UK Lit Wrestles With Sci-Fi TagS

When is science fiction not science fiction? When it's literature, according to British journalist David Barnett, who's noticed that British authors aren't necessarily happy to call their books "science fiction" if they can help it.

Writing for the Guardian newspaper, Barnett looks at the way that recent fiction releases (such as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway and Jeanette Winterson's Stone Gods) have avoided being labeled as science fiction despite containing very clear SF influences:

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway has just had its paperback release, and is a tour-de-force of ninjas, truckers, Dr Strangelove-type military men, awe-inspiring imagery and very clever writing. It's also undeniably science fiction. Harkaway is an unrepentant fan of the genre, but his publishers William Heinemann have taken a lot of care not to market the book as such. Harkaway himself said in a recent interview: "I suppose the book does take place in the future, but not the ray-guns-and-silver-suits future. It's more like tomorrow if today was a really, really bad day." It's this cartoon imagery of science fiction that least appeals to serious writers and readers. Or, as Margaret Atwood put it more bluntly and infamously: "Science fiction is rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space."

...Perhaps the problem is that our present has caught up with the future presented to us by the pioneers of science fiction. Back in the 40s and 50s, when bright-and-shiny/dark-and-dangerous futures were given to us by the pulps, they were truly beyond anyone's ken. Now we are actually living in a science fiction future, is it fair to label a novel that extrapolates from what is possible today to what will probably be possible tomorrow, such as Oryx and Crake, as a flight of fancy, no more than a fairy story?

Is it just me, or is there more than a little genre-snobbery going on here? I mean, hasn't science fiction always had a (large) element of "extrapolat[ing] from what is possible today to what will probably be possible tomorrow"?

Science fiction: the genre that dare not speak its name [Guardian Unlimited]