Monday 29 October 2012
The debate sparked by Paul Kincaid's essay on SF's state of exhaustion rolls on. Here, for instance, is PK's latest statement - it's well worth reading, and also includes a handy set of links to some of the other contributions to the dialogue.
It's always hard to know how to engage with this sort of thing. As writers, we are strongly discouraged from responding to our critics, advice which I think is eminently sensible and which I have tried to abide by. Even the simple act of linking to or mentioning a negative review can be seen as a kind of attack by proxy, since many writers have extremely loyal readerships who will not hesitate to take up the sword on the writer's tacit behalf. I don't approve of that sort of thing, but I have seen it happen many times and I can easily think of some serial offenders. With a few excusable exceptions brought on by moments of moral weakness, I have tried not to do it and I have very little time for writers who indulge in it as a matter of course. It's gang politics, the crude tactics of the playground. Critics should feel free to speak up without fear of personal attacks. That is an obvious truism in literature as a whole, but it applies even more stringently within the extremely clubby, collegiate world of science fiction.
A piece like PK's original article invites, I think, a different kind of response. It's a not a review, and it doesn't mention my writing. In the sense that I have a view of PK's opinion of my SF, I sense that he is more inclined to see my work as part of the problem than the solution. Looked at another way, the class of SF that I am often associated with - call it heartland SF, whatever - seems, broadly, to be the kind that PK is now finding to be in a state of exhaustion. The writers he has been most recently impressed by are, generally, those operating on the margins of the form, far from the heartland. None of them are writers whose work sits squarely in the crosshairs of what we think of as genre science fiction. They are pushing against the boundaries of the form, interrogating it from one or other side of the border. As it happens, they are all writers I either already admire intensely or look forward to investigating. Christopher Priest's work, for instance, couldn't be more fascinating to me as a reader, even though it's not remotely the sort of thing I create. Similarly, I can't read a page of M John Harrison without questioning my entire commitment to writing. But there's no escaping the fact that I operate in a fundamentally different mode to these writers and that, eleven or twelve novels into my career, I obviously choose to do so. The question for me now is two-fold. Firstly, is it possible to engage with PK's discussion in a way that is neither defensive, nor a form of attack by proxy? Secondly, given the obvious and sincere substance of PK's opinions, what can I do to improve not only my own craft, but (and if it isn't too arrogant) in some small way the state of SF?
To take the first point - I hope that it is possible to respond, and to do so in a civil and constructive way. As I hope was clear from my earlier posts, much of what PK says makes perfect and depressing sense. In fact I would have welcomed engagement from many more writers than those who have already responded. Agree or disagree, I'm sure we all have something interesting to add.
The second point is obviously much harder to address. But here I want to mention something that my colleague Paul McAuley wrote on his blog back on the 5th of October - http://www.unlikelyworlds.blogspot.co.uk/ - which was to say "... let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become part of the problem." Now, I don't think PM is part of the problem at all but those are nonetheless excellent words to live by. As writers I think we ought to ask ourselves that question on a pretty regular basis. Am I good for science fiction, or is science fiction good for me? If I had not written a word, would the field be better or worse or indeed no different? I can't be alone in sometimes feeling as I've lucked into my SF career - as if, rather than bringing anything new to the field, I've just somehow managed to slip into the party and find myself a corner. On my better days, I tell myself that I'm doing useful work, adding to the conversation, treating the form with the seriouness it deserves. On my less good days, I feel like a complete fraud, and I expect the knock on the door at any moment. But it seems to me that, whether you are an imposter or not - and posterity's going to have the word on that one, not the blogosphere - it is a pretty good thing to remain in a state of questioning self-doubt, striving constantly to step back from your own work and examine the easy assumptions and platitudes underpinning it. A discussion like that sparked by PK's essay can only be healthy.
With that off my chest, in my next blog post I want to talk a bit about space travel, why it is not just about moving tropes around, and why I think there is intellectual value in the theme.