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All Tomorrow’s Hangovers

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Last week I read Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is an excellent example of the post-apocalyptic novel and I’m grateful to the judges for shortlisting it for the Arthur C Clarke Award as otherwise it would have passed under my radar. However, not for the first time, I wondered about the enduring popularity of this form. Why is that when authors from outside the genre write science fiction they invariably produce post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction?

Yesterday’s Guardian featured another pair of these: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shyteyngart, reviewed by Tibor Fischer, and Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, reviewed by Justine Jordan. As Fischer remarks: “another drawback to the dystopian novel is that once you’ve read one you don’t need to read another; ditto the post-apocalyptic novel”. There is definitely something to this, particularly with regards to post-apocalyptic fiction. There is only one story to be told after the end of the world – the struggle for survival of body and soul – and whilst that is a story with a lot of mileage, it is still inherently limited. The equivalent would be if whenever an author wrote about the Second World War they only ever set their story in the gulag.

Another thing that has often puzzled me is the casual conflation of dystopia and post-apocalyptic. Jordan’s review was completely derailed for me by this line halfway through:

Where recent eco-dystopias such as The Road or Year of the Flood conjured an environmental degradation that degrades humanity’s moral sense beyond repair, Amsterdam’s tone is refreshingly unapocalyptic, and his novel is more interesting for it.

I will be charitable and assume that Jordan has read both those novels but I don’t see how the term “eco-dystopia” can be applied to either. This goes beyond conflation to total mischaracterisation: The Road takes place after a nuclear holocaust, The Year Of The Flood takes place both during a standard dystopia of late capitalism and after the release of a bio-weapon which has wiped out humanity but left the planet intact. In the case of Margaret Atwood’s novel there is simply no humanity left to have its moral sense degraded and, whilst there is plenty of moral degradation on display in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, to say it is degraded beyond repair is to miss the whole point of the novel. Jordan opens her review by stating: “Apocalyptic fiction tends to follow an irresistible drive towards vanishing point, the moment the last lights go out.” I would say the opposite: apocalyptic fiction is usually driven by a need to keep the flame burning as long as possible. Despite the brutality of Far North, The Road and The Year Of The Flood not all hope is extinguished and there is a chance that the light will last just a little longer.

Written by Martin

5 September 2010 at 11:46

Posted in criticism, sf

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11 Responses

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  1. Why is that when authors from outside the genre write science fiction they invariably produce post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction?

    My theory? Because writing a changed, viable future is hard, especially for writers from outside the genre who aren’t conversant in its tropes and tools, whereas ending the world is easy. I’ve been thinking about this as I polish my review of Charlie Huston’s Sleepless, a dystopian novel that I’d call pre-apocalyptic, in that its thrust is the realization of its characters that their civilization, and much of the human race, are doomed. It put me very much in mind of William Gibson’s recent novels and their reconfiguration of the present as something SFnal, which actually works to Huston’s advantage – he gets to tell a story that feels futuristic without flexing muscles of invention that he hasn’t developed.


    5 September 2010 at 12:50

  2. I’d be interested to know (as far as it’s possible) the correlation of the types of sf written by non-genre authors with the authors’ intentions. My instinct is that non-genre writers who set out knowingly to write science fiction (e.g. Toby Litt) will be more inclined to look at what’s available in the sf toolbox, and will produce a broader range of sf — though of course this is not something I can demonstrate with any certainty.

    David H

    5 September 2010 at 19:17

  3. Perhaps it’s just because the dystopia/utopia has had a much longer and much more respectable history than science fiction itself? That literary writers want to follow in the footsteps of Huxley and Orwell rather than Wells and Clarke?

    Martin Wisse

    5 September 2010 at 21:14

  4. I tried to post this earlier and it got eaten, but it sort of works as a response to Martin’s most recent comment about Wells/Clarke and Huxley/Orwell:

    Isn’t it likely that the vast majority of the science fiction your average non-genre writer has been exposed to falls into either the dystopia or post-apocalyptic categories? When you think of the SF literature considered part of the mainstream, you think of dystopias like Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Meanwhile stories dramatizing nuclear apocalypse like On the Beach were mainstream precursors to post-apocalyptic SF. I’d also add that SF in popular movies is dominated by apocalyptic (ID4 and various disaster movies) and post-apocalyptic (Mad Max, zombie films) concerns.

    This may be a chicken and egg thing, but I think these subgenres could be thought of as being close to the border of SF because it’s much more obvious to the uninitiated how they apply to the present day than, say, the Culture series.

    And I’m not sure I agree with Abigail. Or rather, while it’s true writing viable futures is hard, utopian fiction predates dystopian fiction in the mainstream literary tradition. In fact it predates SF as well. It’s not that mainstream writers became lazier, utopian fiction just fell out of style after the twentieth century burned the belief in progress out of the mainstream (even SF writers have mostly stopped writing utopias, albeit later than everyone else).

    Envisioning future societies that are neither utopian or dystopian was an innovation of writers in the SF ghetto and I’d guess mainstream authors, not to mention their readers, just aren’t very familiar with it.

    Matt Hilliard

    5 September 2010 at 21:40

  5. I agree that utopian futures have fallen out of style, Matt, but as you say writers working within science fiction have typically created futures that are neither utopian nor dystopian (even Golden Age SF, with its belief that technology would solve all of the world’s ills and take us to space, concentrated on the processes involved rather than describing the result). It’s those futures – different, but not necessarily perfect or awful – that outsider SF authors seem either incapable or uninterested in writing.

    That said, there is probably a chicken and egg situation going on here. It does seem probable to me that outsiders to the genre are more familiar with apocalyptic and dystopian SF than the more nuanced kind, and more importantly, I think that writers outside the genre may only turn to SF when they want to tell a story about the apocalypse.


