Elon Musk–who I bet read tons of SF growing up
Okay, yeah, it’s a button for me, but as long-time reader of genre fiction–science fiction, fantasy, and some mystery–I do get awfully tired when I see a Writer of LitRuhChure™ (ordained so by The Literary Powers That Be) dabble his or her toes in genre and get praised to the skies for it.
The proximate cause of today’s rant is a fawning article about Margaret Atwood in The Guardian. Atwood, who has been publishing poetry and “literary” fiction novels since the early 60s, is no stranger to genre fiction; her first foray into science fiction was “The Handmaid’s Tale” back in 1985. But she made her bones as a writer of LitRuhChure, and the reporter in The Guardian is clearly treating her as a Real Writer who dabbles in SF, rather than a genre writer. (Atwood, as is typical for Literary Fiction writers who do genre, tries to disavow any connection to SF.)
And frankly, I have no problem with that. Nor do I have any problem with Atwood’s work, or with her deciding to move into SF. Heck, the more the merrier!
No, what I have a problem with is Atwood being treated as some kind of prescient genius for her latest set of SF works (that feature a lot of biotech), rather than what she is: Another in a long line of writers who have tackled this subject in the SF genre. But because she’s MARGARET ATWOOD, Literary Writer, suddenly the stuff she’s writing about–genetically-modified food, vat-grown meat, and the like–is amazing and forward-looking.
Look, LitCrits: We’ve been talking about this stuff in SF for a long, long, LONG time. Take the three things that Emma Brockes, the author of the article, seems to find so amazing: “cross-species gene-splicing; growing meat in a petri dish; man-made pandemics”. This post would go on forever if I started to list all the SF authors who have touched on all three of those topics, and have been doing so for, literally, decades, but just a couple of quick mentions: Frank Herbert wrote an entire novel based on a man-made pandemic called “The White Plague”, released in 1982. Heinlein’s “The Star Beast” mentions in passing meat-like foods grown from yeast in 1954. And one of the earliest SF writers, Olaf Stapleton, wrote about something that sounds just like cross-species gene-splicing in his story “Last and First Men” . . . in 1930.
These are old, well-established tropes, Ms. Brockes. I mean, really old, and really well-established. Perhaps Atwood addresses them in unusual ways, or with more graceful prose, or with an odd twist that previous writers haven’t (although I have a hard time believing Atwood does a better job than, say, Prof. Samuel Delany), but the point is it ain’t new. And I can only think the reason Brockes (and other litcrits) fawn over Atwood and other literary writers is because they are considered “real” writers, writers who have made their bones cranking out poetry and “literary” fiction, not dirty, low-life genre writers.
Understand that I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to SF. Absolutely not. I’ve got to think that Romance fans get similarly irritated when a LitRuhChure writer cranks out what is (essentially) a Romance novel, and gets kudos for their originality. Or how fans of kink and BDSM fiction feel over the hooplah about “Fifty Shades of Gray”, which is not only not particularly original, but doesn’t reflect the BDSM and kink community in any kind of realistic way, and is not nearly as good as Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace works are. Or how mystery fans feel when some Big Name decides to write a mystery novel, does a mediocre job (though unfamiliarity with the genre, usually) and gets lots of press for his or her attempt. Meanwhile, writers–excellent, high-quality writers–get ignored because they have been stamped with the “Genre” label years ago. It’s maddening.
(And don’t get me started on what William Gibson must think of Atwood’s puckish remark ‘You can imagine a lot of people wanting to get their own DNA hair.” The 73-year-old smiles, thinly. “I’m offering it as a free gift to the world.”‘ Like Gibson–and Neal Stepheson, and Arthur C. Clarke, and hell even Gene Roddenberry (where do you think the idea for flip-phones came from?), and other SF writers too numerous to count–haven’t given endless free idea-gifts to the world. I mean, please.)
It goes in reverse too, of course. Neal Stephenson didn’t get nearly the amount of attention for “Snow Crash” and “The Diamond Age” that he did for the much more “literary” novel “Cryptonomicon”, which contained no SF whatsoever. But he broke through that barrier, and now he gets noticed, even when he writes genre novels like “Anathem” (SF) or “Reamde” (thriller).
I am continually, constantly amazed at the lack of respect SF genre writers receive in the “real” literary community. We live in an SF world, with smartphones and the Internet and the Web and tablet computers and electric cars and gene-engineered anti-cancer therapies and tons of other tech that was inspired by kids who grew up reading SF, and decided to turn it into a reality. The top-grossing films are almost uniformly SF or comic book movies. And yet if you don’t write plot-less character studies about dysfunctional families that live on Long Island or are set in some rural part of the South or some damn thing, if you’re presumptuous enough to like plot-driven hard-tech SF novels, well, you’re just a loser genre writer. No matter that your ideas will influence the next generation of inventors currently dreaming up the iPhone for the 2040s, Umberto Eco’s or Martin Amis’ or Salman Rushdie’s new novel is much more important, right?
Think I’m exaggerating? Go to iTunes, to the iBooks store. What books are listed first? Where are the science fiction books? Can you even find them? (You can, but it ain’t easy.) So on this science fictiony platform–the World Wide Web–the users of whom are more tech-savvy than any generation in history, the keepers and architects of which almost certainly grew up reading SF–if you want to find a book in your genre, what do you get? Lots and lots of “literary” fiction, and your favorite stuff shoved into its usual ghetto. (The irony of this appears to completely escape most eBook publishers and sellers.)
Give me patience, O Lord.