So, a lot of my genre writing friends are upset at Ian McEwan’s casual dismissal of science fiction in an interview about his new novel, Machines Like Me, which, by all measures of the term, is definitely science fiction, entailing alternate history and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read the book but a copy is winging its way to me as I type. I expect I will read it soon and will either love it or hate it. That’s how I feel about all of McEwan’s books.
I suppose the dissing of SF by McEwen is particularly galling, especially since we only recently got Margaret Atwood to acknowledge that maybe she has been writing SF all along. McEwen is not exactly nobody, winner of both the Whitbread and Booker prizes, with several of his novels made into films.
I actually expect that in both Atwood’s case and McEwen’s, the dismissal of SF was genuine and heartfelt but came from a place of ignorance and stand as a direct corollary of Sturgeon’s Law.
Theodore Sturgeon once opened his Guest of Honour speech at the World Science Fiction Convention with the words “90% of science fiction is crap” before relieving the stunned audience by adding “90% of everything is crap.”
Given that literary writers either don’t read much SF but get it from movies (where 90% is more like 94% IMHO) or, if they do, only occasionally or in their teen years. Chances are, if Sturgeon is correct, that all they were ever exposed to was, in fact, crap. I mean, imagine if your primary exposure to SF was the John Norman Gor novels, you, too, might have a low opinion of SF.
The whole war between literary and genre fiction is a bit of a phony one any way. Some say it began when literary writers got jealous of how much money genre writers seemed to be making while they were struggling in garrets, but, given McEwen’s success, that can hardly be a factor there. Another one may be that it is fashionable for literary writers to look down on genre writers as somewhat less capable or educated or as pandering to the masses. None of that was ever true, in particular. Most golden age writers were either experienced journalists or, more likely, people with science or engineering degrees (rather than English majors). Autodidacts were no more or less common in SF than they were in the literary book shelves. And as for pandering to the masses, it was remarkable how hard some writers tried to do exactly that. Hemingway and Tennessee Williams constantly worried about how to increase their popular exposure.
Besides, the disdain goes both ways. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard genre writers of all stripes dismiss the quality of literary books and the character of their authors. And I’m sure with McEwen there has to be a little of: Damn it, he’s pouching in my forest when I’m barely making a living.
Personally, I think the line between genre and literary is a one with blurred edges and significant gaps, no matter how vigorously both sides try to defend the ramparts. And that is all for the good. One of the ways to ensure you fall in the 90% bracket is to narrow your focus and exclude exceptional works of whatever style. Maybe that’s what changed Atwood’s mind—someone exposed her to the 10% of SF that isn’t crap.
And that’s 10 minutes.