A character from previous years re-appeared this week. (I say ‘re-appeared’ but that’s obviously from my perspective, I doubt they were hiding in a box until my attention was drawn their way.) Damien Walter, the former science-fiction critic from the Guardian, posted on the r/printSF reddit and the people there couldn’t decide if it was a jolly topic for debate or trolling. In the end they split the difference, retained the discussion but banned Damien Walter. Well, I guess online communities find ways of policing themselves.
He starts by observing a change about midway through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire (yes, I know) and then argues that:
“Asimov was a great writer on many levels. But it’s kind of fascinating that it takes him a few hundred pages to do what any novelist would be doing from the first page – get into his characters. This is what the lit folks mean when they say SF is badly written. There’s a whole set of techniques evolved over centuries of novel writing, SF often misses them all or in part. I’d argue SF is a different mode of fiction writing. One closer to creative non-fiction, because of its focus on ideas. But I’d also argue SF writers could do well to read a lot outside SF, to learn those other skills.”https://www.reddit.com/r/printSF/comments/iy3syl/what_do_the_literary_folks_mean_when_they_say/
There is a lot wrong with the argument but I think it was the general tone that upset people on the Reddit. However, let’s unwrap a few things.
- The specific example is a ‘novel’ that is two distinct novellas stuck together. The change in style is Asimov writing a distinctly different style of story.
- That aspect of older US-style science fiction is important when considering the styles and conventions of the genre. Much of it was published first in magazines and the medium influenced the genre.
- His example is a novel published in the 1950s from stories published in the 1940s. That’s not a great example on which to base a generalisation about what SF writers should do now.
- Do “lit folks” say SF is badly written? Is this really a thing? Maybe it is and maybe they are pointing at works from the 1950s? Plausibly somebody somewhere holds that opinion but an example of somebody notable would help here to frame the point.
- Is SFF a different mode of fiction writing (aside from it being a genre)? Specifically “one closer to creative non-fiction”? In general, I think not. I can see a case that SFF contains with it subgenres of fiction written using non-fictional conventions and certainly the Foundation + first half of Foundation & Empire has some of that quality — a fictional future history.
- …but if we do focus on that sub-genre of SFF, a writer intentionally writing fiction using non-fictional conventions is making a deliberate choice. Think about the example of a fantasy map. It’s fiction and it is SFF but the fact that it lacks characters or plot devices or reflections on the interior thoughts of a protagonist, isn’t because the fantasy map maker hasn’t read widely.
- More generally is it really the case that SFF writers are deficient in the skills of literary fiction? I’m not sure the question makes any sense. There are certainly some very accomplished writers and there isn’t a shortage of well written SFF. Are there also writers whose work is less skilled? Sure, but notable ones are writing stuff that works for them and their readers. Writing in a style that works for the story and the readers is a choice.
Horses for courses I guess. Understanding conventions, tropes, stylistic devices and deploying for the purpose of writing is the skill. Science Fiction and Fantasy as a very broad genre is unusual in containing within it notable stories and sub-genres that are highly conventionalised along with notable stories that are highly subversive of conventions. It’s a really big playground.