The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sputnik Caledonia: or, the parallel worlds of SF and literary fiction

This isn't a review of Sputnik Caledonia, the very fine novel by Andrew Crumey, who chaired and spoke at the Newcastle Parallel Worlds event a couple of months ago. It's had some very good reviews already, and I have nothing but my own enthusiastic recommendation to add.

I'm just thinking about why it isn't SF.

An outline can make it look like SF. Here's a novel that starts in early-60s Scotland, in the life of an imaginative, space-and-SF-obsessed boy whose father is a factory worker, a socialist, self-taught and firmly opinionated. One subject the father holds forth on is the contingency of history. After some strange experiences hinting at alien contact, and after a sort of blackout, the boy finds himself a few years older, a young soldier, in an alternate Scotland which has become part of a communist-ruled socialist Britain in the course of the Second World War. He's a volunteer for a secret space programme, which is even more secretly preparing to contact an alien intelligence that has just entered the solar system. Intrigues, betrayals, contacts with dissidents, and an ascent into space follow, with an unexpected and satisfying ending that ties the strands together and enough unexplained to leave us thinking.

So, yes, it looks like SF. But it can't be read as SF.

For a start, the text denies us almost all of the specific pleasures of alternate history. It does eventually reveal the hinge on which history turned, and it's the only place where I heard an echo of an SF text, in a possible allusion to a specific incident and a general mood in Graham Dunstan Martin's Time-Slip. But it doesn't elaborate on this history. There's plenty of detail about daily life in this alternate socialist Britain, convincingly grim and shabby and riddled with secret privilege, but there's no time-line to reconstruct from planted clues, and hardly any figures from our history to recognise (ah-ha!) in new roles.

SF examples of all this abound, but to take another book published as mainstream: In Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, set in a 1970s world where the Reformation failed, there's some sly fun with a Cardinal Berlinguer, a Monsignor Sartre, and numerous other likewise impossible historical characters, and a purely SFnal delight in imagining subtle consequences.

Or, to lower the tone (and the bar) a lot: my novella The Human Front has some of the same themes as Sputnik Caledonia: Scotland, aliens, 1960s boyhood, alternate post WW2 history, socialism. It's a far slighter work than Crumey's in every way, but it has more of the above alternate-history tropes in its seventy pages than Sputnik Caledonia has in over five hundred, and it does more to rationalise its blatantly handwaved (flying saucers, come on) physics. Crumey could easily do that - he knows a hundred times more physics than I've ever forgotten - but he doesn't. He uses physics in a quite different way, as metaphor.

And that's the key. SF literalises metaphor. Literary fiction uses science as metaphor. In Sputnik Caledonia, the parallel world is a metaphor of what is lost in every choice. That's why the book is literary fiction and not SF, and is all the better for it. 'What might have been' functions in SF as a speculation. In Sputnik Caledonia, as in life, it's a reflection that we seldom have occasion to make without a sense of loss.

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I might check this book out.

Funnily enough this isn't the first time I've heard this book mentioned today. I've just been listening to the Guardian Books Podcast "Questions of Science and Literature". There were lots of problems with it - in particular the section where the critics talk about SF; a subject of which they didn't seem to have much experience.
It seems to me that SF doesn't always talk about the new or the future. Yet this is what people always harp on about. That and rockets and rayguns. Quite often authors use the lens of SF to look at now.
I have a problem with literary fiction in that it's too obsessed with post modernism and the form of writing rather than the art of good storytelling...
Of course neither of these of points is entirely true as both of these groups are broad churches with a lot of space for different approaches.
In any case I thought I would recommend you listen to the podcast and see what you think.

Ken, you seem to be patrolling the border between literary fiction and SF pretty zealously. I'd always thought the boundary between the two was fairly porous (Vonnegut springs to mind, among a few others) and as much to do with snobbery and marketing as anything else - I've noticed in a couple of bookshops how some of the SF Masterworks have been 'promoted' into the lit. fiction section. Any thoughts?

I'm glad to see this book getting a mention, I think it is excellent. I wouldn't dare venture onto the ground of whether it is SF or not. However, picking up what you say about "figures our history in new roles", no, there aren't, but then (as far as I can recall) no famous figures really appear at all, other than passing mentions (though the discover, in the alternate universe, of the "scalar waves" emitted by a black hole is Hawkin, so they are Hawkin radiation). But there are plenty of alternate identities for the characters in the different parts of Sputnik Caledonia itself (for example, two of his teachers from Part 1 appear, with names changed but characters intact, at The Installation in Part 2)

David - yes, I should have said, the characters within the fiction appear but hardly any real-world characters, and it's the letter that give the characteristic frisson of alt-hist. (I think.)

