Guest Post: Nicola Griffith: Who Owns SF?

Book View Cafe is delighted to present a guest post from Nicola Griffith, who is on a blog tour in honor (honour?) of the UK release of her book Hild.

Hildby Nicola Griffith

[This first went up on Charlie Stross’s blog a few days ago. It’s an essay in the old sense of the word. I’m not here to pick fights or bludgeon anyone with my point of view on SF1. I want to explore, to wander a little. I’ve used footnotes not as a scholarly buttress but in an attempt to keep this exploration from becoming a hopeless tangle.]

I’m English. I’ve lived in the US a long time (in fact last year I got my US citizenship) but I’m still English. You can tell: all I have to do is speak. There’s no hiding that accent. In England, I belong. I visit often; I feel at home; I just don’t live there anymore.

A few years ago, when William Gibson was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, he said: I am a native of science fiction but no longer a resident.2 I understood exactly what he meant.

My most recent novel, Hild, has no fantastical elements whatsoever. It’s not set in a secondary world, there are no dragons, no wizards casting spells, no special swords or magic rings. Yet the book has been nominated for three SF awards3. Why?

Perhaps it’s because I’m a native of SF and it shows: Hild might be a literary novel but it speaks with a fantasy accent and uses the grammar of science fiction. It relies on world-building, the grand “What if…?” learnt reading and writing SF. More than that, it relies on readers being willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown—the ability to take odd spellings, strange names, unfamiliar concepts in stride, to risk just going with the flow and trust it’ll make sense eventually—that is one of the mainstays of our genre.

Perhaps it’s because of the setting. Hild begins fourteen hundred years ago, in the north of Britain. A time that used to be called the Dark Ages, lit in our imagination by flickering flame, with menhirs looming from the mist and men on horseback waving swords. It was a time when kings were petty warlords, might was right, and some thought there was a god on every hill.4 The tropes of this milieu are often appropriated by fantasy writers, so much so that it’s become a cliché. But here’s the thing: the setting of Hild is real. Hild was a real person. Everything in that book could actually have happened.5

Perhaps, then, it’s because I deliberately worked to give the book the feel of myth and epic. It might be a novel of character—Hild is in every single scene; there’s no “Meanwhile, several hundred leagues away in the head of a character you’ve forgotten about”—but it’s painted on a heroic canvas. There’s gold and glory, plots and politics, sweeping change and a focus on systems (economic, climatic, and behavioural). There’s also very human joy and misery, fear and hope, lust and boredom, and a few simple contentments.

I admit, I wanted Hild to be the Platonic ideal of a novel: to feel like myth, yet to make sense not only on an epic but a personal scale; for its magic to be the wild magic of the landscape and that of the human heart.

o0o

Margaret Atwood (in)famously defined speculative fiction as being about what could happen. If we focus only on that and ignore her other idiotic pronouncements6 , then Hild is separated from the genre only by a matter of tense; if I’ve done my research properly, Hild is what could have happened.

In this sense, then, I’m comfortable defining Hild as speculative fiction. It relies on a tradition practised by fantasy and science fiction writers and readers. It could not exist without the particular reading stance honed by and required by genre, the willingness to reach understanding as one proceeds. But I was surprised when it (and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) was nominated for a Nebula.

Clearly some voting members believed a fantasy accent or science fiction grammar enough for a book to belong to the genre. But maybe it’s not the books that are considered to belong but the authors.

I can’t speak for Karen but, yes, I am part of the SF community and have been for decades. And it is a community (or, rather, many interlocking communities). I went to the Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose not because I thought I’d win—I knew I wouldn’t7—but to hang out in the bar. To spend time with my people. Because the readers and writers of SF are my people. I feel at home here; I belong.

o0o

 In May, before I went to the Nebulas, I read a review of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry, edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson.8 Frances Power, the reviewer, suggests (I’m paraphrasing) that speculative writing helps us to live because the definitions by which we live are products of culture. They are imaginary; we made them up.

She’s referring to the work of Judith Butler on the gender binary but I think her opinion applies equally to the artificial division between SF and so-called mainstream fiction: both are cultural constructs, invented categories; we can uninvent them.

