Monday, November 11, 2002

Why do science fiction and fantasy fans and writers react so badly to not being embraced wholeheartedly? I expect it's because of a history of ignorance on the part of the "mainstream literary" world. But I meet just as many genre-bound readers who are ignorant of "mainstream literary" conventions and foundations and culture as well. The ignorance goes both ways.

Couple of months ago, or maybe just last month, Locus reported a review of Ursula LeGuin's new collection. Here is what Locus said:

"Margaret Atwood, who's taken pains to distance her [Arthur C. Clarke Award winning] novel The Handmaid's Tale from the sordid genre of science fiction, reviews Le Guin's The Birthday of the World, immediately stumbling upon that same problem... Atwood spends several hundred words reviewing the early history of the genre ("It's too bad that one term—"science fiction"—has served for so many variants, and too bad also that this term has acquired a dubious if not downright sluttish reputation."), mentioning Shelley, Verne, Wells, Lewis, etc., with only Bradbury, Vonnegut, and Hoban given as relatively current examples, before turning to a generally sympathetic survey of Le Guin's career and new book. Yet the final impression is that Atwood finds her work palatable because, in the final analysis, it's not really fantastic..."

I immediately read Atwood's review, and felt that whoever had written this assessment of her review in Locus was way off. Whoever had dismissed Atwood as someone uncomfortable with the speculative fiction genre had not realized that this review was written with a specific audience in mind, and that audience was not speculative fiction readers. Why didn't she praise speculative fiction as God's gift to the world, as so many in the genre do? Because she would be preaching to the choir. Besides, the choir to whom she was preaching was the "mainstream literary" world, whatever that means. Apparently a lot of other people know what those terms constitute, although I'm skeptical of their meaning. Frankly I find the terms limited and limiting. In any case, with this audience--an audience not versed in speculative fiction--in mind, Atwood has presented them with a list of authors who are genre related and who the literary world generally authorizes, as a source of validation. In many ways, I find her review to be more helpful to understanding the genre than many of the reviews and essays written within the genre that only genre readers will read.

Why can't we accept the hands we are given? Why can't we admit that, yes, speculative fiction is a slut, dressed up in various genres as adornment? A little wild west here, a little space opera there, and a touch of Arthurian legend dabbed around the neck. Perfect. Who can resist me?


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