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June 6, 2008

Science Fiction And Literature (Yet Again)

If you are not bored of the never ending SF vs Literature debate Jake Seliger has an essay on the subject. He begins:

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

...and continues...

...the more science fiction I read, the more I realize so much of it just doesn’t have the skill in narrative, detail, character, sympathy and complexity, language, and dialog that readers of literary fiction demand. I still like a lot of science fiction, but most of it now causes me to roll my eyes and skip pages: characters have no life, the books have no lifeness, clichés abound, and strong setups devolve into variations on cowboys and indians.

He uses Day Of The Triffids as an example of not great literature. Well, yes. That's not exactly a surprise though is it?! But there's as many crap "Literary Novels" as there are SF novels. And there are plenty of SF novels that can be considered "literary". If you're short of ideas may I suggest reading all of the Clarke Award shortlists as a start.

Something I tend to agree with more is the discussion about SF novels and length and series. Jake says:

...one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started.

Most modern SF is around that length (or much longer), yet there's loads of great classic SF that's plenty shorter. But as usual I can find exceptions both The Road and The Carhullan Army are (excellent) modern SF novels which are surely shorter than 100,000 words (just looking at their thickness on my shelf).

As regards sequels, they generally annoy me unless the whole story is envisaged as a finite multi-book arc - in other words one story published as many books ala The Baroque Cycle. Yet there are exceptions to that too, The Culture, and The Sprawl series to name just two.

And in the end, it's a business, and the publishers decide what they want, going on what they think sells.

It's easier just to give up on generalisations, because a good novel is a good novel, no matter how many words, or what genre, or how much it sells .

1 Comment

Sirens of Titan by Karl Vonnegut is easily below 100,000 words and is a classic of SF... and deserved of being called literature.

And having read the supposed critically acclaimed and Booker Prize shortlisted "If No-one Speaks Of Remarkable Things" by Jon McGregor last week I can say with some authority that not all supposed literary works are worth more than kindling for my fire.