The tricky part, of course, is who are We—whose definitions are we using?

The world is changing. It no longer belongs to angry white boys sitting around in their white-wall buzz cuts eating white bread and watching Leave It To Beaver. (I’m not sure it ever did, but they certainly thought so.) The world is changing and the SF community is changing with it. I understand that this upsets some people; change is hard. But change also lies at the heart of the genre. It’s who we are, what we do. We ask “What if…?” and follow the answer relentlessly.

o0o

The big “What if…” in Hild is: What if women had always been real human beings, human in, of, and by themselves rather than in relation to men? What if, despite the stories we’ve been told—and ask yourself who told those stories—women have always found a way around their constraints, just as we do today? What would history have really looked like? I wrote this book to find out.

What we read, what we experience in the privacy of our heads, changes us one at a time. For me the best books put us right there, right then with a character, make her experiences our own, his lessons our lessons, their lives our lives. We become them, just for a little while, and come back increased.

In this way, books can change the world: they change us, one at a time.

With Hild I’ve come back to the question that lay at the heart of Ammonite: What if all people are just people? What if that has been, is, and will be true in every time and place?

And so, for me—though of course every writer is different—the past is now where I turn the key that unlocks the answers. If someone like Hild, someone with her agency, her will, her determination was possible fourteen hundred years ago, then she is possible now. If she’s possible now then the odds are good that we’re making very sure she will be possible in the future. And suddenly the world looks different: if the lights go out, women don’t have to be chattels.9

This is why I made the world of seventh-century Britain as real as I could, why I decided against an alternate history or secondary world fantasy (though that would have been far, far easier). I wanted to change this one.

o0o

At SF gatherings built around books and stories—functionally I see no difference between conferences, conventions, and award weekends—the sense of community is palpable. It can be hard to tell the difference between writers and fans. First and foremost, SF writers are fans; we are readers. In this genre there’s an assumption of equality between those two sides10 that I had no idea was not true for others. The gathering is structured for mutual support of readers and writers. We exchange reading recommendations, information on publishing, direct experience of life, the universe, and everything. The weekends (they are usually weekends) are administered and run by the community itself.

In my experience, then, the SF community is something special. Yes, there’s always been in-fighting, some of it vicious. We have always fought, as all communities do, over who owns the clubhouse: who makes sets the standards and makes the rules? Who is Us and who is Other?11

Our community is in the process of experimenting, of unmaking and remaking. Expect the pendulum, the definition of what is and what is not genre, to swing wildly meanwhile. I have no doubt that many find this unsettling, but meanwhile there are some astonishing moments.

It was amazing to sit at the Nebula Awards and watch women win, cheer women of colour as they climbed the stage, listen to a woman who loves women tell her Toastmaster jokes. It was fabulous to see men applaud heartily and laugh at the jokes about gender. To me and many people in that room, it felt like a vast hand pushing aside old boundaries, making room for even more experimentation.

And isn’t that the point of SF, to experiment, to ask “What if…?”

Perhaps my insistence on realism is what disqualifies Hild as SF. I’m okay with that. For now. But it’ll be interesting to see if this holds true in the future, to see who We become, who owns SF.

Footnotes:

1 I’m going to use SF as an umbrella term to cover fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, etc. It’s just easier.

2 I’m paraphrasing. This was relayed to me secondhand at a dinner party by someone who attended the ceremony. That was six years ago. But I think the essentials are accurate.

3 Shortlisted for the Nebula and John W Campbell Memorial Awards and named a Tiptree Honor book.

4 Not everyone, of course. Perhaps not even most. Then, as now, culture was not monolithic; there were many layers, levels of status, belief systems. Then, as now, individuals in the same family could have radically different worldviews. (Just like the SF community. Or communities. I’ll come back to this.)

5Though I did, apparently, make one idiotic error regarding hay: they kept it loose and didn’t bale it. (Mea culpa.) What people of early seventh-century Britain did or did not do with hay, though, is not (in my opinion) enough to classify a novel as fantasy.

