Ian McEwan and the (re)invention of science fiction: Why contempt for SF only exposes ignorance

Gautham Shenoy April 21, 2019 10 min

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“I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” That was Kurt Vonnegut in his 1965 essay, ‘Science Fiction’, reflecting on the way the genre was treated by the so-called literary establishment for whom anything that can be classified as Science Fiction/Fantasy is anathema and considered a lower form of literature.

More than 50 years later after Vonnegut wrote that, at a time when a book won both the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017 (Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad), SF/F is still not a genre respectable enough to be associated with – as exemplified by the author Ian McEwan. His latest novel, Machines Like Me, is set in an alternate world where Alan Turing does not commit suicide but instead does pioneering work in the field of Artificial Intelligence which ultimately leads to the mass production of ‘a manufactured human’, in other words, a sentient android, with the novel concerning itself with the issue of robot rights among other things and a love triangle involving an android. Machines Like Me uses the oft-used motif of the alternate history & diverging timelines and has androids as one of its primary protagonists, but it isn’t a “science fiction” novel!

In an interview earlier this week, McEwan—an author with little time for conventional science fiction and also one who has no interest in science fiction as per this other article—said, “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.” Let’s unpack this. As per Mr. McEwan, science fiction is about travelling beyond light speed and anti-gravity boots (a remark reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s dismissal of, and distancing from, science fiction as being about ‘talking squids in outer space’) and not about using the novel as a lens through which to explore the human dilemma in a technologically-advanced age and tackling the thorny topic of ‘artificially created beings’ and their rights, and treatment, thereof.

If nothing, this displays spectacular ignorance on the part of this Booker Prize-winning author because, as far as metaphors go, that is what the novel widely considered to be the first modern science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about. A fact that becomes all too ironical when McEwan describes Machines Like Me as an “anti-Frankenstein novel”. And as far as the larger themes that McEwan claims to tackle in his novel, they could well describe almost the entire body of work of Hollywood’s favourite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, the fictionalising philosopher. For the longest time, science fiction has always been about exploring the ‘human dilemma’ as McEwan puts it, and the question of the human-ness of androids has been explored to no end, not least in Annallee Newitz’s Autonomous, in recent times amongst many others. Not to mention that what Mr. McEwan seeks to do now is what a whole phase of science fiction did decades years ago – a movement now referred as the ‘New Wave of SF’ from the 1960/70s which saw science fiction, as a genre, move towards ‘literary merit’ and the ‘softer’ side of science was all about exploring the human condition, typified by scores of science fiction authors including Thomas M. Disch, John Brunner, Joanna Russ, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, Frtiz Liber, Samuel R. Delaney, Brian Aldiss, Michal Moorcock, Alfred Bester, and of course, Philip K. Dick.

In 1953, the great Raymond Chandler wrote to his agent, lampooning science fiction as he saw it and as it was then, in a letter now famous for being the first to mention the word ‘Google’. Chandler wrote, “Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this: I checked out with K19 on Adabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice-cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.’ They pay brisk money for this crap?”

Chandler was of course parodying with his tongue-firmly-in-cheek – and most excellently so – the primary themes and technobabble of what is called the Golden Age of science fiction of the 1940/50s, a time when science fiction found its feet by finding itself a home in pulp magazines and with stories that were full of action and adventure. Given that this was the period that the term ‘science fiction’ came into being during a time when its stories were to be popularly fund in the pages of cheap magazines perhaps this explains the genre’s disreputable status and association with juveniles seeking no more than a thrilling read. An association encapsulated in the oft-mentioned quote, “The golden age of science fiction is twelve”. This perhaps explains this attitude of the authors of “literary novels” to look so disdainfully upon science fiction as a label. Because while they are not beyond appropriating all the tropes and motifs of a genre with a long & rich history and tradition, they would not deign themselves to be associating with the label of ‘science fiction’. Is it then time to change the name on the label to give it more respectability? To re-brand ‘science fiction’ as ‘speculative fiction’ as Margaret Atwood once preferred? Or does the answer lie in relegating the term ‘literary fiction’ itself to the rubbish bin? Because the term ‘literary fiction’ implies that those not labelled as such are not literate, perhaps to call it ‘realistic fiction’ would be a better idea so it becomes just another genre as any, and an equal terms with other genres currently – and unfairly –considered to be a ghetto, when in truth it is genre fiction that is presently the prosperous part of the city in which ‘literary’ fiction is but a distant, ignored suburb. But that then brings us to define what is ‘literary’ and what is not. And just speaking with regard to science fiction, to define it simply & definitively has been difficult and problematic to say the least, with the most erudite of SF authors, readers and critics unable to do so. Damon Knight summed this sentiment up by saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” While some have taken recourse to the famous pronouncement by Potter Stewart (who was speaking about pornography when he said) “I know it when I see it.” But then, as the 1970s actress, Gloria Leonard famously said, “The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.”

