24 September 2008

And what, you ask, does writing teach us?

A few months ago Tadhg and I had a lengthy discussion on why science-fiction writing wasn't taken seriously outside of the genre. Few writers working exclusively in the genre are held in any regard by critics or other writers, and those whose work blurs the boundary often refute the notion they are writing sci-fi, preferring the label 'speculative fiction', or calling their work a thought-exercise. Those that do embrace the genre still do so in an often contorted and convoluted manner; Ian Banks goes out of his way to distance his genre work from his 'literature' by writing all his genre work under "Ian M. Banks", so readers of one style won't get confused and accidentally be cross-pollinated with anathematic ideas.

Finding myself at a loose end one morning in Mexico City, I wandered into a bookshop for a coffee in the vague hope that there might be an English language book section. Travelling for 5 weeks with nothing but what can fit in a 35 litre backpack meant I had to do without the normal ragged assortment of political ire and journalistic intrigue that accompanies me in hardback form. Thanks to the more strictly literary (and hence quite limited) nature of their English-language selection, I thus found myself a few nights later in a steamy tropical jungle unable to sleep and unexpectedly reading Doris Lessing's 'Shikasta', and thinking over my conversation with Tadhg.

Lessing is amazing; born in Iran in 1919 to English parents and raised in Zimbabwe, she rejected the role of mother and housewife that had been assigned to her, abandoning her husband and two children in the early forties and escaping to become a politically active writer in London in the fifties and sixties. Her work in this period is both socialist and feminist in flavour, though she later rejected both labels. During the seventies she experimented with Science Fiction, finding it a perfect medium to explore many of her social and cultural ideas, and it is from this period that 'Shikasta' originates.

What sets Lessing apart from other such literary cross-dressers is, of course, the fact that she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, unbelievably only the 11th woman to receive the award in its 106 year history. If a Googlewhack is a string of two words that only produces a single result when searched for on Google, then Lessing is a Googlewhack squared. "SciFi + Female + Nobel" produces lots of results, but all about her. This should be called a "Lessing Sequence", where the chances of identifying something that fulfils the requirements of all elements of a sequence diminishes exponentially with each new element added to that sequence.

What prompted these thoughts today was a pretty poor interview in this morning's Guardian with Peter F. Hamilton, which while admittedly written by a journalist who approaches sci-fi with no small amount of naked disdain, highlights why Hamilton almost single-handedly turned me off genre writing a few years ago. The journalist (Patrick Barkham) manages to review the book without commenting on its literary merit (which, to be honest, would be challenging to identify), drawing attention to the concepts Hamilton presents as opposed to the way in which those concepts are presented.

And then there is the sex. Barkham writes that since the Golden Age of sci-fi in the 1930s, a central rule of sci-fi writing has been "no sex". As anybody who has read any sci-fi written in the last fifty years knows, the problem with most sci-fi is that there is, in fact, too much sex. And Hamilton's books (which Barkham correctly highlights, possibly the only thing he gets right in the whole interview) contain an awful lot of sex. Too much sex. Way too much sex. Sex that gets in the way of what little scraps of story there is. His female characters are all one-dimensional caricatures that serve as props for adolescent fantasies (a label which would characterise his books far better than 'space opera'), and I would find it very difficult to imagine any female reader finding his work open and inviting. The Very Understanding Girlfriend also commented on the extreme homophobia in one of his books, where the villains were all Satanists who practised ritual sodomy - the good guys all had lots of sex with teenage girls, the bad guys were all gay. Nice.

And yet his books sell by the bucket-full, tearing up the charts like the ill-conceived love child of JK Rowling and Dan Brown, and convincing anybody new to the genre unfortunate enough to choose one as their introduction that sci-fi is indeed written by and for pubescent boys who really need to get out of the house more often and get some fresh air.

So who amongst current writers would serve as a good introduction to sci-fi to the genre-curious reader? Neal Stephenson would be my first choice, with 'Snow Crash' and 'Diamond Age' being pure sci-fi, and "Cryptonomicon" being speculative fiction, and all three being on my "you really should read this, its not what you think it is" list. His latest book 'Anathem' just arrived in the post this morning, and by all accounts it will be swiftly added to that list.

After our original conversation Tadhg suggested I read 'Blindsight', by Peter Watts, which explores the understanding of human awareness and consciousness in a story of first contact. I enjoyed it, but would argue that it serves better as something for a jaded reader familiar with the genre and looking for a new direction rather than as a first introduction (which is probably why Tadhg recommended it to me in the first place).

However my favourite author in the field (and one The Very Understanding Girlfriend, who is far more of a literati than I could ever be, is quite partial to) is Ken MacLeod, whose latest book "The Night Sessions" has kept me happily occupied for the last day or two. MacLeod is a Scottish socialist whose books often revolve around both Scotland, and Socialism, and while a quote on the dust jacket proclaims him to be 'The modern-day George Orwell" (from SFX magazine, not normally noted I imagine for the breadth of its political expertise) such unnecessary hyperbole shouldn't detract from the fact that his writing is solid, imaginative and at times politicly and socially challenging. In "Night Sessions" he steps away from his normal left/right political intrigue to focus on my second favourite topic, religious extremism. The first chapter is available online, and while MacLeod won't be winning the Nobel Prize any time soon, I'd happily recommend most of his books to the uninitiated.

What does, however, unite Lessing, Stephenson, Watts and MacLeod, and definitely separates them from Hamilton, is that in their work they challenge and educate the reader. While entertained you walk away from their books if not knowing more, then at least questioning more. Their books stimulate the mind and provoke further thought, in stark contrast to Hamilton who simply panders to the basest urges of his audience, an audience that by and large seem to want nothing more than explosions and sex.

And if a book adds nothing to the sum of your parts by its reading, then why read it at all?
"And what, you ask, does writing teach us?

First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all."

Ray Bradbury, 'Zen in the Art of Writing'
Doris Lessing
Neal Stephenson
Peter Watts
Ken MacLeod


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