Mechanics and genre

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.”

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.

, ,

51 responses to “Mechanics and genre”

  1. On one hand, yes SF/F often has books that I refer to as “Idea Based” instead of “Character Based”, which frequently results in less well developed characters as the growth or change in the characters isn’t necessarily the point of the story, the idea is. That’s true! (The Foundation stories fit this mold, as do books like Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem trilogy, among many many others).

    On the other hand, that’s also true of other types of fiction! To use a classic novel, 1984 – which I guess couldve been called scifi at the time of publication but I think literary fiction authors would claim as their own – is idea based, without characters really mattering in terms of their depth. And when literary authors move into SF/F these days – and I’m not saying in any way that this is a bad thing – their novels are often far more dedicated to descriptions and ideas and concepts than characters too.

    The idea that there is anything here specific to the genre is total bullshit.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Perhaps Damien should go away and read some N.K. Jemisin and some Anne Leckie before he comes back to tell us that SF writers don’t know how to write.
    Or maybe he should just go away. I can settle for either.

    Liked by 6 people

    • And Yoon Ha Lee and Aliette de Bodard and Iain M. Banks and Ursula Le Guin and Terry Pratchett and Tamsyn Muir and like 100s of other authors.

      Does Damien Walter actually read any books or is he just a bullshit fountain that we can’t find the off-switch for?

      Liked by 5 people

      • It seems to me that he reads very few current books, since all of his literary examples are at least 35 years old, usually older. Which is his good right, but you can’t make pronouncements on the current state of the genre, if you don’t read current books.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The latter, I think.

        Even if he’s sticking with books that are over 35 years old, that still includes a ton of LeGuin and all of the New Wave.

        I looked at his bio on his website and he went to Clarion (!) with instructors Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link (!!!)

        So it’s not like he hasn’t been exposed to writers who do character and not hardware. It just didn’t take.

        (Says he grew up poor so I suspect he’s overcompensating for that, trying to impress his “betters” in that English class system way which over-respects old stuff.)

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’m British and grew up poor, but absolutely fuck the upper classes. Fuck the tories and the monarchy in particular. Those useless sacks of shit can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, let alone manage a worldwide crisis.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I have heard similar sentiments expressed by a literary organization’s board member–someone who has written for the New York Times and earned a certain degree of literary cred. Annnd…this was in reference to Ursula K. LeGuin.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I agree with Jessica. Damien Walter makes a key mistake when he assumes that Asimov is the end-all and be-all of style in science fiction. A lot has happened since 1951, which Foundation was published. We have left Asimov’s prose style far behind, and he didn’t even acknowledge that fact.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. He’s a troll.

    A few years back, out of the blue, from his Blue Check twitter account he dropped into my mentions after I had made some comment to a friend about our Apple Watches. He informed me that the Apple Watch was an absolutely waste of time and that no one should consider buying one until Apple wised up and put GPS in it.

    I replied, “Like the GPS my model has, which Apple released six months ago?”

    His reply was simple, “Oh, really?”

    And since I had no idea why a columnist for the Guardian had decided to lecture me, a nobody, on my tech choices, I replied, “Maybe before scolding strangers about tech you should make sure your information is up to date?”

    He blocked me.

    I didn’t think much of him before that, but since then, he’s nothing by a troll so far as I’m concerned.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Walters is beginning to remind me of a columnist who used to cover a sports team I follow. This columnist’s entire schtick was to get under the skin of the fan base in often unfair ways in order to generate clicks. Trolling, like you said. Walters writing about Asimov has that feel to me.

      I know Walters reads modern SF. I actually subscribe to his newsletter (he offered some free content for signing up because of a writing class he was pushing). His best of the decade list looked reasonably, if heavily (and not unreasonably) weighted towards British authors. Claire North, Ted Chiang, Iain Banks, John Harrison, GRRM and Richard Kadrey has books on the list.

      Which makes it even more disappointing to see Walter try use a man whose best work was in the 1950s to complain about the field. I have to admit I think Asimov will be remembered as a footnote; some of his ideas will live on but his works will largely be forgotten.

