Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Literary SF and its discontents

In between bouts of quantum mechanics, I have been resting my tired mind by re-engaging with the science-fiction delights of the Andover Library, and specifically with literary SF.

In the good old days, SF was about excitement combined with awe-inducing new ideas. As Kilgore Trout cynically observed in Timequake, SF writers don't do characterisation and to think they oughta betrays a lack of understanding of the genre.

Of course, a sullen resentment of SF's genre-ridden underdog status has moved us all along from that particular understanding. You can't go near an SF book these days without discovering that the author has a Ph.D. in literary criticism from Cambridge University and that his writing is textured with high-quality descriptive writing and deep character studies.

Exhibit 'A' for your examination is Gradisil by Adam Roberts. Yes, Adam writes well and his characterisation would get good-to-excellent marks in a writing class: I can distinguish his characters even if I can't remember their names. The book was abandoned one third of the way through due to the fact that the plot held essentially no interest whatsoever, while the premise of an orbital hobo space community inhabiting pressurised tin cans circling the earth in defiance of all major powers seemed devoid of any possible suspension of disbelief.

My next example is Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard. This describes an interminable jungle war in central America where the SF interest is that there are psionic soldiers who can control other people with their minds. The hero - really an antihero - is drug-addled and deeply unpleasant. The descriptive writing is excellent - you feel the damp heat, the shanty towns and the mosquitoes - and the characterisation is believable. This book was abandoned half way through because the action proceeded at a dreary pace to no good end, and the plot appeared both opaque and pointless. Oh, and it's a love story.

I think the rot probably started with Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Another booked lauded to the skies for its high literary style but actually terminally boring.

I am still searching for the Kingsley Amis quote where towards the end of his life he resolutely turns his face against literary fiction and states that henceforward he will read only novels where a revolver is mentioned in the first few pages and is used shortly thereafter.

There is room for something which combines tight, page-turning plotting; jaw-dropping intellectual shock-and-awe; fine characterisation, and descriptive writing. Perhaps Iain M. Banks is somewhere in this space, but where is everybody else?