6 See, for example, the Guardian.

7 Though I admit I was disappointed when I didn’t win. Yes, intellectually I knew I wouldn’t. Yes, I’ve won it before. No, Hild‘s not fantasy. Yes, it was an honour and delight to be shortlisted. But it turns out hope springs eternal and I want all the prizes!

8 May 2014 issue of Poetry magazine, beginning p 105.

9 Or the world all white, or straight.

10 Samuel R. Delany has talked about the egalitarian foundations of the genre as we know it today. I can’t find the reference but he mentions Wagner and his demand that audiences listen to his music as though it were more important than they were. And how SF’s refusal to privilege creator over audience antipates postmodernism. Or something like that…

11 Men and Women. White people and People of Colour. Straights and Queers (whether we’re talking sexual orientation or gender identification). Able and Differently Abled (whether we’re talking physically or neurologically). The list is almost endless—and not particular to SF. Religion and class and political ideology are the stuff of war and revolution.

[Many thanks to Gary Wolfe, Jonathan Strahan, and Kelley Eskridge for the conversations that helped shape some of these ideas. See, for example, this Coode Street podcast.]

Bio:

Nicola GriffithI was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, but now live in Seattle with my wife, writer Kelley Eskridge. I’m a dual UK/US citizen.

I’ve written six novels, a handful of short stories, and edited three anthologies. I’ve also written a multi-media memoir (scratch-n-sniff cards!) and some essays. Between them these works have been translated into a dozen languages, won the Nebula, Tiptree, World Fantasy and Lambda Literary Award (six times) as well as things like a BBC poetry prize and the Premio Italia. I’ve also been on a few shortlists, too (some more than once): ALA Stonewall Award, Locus, Hugo, Seieun, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, etc.

My latest novel, Hild (just out in the UK from Blackfriars/Little, Brown), startled me utterly by being shortlisted for five awards in fields I didn’t expect. Now I’m working on a second novel about Hild. You can find me at my blog, on Twitter, and on my research blog.

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Guest Post: Nicola Griffith: Who Owns SF? — 15 Comments

  1. I have come to feel that all literature is what-if. The more I reread the greats of the nineteenth century, the more convinced I am that the women especially (including Jane Austen, who gave women agency, and made their points-of-view matter) wrote what-ifs, that they were not mirroring their time, but positing changes too subtle for many modern readers to discern, because their effect was powerful enough to lead to the changes becoming real.

    Mrs. Gaskell, who Dickens turned against because she dared to write about terrible social injustice rather than comfortable little stories about hearth and home (as he thought proper for a clergyman’s wife) wrote about women trying to deal with the world men had made in Wives and Daughters. Perhaps it is less known because the last chapter was never written, but we know how it ends. I think the male literary establishment, so long determining what is literature and what not, has never known what to do with it, and so pretended it wasn’t there.

    Back up to now. I agree about the grammar of science fiction, though I think of it as awareness of worldbuilding and paradigm. Many SF and F writers strive to look at our world through alien eyes, which is necessary, I think, in order for us to see what we must change.

      • Have you seen/heard of Gillian Polack’s new novel, which I cannot spell properly? Langue.doc, I think. Coming in October.

        She is very subversive about science fiction, history, worldbuilding, genre conventions, and many another related concept.

        For me, as far as genre is concerned, it was pretty much a seamless slide from historical fantasy to “straight” historicals. Same amount of research. Slightly fewer magical set-pieces. I don’t think anybody ever noticed that a later fantasy novel is a direct sequel to a Crusades historical–obscurity has its consolations. Some will notice the space opera that grows out of the epic fantasy series, as I offered volumes of the epic as rewards for the Kickstarter.

        And of course the first time I published a novel with Fiction instead of Fantasy on the spine, it got a World Fantasy nomination.

        Genre is an artificial construct anyway. If your past-as-another-universe satisfies the story-hunger of the genre you love, that’s a win for you and your readers.

  2. Karen Joy Fowler, in one of the Coode Street Podcasts, said something to the effect that she didn’t know whether she wrote science fiction, but that she wrote for science fiction readers. I think that’s the same thing you and William Gibson are saying, more or less.

