SF, or not SF?


My eye was caught by an article in Sunday’s paper about the eminent Canadian novelist Margaret Attwood.  She’s travelling on the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic, and is giving nightly readings from her new book The Year of the Flood, sharing top billing with Dr Peter Dean, a forensic scientist and expert on the Jack the Ripper murders.

The bit that initially captured my attention was the mention of Peter Dean – he was our forensic science consultant on the ITV series McCallum, starring John Hannah.  And even then, he was developing a sideline giving talks on cruise liners – what a great way to earn a living! Peter’s a lovely man, and a font of knowledge about things macabre. 

But having spotted Peter’s name, I read further in the article to learn a bit more about Attwood and her new novel.  It’s an apocalyptic vision about a Darwinian cult which survives after ecological disaster has destroyed nearly all humanity. So far, so fascinating. But this book, I also learn, is NOT in Attwood’s view a piece of science fiction - no, no, it’s a ‘realistic extrapolation of the present’. Quite a different proposition!

Oh, and, by the way, the Queen Mary 2 is not in fact a “ship”; it’s a metal object that floats on water. 


The whole debate about what is and isn’t science fiction is a lively one of course. Last year there was controversy when two ‘literary’ novels appeared on the shortlist for the Clarke awards; various bloggers queried whether these books were actually science fiction at all.  One of these books was The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall  – which for my money definitely IS science fiction, despite its disappointing lack of an action climax.  The other was James Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, which I would tend to see as witty and iconoclastic magic realism rather than SF – but hey, that’s all certainly open to debate!

But there is without doubt an assumption among some readers and critics and writers that any novel with a science fictional premise which is written by a ‘posh’ writer is not SF.  Thus, Jeanette Winterson has argued that her novel The Stone Gods is not sci-fi, even though it has spaceships and a future civilisation. And, in exactly similar vein, Attwood doesn’t want her posh novel to be associated by a grubby genre like Science Fiction.

This isn’t literary discourse; it’s just literary snobbery.  And to my delight, Ursula Le Guin, in her brilliant review of Attwood’s novel, uses irony and cleverness like surgical scalpels to ruthlessly dissect this diseased argument.  No one can mock cultural snobs like Le Guin – and she has all the authority of a grande dame of the fantasy world who can also hold her own in literary circles. (Her latest novel Lavinia is a novel based on a character from one of the greatest epic stories of all time - Virgil’s The Aeneid – which I’ve read in translation many years ago, but which Le Guin has read in the original Latin.)

Click here to experience for yourself Le Guin’s priceless review of Attwood’s book in the same paper; the book itself she likes, it’s the author’s literary snobbery she hates.

And as my own contribution to this debate, my next blog will be a brief essay on the SF classic that literary types hate to describe as ‘sci-fi’ – George Orwell’s 1984.

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