Science Fiction Brewed Fresh Daily

Sfanglophilia?

(Or– why North American fans need to read more SF from the U.K.)

For some time Chip has been asking me for opinion pieces for the blog. Since, according to the equitable distribution laws of our state, intellectual property is shared equally within a marriage, please feel free to harangue her mercilessly over the views expressed in the following article. In grand sfeditorial tradition I will be making arrogant, unsupportable generalizations, expressing value judgments based on woefully incomplete data, and will ramble off-topic repeatedly.

Why should North American fans pay more attention to recent SF from the U.K.? Because, on average, over the last 15 years, it’s been better than its New World cousin. (See? Fearless leap into arrogant generalization, based on subjective criteria.) By the mid-nineties North American SF was becoming moribund, recursive, and complacent. There were a few pretty, shiny objects in the landslide of cloned mediocrity, but modern marketing techniques and the rise of the book superstores were pushing North American SF into a safely predictable niche. (I feel vaguely guilty including Canadian SF here, since it might be arguable that Canadian SF has steadily improved over the last fifteen years, but — whatthefuck — Canadians are North Americans, and they’re used to being unjustly whacked for the indiscretions of their southern neighbors and, besides, if you toss Mexican SF on the pile, it all averages out to support my point.) While publishing science fiction in the U.S. was marginally profitable, the market for serial high fantasy in North America was bottomless, and the Empress of Hogwarts (who is, admittedly, a U.K. writer) was about to unleash the full, explosive hegemony of YA fiction and its corollary full-cycle algernonification of genre fiction, ironically confirming one of the more controversial genre statements of the late Tom Disch. (Actually, I admire the stated role of YA fiction as a gateway drug that should lead to serious heavy book use. I just think that the purchase of YA fiction by readers over twenty-one years of age should be criminalized, and suitable, meaningful penalties applied to booksellers who don’t card their clientele.) At about this time in the U.K. the concatenation of innovative, established specific writers (notice the homage to Britain’s last genre literary movement), fledgling, hit-or-miss authors who suddenly started smacking home runs (substitute the equivalent cricket metaphor), newer, unknown but talented writers, and a publishing industry and reading public less inclined to marginalize adult SF (when I visited the U.K. in 2005, I noticed promotional posters for Iain M. Banks’ THE ALGEBRAIST at every tube station I passed through in London. Orbit [an imprint of Times Warner U.K.] had spent actual money promoting a SF title in traditional mainstream fashion to real people!) created the conditions necessary for a kind of critical mass that has produced an ongoing SF renaissance in the U.K. (Hyperbole is our friend).

North American SF writers tend to initiate genre literary movements ending in ” -punk.” (The exception being the very narrow, but high tonnage, movement we like to call “Neal Stephenson.”) Their counterparts in the U.K. seem to prefer the prefix “new-.” The New Wave that erupted from the U.K. in the 1960s had, and continues to have, some impact on the larger genre. (If you don’t know what the New Wave was — stop — back slowly away from this blog, go immediately to Amazon and purchase a copy of Judith Merrill’s fine 1968 New Wave sampler anthology ENGLAND SWINGS SF [as of this writing there are 23 copies available, starting at $1.00]. Read this book from cover to cover, scratch your head perplexedly, mumble a pithy critical analysis in stream-of-consciousness format, and then return to finish reading this post). The current SF renaissance in the U.K. includes, but is certainly not limited to, the New Space Opera movement and the self-proclaimed New Weird. If you’re not familiar with New Space Opera and the New Weird, then you probably weren’t familiar with the New Wave, and you probably didn’t do your reading assignment as outlined above, so, as an example of editorial largesse, brief synopses follow. (Everybody else can skip forward to the author recommendations.)

I’m not sure that I’ve seen a slam-dunk, comprehensive definition of New Space Opera from any source, including the editors of anthologies devoted to the movement, but there are a few givens. In NSO, the innocent (or guilty) pleasures of the pulp/golden age space opera (frequently including honored tropes like Big Dumb Objects and deep space pyrotechnics) are revived as real literature (as much as any adult SF not written by Gene Wolfe or M. John Harrison can be called such) with complex plotting and finely drawn characters. But NSO isn’t just Eliza Doolittle in a skintight black pressure suit. Most writers of New Space Opera have peered into the Strossian punchbowl and made peace of some kind with The Singularity and/or post human transcendence (even if only by describing why it didn’t, or won’t, occur in their milieu), and this single accession to contemporary techspec does make for dramatic changes in the tone and direction of modern space opera when compared to its stylistically challenged prototype. While there are a handful of contemporary North American SF writers who have done work in this category (like Dan Simmons, or Scott Westerfield before he was entirely seduced by Darth YA), the overwhelming majority of its practitioners write in the U.K.

