Science Fiction Vs. The Literary Establishment, Round One Million

Why hasn't a science fiction novel ever won England's prestigious Booker Prize? Kim Stanley Robinson asked the question in an essay in New Scientist magazine, and now it's become a war of words over the age-old SF-vs-lit issue.

In Robinson's essay, which we covered more for its assertion that Virginia Woolf was a fan of Olaf Stapledon than for its rant about the Booker Prize, the Red Mars author berates the Booker judges for ignoring SF works of literary quality, like Geoff Ryman's Air or this year, Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia. The British literary establishment is missing out on the fact that there's a new golden age happening in British SF.

One Booker judge, John Mullan, spoke to the Guardian, saying that no publishers submitted SF books for the Booker this year, so the prize couldn't consider any. (With one exception: Margaret Atwood's Year Of The Flood.) And Mullan suggested that science fiction, which had been part of the mainstream when he was younger, had become a "self-enclosed world":

"When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres," he said, but now "it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other."

Roberts, the author that Robinson thought should have won the Booker this year, responded to Mullan in the Guardian today:

Like many sci-fi writers I've plenty of experience of the kneejerk hostility evidenced by, for instance, my professorial University of London colleague and Booker judge John Mullan in reaction to Robinson's article. Without actually reading any contemporary sci-fi, he dismisses the genre as "bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other". Ouch, John. (Also: using "special" in that awkwardly euphemistic way? Not cool.)

And Roberts says the novels which did make the Booker shortlist mostly do deal with the kind of topics that you see in science fiction, including world-building and the nature of divergent realities — they just don't overtly admit that's what they're doing. Maybe these novels would even have been improved by adding a dash of overt speculative fiction, Roberts adds.

But Roberts is more right on, in a sense, when he says the Booker Prize is really just another genre award, this one for "historical and contemporary fiction." Literary fiction is a genre like any other, with its own expectations and tropes. A lot of literary fiction takes it for granted you've read tons of other recent literary fiction. Frequently literary fiction will be commenting on characters/tropes/devices from other literary fiction, or building on narrative devices that other lit authors have used recently.

And of course Mullan is right to some extent, even if his tone is needlessly derisive and snotty. I've lost count of how many times I've heard SF writers refer to SF as a "conversation" in which writers build on each others' themes and ideas — and the implication is often that if you're not carefully following every part of the conversation, you may be a bit lost. To pick a recent example, the Clark Award-nominated novel House Of Suns by Alastair Reynolds is a terrific work in many ways, but it would be utterly baffling to anyone who hasn't read a lot of other works in the "new space opera" genre. House Of Suns takes it for granted you're used to reading about near-immortal characters, hypersleep, interstellar civilizations and machine intelligences. That's part of what allows it to tell such a sweeping, thought-provoking story — but it's also what makes it less accessible to a non-SF buff.