Friday, April 13, 2007

Welcome to the ghetto

A science fiction writer who, like me, grew up in the Fifties was lamenting the other day that science fiction would never be respectable to the literary establishment (i.e., people who don't eat with their hands at awards banquets). I disagreed, reminding him of what it was like when we were teenagers and had to hide many of the magazine covers because of the semi-naked girls and the ridiculous monsters.

He said, yes, that was the obvious kind of snobbery. Who wouldn't make fun of reading material like that I( even though the reading material was downright sophisticated compared to the covers)? He mentioned that sf writers and producers and publishers today simply worked around the nature of their material. The way Heinlien had early on in his career. I wasn't sure what he meant by the H reference and he had to hang up before I could ask him to elaborate.

Then today I logged on to the WIRED website and-- (copyright 2007 WIRED)

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is set during a nuclear winter. Two survivors walk south, breathing toxic air, seeking out the continent's last canned food while ducking bands of flesh-eaters.

Describe it as "post-apocalyptic," as most critics did, or as a masterpiece of dystopian literature. Just don't call McCarthy's novel "science fiction."

Even when clearly appropriate, film studios and publishers avoid the phrase "science fiction." So do the novelists, film directors and editors in their employ. McCarthy's book, which is about to become a blockbuster -- Oprah Winfrey will tout it on an upcoming TV show as part of her book club -- is just another example of how the powers that be dodge the term, especially when it applies to "serious" fiction or cinema.

You won't find the words "science fiction" in Random House's bio of Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author China MiƩville. Instead, he's called the "edgiest mythmaker of the day." Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep? It's classified as comedy, drama, romance and fantasy, but not sci-fi, at

The nose-thumbing is nothing new. In the '50s, Robert Heinlein dismissed the term, opting for "speculative fiction." (What fiction isn't?)

Ed here: So I guess the nose-thumbing continues, eh? Mystery writers and readers shouldn't feel much better about their own genre. No matter how well mysteries sell a good share of reviewers, teachers and people who daub their lips with cocktail napkins at awards baquets still look at us as second- or maybe third-class citizens.

And I think that's probably good for us. A number of notable careers in sf and mystery alike have suffered when the writers began to take their reviews and/or sales too seriously. They get those cocktail napkins in their fingers and they don't stop daubing until they draw blood.


Unknown said...

Cormac didn't seem to mind that his book was available through the SF Book Club.

Nicole said...

Ed, here's the blog I was talking about:

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason is really first rate science fiction with down to earth & easy to identify with themes is very rare.

I've read may be 70% of every story Asimov & Clarke have written, & many that others wrote with in background. And I can find just three real worthies in this entire bunch:

Asimov's "Fantastic Voyage II - Destination Brain" - Will make a great teaching aid about our interior if someone could convert it to video.

Clarke's "Deep Range" - "" - May be futuristic, but taking farming to sea is not such a far fetched idea.

"Issac Asimov's Inferno", I think by Brin, not sure. What a fantastic hammer to dig a sea.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nicole. Ed

Anonymous said...

The intelligentsia reserve their biggest sneers for the western and romance genres!
I do my best to combat them over at, and Russell Davis is working hard on it the westernsfortoday blogspot. I'm hoping to see more participation in his admirable "saving the genre" debate.

Anonymous said...

Weirder still, the mixed responses to westerns and Novels/fiction of the West...the attempts to keep McMurtry away from the taint, the similar segregation of such folks as Sherman Alexie...and then there are sf's Friends Like These, such as the anonymous poster, whom I hope is joking.