The New Weird is harder to define because its writers (most of whom object to being classified at all) and fans want it to be harder to define. It’s almost easier to discuss what it’s not. It’s not slipstream (at this point, if you don’t know what slipstream fiction is, you may wish to consider formally filing a change in your genre affiliation). It is influenced by the New Wave, but it’s generally not postmodern in execution.  It is not related to High Fantasy (or consolatory fantasy — i.e. the kind of fantasy that makes China Mieville “want to puke”) in any respect — no elves, dragons, or castles, and it bristles at being included in any discussion of more traditional fantasy.  NW work usually includes some dark, even horrific, elements, and can be political in overt or symbolic fashion. It is fantastic in the pure sense and frequently surreal. The novel most commonly pointed to as the poster child for this movement is PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Mieville.  Other authors who occasionally complain about being included in this category are Steph Swainston, Jeff VanderMeer (American), Hal Duncan, and a retrofitted M. John Harrison.

There are dozens of innovative, talented specfic writers currently working in the U.K. of whom many North American SF readers are either unaware, or only peripherally aware. Some have been published for decades, and others only recently. Some are involved with NSO or the New Weird, and many are not. One of the very few positive aspects of globalism in the publishing industry is the recent trend towards the eventual distribution of most successful U.K. titles to the North American markets. Sometimes the titles even receive promotion. In 2005 I attended Interaction Worldcon in Glasgow. The five novels nominated for the Hugo that year were all titles originating in the U.K. (This fact alone should convince Americans to read more Brit SF). Of those five titles, three had been released in the U.S. prior to Worldcon, and two had not. Susanna York’s JONATHON STRANGE & DR NORRELL had been published in the U.S. and had been promoted very heavily (for a specfic title) in the States. Roughly half of the attendees of that Worldcon were Americans, and STRANGE/NORRELL won the award that year (surprise!) — because it was the only title that most American voters had read. This bothered me deeply because one of the nominees that had not been released in the U.S., prior to Interaction, was Ian McDonald’s RIVER OF GODS, one of the best genre novels written this century, but hardly anyone in the States had either heard of it or read it. The U.K. authors I’m recommending here are all currently working writers with relatively new titles available. There are a number of U.K. writers I’ve read but am not recommending here because of quality or relevance issues — or because I just don’t like them. I’m not including any authors so well known that their work has become canonical, even in North America. Nor am I including any writers who have received British chivalry honours, like Brian Aldiss O.B.E. (I always want to add “Wan Kinobe” after that), because they already have shiny medals and don’t need praise from commoners.

RECOMMENDED WRITERS

Each week (hopefully) I will post an overview of one of the following writers, in alphabetical order, beginning next week.

  • Neal Asher
  • Iain M. Banks (The “M” signifies SF)
  • Stephen Baxter
  • Hal Duncan
  • Neil Gaiman (OK, I know, but he’s not quite canonical –yet)
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood
  • David Gunn
  • Peter F. Hamilton
  • M. John Harrison
  • Ken MacLeod
  • Ian MacLeod
  • Paul McAuley
  • Ian McDonald
  • John Meaney
  • China Mieville
  • Richard Morgan
  • Alastair Reynolds
  • Justina Robson
  • Charles Stross
  • Steph Swainston
  • Jeffrey Thomas

If you’ve stayed awake long enough to finish this posting, and you’re offended because I’ve left your favorite, currently working U.K. writer off this list — get over it. Comment loudly or write your own article.

Posted in Books & Authors September 8th, 2008 by Shadow
8 comments

8 Comments

  1. It’s not just since the mid-1990s. See http://justhastobeplausible.blogspot.com/2008/07/20-british-sf-novels-you-should-read.html

    Comment by Ian Sales — September 8, 2008 @ 7:57 am

  2. I think the basic reason that SF doesn’t get as much push in the US as in the UK is that American Literary Criticism – all schools and disciplines – determined long ago to “ghettoize” literature.

    If I recall correctly, Ross MacDonald was the first mystery writer to receive a front page review in the New York Times Book Review. And, that was in the late 70’s (I think). Other than Stanislaw Lem, no SF author has ever received such treatment. Not Gibson (I think) not Stephenson, or others. Please fell free to correct me on this. I have been reading the Times Book Review for nearly 50 years, so something could have slipped through.