    5 September 2010 at 22:03

  6. You are all probably right that intention, exposure and literary antecedents play a big part. It does strike me as a strange form of conservatism though; firstly to directly follow in such well worn steps and secondly, to be uninterested in moving beyond this one story.

    I’d also add that SF in popular movies is dominated by apocalyptic (ID4 and various disaster movies) and post-apocalyptic (Mad Max, zombie films) concerns.

    I’d disagree with this. This may have been the case in the past (but even then I’m not sure) but with CGI becoming increasingly cheap and sophisticated over the last two decades I don’t think it holds any more. Cinematic SF (and visual SF as a whole) is much more reflects the genre as a whole.

    But it is also notable that for the examples you mention from those two major cinematic trends, there aren’t really any literary equivalents. Non-genre SF rarely depicts the apocalypse, it usually sticks to the aftermath; something like The Rapture by Liz Jensen is the exception. It certainly doesn’t do alien invasions a la Independence Day.

    I guess another question is, is there a generation shift here? Will we continue to see more writers like Litt and David Mitchell for whom, say, Ballard and Dick are as much influences as Huxley and Orwell? I guess you see it in the mini-wave of literary zombie novels at the moment, literary authors not afraid to co-opt a commercial movement (or of being co-opt by it themselves).


    6 September 2010 at 10:25

  7. Martin: …firstly to directly follow in such well worn steps and secondly, to be uninterested in moving beyond this one story.

    But isn’t this a genre perspective, seeing them as stuck in “one story”? To the mainstream writer, they’ve moved way out to the fringe of the mainstream just by setting their novel in the future. Compared to the avalanche of mundane novels they’ve read, there’s only a handful of signposts to guide them out here…and guide their readers too. The farther they get from Orwell, Huxley, etc. the more likely they alienate their audience. Philip K Dick and zombies are, thanks to movies, part of pop culture and not SF culture now making them fair game, so I don’t see them as representing any progress either.

    Cinematic SF (and visual SF as a whole) is much more reflects the genre as a whole.

    Well, it’s true that as effects get cheaper we’re starting to get a little more variety, but I don’t think we’re there yet. For example, space opera is almost nonexistent, despite the fact it seems particularly suited to film. Yes, there’s Star Wars, but recently all I can think of is Serenity, Chronicles of Riddick, and maybe Avatar. I guess more importantly for this discussion, with so few films to work with, most of them aren’t any good. It’s nice that Primer and Sunshine use sophisticated SF tropes, but since they end up being incomprehensible and a dumb monster movie respectively, they don’t make much of an impact. And while Avatar was popular, I’d forgive a mainstream author for not taking it seriously as fiction.

    Incidentally, I mentioned the Culture books previously and somehow forgot that their author is a mainstream author himself. Banks is a little odd in that he’s pretty big in Britain but is almost invisible in the United States, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m under the impression the mainstream critics and audience considers his SF work to be an eccentric hobby of his, worthy of remark but not of actually reading. So perhaps the answer is just that if you get too far away from what’s been grandfathered into the mainstream, the publisher sticks it in a different part of the bookstore and you’re no longer a mainstream writer, at least until you write something sensible again.

    Matt Hilliard

    6 September 2010 at 13:33

  8. For example, space opera is almost nonexistent, despite the fact it seems particularly suited to film.

    That is one of the reasons I consciously expanded it from cinematic to visual SF. You are right that there isn’t that much cinematic space opera but I would say it is pretty common on TV. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape and, most recently, Battlestar Galactica are some of the biggest and longest running TV series. So I think depictions of most of the subgenres are out there.

    I don’t think the fact that most visual SF is rubbish really matters. What matters is that it is visible. I don’t really buy the idea that Dick and zombie have become pop culture rather than SF culture – they are now both. The fact that they are now fair game does represent progress to me because I’m chiefly interested in increasing the diversity of what is published. I also think the increasing size and acceptable of pop culture will lead some people back to the source.

    But it doesn’t much happen at the moment. It is interesting, for example, that Atwood has talked of her love of science fiction B-movies. A serious SF writer might think “hey, I could write a novel that takes that schlocky premise and makes it into a proper piece of literature”. That is a bit overly literal but there are SF writers making good use of old tropes. Someone like Atwood is aware of these tropes and is even receptive to them in their own context but doesn’t appear to consider using them herself. Perhaps they do have less signposts but they aren’t even following the limited set they have.

    Banks is another interesting example. I imagine most M fans don’t read his non-M books and most non-M fans don’t read his M books. But there is a sizeable minority who read both. Not to mention that his last non-M novel, Transition, was a science fiction novel – perhaps more radically so than Matter, his last M novel – and fantastic elements have figured strongly in a lot of his work. I guess what I want is more authors like Banks but without the middle initial sleight of hand.


    6 September 2010 at 14:30

  9. […] and Brown himself. I’m not so sure he is right though. I mean, the Guardian did publish three reviews of SF novels with the serial numbers filed off last week. And this week, on the page before […]

  10. […] Lewis considers the Guardian’s reviews of Super Sad True Love Story and Things We Didn’t See […]

  11. In the case of post-apocalyptic novels, esp like The Road and Far North, they have the effect of reducing the complexity of the world. Things can happen in isolation without the reader stopping to think “Like, why didn’t they text their mum or something?”

    It increases the clarity of fictional purpose while allowing the author a little more freedom than a viable future (or even a geographically remote present) would allow in that they don’t have to spend too much time explaining how and why things work (in the case of the future) or not (in the case of the present).

    Patrick H

    28 September 2010 at 14:34

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