      Liked by 4 people

      • The Three Laws of Robotics will likely live on with his name attached. Maybe he Foundation/Empire idea.

        Damien is a troll — and as Peter above pointed out, very Timothy-like.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Asimov’s work sent too many people into science and robotics and they pass the fiction down, so I don’t think that Asimov will be a footnote. Some of his short fiction is in school curriculums and remakes of films may well occur. Asimov is part of the lore of science fiction literature at this point.

        And that seems likely why Walter picked him specifically, not only in terms of writing demands but because Asimov’s work is liked by and inspirational to scientists. Easy to claim that the SF authors are all obsessed with science over storytelling, dry facts over the inner mind, when they quite clearly mostly are not and not that great at the sciency parts. Even Asimov was not so obsessed. Read Nightfall, a story that is fully centered on people’s psychological reactions to radical environmental change. Or his robot stories like “The Bicentennial Man.”

        So obviously Walter is making a proposition he doesn’t actually believe in. And from the sound of it, that was perhaps to garner attention for writing classes he’s giving? Anyway, it’s a very, very retro argument he’s making. All of these people playing the old literary versus genre song — it’s just dusty. But of course clinging to dusty is in right now because the world is actually substantially changing.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I’d forgotten about Damien — and will soon do so again. You can never be sure what he really believes because he’s always aiming to stir up a larger audience with his takes.

    I should be grateful to him — he kicked me out of his Facebook SF group because I challenged something he said. Just think of all the time I’d have wasted over the years if he hadn’t done me that favor. God bless you, Damien!

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Maybe Damien should read more WITHIN the genre. And learn to chec that nice copyright and previous-publication page.

    He’s basing his whole argument on two stories written before the majority of people on the planet today were born and by a man who’s been dead 40 years. Not much of a critical faculty.

    He should be assigned the last, say, 5 years of Hugo winners and forced to write a short paper on each before being allowed to open his yap again on the subject of SF.

    I bet he’s this clueless about everything, though. And probably enjoys thinking he’s some misunderstood geenyyus instead of a trolling plonker. No wonder he didn’t get on with Puppies — too much alike!

    (You know you’re an irredeemable troll when you get banned from Reddit, FFS.)

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I can remember back in the day, when some of the things Walter wrote actually made sense. But now I really have to wonder if he’s personally okay — this is just such a bizarre thing to write, a criticism of the current SF field based on a 70-year-old fix-up novel. This is not something that a person with full mental faculties would write.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. But, but, but….

    This year’s Hugo Best Novel winner was a story about a visitor to a declining interstellar empire that was clearly based on Byzantium, by an American Jewish author – exactly like the first half of “Foundation and Empire”. (And that is to completely ignore the facts that the the titles of the two books both end in “Empire”, and that the author of “A Memory Called Empire” is using a pseudonym, half of which was clearly stolen from the name of a character in “Second Foundation”.)

    Obviously, seeing this much in common between two science fiction works published nearly 75 years apart, nothing ever changes in science fiction – one does not even to need to look at the relative quality of the prose, the characterisations, the plot, the underlying historical research, one can simply assume that all of these will be the same. Ask Timothy!

    Liked by 5 people

    • And both authors live(d) with their wives, also writers!

      Speaking of mechanics, Damien is writing as the best radio mechanics ever to be in a Pixar movie often said: “unencumbered by rational thought.”

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I suppose we can be grateful that out-of-genre stereotypes have reached the early fifties. Was it so long ago that the same people dismissed it all as “that Buck Rogers stuff”?

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Asimov was popular, certainly, but his flat characters and pedestrian prose were sometimes derided even by his own contemporaries. Holding him up as some kind of archetype or exemplar of SF is just… not tenable. Has Damien Walter never read any Ray Bradbury? Or Alfred Bester?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Asimov is a deliberate bad example, because not only was he still developing as a writer by 1945, when the stories collected in Foundation and Empire were written, his grasp of characterisation was also notoriously weak. There are many SFF authors of the same era (Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Anthony Boucher, etc…) who were much better at characterisation.

