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Does this book go in the sci-fi section?

Does this book go in the sci-fi section?

When I applied to do my PhD, I did the usual thing of applying for a load of different funding opportunities. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without funding. I had to do a little presentation to a room of academics on what my novel was going to be about. I said it was going to be about octopus intelligence and it might have aliens in it and ideas about communication.

            At the end of the interview I did what a good little candidate would do and flipped their ‘do you have any questions?’ around. Did they have any final questions for me? One of the interviewers did have a question.

            ‘If this gets published and then gets into bookstores, which section will it go in: fiction or sci-fi and fantasy?’

            I thought about it for a moment and said, ‘I’d like to have a copy in each section.’

            There was a quick laugh all round before I was told, ‘That’ll never happen.’

            So once again the familiar literary fiction versus genre fiction raises its ugly head like an evil dragon sitting atop a mound of burnt manuscripts. The whole argument is a bloody minefield with every conceivable faction having something to say.

            ‘Literary fiction steals all the good genre authors and then says that genre is exclusively made up of dross!’

            It’s a kind of truth. Kurt Vonnegut is usually the poster boy for this particular argument. It’s an easy thing to test. Go into a bookshop and look up Vonnegut in Fiction: there’s Slaughterhouse-Five, quietly minding its own business. Then go to Sci-Fi and Fantasy and you’ll find the rest of Vonnegut’s output there, usually in the form of a single sad copy of the Sirens of Titan.

            Why’s it in the fiction section? Is it because it’s a harrowing meditation on the horrors of war? Maybe, but it also tells that story through the medium of a man who has been kidnapped by time-travelling aliens. So, it’s Sci-Fi.

            Then again, genre fiction is often keen to do the same. There’s a very compelling case put forward that Frankenstein is one of the first science-fiction novels. Shelley considered real world aspects of science and projected them to imagine what might be possible. She took frightful monsters and galvanism and then used it to consider the human condition. Surely though all these people claiming that Frankenstein is only a science-fiction novel are also gatekeepers of the worst kind.

            See it’s a difficult argument to mediate, usually because both sides are so invested in their viewpoints. Literary Fiction must be serious and considered and thoughtful. Genre fiction, is serious and considered and thoughtful, they respond. It’s just got spaceships and clones and dragons in it.

            The one thing I do have to say in favour of genre authors is that they always seem to be the ones extending the olive branch. China Mieville (love him or hate him) summed up the whole debate fantastically with ‘it’s not about literary versus genre fiction, it’s about the literature of recognition versus that of estrangement.’

            Bloody too right it is. There’s dross everywhere. I’ve read genre fiction that was so clichéd and up itself that I could feel my eyes dribbling out of my skull. Bad sci-fi is tactless and tacky usually written by people I’ll only describe as imitators. Then again, I’ve read ‘serious’ literary fiction that made me want to put my head through a wall. If you’re going to tell me a serious story you have to make it interesting. If I have to read another novel about a writer I’m going to do something bad.

            That’s the point of recognition versus estrangement. I don’t want to read something that I’ve seen a thousand times before. Estrange me god damn it. Make me feel freaked out and a bit weird and interested.

            I had the pleasure of meeting M. John Harrison a few months back. He was an interesting looking bloke; quite short, with his long grey hair tied back into a pony tail and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache. He looked a little bit like a monk crossed with an early incarnation of the Master from Doctor Who. He was talking about his new collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now.

            I went to get my book signed and we got chatting about the age-old debate. He was funny and sharp and rounded his argument off by saying ‘if we stop seeing it as us versus them and see what we can do together, then that’s when the really interesting stuff happens.’ [1]

            It’s the best answer to the argument I’ve ever heard. It’s not a war. It’s not so fundamental that it will tear the whole of literature apart. Just chill is what I want to say to the zealots. Including the professor who told me I’ll never have a copy of my book in both sections of the bookshop.

            My Dad came up with what I wished I’d said at the time. He was asking me about my book and I told him the story of the professor. In the true fashion of someone who has pitched TV shows his entire life, he came up with a snappy response to ‘that’ll never happen.’

            ‘It’s never happened yet.’

[1] With apologies to M. John Harrison if I’ve butchered what he said. At the time I didn’t realise how important what he was saying was, so didn’t have my tape recorder on me.


Calum Collins is a PhD student at the University of Kent studying The Contemporary Novel: Practice as Research. He's currently writing his first book, Wetware City, a novel about miniatures, cyborgs and odd transhumanist weirdness.

London Is Ours

London Is Ours