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March 2002

Posted 30 March:

Previous March Letters
Adam Roberts Commentary on the Clarke Awards

Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted.

On Roberts's Side

Dear Locus Online,
     I thought Adam Roberts makes some very good points in his essay on the Clarke Award nominees, and I say this as someone who more often than not reads stories and novels from out on the periphery of imaginative fiction. Readers, writers and critics would be well served by awards specifically aimed at shining a spotlight on the best books from within Science Fiction’s core. I think the genre would be best served by looking to its strengths rather than chasing after the elusive approval of a literary world that wants nothing to do with it.
     Alex Irvine and his supporters come down far too harshly in criticizing the SF vs Mainstream comments of Roberts and Gregory Benford; they seem to miss the larger context. SF is a ghetto. The inhabitants didn’t build the ghetto walls, they merely have had to learn to live with them. Science fiction writers of serious intent are denied just about all the perks of “literary” writers of serious intent — from grants, fellowships and comfortable graduate level creative writing teaching jobs, to the opportunity of being reviewed and featured in newspaper book sections, to generally even getting the chance of fair reading by anyone who considers themselves literary.
     (These are not things I pull out of a hat. I’ve done a good bit of work for newspaper book editors and have mingled with a fair number of creative writing academics — the level of preemptive prejudice is astonishing, even from people who initially claim to be sympathetic to the possibility of good genre fiction. It starts feeling downright insulting after a while.)
     By the way, SF writers do read far more mainstream fiction than the other way around — it's even far cooler to admit you read graphic novels than SF when you’re in “literary” circles. I could go on and on. I think any writer carrying around the SF label has good reason to be a little paranoid.
     Hopefully the real spirit of Mr. Roberts’s suggestions won’t be ignored because some people feel defensive about their own tastes in “borderline” fiction.

Damian Kilby
28 March 2002

Dear Locus Online,
     I've been reading with great interest and amusement the latest letters regarding the (perceived) battle between SF and mainstream fiction.
     As one who reads and reviews SF&F fiction of every stripe, let me say that it bothers me not one whit that SF-lite like Connie Willis's Passage has been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award. I am equally unperturbed when Michael Crichton's and Stephen King's novels routinely make the bestseller lists (even if Ben Bova's or Stephen Baxter's don't). I suffer no twinges of regret at the cornucopia of media tie-ins to Star Trek and Star Wars — their existence doesn't threaten weightier fiction.
     I do see an emerging sub-sector of fiction that appeals to SF&F sensibilities without falling squarely into orthodox categories (if there are such things). Andy Duncan is one of the best SF&F writers alive today who writes neither SF nor F: his excellent prose is both popular and critically acclaimed by genre lovers — with nary a clone, UFO, or starship in sight. Consider the much-praised works of Jeff VanderMeer, whose Ambergris "fantasy" stories contain almost none of the elements one would expect in fantasy — not even so much as a ghost to haunt the reader's peripheral vision! Ambergris is a fictitious place in a fictitious world, and odd things happen, but it doesn't seem to fit the traditional fantasy templates.
     There's plenty of SF&F published nowadays that buckles the swash and fulfills our desire for light, escapist reading. There's also plenty of good hard SF that incorporates solid science. SF&F fans are expanding their tastes, abandoning the closet-mentality, and embracing excellent literature that appeals to their genre sensibilities. Is this a bad thing? I think not.

John C. Snider, editor
28 March 2002

Not On Roberts's Side

Dear Locus Online,
     I could not disagree more with Adam Roberts, so I was glad to read Alex Irvine's response. In a market which by its nature treats books as it would yard goods, or widgets, it takes a courageous writer to attempt something more than an entertainment. Entertainments are rewarded with brisk sales; perhaps we should allow awards to reward something more. I love science fiction, but I often wish the writers of it would take their craft a little more seriously. I don't think everyone should become Raymond Carver or Russell Banks (or Margaret Atwood, for that matter) but a little maturity would go a long way. Instead of another Star Trek retread, why not spend some time developing a new set of variables and telling a space opera with more flair, more panache, more originality. I don't believe science fiction has to be so category. I take interesting over good any day, but the truth is that most sf is not that much more interesting than the "mainstream" fiction decried by the sf folks. Does it benefit anyone when writers attempt to discredit the work of other writers? It's a tough business; let's keep it civil and adult. Sometimes skiffy people act so childish, it's not surprising "mundanes" think we're freaks.

Robert Brown
27 March 2002

[ OK, but few letter writers in this thread, focusing instead on SF vs. Mainstream values, have addressed Roberts's original point, which is that there are ambitious SF works but that they are ignored by awards — or at least, the Clarke Awards — in favor of works more likely to appeal to mainstream tastes. Whether or not he's correct on that point, should SF awards celebrate the particular values of our genre? Or take into account broader literary values? Does anyone see a parallel here with Harry Potter's Hugo win?
--ed. ]

Classy Writers

Dear Locus Online,
     For the past twenty minutes, I've been trying to figure out what Lucius Cook is trying to say in the last paragraph of his letter. He says:

But there are also intelligent writers who deal with serious issues, such as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, who receive ample media attention and reach a substantial audience. Why can't SF publishing sustain a similar class of writers?
     What class of writers? Socially relevant writers like Geoff Ryman, Samuel R. Delany, and Nancy Kress? Or writers who receive ample media attention and receive a substantial audience, like Neil Gaiman and William Gibson? And how does this lead into a discussion of sf book covers (akin to Jonathan Lethem's in his Voice Literary Supplement piece)?
     I'm probably mystified because I know George Pelecanos's books didn't sell well until his fifth novel, didn't even have a paperback edition until his sixth, and didn't get much media coverage outside the Washington Post for years. But I'm mystified too because I'm looking at a pile of fifty or sixty recent sf books and I've only found one raygun (on Warchild by Karin Lowachee, Warner). Spacescapes, yes, and a few spaceships too, but I see plenty of sophisticated covers like Bantam's design for Kim Stanley Robinson's new book.
     Please, Mr. Cook, can you explain? What class?

Gordon Van Gelder
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
28 March 2002

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