"I'm just going to write because I can't help it."- Charlotte Brontë

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Some Good PR for SF

Stay your alarm, reads the review by Helen Elliot that I read this morning in the Age, 'The Humans' is not speculative. It has more in common with the most memorable fairy tales than anything else because it has a simple moral instruction at its centre; kindness as opposed to selfishness, warmth in the place of chill.

Because, like, you know, speculative fiction can't be about moral instruction, kindness and warmth... And fairy tales aren't speculative fiction, oh no they aren't, so get your nasty specfic cooties off our most beloved stories! Also, the novel is witty, droll, tender, romantic, and sad, so yeah, with all those praiseworthy qualities, it definitely can't be speculative fiction.

The book in question is The Humans by Matt Haigh. This post is not about his book - I'm sure it's a  great read - but about the usual haphazard labelling of genres, and the predictable implied hierarchy of merit. So, according to the review, The Humans is about an alien - a Vonnodorian - from a galaxy where mathematical genius is the norm. The Vonnodorian dispatches a mathematics professor and assumes his human identity. Much observation of the human race ensues and the ever so logical Vonnodorian, much to his surprise, develops fond feelings for our erratic species.

Nope, not speculative fiction at all.

In the usual litfic tendency to cherrypick who gets to pass through the hallowed gates of literary respectability, and despite the main character being from another galaxy and engaging in what I imagine are debates about humans that have already appeared in hundreds of brilliantly written and thoughtful SF short stories and novels, this book gets the mainstream seal of approval. Kudos to Matt Haigh. I wish him all the best. However, I can only surmise he escapes what the reviewer obviously regards as the dreaded speculative fiction label (possibly to do the book a favour because she views The Age readers as being biased against it) because the alien in the novel cunningly morphs into a middle-aged, Cambridge mathematics professor with marital problems, one of the customary mainstays of mainstream fiction (though a professor of English is even more acceptable). Mind you, I've read plenty of SF with that exact same hero, and pretty much the same scenario and well-written to boot, so, hmm, back to square one.

As I've wondered time and time again, who gets to choose what is "respectable" fiction, and what is sniffingly rejected as genre dross? What criteria do they use? How widely read are they? What are the limits of their imagination? Oops, I might be getting a bit snippy there myself...

On a brighter note, over at The Atlantic, science fiction gets the thumbs up in an article about a couple of M.I.T. Media Lab researchers who are teaching a course called Science Fiction to Science Fabrication aka Pulp to Prototype, in which they use texts (not the movies) like Frankenstein and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to encourage students to anticipate the consequences of their inventions and designs:

Reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors, and engineers and designers should be trying to think like science fiction authors when they approach their own work.
They even quote the late, great Frederik Pohl:

Frederik Pohl once said that it wasn’t the job of science fiction authors to create the automobile but to describe the traffic jam.
It follows that it is our job as technologists not to avoid creating the automobile, but to look at the traffic jam and design so that doesn’t happen. Thinking about these things at the beginning and iteratively throughout the process allows us to create better technology. Just as storytelling gives you more lives to live, speculative design or science fiction prototyping gives you more iterations to consider before your creation goes out into the wild and becomes hard to control. Once a genie is out of the bottle, it isn't inclined to allow itself to be stuffed back in. Once an abusable technology is in the hands of a fascist government or rogue nation-state, its leaders aren’t likely to return that technology for an upgrade that removes the features they’re using to spy or express their political agenda. Designing the genie so he can’t be used that way, before he gets out of the bottle, is the safest choice.

It's a good read, positive about science fiction and the vast philosophical playground the genre typically covers. As per usual, I'm just left wondering why well-written stories about far reaching subjects that span time and space should be deemed less valuable a contribution to literature than, say, the shenanigans of shallow, inner-city narcissists. I read all kinds of books, as do all the speculative fiction writers I know, and there's good and bad stuff in every genre. Unless one has done an in-depth study of the works available, one really should refrain from making snide remarks about something one knows nothing about. Besides, using a certain genre as a broadly accepted insult is just plain rude. It happens. We know it does. I saw it in a movie just the other day. I could see the joke coming a mile away - 'I write science fiction', said the nerdy character. Cue the laughs.


I know this is a lost cause, but can't we writing folk and readers all just learn to get on with each other and practice the common courtesy of mutual respect for the hard work of our fellow scribes? Read or don't read books according to your interests, that's each individual's prerogative, but let's ditch the pettiness and toss overboard the judgmental pretensions that can sour the experience.

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