ideas that have already been well explored within the genre:

[…] another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel—but, like, sort of is at the same time?—hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.

Unfortunately, the piece is totally vitiated by Banks’ refusal to give specifics. He doesn’t say who he’s criticising, and he wastes most of the piece building an elaborate fiction in which a imaginary writer of literary fiction writes a county house murder mystery without any understanding that the genre was largely mined out by the 1940s:

“Right,” the author says, “prepare for something entirely new, fresh and completely different: a novel, written by me … which might look like what people call a ‘detective story’—” (both sets of index and middle fingers may be needed by the author at this point to indicate the presence of the quotation marks enclosing these words, though the slight but unmistakable accompanying sneer is actually more important), “—but which isn’t really, because it’s me who’s writing it, see? Anyway, it’s set in … an English country house,” the author says, with a dramatic flourish which strongly implies the agent/editor certainly wouldn’t have been expecting that detail.

And then the rest of the piece is airy generalities: there’s no clue as to the identity of the “entirely respectable writers” he is describing. If he won’t name names, why should we take his argument seriously? Maybe Banks is too nice to criticise someone he knows personally, or maybe when you’re a famous writer you have to be careful about this sort of thing for fear of being excluded from the fashionable parties. But on the other hand, maybe his argument would fall apart if we looked in detail at his examples.

The commentators try to guess which authors and books Banks has in mind: among the suggestions are Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; Martin Amis (presumably Time’s Arrow); Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; Doris Lessing’s Shikasta; and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods.

Looking at a list like this, I have to say: things are looking pretty good for science fiction if authors of this calibre are choosing to contribute to the genre. Certainly they may be re-covering ground already explored by insiders, but it’s also true that outsiders bring fresh perspectives and have different concerns, and I think their contributions to the genre amply pay for what they take away.

Take as an example Amis’s Time’s Arrow (though I doubt that Banks had this 20-year-old novel in mind when writing the piece) and compare it to Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967). Dick takes a science-fictional approach to the idea: what if some processes ran backward in time? What kind of world can be spun from this idea? What experiences might people have there? (Being Dick, the structure is rather ramshackle, but the attempt is to build a world.) Whereas Amis uses the idea as a way of asking what someone’s life might look like in reverse, and of defamiliarizing history, giving him a way of writing about the holocaust without descending into pathos. Maybe it doesn’t quite work, but it seems to me to be a noble failure, and Amis uses the idea in such a different way from Dick that it seems utterly unfair to characterize Time’s Arrow as repeating well-worn ideas. And anyway, the genre ought to be big enough to support more than one book on a theme like time reversal.

Or take Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. It’s far from only being an eco-disaster novel: it’s a wide-ranging satire of late capitalism, and it’s also a creation myth. All of these are classic science-fictional forms, but mash them together like this and the result is original, disturbing and funny. It’s hard to imagine an insider (unless perhaps it were Ian Watson) writing this book because the usual science fictional approach is to try to build a coherent world out of the components of the story, and in Oryx and Crake they just don’t fit together. But Atwood isn’t particularly interested in rigorous world-building: her focus is on the symbolic or satirical meaning of each component and it doesn’t matter for her purposes that, for example, in one chapter the world outside the corporate compounds is an ungovernable violent hellhole and in the next chapter it’s a functioning economy that provides the income of the corporations.

No doubt some outsider sf is a bit rubbish. But then so what? Most insider sf is pretty poor too. I think the genre should be pleased with the decent contributions it gets from outsiders (which, over the years, have included gems like 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, On the Beach, The Handmaid’s Tale, Memoirs of a Spacewoman), and should happily ignore the rest. Science fiction’s not an exclusive club and it would be a bad idea to become one: that way lies insularity and a downward spiral of self-reference.

Also, writers of critical opinion pieces should say who they are criticizing, rather than trading in anonymous generalities, so that we can evaluate the extent to which they’re right.