A virus with space-shoes – SF, YA and all that

Jonathan McCalmont @ 28-05-2008

Welcome back to Blasphemous Geometries – science fiction criticism that goes where sex ed. teachers fear to tread.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

This month Jonathan McCalmont looks at the entanglement of science fiction with Young Adult literature, and wonders whether YA is the latest victim of science fiction’s aggressive expansionist tendencies.

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When I first sat down to write this column, I was planning on being both topical and difficult. Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi have both been saying that we should spend more time in the young adult section of our local book shops, on the grounds that great SF titles periodically slip out largely ignored by the grown up SF audience. Books like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale, for example.

But this is not going to be a column about authors trying to rationalise moving into a more financially rewarding market. Nor is it going to be a column about how young adult novels may or may not tend to be moralistic bildungsromans that may or may not bore the smelly waste product out of any right thinking individual. This is going to be a column about science fiction as an expansionist sub-culture.

For much of its history, SF has existed in a literary and cultural ghetto. The mainstream of culture was determined by TV and literary culture as found in newspapers; universities and journals rarely allowed science fiction a look in. When a bit of SF did filter through in the shape of Doctor Who or Star Trek, people clung onto it as tightly as possible.

At the time, people called such viewing ‘cult’, a strange and archaic word that attempted to describe the fact that these were not just TV shows, but the basis for actual sub-cultures. To be a part of SF culture was to be an outcast, a low-brow nerd, a cultural bottom-feeder. This was an attitude immortalised by Margaret Atwood‘s claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is not SF, despite the fact that it clearly fucking is.

Then things started to change.

Slowly, SF crept onto more and more cinema and TV screens, and as the old cultural alliance of Church, Government and Media crumbled, more and more people found that SF served them as a lingua franca – a cultural touchstone based on the fact that everyone has seen Star Wars and everyone knows the wig-and-girdle-transportation-system that is Captain Kirk.

At a recent academic symposium entitled ‘SF as a Literary Genre’, a number of commentators lined up to argue that the line between the mainstream and SF is becoming increasingly blurred and intangible, with traditionally mainstream authors such as Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz either writing about SF or jumping the fence entirely and writing works that self-identify as SF.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that what we think of as the defining characteristics of a mainstream novel are not the ‘correct’, ‘high brow’ or ‘creative’ ways of writing; they are merely a set of genre conventions like FTL drives, Dark Lords and infodumps. Conventions of a genre whose monopoly on mainstream culture is slowly slipping.

Why are things changing?

SF’s years in the wilderness have left it incredibly well adapted to expansion. Culturally, SF fans have always been what can only be described as ‘aggressively inclusive’ – consider, for example, SF critic Farah Mendlesohn’s slightly puzzled talk about how she came to be subsumed by British SF fandom. But SF’s expansionism does not end there.

Last year, the SF critic and author Adam Roberts published a history of science fiction that went back through the history of literature retroactively claiming different works as SF, despite the fact that they emerged hundreds and even thousands of years before the term was ever coined. Books such as Cormack McCarthy‘s The Road have also prompted heated exchanges as to whether or not the literary establishment have a right to claim the work as one of their own and SF bloggers express honest disbelief when a Pulitzer Prize-winning book is not picked up and discussed by the online SF scene. Meanwhile, the likes of Neil Gaiman move from genre to genre and medium to medium, limited only by the endless horizons of what is nothing less than a geek form of manifest destiny.

At a time when Western culture is fragmenting faster than the Catholic Church’s moral authority, SF has proved itself not only to be a survivor but also a voracious predator and a cunning diplomat, endlessly subsuming or allying itself with smaller and related sub-cultures.

This is where we return to the question of Young Adult fiction. When John Scalzi claims that Scott Westerfeld is “the most significant SF writer” and that it is unfathomable that he hasn’t been nominated for a Hugo, he is not just trying to convince publishers and adult fans that you can write great SF under the YA label. He is saying that a lot of YA is SF, it is just marketed at kids; in other words, the YA scene is a part of SF culture. You might want to think of YA as part of the SudetenSF.

Oh yes. I went there.

Mercifully for all of us that are into SF, science fiction is by its nature non-hegemonic. It does not absorb other genres and cultures as that implies some kind of digestive or colonisation process. It subsumes them, growing around and into them. SF is cosmopolitan rather than parochial. Multicultural rather than monolithic. Neophilic rather than xenophobic. SF’s cultural alliance with computer geekdom has produced works such as William Gibson‘s Neuromancer or Charles StrossHalting State. SF’s interest in history has resulted in works such as Neal Stephenson‘s The Baroque Cycle.

In all of these cases SF inspires and is inspired by the areas of interest it brushes up against. Ideas pass between discrete cultural entities, leaving them both enriched but ultimately independent. Consider the relationship between SF, fantasy and horror; all three are separate genres with histories and philosophical underpinnings of their own, but they are also intimately linked to each other like rutting bisexual wildebeest.

Of course, the process of entanglement is not always smooth. Back in October 2007, the British SF critic Paul Kincaid reviewed Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls. In the ensuing blogstorm, it was made clear that, despite his being a veteran critic, the YA community did not consider Kincaid to be equipped with an adequate understanding of the subtleties of the YA genre. In other words, the SF critical lexicon would need updating if it was to apply to YA works; SF would have to change to accommodate YA as YA would not meekly integrate itself into SF. Pesky kids.

With more and more SF writers crossing over into young adult, the process of mutual inspiration and change is already in effect. YA authors are also jumping the other way, adding their own voices to the on-going conversation that is the SF genre. As SF readers, we can only hope that this will make the conversation more interesting and dynamic – as the last thing we need is more of the literary equivalent of people standing around discussing the weather or their relationship problems.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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6 Responses to “A virus with space-shoes – SF, YA and all that”

  1. ShaunCG says:

    “the wig-and-girdle-transportation-system that is Captain Kirk”
    Top lol of the piece, that.

    Another great article, thanks Jonathan and thanks Futurismic! Particularly interested in the distinction between absorption and subsumption. It fits, really: SF as a literary genre is full of people whose approach to things is often “oh, that looks interesting! I wonder what happens if I do this…”

    Which is wonderful. I love that inquisitiveness, the desire to understand.

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Thanks Shaun 🙂 glad you liked it.

  3. JustinP says:

    I like the idea of SF-as-cosmopolitan-and-expansionist. A nice and unexpected approach to the field. 🙂

  4. Paul Raven says:

    Well, I’d like to suggest that I kind of preshadowed Jonathan’s points in a much more non-academic manner with my “Science Fiction and rock music – a cultural comparison” series … but of course Jonathan brings an academic rigour to the proceedings that offer greater analytical depth and cross-referenced detail, whereas my piece was an extended and half-baked ramble.

    Which is why I hired Jonathan to write essays – it’s much less embarrassing than doing it myself. 😀

  5. Sheepie says:

    Good stuff Dr McCalmont – keep it coming, wot!

  6. A.R.Yngve says:

    Keep up the good work, Mr. McCalmont.

    (BTW: Have you thought about writing something specifically about this recent wave of “computer geek”-oriented SF? )