      Liked by 2 people

      • He’s got a Bradbury quote prominently displayed on the bio section of his webpage FFS!

        Maybe he doesn’t read women; Moore and Brackett did decent characters back then. I just read one of Brackett’s hardboiled mysteries, and even in that restricted format the characters are vividly drawn. Could we trick him into some James tipree Jr? 😉

        And yes, his contemporaries even said Asimov was no good at characterization.

        Liked by 2 people

  12. “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.”

    There were two main arguments that used to be made decades ago and sometimes people regurgitate today to declare that SF was commercial, pulpy trash writing by hack authors, (which is why it was in mass market paperback in the wholesale market,) and that therefore non-SF SF — writing of worth, published in hardcover and outside the category market publishers — actually existed and could not be called science fiction. One was that those called science fiction authors were commercial, pulpy, trash hack writers, rather than any of them being literary stylists — whiz bang plots with all action and no thought, no imagery and metaphor, paper thin, wooden characters, ray guns, etc. The other was that category SF was dry, boring, unappealing, non-fiction like, focused on high minded science ideas rather than engaging storytelling techniques with plot, character and poetic language. Often these two arguments were made at the same time, even though they loosely contradict each other.

    Obviously Asimov wrote a lot of non-fiction, but his fiction, which widely varied in focus, contained if not great characterization, humorous dialog and a love of riddles and puzzles. Foundation is a series that contains adventure stories, political debates, and not a lot of science ideas compared to other stuff he wrote. Other writers wrote stories with more flare, melodrama, characterization, imagery and not a lot of science ideas. Most of the science fiction of the 1920’s to 1950’s didn’t have a lot of science ideas in it, unless you count meet an alien or shoot a space pirate or riding a dinosaur the equivalent of non-fiction science textbooks. The New Wave SF authors in the 1960’s and 1970’s, fifty, sixty years ago, made as their manifesto to write stylistic prose, concentrate on characters and explore sociological themes — occasionally using a science idea but just as often not. The reality is that only about 20% of old science fiction actually focuses on science ideas in anything resembling a non-fiction way. More recent science fiction actually has more science in it. It also has writers who are poetic, sociological, etc.

    More to the point, science fiction titles, whether they are published by general fiction publishers and sold in the general fiction area of bookstores or published by category SFF publishers and sold in the SF section of bookstores, are regularly marketed to both category SFF media and general media and in all book formats. The concept of a SFF ghetto — that “genre” fiction somehow was something uniform and restricted, walled off separately from the rest of fiction just because of who published it and limited to mass market paperback, pulp comics and magazines — trickled off in the late 1970’s and was pretty much gone to the public in the 1990’s when the wholesale market shrank anyway. (Now we have a YA “ghetto” which is just as weird an idea.) In a time of expanded e-books, high education and literacy rates and no longer rigid socioeconomic policing, the idea that, as in the old Beatles’ song, paperback writers and hardcover writers are two different species of writers produced by two different industries and serving two different social classes of readers is not just out of touch but kind of a Flat Earth myth.

    Walter has routinely in the last decade or so tired to be such a Flat Earther, which makes it kind of strange that he keeps trying to cover the SFF category market titles he clearly doesn’t like and likes to paint as one note. I remember when he did a column for The Guardian — I think the first time I’d heard of him — about how big fat epic fantasy had taken over fantasy fiction because George Martin had a hit t.v. adaptation. The argument would have made more sense in the early 1990’s almost twenty years before. In this case, he’s picked an old writer who himself claimed not to be a stylist but didn’t shy away from adventure stories. But Asimov also didn’t write whiz bang, fast paced “paperback” action either, so Walter can’t call him pulp (inferior.) So he calls the work the other one — dry and sciency non-fiction (inferior) and extends it to everything from John Carter of Mars to The Left Hand of Darkness to Ancillary Justice. “Here’s one (bad) example; everything is like this” seems to be his preferred style of commentary.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Well, it’s not like the Guarniad doesn’t have a looooong history of letting terrible people write terrible opinion columns.

      Liked by 3 people

  13. As far as “lit people” criticizing SF, I’m reminded of this excerpt from a Raymond Chandler letter in 1953:

    Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

    They pay brisk money for this crap?

