Some of our favorite science fiction authors appear to have left SF behind, after creating stories that live with us forever. We asked Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, Samuel R. Delany and Mary Doria Russell why they left the genre.
I was talking to some friends online about the writers we miss the most from science fiction, and these four's names came up again and again. So I was moved to get in touch with them and ask them if they thought it was true that they'd stopped writing science fiction. And if so, why was this the case? Their answers say as much about the genre as a whole as they do about the individual writers.
Mary Doria Russell wrote the breathtaking first-contact novel The Sparrow and its sequel, Children Of God. Since then, she's written two historical novels, A Thread Of Grace and Dreamers Of The Day. She writes:
My husband and I talked this over last night, and it's not clear to us that anything significant changed when I began my third novel. I didn't decide to switch genres. I simply told a third story, and then a fourth, and now a fifth.
SSF and historical fiction make similar demands on an author. They both require you to imagine as fully as possible a time and place that are not your own. In all my novels, there is an ironic and distanced narrator who knows a lot more than the characters about their past and future. And there is always an awareness of the contemporary limitations of technology and ideology, and of how those limitations affects lives.
In my personal life, the most unconventional thing about me is how relentlessly conventional I am have remained for nearly six decades. I married my high school sweetheart almost 40 years ago. I was a PTA mom who stayed at home to raise my kid. Don and I still live in a Cleveland suburb and I'm on the City of South Euclid's Planning and Zoning Commission, for crissakes. At the same time, intellectually, I am drawn to borderlands and to the people who inhabit them: marginal natives, newcomers, travelers, people who don't fit and who therefore have an interestingly slanted view of the cultures they inhabit. Remember: I was an anthropologist long before I was a novelist. We are trained to seek out marginal natives; no one can give you a better perspective on aspects of culture that statistically normal people simply accept as, well, normal.
Admittedly: I have turned out to be kind of a genre slut. I will stand on the literary street corner and get into any genre that drives by and offers to take me to a good par-tay. And sometimes I don't go home with the one who brung me to the dance.
THE SPARROW is first contact SF; it is also a courtroom drama a lot like THE CAINE MUTINY. CHILDREN OF GOD is obviously SF, but it's also a three-generation family saga. Both are prolonged meditations on the role of religion in the lives of many people and in human history from the Age of Discovery to the Space Age. A THREAD OF GRACE is a World War II thriller, and a natural history of resistance movements. It also lets readers think about the two questions that every Holocaust novel must address: How could this have happened? What would I have done?
DREAMERS OF THE DAY is about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference and the invention of the modern Middle East, but it's also sort of a romance, and it ends as magical realism, complete with Egyptian gods and a bitchy little tiff between Napoleon and General George McClellan. And I'm almost finished with EIGHT TO FIVE, AGAINST.
This new book is in some ways a classical Western about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but I see John Henry Holliday as a heartbreaking figure: born in the antebellum South, educated in the North for a professional life in the East, trying not to die on the rawest frontier of the West. Doc might as well have been THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH: frail, lonely and desperately homesick, surrounded by people who are not nearly as sophisticated or educated as he was. At the same time, this story is a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878.
So I guess what this all adds up to is: who gives a shit about labels? I write about what fascinates me, and I use whatever tools seem best suited to do the job at hand. What happens after that is marketing.
Karen Joy Fowler wrote Sarah Canary, which is widely viewed as a type of first-contact novel. Her story "What I Didn't See" won a Nebula Award, and she co-founded the James Tiptree Jr. Award for speculative fiction stories that consider gender in new and interesting ways. (Full disclosure: I was a Tiptree juror.) Her more recent novels, The Jane Austen Book Club and Wit's End, have fewer overtly fantastical elements. She tells io9:
So this is something I've been thinking hard about ever since I published Wit's End. I've just finished yet another of my maybe-they're-aliens-maybe-they're-not stories, (Gardner Dozois calls this the "is that a dinosaur in the shadows?" stories) and am about to write an incontrovertible ghost story.
Here are some of the things I've been thinking.
1) I don't set out to write in any genre; that's just not my working method. I start with whatever I have, some tiny incoherent image that I hope to make into a story. And then I take what I need to make that story work. Maybe what I need comes from science fiction, but maybe not. I won't know until I write it.
2) I'm really interested in genre and draw a lot of energy from it. So even if the things I write aren't, strictly speaking, genre piece, they all seem to be in conversation with genre in some way. (I like mysteries as much as I like sf, by the way.)
3) What I love most about science fiction is the short fiction. Almost all my short fiction spins around a science fictional idea even if the resulting story isn't quite sf. Charles Brown of Locus told me once that I'm a science fiction writer because I think like a science fiction writer and I was enormously flattered and hope that's true.
4) But even if it is, mystery writing with its emphasis on plot and sf writing with its emphasis on tech don't really play to my strengths.
SWhat I noticed with Wit's End was that my most sympathetic reviews came from inside sf or mystery. The literary reviews were more baffled and less pleased. People have asked me repeatedly if I think my story "What I Didn't See" is sf and I can't say that I do. But what is very clear to me is that I wrote it for sf readers. And what became clear with Wit's End is that I'm always writing for sf readers. Science fiction readers enjoy figuring things out and don't mind being puzzled for long stretches. They read in a very active way. And that's the way I read and those are the readers I'm trying to please.
