Writers Without Borders

“I like the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps)…”

“…to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it’s SF because it’s not about robots or spaceships.” Terry Pratchett.

Tempting, and typical Pratchett, but perhaps it doesn’t describe the whole nature of the symbiosis linking SF and mainstream. SF has always provided themes and ideas which find their way into the mainstream, and the mainstream’s use of them isn’t always cynical or hypocritical. Sometimes, but not always.

I like to think of themes and ideas from SF living on in mainstream. It’s like the attitudes and cadences of punk rock living on in mainstream music, or like dinosaurs living on as birds – maybe reduced or diluted, but still there.

Actually, that isn’t really true. First, it isn’t as if the themes in SF had died and are only living on elsewhere. Second, they don’t always live on in mainstream in a reduced or diluted version. With mainstream authors like David Mitchell and Douglas Coupland (eg. Cloud Atlas and Girlfriend in a Coma respectively) the themes are as powerful as ever. And different, because they’re examined from a different standpoint.

Iain (M) Banks is a good example of a relatively recent author with a large body of work in both genres. His first novel, The Wasp Factory, had themes of individual desolation which were echoed in his SF novels, and still are. So sometimes the process can work in reverse.

There’s a long succession of authors, stretching way back, with a large body of mainstream work and a smaller body of SF: H G Wells (though his SF was almost as substantial as his mainstream), Jack London, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, E M Forster, Walter Tevis, P D James, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy. Did they “steal” themes from contemporary SF for their SF works? Or did they take themes from their own mainstream works to explore in SF form? I think it’s probably the latter. If so, did they consciously decide that a particular subject could only be dealt with adequately through SF rather than mainstream? Because SF was a better medium? Maybe another topic for another time.

I was going to start this post with the “it all depends what you mean by…” gambit. Certainly any literary genre is incapable of a definition which ties it down forever and absolutely, like some Grand Unified Theory: the genres all bleed into each other through their borders. So while I’ve used the terms without attempting to define them absolutely (I’d rather try herding cats) they are a convenient shorthand.

Two other specific observations:
• When thriller writers venture into SF, they often do so via alternate history: Len Deighton (SS-GB), Robert Harris (Fatherland), Martin Cruz Smith (The Indians Won).
• Latin American “heightened reality” authors. I don’t know quite where they’d fit, and I suspect that if I examined them in detail they’d probably undermine what little I’ve said above. So I’ll park them, although again they might make a good subject for another topic.

A final observation about genres: if genres exist, and if they actually have borders, where does Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy belong?