steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Science Fiction, Ghosts, and Detectives - a genre mumble

‘[Ballard’s] fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that's like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.' Robert Weil, Ballard's editor at Norton.

This kind of statement frequently causes snorts of scorn and outrage (one nostril apiece) amongst SF fans, as any reader of
Ansible – from where this was drawn – will know. And it’s easy to see why, especially when it's authors who write SF doing the stating, Margaret Atwood being the most notorious. I think the outrage is justified, on three related grounds:

  1. Ingratitude: these writers are biting the hand that feeds them. We all know how sharp that tooth can be.
  2. Taking credit where it's not due. What could be more galling than to watch a novelist being congratulated on their originality in the literary press, for using an idea that has been part of the SF landscape for decades – and then to hear both congratulater and congratulatee dismiss SF as a farrago of flying squids and ray guns?
  3. The sheer illogicality of making a special pleading argument that goes like this:


All SF is bad

But look at this example of SF! It’s well written, has deep characterization, is philosophically provocative, etc., and has all the qualities you profess to admire!

I agree that this is a good book. And for that reason I deny that it’s SF at all. As I said, all SF is bad.

I don’t consider myself an SFianado at all, but of course I get irritated by all this too, in sympathy. But I want to get a little beyond irritation, and ask whether there’s anything more substantial behind these arguments? 

I’m prompted to ask by two things. One is a letter to the
latest Ansible from Fred Lerner, provoked by the quotation above:

It depends upon how you define "science fiction". If your approach is thematic, or based on narrative strategy, then of course most of Ballard -- as well as Brave New World and 1984 -- are science fiction. But if you use the definition-by-provenance approach -- "science fiction is that body of literature produced within the science fiction community" -- then Brave New World and 1984 would be excluded. You may have read my arguments for that approach to definition in Lofgeornost (or in "A Bookman's Fantasy"); I'll just say here that there are a lot of things that can meaningfully be said about the literature that Our Gang produces that isn't applicable to Huxley and Orwell.


Now, I haven’t read Lerner’s article (maybe others have?), but in this abbreviated form it seems like a circular version of the special pleading argument mentioned above: if you decide in advance that Ballard [edit: Huxley] isn’t part of the ‘science fiction community’ then what he writes won’t be science fiction. But how do you decide that? What does ‘science fiction community’ actually mean? If there’s more to this argument, I’d be interested to hear it.

That was as far as I’d got until I heard John Sutherland on Radio 4 this morning, talking about ghost stories. He was arguing for their importance and longevity. After all, Hamlet and Wuthering Heights are ghost stories, he pointed out. And I found myself starting to say to the kettle (for I was making coffee at the time) – yes, well, they’re stories with ghosts, and the ghosts are pretty important, but it seems kind of misleading to call them ghost stories in the way that you might call ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to Ye, My Lad’ or The Woman in Black ghost stories.

Hang on, hissed the kettle – aren’t you making exactly the same move you deplore in those who say that Brave New World isn’t SF?

Well – am I being snotty? To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve been trying to see if I can find any respectable arguments to give my gut instinct a more attractive gloss. It’s not a matter of canonicity or quality, anyway: I’d have no hesitation in calling A Christmas Carol a ghost story, and that’s pretty darn canonical. I’d be fairly happy to call Beloved a ghost story too – and that's a great novel by any standards. (I love M. R. James too, for that matter.)

So, what’s going on? Thinking about it, I can see that I’d also be happier to call Hamlet a ghost story than Macbeth, and happier to call Macbeth a ghost story than Richard III or Julius Caesar, though ghosts appear in all of them. Why so? Is it to do with the centrality of the ghosts? Or the function they fulfil? My first thought was that there might be a distinction between ghosts as external, unambiguously supernatural beings (as M. R. James’ all are), and ghosts as possibly projections of a human character’s conscience or fears – a subtlety perhaps more likely to win literary respect from our psychologically-interested age. But the latter interpretation applies as much to Richard III and Julius Caesar as to the governess in The Turn of the Screw or to Scrooge, so that doesn’t really wash.

To widen my confusion, I’m also asking myself questions such as: can a poem of fourteen lines not be a sonnet? Can a story about a detective solving a murder not be a detective story? Will we hear (or do we already hear) pundits say things like, ‘People often call P.D. James a writer of detective fiction, but that would be like calling Poe, or Wilkie Collins, a writer of detective fiction!’ And would they have a point? (The answer to that one is ‘No’. Actually, perhaps the strange thing is that I haven't heard anyone say this.) What about a book in which a librarian tracks down a borrower who has failed to pay two years’ of fines, and brings him to book? Is that a detective story? Or a librarian story? Or a stalker story...?

I definitely need more coffee.

ETA: I'm not sure what's going on with my inability to sort out layouts, fonts, or put in a cut today, but life's too short - please indulge me!

Tags: books
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