So in this light, in the context of authors who actively avoid a novel of theirs being described as ‘science fiction’, and given the latest instance of Ian McEwan distancing himself from said label, I’d like to humbly offer a way in which one can tell if it’s an SF novel or not. “Whether a novel is science fiction—or not—depends on who the author is and who reviews it”.

As an advertising professional who has spent almost 20 years in the marketing business and who knows a thing or three about positioning and target audiences, this is perhaps the best description that I think we can arrive at. But where does this leave the reader?

It is up to the individual reader to decide whether he/she/they would rather go by convenient labels than follow interests or read what he/she/they would like to. As a reader – and not just of SF – I am in agreement with the author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, the writer David Mitchell who says that genre snobbery is a bizarre act of self-mutilation because, “It’s convenient to have a science fiction and fantasy section, it’s convenient to have a mainstream literary fiction section, but these should only be guides, they shouldn’t be demarcated territories where one type of reader belongs and another type of reader does not belong…What a shame. All those great books that you’re cutting yourself off from.”

To the contrary, with respect to sales—if the author is bothered about that at all–and as far as popular culture goes, it would perhaps benefit a writer not to alienate SF/F readers and fans of the genre. As the writer of some of the most ‘literary’ contemporary SF novels this writer has personally read, Adam Roberts. said in a Q&A in this column, “It’s not that SFF is a ghetto inside the glorious city of ‘Literary Fiction’, but the reverse. “Literary” novels sell abominably badly, by and large; popular culture in the main belongs to SF and Fantasy”.

But to return to Ian McEwan, and other writers who would seek to (re)invent SF while being contemptuous of the genre and its history, would well heed the words of Iain Banks (who wrote science fiction under the name of Iain M. Banks) who wrote about science fiction being an ongoing dialogue, and advised authors to ‘write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for’.

In an article he penned years ago, Banks writes, “science fiction is a dialogue, a process. All writing is, in a sense; a writer will read something – perhaps something quite famous, even a classic – and think “But what if it had been done this way instead…? Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what’s been done, what’s been superseded, what’s so much part of the furniture it’s practically part of the fabric now, what’s become no more than a joke  and so on. It’s just plain foolish, as well as comically arrogant, to ignore all this, to fail to do the most basic research. In a literature so concerned with social as well as technical innovation, with the effects of change – incremental as well as abrupt – on individual humans and humanity as whole, this is a grievous, fundamentally hubristic mistake to commit…”

And in the same piece, Banks had a few words to say to authors who would seek to appropriate the elements of SF, “…if you’re going to enter the dialogue it does help to know at least a little of what you’re talking about, and it also helps, by implication, not to dismiss everything that’s gone before as not worth bothering with because, well, it’s just Skiffy… The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well.”

So, perhaps it would serve us all best if we only keep in mind Literary Fiction is just yet another genre, that genres are merely labels and it is possible to write a book that bears multiple labels without being dismissive of the history of said genres. Even if one of them is science fiction and fantasy. To quote the late, great Gene Wolfe, “All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.”


Lead Image: Ian McEwan photographed during the 2011 Paris book festival. Via Wikimedia Commons (Author: Thesupermat)

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