Dalziel - not patrolling the border - I'm all for making it porous - but interested in marking where it is. The line has something to do with how universal the central concern of the book is.

I haven't read this book yet. But the way that you describe this distinction suggests that all the SF that I'm interested in isn't SF.

Isn't that taking the proud low-culturality of SF a bit far? It's like reading Stanislaw Lem if you'd only read "Golden Age" U.S. work before that, and saying, oh this must be literary fiction. It doesn't have the specific pleasures of a space exploration story, in which the explorers inevitably meet hostile aliens and that leads to righteous genocide. Because it doesn't have those familiar and tawdry and over-used tics, it's not merely well-written or literary SF, it can't be read as SF at all.

Hi Rich - I'm not saying 'if it's good, it's not SF'. I don't think it has anything to do with literary quality, or even the amount of scientific content. I think it has to do with how universal the theme of the book (story, film, whatever) is, and with whether the science (or fantasy) is there as metaphor. See the recent kerfuffle somewhere about one of Kelly Link's stories, when the literary reviewers were speculating on what the zombies represented, and the SF fans were pointing out, 'No, they're zombies!'

To take your example, I remember being recommended a couple of collections of Lem's short stories by a friend who didn't like SF, and I found them, well, 'SF for people who don't like SF'. Lem was obviously (to me at the time) doing something different to what even a similarly whimsical author like Barrington J Bayley was doing. (The title of that obit by Clute catches the difference exactly - for Lem, the human conditon was anything but solvable.)

Oh, and I'm glad to have discovered your blog. I'll link to it under 'Comrades and Friends' if you're OK with that.

Further to Rich - I can easily think of examples of well-written literary SF: Aldiss's Helliconia, Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Banks's Use of Weapons, Gene Wolfe and Disch and so on - which don't what Sputnik Caledonia does, or what a book by the other author at that event, Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y (which I'm reading at the moment ) does, which is: uses scientific and/or fantastic concepts primarily as metaphors for aspects of the human condition and/or current social realities.

I'm glad that you'd like to link to my blog, thanks.

I may have to read Sputnik Caledonia before I can really understand your point. That "primarily as metaphors" seems to me to put a lot more into authorial intention and less into how the work is read. A literary SF work is likely to have a number of well-founded metaphorical readings that blur the line between what's primary and what isn't.

For instance -- since I started with Lem as an example -- take Solaris. I don't think that there's any doubt that this is an actual SF work, with an actual, giant living liquid planetosphere and a scientist who travels through space to study it. But the whole thing is also a giant metaphor for the human condition, and how, as you write, Lem thought it was anything but solvable. The protagonist not only can't figure out this living planet, which stands in for the whole of the vast non-human universe, he also can't even figure out his unhappy former marriage.

It's true that in Solaris the metaphor is literally, well, literalized. The protagonist doesn't just think about his dead wife, an actual copy of her is materialized for some unknown reason. But the central concern of the book is as universal as anyone would like. I don't think the book would work in the way that it does otherwise.

I'm not sure I've actually read Solaris but I've seen both versions of the film, and going by these I have to agree with you on that one. I'm not saying a given work can't do both, but I do say they're rare (and usually break-out novels, in that they sell to people who normally don't read SF).

Or take the popularity of the cosy catastrophe: neither the reader nor the writer of The Day of the Triffids is really interested in the walking plants, but they're fascinated by the thought of how they would cope if civilization and/or the urban working class disappeared.

They the reader, that is, not they the walking plants.

I guess that the problem that I have with the "rare and usually break-out novels" concept is that the more well-written a book is, the more rare it is, and (if readers respond to writing quality) the more likely it is to be a break-out book.

I'm going to try to rephrase the whole thing. (And I'm sorry if I'm taking too much space in your comment box.) The real question, it seems to me, is not so much "what makes a book SF" as "what makes a book literary". Here are two standards kinds of answers: does "literary" mean quality, of a certain kind -- good writing, well-drawn characters, avant-garde experimentation, universality, subtlety? (To list a few of the characteristics that people sometimes consider to make a work high quality.) Or is it a genre, like SF, or the romance novel, or detective fiction?

