“… the somewhat lumpen kind of pseudo-magical realism that mainstream writers… tend to write when they want to extrapolate to make political points…”

Mainstream writers don’t trust their readers to make connections. Sf understands that the human mind is an intrinsically metaphorizing machine, and that therefore you do not have to labor the connections to make your point. That’s why Suzy McKee Charnas’s work or Le Guin’s better novels are better and more intelligent and persuasive about women’s oppression than, say, The Handmaid’s Tale [1985]. The polemics and satire in Perdido Street Station don’t undermine the secondary world I create, I hope.

China Mieville said that in an interview in 2003, so please, before you get out the pointy sticks, don’t blame me.

But I have to note that he really pinpoints what I don’t like about the pseudo-SFnal texts written by certain mainstream writers: the pervasive sense that they’re convinced they’re smarter than the whole lot of us put together, and that they can demonstrate this by sermonizing via narrative, while holding the speculative elements at arms length. (And handling it rather awkwardly as a result of that, as well as because they’re not really well-versed in how to write SFnal narratives.)

Writing a story about the end of the world, which happens at some point in the future, and then sternly insisting that every technology mentioned in it already exists, is an idiocy because writing about the future necessitates an assumption that technologies (and other things) that don’t now exist, and which we would not necessarily guess might exist, will by then exist. It’s a cheat and a not-so-subtle sign that the author very profoundly does not “get it” about SF.

I mean, look at this promo ad copy:

This is Atwood’s dystopic future: genetically altered animals (pigoons and wolvogs); the elimination of the middle class; ecological disaster; a video game named Extinctathon (SIMs gone wildly amuck); the commodification of just about everything; and, humanity’s extinction. Why does her vision resonate and disturb so deeply? Because it’s entirely possible. As you’ll see in the interview, Margaret pulled these developments directly from the headlines of our newspapers, magazines and websites.

Not only can Oryx and Crake be added to the shortlist of classic dystopic novels like Brave New World and 1984, it is doubtless the most inventive and unnerving novel written in some time.

Someone out there hasn’t been reading SF in a while. Personally, I can think of a number of genre novels that, even just in synopsis form, kick Oryx and Crake right off the consideration table.

Hell, I suspect that even the best of John Brunner’s novels would, after so many years gone by, still read as fresher and more inventive that Oryx and Crake. Not that I’ve read it: my appetite for self-righteous tedium is so weak I’d probably never get past the first chapter.

3 thoughts on ““… the somewhat lumpen kind of pseudo-magical realism that mainstream writers… tend to write when they want to extrapolate to make political points…”

  1. I’m still not sure why some work ends up in the ghetto and others go on to become “classics”. I’ve been reading more mainstream fiction (specifically, short fiction) and so much of what is out there just seems like speculative work to me. “The Seventh Man” by Haruki Murakami could easily be horror. Aimee Bender’s work is considered Mainstream, but could easily fit into any major speculative fiction magazine. I’m starting to wonder if we don’t just keep ourselves in this Ghetto. Perhaps Harper’s and The New Yorker should be first on our submissions list and not Asimov’s or Fantasy Magazine.

  2. Whenever we rail against Margaret Atwood, I feel like we’re ignoring the plank in our own eye.

    I didn’t think Oryx and Crake was so horrible. There were some idiotic mistakes, yes, but the preachiness was tempered by irony and, thank goodness, laid out in readable prose. This made O&C a lot easier to read than, say, anything by Sheri S. Tepper.

    Although I think Mieville’s criticism of Atwood is spot on, I don’t think his defense of SF writers really holds water. I love this genre with my very soul, but there are so many SF writers I just can’t read because they _don’t_ trust the reader to make connections. To cite a relevant example, I almost tossed Perdido Street Station across the room when the villain addressed the heroine and said (I paraphrase, but not by much), “Let me explain to you how I am a metaphor for steampunk and other interstitial subgenres.”

    I don’t think Oryx & Crake displays a deep understanding of what SF “should” do (according to Mieville), but I think that’s also the case with a great deal of “genuine” SF. Before we burn Margaret Atwood at the stake for being proud of her decent-but-not-great book, we ought to take a hard look at the heavy-handed Christian content in Orson Scott Card’s work, the various preachings of Robert Heinlein, the over-the-top political evangelism of Iain M. Banks, etc., etc. All of them are good writers, but I’ve never felt like they trust me to read between the lines.

  3. Shawn,

    I think it’s probably more likely true that horror and fantasy, being closer to older forms of storytelling, can also exist in mainstream lit a lot. But the mainstream-lit attempts at SF I’ve seen have very often disappointed me. (Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins being amn exception.) While SF uses a lot of the same gothic tropes as horror and fantasy, I think there’s other stuff that’s specifically modern, specifically new, and specifically hard to get right unless you’re steeped in the stuff.

    (Which is not to put SF on a pedestal above fantasy and horror, just to say that there are things in it that are radically different from mainstream fiction, just as newspaper writing is radically different from magazine feature writing.)


    Well, I have one added reason to rag on Margaret Atwood, because I’m Canadian and in Canada she’s held up as this monumental, amazing, Important Author.

    (And as far as it goes, I think she sort of exploits our own national inferiority complex and associated anxieties. Actually a number of artists and musicians in Canada do this too.)

    I should admit (again, in case I didn’t in the post) that I haven’t read the novel Oryx and Crake though I also won’t be spending any money on it, so I probably won’t read it. I can imagine it being more readable than Sheri Tepper, though, because the few things I’ve tried of Tepper’s just did nothing for me. I forced myself through half of The Gate To Women’s Country and I think it was the first book I consciously gave up on… as opposed to just losing interest, putting down, and never getting back to. (Though the first 30 or 40 pages of Sideshow didn’t totally turn me off. I haven’t read more, and it was a touch preachy, in an early Germaine Greer way, but not so badly written that I tossed it across the room. Though I did put it down and never got back to it.)

    I suspect that Miéville’s repeated referencing of “pulp” in that interview helps it make more sense: Atwood’s past work has always been so damned serious that having fun whilst reading it seemed an impossibility. When she has a point to make, things like fun are set aside (as if they are childish). SF authors may preach — and hell, even I’ve been accused of preaching, like in some reviews of “Dhuluma No More” — but I think SF authors also trust that their readers can have fun while being exposed to The Author’s Ideas.

    As for Card’s religiosity and Heinlein’s preaching — not surprisingly, those are two authors I haven’t read much of. I have to disagree about the Banks, though: I find enough subtle critique of his own utopia, especially of the cracks that appear in its outer edges, or in the inner lives of its denizens. (The novella “The State of the Art” (was it?) in that collection is a really excellent example of that. But I’ve only read a few of his Culture novels besides the stories in that novella, and have always meant to read more. Hopefully I can catch up a bit this year. So much to read, so little time.

    BTW: where’s that passage in PSS? I don’t recall any such thing, but it may well be I’d just gone into marathon exhaustion at that point. At a certain point, I just sort of surrendered to the purpleness of the prose and the weirdness and rode the funhouse ride till the end.

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