So — what I'm asking myself now is: if my ideal readers are sf readers, doesn't it seem, well, logical, that I would please them most by writing sf? Which is really what they want to read? And I'm not sure I can be anything but the writer I am. But I'll keep trying.
One final point. In the last couple of weeks I've read about toxoplasma — the parasite that alters our behavior until we're simply pawns in the paws of housepet cats; a woman in India found guilty of murdering her fiance based on her brain scan; a site on the internet where for a monthly fee a computer will pray for you ceaselessly. Stan Robinson says we all live in a science fiction novel now and it's clearly true. So I truly believe that science fiction is realism now and literary realism is a nostalgic literature about a place where we once lived, but no longer do.
Nicola Griffith won the Tiptree Award and the Lambda Literary Award for her first novel, Ammonite, and the Nebula and another Tiptree for her second novel, Slow River. She co-edited two queer speculative fiction anthologies in the Bending The Landscape series. Her last few novels have been crime fiction, and her most recent book is a memoir. She says:
I'm a native of sf. You can't leave that kind of thing behind. Just as everyone I meet in the US knows I'm English, everyone who reads my work knows I'm a skiffy geek. It doesn't matter how long I've been away; my English sf upbringing colours my accent, my attitude, my vocabulary. It's who I am.
But I've been visiting home more often lately.
I've just written my first short story in years and it's sf—it will be in Eclipse Three, out in December. I've been outlining a screenplay—it's sf. I've written chunks of, and have most of an outline for, an alternate history/sword swangin' fantasy novel. My recent favourites in film and TV are all skiffy extravaganzas—Iron Man, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood. My last two essays were all about sf (one is even called "Identity and SF"). I just wrote the intro to the new edition of Leigh Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon. The only anthologies I've ever edited were fantasy, sf, and horror. I've just agreed to be a GoH at the Atlanta queer geekvent, OutlantaCon, next year.
Yes, the next novel I plan to publish is a 7th C. historical — but, hey, think of it as basically a big fat fantasy novel with no magic.
So, no, I haven't left. I'm still part of sf, and it's part of me.
Samuel R. Delany became a published science fiction author at the age of twenty, and wrote the Nebula Award-winning novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. His novel Dhalgren is considered one of the most important works in the genre, and his other novels include Nova, Triton and Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. Since the mid-1980s, he's focused on writing literary fiction, essays and erotica. He talked to us by phone yesterday, and here's what he said:
I certainly don't feel that I've abandoned science fiction in any way. I still love it. It's true, I don't either read or write it, the way I used to. But I've always basically considered myself, dare I say it, just a writer. In an odd way, I never really made a decision to be a science fiction writer. I was about 19 years old. My then-wife, Marilyn Hacker, got a job as an assistant editor at Ace Books, and she would come home complaining about the stories she would edit. Her major complaints had to do, mainly, with the women characters. This was back in 1961 or 1962. The heroines tended to be unbelievably wimpy and would hang around waiting to be rescued, and the villainesses were so dastardly, you couldn't believe them. And there was nothing in between. The women characters tended not to resemble anything that you could recognize as a human being at all.
So I began to write a science fiction novel for her, and I tried to work specifically on the female characters, and to make a couple of characters who started out looking like they were fulfilling the stereotype, their reputations came through. And then when you actually spent time with them, you discovered they were a little different than that. That was the Jewels of Aptor. To make a long story short, we submitted it. It was sold, and because it was sold, I began to write another one, and then another one and then another one. And by the time I had written a fifth, I suddenly thought, "Oh, I must be a science fiction author." Because I had now written five of them and had had sold four of them, and was on my way to selling a fifth. As I said, it was something that just kind of happened. I never decided I wanted to be a science fiction author, per se.
Before that, I had written nine other novels that were not sold — and that were not science fiction — and probably for good reasons. They weren't terribly good. It's arguable that neither was my first science fiction novel, if the truth be known. I was nineteen, and you can imagine how good they might have been, or not been. But I just kept doing this. And finally around 1975, 1976, or probably a little earlier than that — I guess it was with Dhalgren — I started thinking about things that couldn't be handled in the usual way science fiction handles things. I think of Dhalgren as a science fiction novel, but it's a lot bigger and a lot more ambitious, than some of the things that came before. And then as things went on, I think Triton is a return, pretty much, to the center of science fiction concerns. And then the Tales of Nevèrÿon, which is the next big project that occupied me — that's a sword and sorcery series.
SAnd since 1984, when I finished Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand, I haven't written anything that's immediately recognizable as science fiction. And so the last few things have been non-science fiction: Atlantis: Three Tales, which is pretty much mundane fiction; the Mad Man, which is sort of highly erotically charged mundane fiction; Hogg (although Hogg was actually written when I was 27). So I was always sort of moving back and forth between them. Dark Reflections, which is last published novel, was not science fiction. Gallows is a historical novel and sort of a spoof on erotica. My most recent novel I'm actually finishing, is something called Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders, and it's very much on the three-way border between literary impressionism, science fiction and pornography. It's an attempt to see whether you can do all three in one book. Though the science fiction aspect of it isn't pushed, and you have to get at least a third of the way through it before any of it raises its head. I hope it works. I will either keep away people, the other two genres will alienate the lovers of the one genre, or maybe it'll be inclusive and invite people in from all three. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
So I never saw myself as either giving it up, or exclusively committing myself to it. I was just interested in trying to write well, and to tell stories using whatever generic constraints seemed to highlight what I was trying to do in that particular story. That's how I've always looked at the process.