    In the UK, this ghettoization never seems to have occurred. Hence, there is a tendency to review all serious literature, irrespective of its nominal “genre”. In the US, none of the major publishers have elected to do this. And, the smaller presses simply cannot afford it.

    With the popularity of Fantasy and SF in the YA field (pace Shadow/Chip?) I think that this ghettoization will decline.

    Those of us who have been so ghettoized for all our lives (in my case, I started reading SF at age 6, 58 years ago) can only hope.

    Rick York

    Comment by Rick York — September 8, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  3. Ian — Chip linked to your article a while back, and that’s actually what reminded me that I wanted to post something about contemporary SF&F writers in the U.K. I support your desire to see North Americans read more Britlit SF&F, and I don’t disagree with your assessment of any of the books on your reading list. Since half the books on your list were published prior to 1990, and several (certainly the Wells, Orwell, and Burgess) have become canonical in the States, to the point of mandatory inclusion in many secondary public school required reading lists, I wanted to draw attention to the period in which I saw SF&F from the U.K. becoming (for the first time, in my opinion)a bit more robust than its North American counterpart. I think that North American SF, throughout the 1990s, was sliding slowly toward what would eventually be codified as mundane SF in the next decade. While there have been and will continue to be some very good, even great, works arising from that neighborhood of the genre, it does tend to offer a more limited palette to the artist. For the last decade-plus, there has been more full-color, widescreen work coming out of the U.K.

    Over the last two or three years I believe that North American SF&F has become more robust. I think that publishers and authors are realizing that to be mundane SF, work doesn’t have to be mundane. I’ve noticed more new names cropping up on bookshelves, and a more energetic attitude towards near-future worldbuilding. I’ve added more North American authors to my “automatically buy any new work” list — Michael Chabon, Jon Armstrong, David Marusek and others. Among more established authors, Greg Bear seems to have shaken the SFthriller monkey off his back and produced a very grand-theme, almost Stapledonian novel this year, and Vernor Vinge tossed us RAINBOW’S END a while back to show that mundane SF could be fun. But, for the time being, if I’m looking for quality space opera or truly innovative fantasy, my first stop is still Amazon.uk.

    Comment by Shadow — September 8, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  4. Rick —

    >>In the UK, this ghettoization never seems to have occurred.<<

    I think most writers in the U.K. would agree that there is some degree of genre prejudice on both sides of the sales counter. I heard the issue addressed several times in panel discussions at Glasgow in ’05. It also came up in a more intimate discussion group I attended and the authors there unanimously declared it a problem. As an objective observer, though, it seemed to me that their ghetto had witnessed considerably more urban renewal than the one on our side of the Atlantic.

    Comment by Shadow — September 9, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  5. Shadow – point taken that you were focusing on current writers rather than just British writers in general. I’ll admit that my reading now is chiefly British. That wasn’t always the case – it used to be that the majority of books I read were UK editions of US books. Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Smith, Niven, van Vogt, Vance… all the old masters. Mind you, we’re going back 20+ years. Now, there’s a bare handful of US sf writers whose books I bother to buy.

    Rick – yes, there’s definitely a “ghetto” here. But I think the fact that our market is so small means it turns over faster, bringing the newer earth to the surface more often (if that’s not a metaphor too far).

    Comment by Ian Sales — September 9, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  6. >>(if that’s not a metaphor too far).<<

    Compared to the distances I tend to drag metaphors, kicking and screaming, you’ve barely left the driveway.

    Comment by Shadow — September 9, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  7. I’m sure you’re both right about the “ghetto” in England. But, can you imagine The New York Times spending as much effort on book by Gibson as the Guardian did on Banks’ “Matter”.

    I may have been a little hyberbolic in my analogy, but the fundamental difference to me is that in the UK a book is more likely to be reviewed based on its quality thatn on its genre.

    You may be right about the “churn” (we’re going from earth to butter?) in the UK, but I do think that SF tends to get a little more respect.

    Either way, the UK is producing some extraordinary talent in every part of the speculative fiction spectrum.

    Comment by Rick York — September 9, 2008 @ 6:21 pm

  8. The Guardian definitely reviews more genre work than the NYT.

    If there is one author who is entirely immune to genre prejudice in the U.K., it might be Iain (M.) Banks. I’m sure that writing mainstream fiction and nonfiction (about whiskey, even), as well as having been adapted for TV and film, has something to do with it, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone offer serious, negative criticism of his work. He’s very widely known and read in the U.K., and I’m trying, without luck, to come up with an American equivalent for his career to date.

    Comment by Shadow — September 9, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

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