I read a lot of pulp when I was a kid. Most of it was crap. I also wrote a lot of adventure stories and half-baked space operas, most of which were crap too. Around sixteen, I started writing poetry more seriously, and continued honing my poetry through high school, college, and an MFA. Sure, I would still write the occasional piece of fiction, but I thought the seismic shift away from fiction (especially science fiction, the literature of my youth) was permanent. Even with writing mentors that I respected, science fiction was considered the poor cousin on the other side of the valley, next to the river and railroad tracks.
A few months after receiving my MFA, something strange happened. I began to write genre pieces again, testing the waters with small stories. I found myself drawing back on the imagery from my youthful reading and writing–spaceships, aliens, robots–and using this as the raw material for attempts at sophisticated short fiction. I didn’t exactly know what the hell I was doing, but there was something exhilirating about these new writing experiences. That first year, I ended up writing the first draft of a novel about the late 21st century dissolution of an Amish community, a “postdigital” cult from Arctic Canada that completely changes their religious beliefs every year, and the Second Church of John Coletrane. I hardly thought I had a novel in me, after writing twenty lines at a time for almost ten years. In 1998, I took at Michigan State a six week genre writing workshop called Clarion. After writing six science fiction stories in six weeks, and meeting other amazing peers and mentors, my identity began to shift, away from “a poet who writes fiction,” to “a science fiction writer.”
What happened? Should there be an apology attached to this transformation?
People (including my girlfriend) have told me that much of what I write would not be considered, by some in the genre, to be science fiction at all. Magic realism, metafiction, and folklore often inform what I write, and sometimes more than one of these concerns are thrown into a bag with science fiction and shaken around. These distinctions are pretty arbitrary anyway. Jorge Luis Borges’s first story translated into English was in a genre magazine (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 1948), and stories like “The Library of Babel” and “The Aleph” have proved to be impossible to pigeonhole, or neatly tuck away into the confines of mainstream literature. Many writers skim the edges of many genres, and I realize that I stand on the shoulders of cross-training giants.
With this said, there are a few attributes that make me lead myself to believe, on most days, that I am a science fiction writer. For example, in science fiction, landscape often becomes a character. A form of psychogeography develops. In other words, the landscape becomes a running commentary or palimpest on the characters’ interior states. In Jonathan Lethem’s story “The Hardened Criminals,” the walls of a massive prison are literally made out of convicts, calcified into grotesques and stacked ontop of one another, and still alive. Not only does this literalization of the phrase “hardened criminal” speak to the overproliferation of prisons at the turn of the century. It also becomes the central metaphor for the main character’s psychology, as he is thrown into the same cell as father hardened into the wall.
Also in much science fiction, language itself not only connotes an experience or culture, but actualizes it. Both the style and diction used become self-referential descriptors. A familiar example is the twisted thieves’ cant of Clockwork Orange, but there are many other examples. The potentialities of language open up new narrative possibilities, including, for example, surrealism that would make Breton blush. Or, going the other direction, give the story an understated social realism, in which the very declarative nature belies that what’s said is far, far from ordinary. For example, consider the first paragraph from David Marusek’s story “We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy”:
“On March 30, 2092, the Department of Health and Human Services issued Eleanor and me a permit. The under secretary of the Population Division called with the news and official congratulations. We were stunned by our good fortune. The under secretary instructed us to contact the National Orphanage. There was a baby in a drawer in Jersey with our names on it. We were out of our minds with joy.”
From there, Marusek tackles what might seem absurd to our dispositions but is perfectly normal to the married couple within the story. It is, at its core, a love story, which succeeds because of, not despite, its wild yet mundane imagery. Joanna Russ wrote that “the relation of foreground and background that we are used to after a century and a half of realism …may be reversed… What in other fiction would be marvelous will [in science fiction] be merely accurate or plain; what in other fiction would be ordinary or mundane will here be astonishing, complex, wonderful…” Our culture is continually mutating, and science fiction can provide an inversive lens to our assumptions, a carnival mirror to what we think we believe (and how we say this).
Fine, then, someone might argue. If science fiction isn’t just escapism and can lead to explorations of ordinary lives and events, then why do you need the trappings of the “unrealistic” in the first place? What can’t be covered by writing about reality–real people in the here and now–in fiction?