    This is, arguably, the only SF actually written by Chandler, and although it’s pretty bad, you have to admit he scored a big win by predicting Google.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And yet Chandler sold a fantasy novelette to John W. Campbell at Unknown, so he was not as averse to SFF and particularly brisk money (Campbell payed well and promptly by pulp standards) as he claims.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Not surprising. Chandler was not a literary snob; “The Simple Art of Murder” is in fact a great essay exploring what genre literature is capable of. However, if you read it, you’ll also note that Chandler implicitly criticises authors who stick to mass-produced, trope-overdosed genre fiction as a crutch, or just a fast way to make money.

        I don’t think, given his other output, that Chandler was chiding SF as an entire genre, just the bad stuff; the SF equivalent of the bad pulp mysteries that get a hearty swipe in TSAoM. And frankly, by the 40s and 50s there was no equivalent of Dashiell Hammett yet (Chandler’s view of the pinnacle of the crime genre).

        Liked by 3 people

  14. This reminds me a lot of Kingsley Amis’ attitude to SF. But if Walter wants to talk about something from 60 years ago, he’d do a lot better to be upfront about it. I don’t think it is at all safe to assume that 60 year old writings from a man who died 25 years ago reflect the current attitudes of “literary folks”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Damien is trying to channel that UK SF v US SF distinction that was a thing (where Arthur C Clarke for example counts as US even though he was British) that’s really a pulp v serious-sf distinction dressed up in national distinctions.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It seems that particular debate (and thanks for putting it in such concise terms, which is more than I ever managed, even though I have been watching it from the sidelines for more than ten years now) is currently rearing its ugly head again. Also see the post by Nina Allan about the Clarke Award that Mike recently linked to at File 770.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Poor Iain Banks. I not only ran into bad Banks copies before I found the real Banks, but his work was constantly being held up as the pinnacle of SFF writing by a certain type of critic, usually while deriding everything else, particularly if written by Americans and deemed “too commercial” or “too old-fashioned”, that it prejudiced me against Banks from the start.

        I guess I should give Banks another try, while ignoring what idiots have said about him.


      • The Old Drift sounds interesting, but I have to say that a lot of British SF is not particularly challenging, goes very retrograde and has more than a solid dose of white colonialism to it. Of course right now both countries are busily trying to expel or repress anything that isn’t white colonialism, so that any of their authors try to do anything is fairly impressive for the last few years.

        Liked by 2 people

        • The Old Drift is by a US based writer originally from Zambia. I think the only British writer on the Clarke shortlist is Adrian Tchaikovsky.

          Liked by 3 people

      • But Clarke was so extremely British — specifically English! that’s why the award’s named for him. Even with Americanized spelling he was ever so English. He kept that old Zummerzet accent his whole life.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure that Part of my disappointment with this year’s shortlist lies in the lack of recognition for British talent. The Clarke is a British award, for novels published in Britain. This is one of the valuable and necessary ways it differs from the Hugos. is tantamount to a call to Cry havoc! And let slip the cyberhounds of internecine genre warfare! The Booker Prize (then the Man Booker Prize) stirred up an enormous amount of controversy in 2014 by deciding to make any English-language novel published in the UK eligible, whereas previously only Commonwealth, Irish and South African (and later Zimbabwean) writers had been eligible. Given the enormous commercial dominance of the USA in English-language publishing, this is hardly a surprising reaction.*

        @Kat: I have to say that a lot of British SF is not particularly challenging, goes very retrograde and has more than a solid dose of white colonialism to it. Funny, that’s my reaction to a lot of American SF.

        *There are ironies here: British writer Tade Thompson’s superb Rosewater was originally published in the US by small (perhaps “tiny” would be more accurate) press Apex Books, and sank like a stone. It was then published several years later in the UK by Orbit and won the Clarke Award last year.


