I’ve been very happily reading a stream of wonderful science fiction lately. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Casual Angel, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, and now William Gibson’s The Peripheral. I’m just at the beginning of The Peripheral and what strikes me most is how Gibson throws you in. You really have no idea, except in the broadest way, what is going on. Not entirely lost, but not exactly sure either. I like that in a novel. There have been some wonderful interviews with Gibson just lately. Io9’s interview talks about cognitive dissonance and the need for a science fiction reader to develop a way of reading that allows them to go with the flow. And yet Gibson is so full of details. Especially of modern materials: polymers, resins, plastics, tech.
And, of course, I’ve seen Interstellar. No confusion there. (I asked my family, who haven’t and won’t see it, to predict in which order the four characters who travel into space die/meet their fate. They got it right.) It’s both magnificent and flawed. So relentlessly American. (Surely some other nations will be up there in space come the apocalypse or even, foolishly optimistic thought, an international team) But wonderful, nonetheless.
All this talk of science fiction and space makes me miss Iain Banks. There’s a 2010 interview he did with Jude Roberts up at Strange Horizons. Sigh.
Mostly when I think about genre classification, I think the distinctions are not really worthy of discussion. Too many blurred lines. Poor Mr Banks, for example, forced to gain or shed an M., depending on the book. Same author, same mind. Right now, I’m happily reading Jennifer Egan’s Black Box as a twitter feed from The New Yorker. There’s definite science fiction, techno, thriller aspects there. And it’s wonderful literary writing.
Sometimes I feel something like this cartoon by Tom Gauld:
But, every now and then, I feel embarrassed, apologetic, shy about my love of spec fiction and my desire to write something beautiful and literary and yet full of robots, magic, time travel and portents (or a similar mix!)
Lev Grossman’s recent article in Time has some very interesting points to make about genre. I love his idea of plot as a meaningful literary device. I am intrigued by his categorisation of literary fiction as a genre. Typified by an intense interest in the psychology of the characters, perhaps? (having just read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom) Although as soon as I write that I think: unfair. What about Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire, a literary fantasy if ever there was one, and very preoccupied with character psychology and interactions. I do think Grossman is right to say criticism has failed genre writing. It will be interesting to see if it ever catches up.
Ursula LeGuin advocates another approach altogether and she makes some good points.
But finally, some Kurt Vonnegut wisdom:
The arts are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.
And what else really matters?