Genre Fiction and its Poponents

A couple of weeks back, during a discussion about the Miles Franklin Award, I alluded to the fact that the sf genre had gained a level of critical acceptance if not respectability.

It used to be that sf writers came to despise the "science fiction" label and aimed to achieve a greater level of acceptance from the general reading public by removing the tag and by having their books placed in the general literary section of bookshops. "Non-sf" authors occasionally ventured into the sf field, mostly with results which annoyed sf fans, due to a lack of understanding of sf tropes, and astounded the general readership for what was perceived as innovation. The fact that both these conditions could hold for the one novel said much about the ghetto nature of most sf.

But times have changed and we now find a number of major novellists exploring sf themes or using sf devices to structure their work. Jonathan Strahan, on his eblog "Notes From Coode Street", points to one such recent novel: "Michiko Kakutani reviews Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union in "The New York Times" today. I honestly have little time or interest in the discussion of how genre fiction is or isn't viewed in the mainstream, or even in the divide between genre and mainstream, but I was struck by how the one thing that Kakutani repeatedly praised is Chabon's world-building skills. The novel, which I'm reading at the moment, is an alternate history, and a good one. The only possible thing that might set it apart from genre alternate histories (and this is a big maybe) is that the alternate history element of the story is pretty much used only as setting, while the story focusses on other matters. That is to say, the alternate history isn't the point of the story." It's interesting that a major critic like Kakutani would praise an author for a portion of their book which seems to have little relevance. It's almost as if they hadn't seen this type of thing before. Alternate histories, world-building? That's old stuff, sf-wise.

Last night, on the First Tuesday Book Club broadcast on ABC TV, two books were discussed which were, in most respects, sf novels. And yet, the terms "sf" or "science fiction" were, to my tired ears, never mentioned. Kurt Vonnegut started as an sf writer and was one of the first major authors to move from the field out into the mainstream world. He was later followed by such authors as William Golding, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, among many others. But Slaughterhouse Five is considered by many to be a great sf novel, though not, it seems, by the general reading public.

The same can be said of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's basically a post-apocalyptic novel, much in the same way that Walter M Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Edgar Pangborn's Davy, and Russell's Hoban's Riddley Walker depict worlds devasted by nuclear war. We've had the world destroyed by war, alien invasion, drought, water, wind, cosmic collision, solar detonation and plague. We've even had cannibalism featuring pretty much up front in A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison. There's nothing new here. It has been done before. But as good as this? Well, that's another question.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on May 2, 2007 12:09 PM.

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