The problem that I’ve found with that line of reasoning lies in the premise itself. Since when was fiction “realistic” instead of fictive? As painful as it is to highlight the truism of “fictive fiction,” it’s almost necessary at this point of the game. All fiction, by definition, is highly unrealistic, imperfectly transposing subconscious thought and perception into words. Besides, there’s more than one layer of “realism.” The table top that I write this essay on appears to be solid, but even high-school physics tells me it’s not, that it’s mostly empty space. LeGuin’s introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness discussed some of the sexual assymetry in the characters (at least to our eyes): “Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean I’m predicting that in a millenium or so we’ll all be androgynous…I’m merey observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing.” When one glibly uses the term, “realistic fiction,” there must always be the awareness of the inherent paradox with those two words scrunched together, for there is more than one way to describe what is apparent.
Note that much (but not all) science fiction deals with public and social interactions, not necessarily scientific findings. I’m no scientist by any stretch of the imagination, and while I often pepper my stories with scientific conjectures when appropriate, I don’t think that scientific accuracy isn’t the nexus of what makes SF appealing as an art form. Rather, it is a philosophical texture to the cloth on which the stories are woven. Perhaps it is a realization that people don’t solely act within interior, even narcissistic, spaces–that the high modernist view of humanity as center of the universe is outmoded. Other writers who don’t necessarily work in genre boundaries, such as Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and Rikki Ducornet, in their particular fashions, also provide a counterpoint to the easiest assumptions present in the literary culture.
There is, of course, a cautionary tale in all of this: not to become a cheerleader for one mode of writing in ascendance above all others. Such rah-rah only seek to sequester and divide, especially when it forces people to defend poorly written fiction. Which, incidentally, is not in short supply on both side of the literary and genre divide. The worst of science fiction (unfortunately, the kind most easily translatable into film, and thus the kind that most people are familiar with) tends to be lurid, male power fantasies, filled with, as Bruce Sterling said, “rock-ribbed Competent Men,” cardboard cutout protags who barely sweat when killing the bad guys and getting the girl. But is a bland, third-rate Raymond Carver ripoff published in a literary magazine any more worth praise?
If science fiction is a choice that one makes before writing a story, then dismissing it part and parcel simply can’t make sense, especially if particular writers are trying their darndest to reinvigorate the usual, even shopworn tropes–or invent new ones altogether. The proof is in the pudding; in all fiction, it is the readerly pleasures (however weird) that matter. Jonathan Lethem in his essay “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction, ” (a case for dismantling the entire genre of science fiction altogether) writes: “Tomorrow’s readers, born in dystopian cities, educated on computers, and steeped in media recursions of SF iconography, won’t notice if the novels they read are set in the future or the present. Savvy themselves, they won’t care if certain characters babble technojargon and others don’t. Some of those readers, though, will graduate from a craving for fictions that flatter and indulge their fantasies to that appetite for fictions that provoke, disturb, and complicate through a manipulation of those same narrative cravings.” And if science fiction provides some writers the inspiration and opportunity to provoke and complicate fiction, then so much the better.
Despite all of this, I have to admit that it feels, sometimes, like I’m forced to apologize for what I write, even when audiences in literary circles are receptive, as most of them are. The ingraining of tension regarding shifting literary “alliegances” is deep-seated, and is one that I feel like I’m continually negotiating. Even in parsing writer’s guidelines, it’s continually in the front of the brain. Will this magazine categorically reject a genre-bending story, whatever its worth? Thankfully (and I think this is important for any writer, regardless of disposition), community is always an important part of the writing life, and I’ve found–through conferences, my writing group, and e-mail–writers with similar concerns as mine. Writers with completely different concerns have also been extremely receptive in reciprocating story critiques.
I may not write science fiction for the rest of my life. After all, three years ago, I hardly thought that I’d be spending more than half my writing time writing ANY fiction, much less science fiction. I’m still learning and making it up as I go, trying my best to evade easy categorizations, and my writing will probably change yet again in ways I can hardly guess at now. I realize, after I look back on what I just wrote, that this has indeed turned into an apologia in the classical sense, a defense and justification for the genre’s very exisitence to those who might be unfamiliar with its strengths. I have hope, however, that in a decade or two the need for this kind of apology will become, blessedly, irrevelant.
Why I Write Science Fiction: An Apology was originally published in 2001 and represented at BSC with Alan Deniro’s permission. All rights remain with the author.