Wednesday, 4 November 2009

"Presentism" in SF

This article by Cory Doctrow explains to the uninitated (the people we called "mundanes" in our whacky, seventies pre-teen hey day!) that - duh! - SF is about the present, not the future. Since emerging from my pre-teen coccoon, I've always assumed this was self evident. I guess not, and one has to say it again and again.

However, it's not quite that striaght forward. It seems to me that SF could be divided into adventure novels with a futuristic or fantastic background provided for exoticism, and examinations of current trends into a "if this goes on..." formulation (as, I believe, Heinlein put it). Now, I like both, but they're doing different things, and I think this is what's at the heart of those writers who like to enrage SF fans by claiming they're not writing SF (Atwood, Vonnegut etc). They are writing "presentist" stories, and not the adventure fluff that gets lumped in with them. Sometimes people call this speculative fiction.

I can understand why Atwood doesn't want to sit on a shelf next to John Ringo or Peter F Hamilton, and I'd say it's important for her readership that she say these things. Similarly, J K Rowling's got too much at stake for people to "mistake" her HP books for stuff like Wheel of Time or the Shanara series (in practice, though, I'd say these same readers are an important segment of her readership).

These arguments expose the divide between the literary concept of science fiction, and the bookshop category. The bookshop category encompasses romances (in the old fashioned sense), satires (closest to the literary definition) and symbolist works (where the SF "novum" is highly symbolic). This spread of ideas is often missed by the SF community itself, where Steve Aylett of Tom Disch literary wierdness can sit cheek by jowl with a fat comics fan dressing up as Servelan from Blake's Seven.

It's a topic I mull over as I sit at the hopeful early stage of my career pondeirng agents and publishers. What sort of writer am I, actually? Am I satirist (as my current project is very squarely a satire) or am I bookshop SF writer (I enjoy those adventure-romance types of books and could easily write one if I turned my hand to it)? I think I want to avoid being stuck doing one thing over and over. My current project shares some similarity of tone with Pratchett and Douglas Adams, but I wouldn't want to feel I had to write a giggle fest everytime. At the same time, though, I don't think I could do straight writing, with no comedic or absurdist elements - that stuff is etched into me with a laser for some reason. Well, maybe it'd be a nice problem to have...

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