I found out several years back, when my career started wobbling, that my dad, concerned, wondered aloud to my mom, “Why’s he writing science fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to do something people will buy?”
Of course, he didn’t understand that the odds of making money at writing are pretty much the same in any genre, that it’s as much luck as talent, more than a little being in the right place at the right time sort of cosmic alignment, and personalities are always involved. There’s a bit of playing the lottery in trying to launch a writing career. Once you start publishing, it’s natural to think things will get easier or at least more predictable. But stability is a distant shore you keep rowing toward. You bump into a lot of other boats on the way.
His concern was over financial matters and it might not appear evident to anyone not involved in the writing business how these things play out. In my own case, I will say that it might not have mattered what I chose to write about, the trajectory might have been much the same. The business aside, though, the question has validity in terms of the artistic choices we make. Why this and not that? What is it that inspires you to do what you do and not something else?
I’m currently working on a new novel. As I’m writing, I find myself venturing more and more into what is recognizably literary mainstream. The choices I’ve been making about the way I approach the characters and the themes feel less genre-soaked. I sense I’m pitching my prose toward a wider audience. That said, it is definitely science fiction, insofar as I’ve set it in the future and I’m talking about the changes in human conditions brought about by technological and cultural shifts. I’m very interested in how then will be different from now.
Isn’t that what “mainstream” does as well? Detail the difference in a character that emerges after a series of transformational events? Trace the path of those changes and show how people evolve over time, under pressure?
As far as I can tell, the chief difference between mainstream and science fiction lies in the nature of the change. In mainstream, characters evolve in perfectly recognizable ways to become something perfectly recognizable to our current apprehension and experience. In science fiction, those changes connote differences we may not recognize and cannot yet achieve because they require the world around us to be different. That “What If” in science fiction is qualitatively different and sometimes quantitatively distinct.
Yet it’s still change. It’s about character.
One of the clearest distinctions between SF and Literary Fiction I ever read put it this way: science fiction always privileges premise over character. In other words, the normal SF story is about its conceit more than it is about its people. I can understand that, but then I have to ask: Well, isn’t the standard historical novel more about the history than it is about the people in it? I pick on historical fiction because it shares the most with science fiction in terms of approach and purpose. Both are about people in conditions and contexts separated from the here and now by distinct differences in culture and technology.
(I could point out here that, even were this to be generally accepted, received wisdom would make the fact that Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies, winning the Man Booker Prize raised almost no eyebrows, but had something like Ann Leckie’s currently much-praised novel Ancillary Justice even shown up on the long list for that esteemed Literary award there would have been dismay and more than a smidgen of ridicule.)
To be fair, a great deal of science fiction has treated the changes in technology and culture like suggestive exoticisms rather than as serious considerations. A lot of this may have to do with maturity more than any inherent problem with the conceits themselves. Speaking for myself, when I began writing (as a teenager especially) I included as much strange stuff as I could imagine simply because it was strange. It rarely served the story, not because I didn’t want it to, but because firstly I thought the strangeness was the point and secondly because I had a long way to go before I understood how one makes such things relevant to the story.
Insofar as science fiction emerged from an adolescent-driven pool of interest, this makes perfect sense. In my own case, it was many years before I found myself consciously caring about character. I was most interested in event, in novelty, in that exoticism I mentioned. I was interested in the “coolness” of the thing, not the emotional inner lives of the people living in that coolness. No more than I cared about the personal insecurities and childhood regrets of any of the gunslingers in the westerns which I also indulged because of their innate coolness. In that case we wouldn’t necessarily call it exoticism, but it was. It wasn’t here or now, which seemed dull and annoying.
With growing experience and maturity we eventually discover that, on a fundamental level, it really always has been a question of character that brought us back again and again to the particular stories we loved. We just didn’t think of it in those terms or have the intellectual or emotional stuff to recognize and expect more from that part of the story. We could grasp the emotional significance of swords and guns, or spaceships and rayguns, but not be equipped to handle an existential crisis in the midst of the changed milieu in which the story was set. That milieu seemed easier to grasp, like next year’s new car models or a new fashion just on the scene. Experience teaches, gradually, that such things have little value with the viewpoint of the people living with them.
So the question becomes, since character eventually emerged to dominate my concerns, why then do I still write science fiction?
Because that appreciation of the exotic and the cool factor did not erode simply because my appreciation for what others hold to be all-important grew. Because I am in many ways still 12 years old. And lastly (though not, perhaps, finally) the world seems to have caught up with science fiction and to do it honestly and rigorously and with due attention to all æsthetic concerns demanded of good art is to write perfectly good Literary Fiction. If we can regard stories about England under Henry VIII as “literary” then we can so regard stories about the interstellar diaspora. Both eras may be equidistant in terms of relevance to the present and both may serve as substrates for telling us things about ourselves.
Finally, though, I write it because I love it and to do any art really well love has to be involved. I may be able to write an essay about something I find only somewhat amusing or interesting but my ficti0n requires viscera and I’m only able or willing to supply that if I am in love.
Although my reading is no longer largely science fiction and I have grown pickier about it than I was in times past, a good science fiction story still pumps my imagination and drives my senses more than any other form. It takes a lot of work to write fiction and if I’m going to devote that much to it I’m only going to do so if I love it. I find that while I feel just as strongly for individual works in other genres, I do not feel that way about other genres in toto. If they were neighborhoods, I’d only want to live in the SF district. I can visit the others as much as I want, but I’ve built my house on the Foundation of science fiction.
And I can’t tell you how pleased it makes me to see other neighborhoods adapting the style and coming here to visit more often.
All that said, it does sometimes pain me to see so much in the field still written as if the neighborhood was still under siege, a ghetto where a certain want of technique is regarded as a kind of gang color and a regard for more refined observations as a sign of defection, where the obstinate insistence that fine writing—which can only really derive from closer scrutiny, greater empathy, and more honest assessments of character—is somehow the mark of someone who doesn’t “get” SF, and where the simple recognition that the world and therefore the universe is a multiplying heterogeneous metaplex and should be written about as such is a form of betrayal. Genuine experience must be conveyed through the lens of genuine observers, i.e. characters who are real and complex as we can make them. This is the only way to deal out truth, which at the end of the day is our stock in trade.
At least, that’s my opinion.
And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is why I still write science fiction.