      • Phil: Oh yes, U.S. science fiction has quite a lot of that as well, as I noted. I was responding to this Nina Allan’s essay where she’s trying to say that the U.S. SF has it and thus is a destroying influence on the Clarke award and the British SF doesn’t, which has not been my experience. The U.S. version channels it into our Westerns myth, while the Brit version sticks to the gumption of Empire. So it’s not terribly surprising to learn that The Old Drift comes out of Zambia instead.

        I don’t think that some of the goals Allan hopes for are bad ones at all. I do think that what Allan wants to see happening on the nomination list for the Clarkes can’t regularly happen precisely because of attitudes like Allan’s. The attitude of “those rude, not progressive Americans being chosen by an inept award jury” and of supposed literary genius over supposedly mediocre genre writing are all rooted also in imperialism and white supremacy dancing with social class caste systems. Once you start trying to tout a national identity over others, and in particular a white supremacy nationality (indeed the Brits invented it,) and try to treat it as a matter of dueling, supposedly monochrome national identities, that’s just myth making. It’s also, obviously, reductionism, which makes a good hook for an article, review or essay, but is intellectually lazy, IMO.

        Mainly, Allan’s attempt to dis the Hugo’s in favor of the Clarke’s means she can produce her personal preferences and feelings but really can’t offer anything meaningful beyond that about science fiction. This is rather interesting in reference to ye old Pups, though, as they of course kept at first trying to paint the Hugo’s as having become an out of touch, literary elite award and thus bad, with Allan going the other way. It’s the old falsity both tried to use that anything deemed artistic cannot be popular — is only of interest to the gentry, the educated, well off intellectuals, and anything popular is supposedly only of interest to the peasants, the commercial, trashy hoi polloi. That’s not progressive and has never been accurate analysis of fiction. It’s stunted.

        Apex Books is the small press arm of the old Apex Magazine and it doesn’t have the distribution and marketing heft. Bookstores will stock the titles but not a lot of them. Often word of mouth can counter this, but even for large publishers, word of mouth is not controllable or predictable. Distribution can, however, make enough people aware of a book that word of mouth can get rolling. It’s got nothing to do with the character make-up of readers in a country and everything to do with luck, timing and some still annoying aspects of bookselling. So when Orbit UK published the book, they got awareness out more widely and reissued the book in the U.S. by buying rights from Apex. People who had read the Apex version then could more easily pass word of mouth to friends who could find it, etc.

        To use another example in the older, different bookselling world, Lord of the Rings was published as one tome in hardcover in the U.S. It did not sell very well; people weren’t that aware of it. But when the U.K. publisher put out the book broken into a trilogy in paperback, those paperbacks migrated to the U.S. and word of mouth and demand increased for a U.S. paperback option. So much demand and word of mouth that Berkley Ace used a copyright loophole to put out an illegal version and sold a lot, followed by the official version which sold mega amounts. Did the nature of American SFF readers substantially change in the few years between the hardcover U.S. publication and the paperback U.S. publications? No, they just became more aware of the work’s existence and then spread word of mouth like wildfire, which translated into sales. Happens a lot; it’s just that now awareness of a work can be more easily and globally made electronically but books are also more expensive, like everything else, and there are millions more of them. Which is why the success or lack of success of a title tells you little culturally about the readers in that country.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I did not get an impression of Nina Allan dissing the Hugos. There was only one of the Hugo/Clarke nominees that she felt was a dud. Her second favorite Clarke nominee was one of the Hugo nominees, and she had some good things to say about the Hugo winner/Clark nominee as well. She was pointing out how unusual it was for there to be so much overlap, and how she didn’t like to see that and wondered how it happened considering the possibilities.

          Liked by 1 person

      • @Kat: As Laura has already pointed out, that’s not what Allan is arguing at all. I leave it to the interested reader to peruse Allan’s essay (linked above) and decide for herself.

        Apex Books is the small press arm of the old Apex Magazine and it doesn’t have the distribution and marketing heft. No kidding – that’s why I referred to it as a tiny press. I assumed the implications of that fact didn’t need to be spelled out.


      • It’s not like the US Western expansion (and the books and movies about it) is any less about white supremacy and imperial ambition. It’s just we mostly did it on only one continent instead of worldwide.


Blog at

%d bloggers like this: