Special message to people who don’t read SF

Dear Non-SF reader,

Most of what I’ve written up to now can be categorised as science fiction (the exceptions being my short story collection, Spring Tide, and I think also my novel Tomorrow) and most of my readers (or so I would guess) are  readers of SF.  I’m very grateful to the SF readers who do read my books, and to the open-minded non-SF readers who give them a go and like them, but it frustrates the hell out of me that 90% of the reading public will be put off them by the SF label they carry.

Why don’t you read SF books?  Perhaps you anticipate gee-whiz technology and escapist fantasy: strong on phallic machines and enormous explosions, and weak on character, relevance and emotional subtlety.  Perhaps you anticipate tedious two-dimensional people with weird names, huffing and blowing about imaginary and implausible threats:  ‘We must capture the nine timestones of Xorg from the Splergs, or they will disrupt the flow of the fourth dimension, and the universe itself will die.’

To be perfectly honest, there are SF books out there that would probably confirm your expectations.  Undoubtedly the conventions of the genre offer lavish opportunities for sheer escapism, and a kind of techno-porn.  But what I want you to know is that those same conventions are also powerful tools for writing and thinking about human life and about the world we actually inhabit.

Listen, if you are a fiction reader at all, you must already be okay with the idea that sometimes making things up is helpful, yes?  All fiction involves made-up characters and/or made-up situations.  And this, don’t you agree, allows both writer and reader to gain imaginative access to aspects of life that are beyond their own direct experience, or to explore aspects of life that they are familiar with from a new and unexpected perspective?  Well, science fiction also involves made-up characters and made-up situations, and adds just one more made-up thing.  It makes up worlds.  If making up people and situations is alright, how can making up worlds suddenly be beyond the pale?

Actually making up worlds greatly extends the possibilities of fiction, by expanding the range of situations that characters can be asked to engage with and deal with.   The made-up world can be used to explore developments in present-day society by extending them into the future, or to externalise the inner demons with which we all struggle, or to estrange us from everyday experience, showing us something that seems utterly different at first from the world we inhabit, only for us to recognise it as something we already know very well but have grown so accustomed to that we’ve stopped seing it. (For an example of the latter technique, see, for instance, Miéville’s The City and The City, which I discussed here, perhaps not strictly an SF book, but near enough to make the point).

The fact that SF provides useful tools for these purposes, is illustrated by frequency with which these tools are taken up by non-SF writers.   Orwell’s 1984, for instance, probably one of the most well-known books of the 20th Century, is not normally seen as an SF book, but it really is one.  In it Orwell warned about totalitarian tendencies he saw in the present by extrapolating forward to an imagined future in which they had become more obvious and pronounced.  (I can’t think of any book that has done better at showing how power turns words into the opposite of what they used to mean, and switches what is defined as good and bad to meet the exigencies of the moment).

Or look at the way that Kazuo Ishiguro (I wrote about him here) invented a society in which clones were bred to provide transplants, in his novel Never Let Me Go.  In this case, the SF idea is used more for metaphorical purposes and for purposes of estrangement (and when you think about it, what is a good metaphor but a way of shedding new light on a thing by comparing it with something different and unexpected, and so making it a little bit strange?) The people in the book attend school, get sent off to a place where they get to live in shared lodgings and write essays, and then begin the slow process of dying, bit by bit, as their bodies are harvested for organs.  It all feels pretty much like the life of anyone who starts out with hopes of achieving something individual and personal in their lives and ends up giving all their talents to the service of some impersonal organisational machine.

Or, here’s another of my favourite ‘non-SF’ writers, and one of the truly great writers of the 20th century: Doris Lessing.  She’s best known for the Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest series, but she’s been using SF tools throughout her career, from Briefing for a Descent into Hell (a book that was a complete revelation to me when I first read it), to Memoirs of a Survivor, through Shikasta and the rest of her Canopus series of novels, and onwards to books like Mara and Dan.   Some of these books use SF tools to explore the way society is going, others use them to explore more visionary and metaphysical ideas, some use them for both.

I could go on.  I could mention, for example, a book group favourite like Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveller’s Wife, which uses the SF notion of time travel (and some good old SF hocus-pocus about genes) to explore the dynamic and temporal nature of a human relationship,  by presenting a couple who go through the events of their relationship in two different orders.  I could also go on about specifically SF writers, who have written great books that everyone should know about.  (See, to give just one example, my review here of The Space Merchants, the brilliant capitalist dystopia by Pohl & Kornbluth that ought to be up there with 1984 and Brave New World.  Or see my recent comments on Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion.)  My point is this, though.  Yes, do judge a book by its depth, its breadth, its relevance to your life, its originality, its execution, but please don’t dismiss it just because of the genre label it happens to be given by the publishing industry.

For myself, yes, I make stuff up, like all fiction writers do, but I do it to help me do the best job I can of writing about the experience of real people, and the dynamics of real societies, and the mysteries of the real universe in which we live.

11 thoughts on “Special message to people who don’t read SF”

  1. Excellent post, Chris; I couldn’t agree more. I always assume it must grate with you guys when some mainstream author receives fawning plaudits for utilising a device that is old hat in the geeky ghettos of SF.

  2. Not sure I really can resent them for that, Colin, because I also tend to use devices that many might say are old hat (the man who falls in love with a robot, Adam and Eve in space… It’s how you tell ’em, I reckon).

  3. I couldn’t agree more having read a lot of the ‘non- SF’ books you mention. I’ve copied the beginning of your talk to put in the staff room at the library where I work. Doubt if it will have much effect but I keep battering away.
    Loved Dark Eden by the way and currently reading The Peacock Cloak

  4. Chris, I don’t know if you’ve read any of the recent award nominated sci-fi books but it seems to me we’ve turned a corner. The genre I once felt sure could be read by anyone is now the preserve of nerds and geeks (note that I consider myself to be a researcher, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).
    Right now I’m 60% of the way through America City and I say “thank heavens for a sci-fi author who can appeal to readers of all genres”.

  5. I’m really pleased you’re enjoying America City, David. I would hesitate to be quite as dismissive as you of contemporary SF, but I do share your concern that the genre has become more closed off, and less capable of interesting the general reader, than it was in the past.

  6. I did enjoy reading this piece Chris. I grew up in a similar timeframe to you, doubtless reading much of the same stuff, and can remember being intesely frustrated as a teenager by what I perceived as ‘tech to the exclusion of character’ in much of the sci-fi I was then reading – indeed it was a major factor which motivated me to start writing myself. We are indeed still fighting this perception today (David Wilson’s comment above suggests we may even be going backwards). I’ve always felt that the genre comes alive when it examines the effect of possible futures on the lives and feelings of real people, and for that you need strongly drawn characters. You do this very skilfully in the ‘Dark Eden’ books, which I’ve just finished and enjoyed immensely, and in so doing have much to say about social evolution, most peoples’ need for myths, and what is and isn’t admirable in the human spirit.
    Given your academic background, you may very well be aware of Robin Horton’s work, but if not, you may find this old paper interesting:- https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/africa/article/african-traditional-thought-and-western-science1/4FA115C7DC4FE6BADFAC444BB43FC59F
    I, too, have been interested to watch sci-fi’s increasing ‘humanisation’ over the past few decades, in part due to writers perceived as more mainstream, such as those you mention, stepping into the territory, but in at least equal part due to the efforts of sci-fi writers like yourself. Let’s keep chipping away at the wall!

  7. Thankyou for your kind words, Rob. No, I’m not familiar with Robin Horton’s work, I must admit. Sounds interesting. The thing that preoccupies me at the moment is the way that, even within a single society, we often make the mistake described in the abstract of this article: “Like Consul Hutchinson wandering among the Bubis of Fernando Po, they have taken a language very remote from their own to be no language at all”. That’s sort of the basis for my next book, Two Tribes.

  8. That’s exactly what Horton was saying Chris – that animist magical beliefs are simply an attempt, as is Western science, to render a chaotic world more predictable and therefore easier to live with, if not actually a safer place. The colonial West has so often forgotten that outwardly ‘primitive’ people are every bit as intelligent as ourselves, a point you make very well in the Eden books. Anyway I shall be looking out for Two Tribes, uncomfortably topical!

    btw one last thing – those were tantalising scenes with Starlight and the bats on her return across Greatpool – surely there has to be another novel in there somewhere?? I even caught myself wondering if the bats might be going to bring intelligence on the Johnfolk’s tactics!

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