What is science fiction anyway?

21 Dec

Simon Ings writes:

I call it The Conversation. You know the one. It has a tendency to erupt whenever more than three science fiction fans gather in one place. Science fiction is that genre whose readers tend to ask: “But what is science fiction anyway?” No other genre is as obsessed with self-definition.

I haven’t had The Conversation for a while. The nearest I’ve come to it was a couple of months back, at a public debate convened to discuss the proposition that science fiction (whatever that is) is the only form of literature that’s relevant for our times.

After all, how can we write about the real world *without* science fiction – even if writers aren’t aware that they’re employing it? We are all, after all, cyborgs. We’re born in intensive care, and we die there. In between we neck pharmaceuticals, conduct meaningful relationships through the screens of our TVs, computers and phones, and hurtle about in the bellies of huge, mechanical beasts. Even my spectacles are a caveman’s bionics. It will be science and technology that make us whatever we are tomorrow. And it’s science fiction that tells us what to expect.

The world is full of journals and websites and blogs telling us what the future might look like. Harder to find, and set in ever-clearer opposition, are works of science fiction that dare to set out what this future might mean for us. And sometimes it’s the least “accurate” science fiction that has the most to say. Earlier this year, William Gibson put it this way: that science fiction is a way of examining the present without having to cope with the terrifying reality of looking directly at it.

One of my fellow panelists at that debate, the author and academic Adam Roberts, noted that science fiction often gets the technology wrong in order to get the priorities right. Even when science fiction is at its most stolid, trying its damnedest to be about things rather than people, it still ends up saying a whole lot about optimism, anxiety, shamanism and snake oil. There’s truth about people, and there’s truth about technology. The two aren’t the same.

Perhaps that’s what Margaret Atwood was driving at when she explained that she writes speculative fiction (about how we get from here to there) rather than science fiction (which starts there, among the octopuses and spaceships). It’s a perfectly workable distinction. Inevitably, it led to The Conversation, immense heat, and very little light.

In recent years, the Arthur C Clarke Awards have revealed a lot about how contemporary writers regard the genre. The word “confused” springs to mind: Kazuo Ishiguro turned up to the awards ceremony (he was nominated for Never Let Me Go in 2006, but didn’t win); Cormac McCarthy’s The Road wasn’t even submitted.

Science fiction impresario Tom Hunter saved the Clarke Award from extinction when its eponymous benefactor died. When he revamped the Award to be more diverse in its nominations, he found himself facing accusations that he was trying to out-do the The Man Booker prize.

It was quite a compliment, in its way: The Man Booker, after all, wants to stand for literary excellence (whatever *that* is). But Tom thinks the comparison is false. The Clarke isn’t the Man Booker, so much as the Turner Prize. It’s the Turner, after all, that continually throws up new definitions of what modern British art actually is.

Why do lovers of science fiction waste so much of their time on The Conversation? I think it’s out of a fear that the literature they love, let off the leash entirely, would simply run off without them with never a backward glance. Science fiction is notorious, after all, for biting the hand that feeds it, for deliberately running counter to all expectation, and getting lost for decades at a time in the contested, sometimes ugly territory where the humanities leave off and the sciences begin. Science fiction prides itself on crashing and burning, again and again, against the walls of narrative expectation and good taste. It’s the Gully Foyle of literature, fearsome and damaged and perilous in its promise: a Prometheus figure shoving fire in your face. “Catch *this!*”

That’s the proposition that we’ve set out to explore in Arc, a new digital magazine that’s about the future – the promise and the terror of it. We’ve enlisted some of the finest writers of our time to explore our growing conviction that, for good or ill, science and technology have acquired spiritual power over us – and that science fiction really has become our only truly relevant literary genre.

Is Arc a science fiction magazine? Perhaps. Until something better turns up. But these things turn on a penny, and the future – whatever *that* is – always wins.

Simon Ings is managing editor of Arc, a new digital publication about the future from the makers of New Scientist. The first issue will be out on iPad, Kindle and limited print edition in February 2012.


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