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Alan Feels Mischievous

"SF's no good!" they holler 'til we're deaf
"But this is good!"
"Well then, it's not SF!"

Kingsley Amis came up with that rather cynical little verse and it's been rattling round in my skull for many years. It's an old syllogism, whether we phrase it in verse or in prose, and it reflects a mind set that is unfortunately still all too common. SF is obviously trash, therefore anything that is not trash cannot possibly be SF, even if it is full of SF trappings.

I suppose that's why Kurt Vonnegut, a well respected mainstream writer whose works have always been claimed by the SF world, was more than a little grumpy about being tarred with the SF brush. "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labelled science fiction…", he said in an essay in his collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, "and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

But Vonnegut was a well known curmudgeon and professional cynic. Other writers have different opinions about the subject. Michael Chabon is a mainstream writer who has been heaped with praise by the critics. He has won countless literary awards. Each new Michael Chabon novel is always eagerly anticipated in the literary journals.

Then, in 2008, Chabon won a Hugo award for his novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union. And just to prove it wasn't a fluke, the same novel went on to garner a Nebula award, a Locus award, a Sidewise award (whatever that is) and it was also short listed for a British Science Fiction Association award. Shock, horror!

Chabon himself was quite unfazed by the fuss that this caused. He freely admits that most of his novels contain SF themes and references (he probably had a misspent youth reading SF books under the bed covers by torchlight). In interviews, Chabon has never denied that what he writes can easily be interpreted as SF. He has always said that he was very proud to have won his Hugo award and, shortly after winning it, he affirmed his close ties with the SF world by joining the Science Fiction Writers Of America (SFWA).

So who is correct? Is Vonnegut correct when he says he doesn't write SF? Is Chabon correct when he says that he does? And are the snobbish mainstream critics correct if they claim that neither author writes SF because obviously their books are far too good to be stigmatized by attaching that derogatory label to them?

I'll agree very strongly with the last point. The books that Vonnegut and Chabon write are definitely genuine works of art. But after that I'm honestly uncertain what comes next. It's that very old problem of definition again. What is SF? Can something be called SF just because it contains SF tropes? Can it be SF if it doesn't contain these things? Can something that is full to the brim with SF ideas ever be considered not to be SF? None of these questions have easy answers.

Some friends of mine are currently embroiled in a fatuous debate about whether or not a particular work is SF. Indeed, some of them are even going to the ridiculous extreme of trying to define just how much of the work is SF – 50%, 60% or only 30%?

It's all complete and utter nonsense. You can't estimate the proportion of SF in a work if you can't even define SF in the first place. And, believe me, you really cannot define SF. People have been trying to define the genre for 83 years (as of 2009), to my sure and certain knowledge, and no conclusion has ever been reached. The debate is just as sterile now as it was back then, but it continues to be argued just as fiercely.

So the hell with it all! Let's have some fun with the idea. There aren't any rules that say we have to be serious all the time. Consider this:

There's currently an advert on TV for a kitchen cleaner. The advert shows an immaculately dressed young woman casually wiping a cloth over grease and yucky bits supposedly baked on to an oven surface. The cloth skims lightly over the crud, leaving the areas where it has wiped fresh and gleaming. The young lady never breaks into a sweat and gets not an atom of muck on her. As anybody who has ever tried to clean an oven knows, this never happens in real life. Lots of scrubbing is required; it's a filthy, horrible job. The advert is obviously fantasy of the highest order. I think I'll nominate it for an award.

(For the humour-impaired among you, let me just point out that I know that I've suddenly started treating the terms SF and Fantasy as synonyms. That's because I want to, and you can't stop me. So there. Nyaah! Nyaah! Nyaah!)

Now let's look elsewhere. What about that very famous, multi-award winning SF film and book Dune by Frank Herbert?

Well, it's quite clear to me that Dune is not even tangentially SF and it should never have been considered for an award. The Fremen are obviously only thinly disguised Arabs and the desert world of Dune is itself simply a metaphor for the Middle East. Indeed, Paul Muad D'Ib himself is quite obviously a symbol for the house of Ib'n Saud (the similarity of the spelling gives it all away). Given his position as the leader of a revolutionary movement (some might call him a terrorist, others a freedom fighter) it is obvious that Paul is being equated with Osama bin Laden, himself a member of the house of Saud. Dune therefore, is nothing but a commentary on the politics and religions of the Middle East as they intersect with their Western equivalents. All the so-called science fictional trappings are merely allegorical and metaphorical literary devices designed to shore up this intellectual structure.

So there's absolutely nothing science fictional at all about Dune. Let's start a movement to have its awards stripped from it...

See how easy the game is? And how much fun?

How about if we turn the problem on its head and start with some rigid definitions of the genre instead? Let's pretend that we really can define SF. Surely if we can pin the genre down before we begin to look at specific examples we will have a much easier time trying to decide whether or not the advert and the novel that I just discussed really are SF, won't we?

Well no – doing it that way actually opens up a whole new can of worms. Or perhaps, given my less than reverent attitude towards the subject, a completely different barrel of laughs. The argument goes like this:

Margaret Atwood is a mainstream writer who finds herself in much the same position as Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Chabon. She has written several novels that many people consider to be science fiction. But she herself denies that charge vehemently. She has resolved the paradox in a very clever way – she has completely redefined science fiction in such a way as to remove her novels from consideration.

Science Fiction, according to Margaret Atwood, consists of stories about talking squids in outer space. Since there are no talking squids in her novels, her novels cannot possibly be science fiction. QED.

Actually, I really like this definition. Since I don't recall ever reading or seeing anything with talking squids from outer space in it, it becomes clear to me that no science fiction stories at all have yet been written by anyone. (Charles Stross got very close in Accelerando – but let's face it, lobsters aren't squids. Nice try, Charlie, but no banana). I am now eagerly awaiting the first ever proper science fiction story to reach the world. Whoever writes it will make a fortune! They will have invented a whole new genre…

Anyway, at least now we can state with some certainty that nothing written by Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Chabon or Margaret Atwood is science fiction. No talking squids.

Or look at it another way. It's pretty much axiomatic that science fiction stories can be set in a time and place before the universe even existed; they can be set after the universe has been destroyed; and they can be set at any time and place between these two extremes. That thing which we call mainstream literature must, by its very nature, take place completely inside a very narrow band that is itself completely contained within this huge spectrum. Therefore it is perfectly logical and perfectly reasonable to claim that ALL literature is actually science fiction, and the so-called mainstream is just a special case of that broader category. Mainstream literature is SF stripped down to the bare essentials, if you like.

Consequently we can now state with some certainty that everything written by Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood is science fiction. Who needs talking squids?

The white queen could believe six impossible things before breakfast. I have much easier task. I only have to believe the very Zen-like paradox that every piece of fiction ever produced by anybody both is, and is not, science fiction simultaneously. Simple, really!

If these silly games prove anything, they prove that SF wriggles when you poke it. It never stands still; it never stands up to be counted. Everything is science fiction and nothing is science fiction. Except when there's a 'Q' in the month. Or possibly when there's a number in the year.

It's all far too easy and it's all far too ridiculous. The discussion currently going on among my friends was doomed to failure before it even began.

How many SF writers can dance on the head of a pin?

Addendum: Well-read friends inform me that both Stephen Baxter and Ken Macleod have written stories involving squids in space. I'm happy to see that SF is indeed alive, well and flourishing in the twenty-first century...

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