Everything Unscrews

It’s obvious, isn’t it? Literature reflects events in the real world, and is influenced by them. Except for science fiction and fantasy, which have nothing to tell us about the human condition or the state of our culture.

That’s the judgement of people who never read the stuff; the supercilious commentators, and the self-appointed arbiters of the dying Fourth Estate. Whereas those who do read and write in these genres know they are among the best interpreters, and always have been. Frankenstein, the point at which sf emerged as a discrete branch of fantasy, marked the beginning of the discord between science and religion that’s coming to its climax today. That other bookend standing at the close of the 19th century, The Time Machine, speculated on where a widening social divide might lead. Jekyll and Hyde pointed to the hypocrisy of Victorian society, with its outward respectability and inward salaciousness, as well as anticipating the coming of Freudian psychology. L. Frank Baum’s Oz series wrapped his socialist utopianism in allegory; Brave New World foresaw reproductive manipulation and the dark side of eugenics; Animal Farm satirised Stalinism; The Lord of the Rings bemoaned spreading industrialisation; Make Room! Make Room! warned against over-population; A Clockwork Orange anticipated gang culture and state surveillance, and – But I’m preaching to the converted.

No work of fiction stands in isolation from the time in which it was written. This applies as much to sf and fantasy as anything else, but they have the advantage because they reflect on where things might go. So whether set in the far future, a magical kingdom, an alien planet, or the shores of hell itself, speculative fiction is always about the present. It’s inevitable. We’re all trapped in the bubble of the here and now, struggle as we will to burst it.

Consciously or not, writers tend to mirror the political and cultural norms of the times they live in. Which is why there’s been a strong right-wing strand in American sf (the lone hero builds a moon rocket in his back yard) whereas the European tradition has veered more towards a soft collectivism (we will band together to achieve our purpose). Some – think Pohl & Kornbluth, Sheckley, Vonnegut, William Tenn, Douglas Adams, Pratchett – have used the form in a satirical, deflationery way. And then there are non-English speaking cultures where the speculative genres are vehicles for thinly-disguised criticism of the system – eg the likes of Stanislaw Lem in the Soviet Union.

One thing all persuasions have tended to have in common is the concept of outiders – the individual or group confronted by seemingly overwhelming odds. Sometimes they bring the edifice down (WASP), sometimes it beats them (1984).

Little versus big. But in this respect, what did these genres not foresee? Well, in the same way that sf was lousy at predicting personal computers and how they might evolve, it also failed to imagine their societal impact. At least, not until it was underway. The dissemination of information and the ability to organise via social networking is leading to empowerment on a mass scale. For the first time in human history the odds are being rebalanced. Which makes me wonder who the new outcasts are going to be. The technologically disadvantaged? I think this will be a major theme in literature, whatever the genre.

I’m interested in outsiders. If only because I cling to the idea that loners can make a difference. They feature in a lot of my work, one way or another. Most explicitly in my series of Orcs books, with Inferno marking the final volume in the Bad Blood trilogy. You don’t get more outsiderish than an orcs warband. But the central premise of my orcs stories is that they’re not the evil, moronic rabble customarily depicted. The winners, the ones who wrote the history books, spread that lie.

The novels are fantasy adventures, pacey I hope, with lots of action seasoned with a little humour. They’re entertainments. But without being diatribes they also have something to say about how we treat those on the fringes, the intemperance of religious extremism and the state of the environment. I can do that because the genre enables it.

Not that the literati will give a toss.

Marcus

Marcus joined Gollancz as an Editor at the beginning of 2011, and is greatly enjoying the chance to work on the kind of books he’s always read. His shelves at home are groaning. Previously, he spent ten years as a bookseller for Blackwell’s, ending up as Sales Manager for their flagship London shop on Charing Cross Road. He lives with his partner, a historian and novelist, and their very small child, who is going to know more about SFF then anyone else at nursery. This may not be a good thing.
  • Quite right too. Well said, Mr Nicholls.

  • I’m still holding out for the day when a scifi or fantasy novel wins the Booker prize. I could be in for a very long wait, of course. At the moment, genre fiction isn’t even allowed to enter. That’s right, Tolkein’s work is just twee nonsense, isn’t it, not the creation of the entire Anglo-Saxon mythos that informs our current cultural identity? Scifi writers are just as bad cos they also make it up, so what does it matter that a good % of discoveries in modern science have been led by visionary scifi authors? How dare anyone suggest that ‘literary fiction’ is just another genre and a mere romanticization of our mundane day-to-day existence! How dare I, sir? How dare you, sir! How very very dare you!

  • Pingback: Fictional Books Blog and Review()