Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Frederic Jameson’

SF and Literary Fiction

Bruce Pennington,

As some of you probably know, I’ve spent a lot of the last year or two reading and thinking about SF. I’m still grappling with a number of questions about the relationship between SF and more conventional literary fiction (for what it’s worth I do think it makes sense to speak of the two as discrete, if overlapping entities), but I’ve been very taken by three things I’ve read in recent months.

The first is from Ken MacLeod, a writer I admire very much (and anybody who’s trying to think through the longer terms implications of Wikileaks could do worse than read his excellent 2007 novel, The Execution Channel), who concludes a discussion of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia by making a point that’s been made before but deserves to be made again:

“SF literalises metaphor. Literary fiction uses science as metaphor. In Sputnik Caledonia, the parallel world is a metaphor of what is lost in every choice. That’s why the book is literary fiction and not SF, and is all the better for it. ‘What might have been’ functions in SF as a speculation. In Sputnik Caledonia, as in life, it’s a reflection that we seldom have occasion to make without a sense of loss.”

The second is from Paul McAuley’s blog, Unlikely Worlds (McAuley has been one of my favourite SF writers since the mid-1990s, and as I mentioned in my Best Books of 2010 post a while back, his most recent novel, Gardens of the Sun, is both beautiful and very moving). Responding (with what seems to me considerable forbearance) to Edward Docx’s idiotic piece about the crapness of genre fiction Paul suggests Docx’s argument proceeds from a false assumption about the relationship between genre writing and its audience:

“Bad genre writers pander to the expectations of their readers; good genre writers subvert those expectations; great genre writers, like Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, or John Crowley, transcend them, completely rewriting conventions or using them for their own ends. And while there may not be any genre writers who can match, sentence for sentence, literary writers at the top of their game – Saul Bellow, say, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez – there are certainly a good number who can match the middle ranks of their literary counterparts. Who aren’t content with utilitarian prose and (quoting Wood again) “selection of detail [that] is merely the quorum necessary to convince the reader that this is ‘real’, that ‘it really happened’”, but want to bring life to their pages by selecting the best possible words in the best possible order.”

And finally there is this, from Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, also quoted recently on Paul’s website:

“The conventional high-culture repudiation of SF – its stigmatization of the purely formulaic (which reflects the original sin of the form in its origin in the pulps), complaints about the absence of complex and psychologically “interesting” characters (a position which does not seem to have kept pace with the postcontemporary crisis of the “centred subject”), a yearning for original literary styles which ignores the stylistic variations of modern SF (as Philip K. Dick’s defamiliarization of spoken American) – is probably not a matter of personal taste, nor is it to be addressed by way of purely aesthetic arguments, such as the attempt to assimilate selected SF works to the canon as such. We must here identify a kind of generic revulsion, in which this form and narrative discourse is the object of psychic resistance as a whole and the target of a kind of literary “reality principle”. For such readers, in other words, the Bourdieu-style rationalizations which rescue high literary forms from the guilty associations on unproductiveness and sheer diversion and which endow them with socially acknowledged justification, are here absent.”

Or, as Paul pithily puts it:

“attempts to appeal to the gatekeepers of the high literary citadel by pointing out that SF is firmly rooted in the present, that it extrapolates and amplifies current nightmares and obsessions, or that it explores alternate social structure through utopian or dystopian constructions, are, even though valid, pointless. . . Better to turn away from that and address the great luminous question that SF should make its own: what do you mean by reality, anyway?”