The Guardian‘s weekend of science fiction has started a little early. Neil Gaiman has provided a heart-felt paean of praise for Gene Wolfe, but the article that has been gathering all of the attention is this one by Iain (M.) Banks, because it is essentially a culture war article.
Banks starts off painting an amusing picture of a literary writer who approaches his editor with a great new idea for a book, which turns out to be a crime novel so hopelessly stereotyped that it reads like a game of Cluedo (Clue, in America). He then suggests that this would never happen, because everyone would recognize it as a really awful book. However, he continues, the same sort of thing does happen with SF, because no one in mainstream publishing (authors and editors) reads any SF, so they have no idea what goes on in the field (they are not part of “The Conversation”). Literary authors, he suggests, have been guilty of slumming it in science fiction, and doing a really bad job because they haven’t studied the field.
It is a complicated argument, and one that a lot of people either haven’t understood, or have deliberately ignored. The comments thread contains the expected sneering from people pointing out that if a literary author wrote an SF novel then obviously it would be much better written than anything those SF morons could produce, so what is Mr. Banks complaining about? In some ways that may be true. For example literary writers, on average, probably produce better sentences than SF writers. It is something they focus on. But there are many others ways in which it isn’t, especially if you are a science fiction reader.
If you define literary quality along just one axis — the way that literary writers write — then of course they will always produce “better” books. But if you allow other axes that argument doesn’t hold. How you evaluate a book is a subjective decision.
It is also worth noting that the Conversation argument means much less to people outside the genre, and even to younger fans. If you have never read Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke then a book that ignores their influence and tries to re-invent things they did will seem much less stupid.
Other people have wondered what Mr. Banks is so bitter about. After all, the literary crowd look down on other genres as well. This is true. Romance is probably further down the greasy pole of respectability than SF but, because most romance is written by women for women, many men will see that as just the natural order of things. What is unusual about SF, however, is the zeal with which people try to deny writing it. I can’t recall hearing anyone say, “I’ve written this book that is about solving a murder, but it isn’t a crime novel!”
From the Banks viewpoint it must be particularly galling, because he has a successful career in both camps. His mainstream novels are praised to the skies by the literary folks, while his SF is dismissed as rubbish. I don’t know Banks very well, but from what I have seen of him I suspect he is more proud of his SF than of the other stuff, and quite likely puts far more effort into writing it.
The other big question that the article raises is, Who are the targets? Which literary writers is Banks talking about here? He doesn’t say, but there has been plenty of speculation. Kazuo Ishiguro has been mentioned, but he came along to the Clarke Award ceremony when Never Let Me Go was a finalist, and apparently fitted right in. Banks will presumably have heard about that. Michael Chabon has won a Hugo, so it can’t be him, and The Road has also got a lot of approval from the SF blogosphere, so I’m giving Cormac McCarthy a pass. Toby Litt is a possibility. I quite liked Journey into Space, but Le Guin didn’t.
My top suspect was Margaret Atwood, not for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a great piece of SF, and a Clarke Winner, but for Oryx & Crake, which to me read like the sort of eco-disaster novel that science fiction produced back in the 1970s. However, on Twitter whoever is behind the Gollancz account (Simon Spanton?) suggested that the primary target might be a book called Time’s Arrow. Given that making fun of Martin Amis is pretty much a national pastime here in the UK, I think that is entirely possible.