If it's a genre, in the sense that you can tell from the mood or tone of the writing that the author intended it to be a literary work, then you can indeed say something like "Time's Arrow would have been SF if it hadn't been by Martin Amis, but he's a literary writer", or "Time's Arrow isn't very good, but it's a literary [genre] book." In that sense literary SF become a kind of cross-genre endeavor, like an SF detective book. It happens when someone writes SF with a literary sensibility.

If literary means quality, though, you run into the risk of saying that you can't have literary SF by definition. SF from the beginning was pulp-ish, and if something becomes sufficiently well written it's considered literary and SF standards no longer apply. That's kind of a well-worn historical problem at this point. Alternatively. you say that literary SF is just the top of the SF pyramid. But then all that you're saying is that literary SF is the subset of SF that's written really well, so of course they are likely to be rare and break-out books.

I think that PKD makes a good test case. The idea of literary SF doesn't make sense to me if PKD isn't included in it. But his books were not really written with a literary sensibility, or in a literary genre. And by the usual standards, they aren't well written. (Delany has some particularly misdirected, I think, criticism about PKD's sentences.)

I think that literary SF should mean something like "doing something within the genre of SF that produces a literary effect". In which I don't see, from your description, how this novel doesn't qualify.

Hi Rich,

I like what you've said. You pretty much covered my thoughts in a clear concise way.

I think we're in a slippery slope once we start to talk in terms of quality. Who is the arbiter of quality?

While I may sneer (girlfriend's word) at chick lit I recognise that these books are not aimed at me. So I shrug my shoulders whenever I am exposed to it*. Is my reaction the same as the literary critics that essentially say, "It's SF - it can't be good"? Perhaps.

I remember seeing Germaine Greer on Newsnight Review talking about the Lord of the Rings films. At one point she seriously said, "I don't like fantasy - it's not real." Which provoked a raised eyebrows in the review group. And I think that this gets at the nub of the problem. There is a lot of literary snobbery out there. Some people's reaction to genre fiction is weird - and we have to acknowledge that there's a lot of different types. While there's lots of crap (and there is) there's also the philosophical explorations of what it means to be human. I think a great example would be The Forever War.

Also would everyone not agree that SF predates the pulp era? I think it does. Though it evidently wasn't thought of as such.

* Which is not the reaction I get from Dan Brown's stuff ...

antihippy, the question of when SF started is another one of those endless conversations, like "what is literary SF" and "what's the difference if any between SF and fantasy". But you're right that it predates pulp. (My opinion, from discussions with Adam Roberts about it, is that the first recognizeably SF work is Kepler's Somnium. A pretty amazing, though difficult, read. But if you agree that it's SF and that earlier works aren't, it shows that SF started right when science itself did.)

But Somnium didn't call itself SF. The concept of SF as a genre came about along with pulp, as far as I know. Wells, Verne et al wrote "romances" or "voyages" respectively, which draw on different traditions.


I know that it's one of those endless conversations. What I was hinting at is that genre conventions are a late addition to the party. They're just a handy shortcut that allow booksellers to say "If you liked this try that." Wells and Verne (and other authors from around then) wrote a modern SF form. Whether they called it romance or not is semantics from our point of view.

I've not read Somnium. I saw Adam Roberts at the recent Book Festival and I think he mentioned it then. I'd add a caveat; there's a danger that, the further back you go, the muddier things get... People tend to forget that stories were told for other reasons in the past. There's any number of potential stories which superficially fit some trope in SF but really they are something else.

I'll add Somnium to my list of reading material, god knows when I will get around to it though.

Somnium is a tough read, because it almost literally makes your head spin: Kepler tries to make you visualize in astonomical detail the Earth and other planets as they'd appear from the surface of the Moon. I blogged about it here.

Rich: The concept of SF as a genre came about along with pulp, as far as I know.

That's how I see it, based largely on the argument in Gary Westfahl's book The Ascent of Wonder, which makes the case that SF as a genre began with Gernsback and (in the case of English-language SF at least) still hews to Gernsback's formula for the kind of stories he wanted: thrilling adventure, scientific content, and prophetic vision.

Correction: the book by Gary Westfahl is The Mechanics of Wonder.

I remember you saying to me once that you didn't think my novel A Son Of The Rock was SF but that it was literature.
Was that on similar grounds to your critique of Sputnik Caledonia? (Which your post has encouraged me to seek out even more than I already intended.)

Jack - yes, that's it exactly. What I said about Sputnik Caledonia was meant entirely positively, and the same with your book, which does the metaphoric thing very powerfully.

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