What's wrong with SF?

"sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you”.

This was written by Virginia Woolf to SF writer Olaf Stapledon. But SF has a public relations problem nowadays, not least amongst writers. In a Sept 2009 Guardian blog written by SF writer Prof Adam Roberts, his professorial colleague (and Booker prize judge) John Mullan said that SF is "bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other" although according to Roberts, "British SF really is going through a golden age".

SF went through a growth spurt in the pulp zine era, then another when the early Star Wars films came out. Neither fan-base helps when trying to establish high-art credentials - SF gets dragged back to what the SF people call Sci-Fi (pronounced 'skiffy', I'm told) where too many loner scientists (i.e. authors) save the world and get the girl. That said, I think FanFic's an interesting phenomenom - the spin-offs are commentaries/interpretations of the originals. Perhaps other areas of literary could adopt the practise.

One problem is that the definition of SF is slippery - if you want to buy "The Handmaid's Tale", "Cosmopolis", "The Time Traveler's Wife" or "Frankenstein" in a bookshop you wouldn't head for the SF section (which seems the place where SF authors' books - rather than SF books - are kept). Borges, Vonnegut, Calvino, etc edge toward Fantasy or Science Fiction too, but the rule seems to be that SF with literary value isn't "Science Fiction" - it's just "Fiction". Whenever an SF overlaps another genre or mode, the odds are that SF will lose its claim in a resulting tug-of-war if the work is good or topical.

In all of these (whether or not the author wants it) the science element could be considered incidental. In Paul March-Russell's "The Short Story" it's suggested that SF is less a sub-genre than a mode of writing - i.e. a vocabulary of images than can be applied to various genres. Perhaps so.

SF can appear escapist in a derogatory sense, but I think the situation's more nuanced than that. SF and Romanticism have been associated for decades - Frankenstein's associated with the English Romantic poets, and Wells described his SF works as "scientific romances". The re-evaluation of (or search for) Self in times of Technological Revolution goes on. Man's place in nature is re-assessed. Loners and explorers venture out across dales and galaxies. Sometimes Humanity wins, sometimes Technology does. More often nowadays some fusion is reached - most explicitly with cyborgs.

Another barrier to literary acceptance is that SF stories often adopt a traditional 'Realism' attitude to language. There's competition from other genres too - as bloggers have point out, imaginative reconstructions of historical (or even alternative history) scenarios aren't subject to the same constraints. According to George R.R. Martin in a recent interview SF is even losing ground to the Fantasy genre.

SF seems to me to suit the short-story genre - even novels like "2001" and "Fahrenheit 451" began life as short stories, but SF isn't well represented in short story magazines and anthologies. On the plus side, a recent issue of New Scientist (Sept 2009) has some Flash SF pieces, and the UK's £5000 Edge Hill short story collection prize was won by Chris Beckett in 2009 for his SF collection "The Turing Test", ahead of some well-known mainstreamers. Maybe that will help change the situation.

So don't be too detered by the SF label - yes, it may be just "cowboys and indians in spacesuits" but it may also be the speculative literature of our age.

Updated September 2009
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Tim Love