What science fiction writers can learn from the flood of SF lit novelsS

We're in the middle of a flood of literary novels that play with science fiction ideas right now. What's causing it? And how can science fiction benefit from all of this fresh energy?

There have always been a lot of literary writers trying their hand at writing about time travel, post-apocalyptic worlds or monsters, but by any standard this year is unusual. Instead of a couple of new literary books with science fiction aspirations, we're getting a bunch all at once. It seems like many, if not most, of the big literary books of the year deal with science fiction tropes one way or the other. The one glaring exception, of course, is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

Here's a partial list of recent science fictional books by authors with a literary pedigree:

  • Solar by Ian McEwan, about a scientist who stumbles on a way to use quantum physics to get more efficient solar energy. Read our review here.
  • The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody, set in the dystopian year 2025, when a struggling writer novelizes a cheesy science fiction movie. Read our review here.
  • Super-Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, set in another dystopian future, where a man who works for a company selling Indefinite Life Extension falls in love. Our review's coming soon.
  • Go Mutants! by Larry Doyle, in which the I Love You, Beth Cooper author visualizes a world in which aliens land in 1951, and 20 years later a tenth of the human race is half alien. You can read Elizabeth Hand's review here.
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin, in which the PEN/Hemingway Award winner creates a vampire apocalypse. Read a review here.
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, a time-traveling, universe-hopping examination of selfhood and creation. Read our review here.
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell isn't overtly science fictional, but the Cloud Atlas author says it's the first volume of a trilogy that will turn more scifi in later volumes.

I know I've come across a few other lit/scifi crossovers lately, but these are the ones that jumped out at me.

So what's causing this sudden renewed interest in science fiction on the part of lit authors? It could be any one of a bunch of things.

There's the oft-cited notion that we live in a science fictional world, what with the miraculous technology and the dizzying pace of change. There's also the pervasive feeling on the part of anybody who watches the news that we live in an apocalyptic, pre-lapsarian world — Moody's book takes place in an America that's basically collapsed, and Shteyngart's book takes place in an America that has become a third-world country, ruled by the oppressive Bipartisan Party. Vampires and mutants, of course, are often markers for apocalypses and social collapse.

But it's also extremely likely that these authors have heard everybody saying, for years now, that science fiction has its own literary tradition and has something to offer the literary world. After years of people like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, John Kessel and the Washington Post's Michael Dirda touting the literary awesomeness of science fiction authors, it's become a more accepted view. It's been the case for over a decade that you lose points among literary hipsters if you haven't read Philip K. Dick, and now that's becoming true of an assortment of other authors too, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Gene Wolfe. I'm sure you can still find a literature professor somewhere who thinks all science fiction is rubbish, just like you can still find poets who only write in sestinas.

What science fiction writers can learn from the flood of SF lit novelsS

Shteyngart has talked in almost every interview lately about how he grew up reading Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and he'd wanted to write a science fiction novel all along, but as a neophyte author in an MFA program, he was discouraged from doing this. And he says he wants to write about how "technology is outpacing our ability to absorb what it's doing to us," which is a classic science fictional idea. Moody's also talked in interviews about how he grew up reading a lot of science fiction. And he told the SF Chronicle today that science fiction "allow(s) me an allegorical layer that's usually forbidden in conventional literary fiction."

And the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You're not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu's book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin's book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they're writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas. (Although that's less true in some cases, like McEwan's Solar.)

In any case, whether these authors are acknowledging their debt to science fiction or not, this new crop of literary books is a huge boon to the genre. Science fiction has always relied on fresh revolutions, new shocks, to keep it fresh and forward-looking. No genre can afford to become inward-looking or self-referential, but science fiction can afford it less than most. Sometimes these jolts have come from within, like the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, and sometimes they come from outside. Right now, written science fiction is lucky enough to have two sources of external stimulus: the oft-discussed flood of popular YA books by authors like Suzanne Collins and Scott Westerfeld, and this new literary explosion. Both can be good for the mainstream of science fiction, in different ways.

It's true that not all literary novels with SF themes are good — you only have to read Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods to discover that for yourself — but a lot of them still bring something new and fascinating to the genre.

So what can we learn from these books, as readers and as writers of science fiction?

Well, first of all, they confirm just how close the themes of science fiction are to the zeitgeist of the times we live in. Thanks to the ever-accelerating pace of technological advances, the ways in which we communicate are changing. With crazy predictions like the death of print books within five years making the rounds, it's not just that science fiction offers a way to interpret this world — SF is also the most familiar thing in a world of strangeness. And then there's the aforementioned feeling that the world — and America, in particular — is headed for irreversible decline, that our wars and our crushing debt and our dependence on fossil fuels are going to make us the next obsolete empire, within no time.

Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you're left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There's a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

Which brings me to the second point — these books are personal, and more heavily character-focused than most SF novels I've read lately. Take McEwan's Solar, which clearly meets most definitions of science fiction — if you take out the scientific conceit, you have no more story. And the story is clearly about science in a fundamental way — but more than that, it's a character study of Michael Beard, the almost psychotically self-centered and hedonistic scientist whose foibles threaten to prevent one of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history from coming to fruition. By making his scientist both the proponent of progress and — because he's his own worst enemy — its biggest obstacle, McEwan confronts us with questions about the role of ego in scientific discovery, and whether humans' worse natures are doomed to overcome our better ones. So yeah, the resolution of the novel hinges on Michael Beard's character rather than the scientific ideas — but only because Beard's character winds up determining whether scientific progress is able to prevail.

What science fiction writers can learn from the flood of SF lit novelsS

Both Shteyngart and Moody have talked lately about how they wanted to avoid making their novels seem like bad science fiction — Moody, somewhat irritatingly, dismisses SF has having a tendency to be "more interested in technology than character" — but they both craft stories in which the near-future setting is important to the story. Shteyngart tells the Rumpus he was surprised

that I could allow the love story to take center stage with each subsequent draft. The initial drafts read like a bad version of an Isaac Asimov science-fiction magazine... Oh, God. [Makes masturbatory motion.] Anyway, but then it became-the more knowledge I dropped on this book's fat ass, the less it was compelling. The more I pulled back and let this love story go, the more I felt confident of the book's vitality.

The love story in Shteyngart's book takes place against a backdrop of neurosis and insecurity that are produced by technology and the ever-encroaching media world. Everybody talks in a ridiculous parody of text-speak, and the culture is fatally youth-obsessed, while youth really only belongs to the wealthy and the powerful — Lenny Abramov realizes eventually that the Indefinite Life Extension program he's selling will never be available to him personally, because he's the son of a Russian janitor.

And that brings me to the third thing I've noticed about a lot of these books — in comparison to the earnest, heartfelt works of the mid-2000s like The Confessions Of Max Tivoli and The Time Traveler's Wife, the dominant mode of science fictional literary books is satire — and dark satire at that. Whether you're looking at the would-be captains of the technological near future (as McEwan does) or its hapless victims (as many other authors seem to) a jaundiced look at human failings seems to be a key ingredient. The only way to navigate the bewildering, horrible future is with irony and satire. And copious amounts of weirdness — a lot of these books lavish a lot of description on some jarringly odd situations, from McEwan's protagonist's penis getting frozen to his zipper in the Antarctic to two of Moody's characters getting groped by a severed hand — not to mention his lengthy zero-gravity gay sex scene.

So it's finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed "science fiction" and "literary" genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let's hope so, anyway.

Top image: Michael Glenwood for Boston Globe.