    I began reading SF because I was bored by the limited range of mainstream and so-called literary novels, and began writing it because I could write stories about women who did things without explaining how they managed to do it in a world the limited what women could do. These days, though, I’ve been reading more non-speculative fiction, not because I’m tired of the speculative elements, but because there are so many writers now who do provide the ideas and “what ifs” in their fiction. James McBride comes immediately to mind.

    • Very similar, yes.

      But I think a lot of us are SF readers, now; even those who don’t know it. I think SF has changed this culture’s mindset. Or perhaps it’s fairer to leave it at: culture has become SFnal. Because I really do believe that much Entertainment is at least as much a product of culture than an innovator. Though I’m not as sure about applying that to the notion of Art. But the whole role of Entertainment vs Art is a whole other ball of wax…

      • I often say that we are living in the future predicted by the Golden Age of SF. (Not enough rocket ships, but technology has changed radically.) So it stands to reason that the overall culture has been affected.

  3. It’s not entirely accurate that Dickens turned against Gaskell, and did so over the content of Wives and Daughters. It was more that Gaskell, while serializing Wives and Daughters for his magazine, found it very difficult to create original material according to a serial publication schedule. But the rift seems to have begun with North and South, the content of which he rather regarded as his own, as a “real” social reformer, in his own unfinished Hard Times. In letters he suggested North and South was “overlong,” and the structure wasn’t much suitable to serialization (she’d already written the novel when he accepted it). During it’s run in Household Words, the subscription list dipped significantly. Or so he said to his sub-editor.

    However, he seems not to have lost any income from his Household Words at that time, unlike when a similar drop took place some years later while serializing a novel by Charles Lever in his All the Year Round.

    There’s a 1989 article about this published back in 1989, by a J. Don Vann: Dickens, Charles Lever and Mrs. Gaskell. I happened upon it back in the day while researching the writing of C. Bronte’s social novel (set during the Napoleonic wars, also her only historical fiction), Shirley. She and Gaskell surely discussed the writing of Shirley. However, my personal opinion is that Shirley is unsuccessful as a social novel, while Gaskell’s North and South is a successful social novel, even with the very novelistic technique for resolving an impossible social and economic situation via marriage. Bronte was splendid at the personal and making the conditions of women particular via her characters’ perspectives and situations, but, unlike Gaskell, she didn’t have the personal experience, or the tools — or wasn’t interested in them — that makes a larger analysis of labor and economics possible and comprehensible.

    Love, C.

  4. Personally, I detest the micro-categorisation of literature (or any artistic endeavour). I don’t see the benefit of trying to fit the creative process into smaller and smaller boxes, for the sake of, well, I don’t know what purpose, really. Community solidarity? Marketing? (Yeh, that, probably, mostly.)

    Yes, broad classifications are useful and inevitable, but when we start nit-picking about whether a certain work is science fiction, or speculative fiction, or fantasy, or supernatural thriller, or science fiction fantasy, or supernatural speculative science fiction fantasy, or what-have-you, I think we’ve rather lost the plot.

    I just want to write what I want to write, and maybe hope that what I write will speak to somebody (anybody) else out there in the ether.

    Which is probably a completely unrealistic stance to take…

    • Genre absolutely is a marketing category. But in some circumstances it can also be an identity: SF Fan, or Historical Fiction Fan etc.

      I do write exactly what I want to write. I don’t change my byline depending on genre. Readers have (mostly–there are always exceptions) followed me. I suspect that this is partly a matter of luck.

      I wish you luck, too.

  5. Zena, figure it’s finding a niche in publishing circles so your publisher (or you) knows how to let potential readers find you. It’s not fun, but it does narrow the target area among millions of books being released.

    I look at this as if we are mapmakers. We ask “What if we?…” We load up the knapsack, choose a direction, and start off. The terrain is Terra Incognita, whether it’s an alien world, a world one step sideways from our own, or a new exploration of the emotional landscape. Our job is to be convincing, entertaining, and interesting, and to safely return our readers to their doorstep.

    We don’t promise that they won’t be changed by the journey. In fact, so may of us hope they will be changed for the better by their sojourn in our books. But SF and fantasy confirmed for me that fiction should never be boring or make me feel like there’s no hope. That’s a large part of what we bring to the world of literature.