What makes science fiction a genre? Is it the bells and whistles, the FTL space ships, the futuristic technology? Is it the ability to travel in time or across vast regions of space? Does it involve interactions with alien species, either for the first time or as a matter of course? Or is it simply because the author or the publisher says so? I will not dignify the argument put forth by “litr’ary” types that science fiction is an inherently inferior form of literature. Clearly, they haven’t been reading the superbly imaginative, elegantly crafted work of the last couple of decades.
Following the principle of showing instead of telling, I refer you to the discussions surrounding The Time Traveler’s Wife (by Audrey Niffenegger, Harcourt, 2003). With due respect to my colleagues who might disagree, I thought the only people who considered this novel science fiction were those outside the genre. Yes, the man of the romantic pair bops about from one time period to another (losing his clothing along the way), but that did not make it science fiction in my eyes. I could accept it as romance. The focus, as in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, is the (romantic) relationship between two people. (Although Outlander involves time travel, very few readers I know would classify it as science fiction rather than fantasy or romance.) For me, the aspect that put The Time Traveler’s Wife firmly outside science fiction was the failure to develop the implications of time travel for society. How has this one man’s ability changed the world? What are the moral and political consequences of his actions? Why isn’t he found out and his abilities exploited? How can the “fabric” of time continue linearly with such repeated “tears”?
In other words, science fiction doesn’t just present nifty ideas in a vacuum – it focuses on how those ideas and gadgets and twists of fate have larger effects on the natural and human world. Perhaps back in the age of pulp magazines, a fun gimmick was sufficient to sustain a story with flimsy plotting, cardboard characters, and mediocre prose, but that hasn’t been true for a long time now.
This, too, is why I believe Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale falls squarely in the science fiction genre. Atwood herself refused to consider her dystopian world as science fiction, calling it instead “speculative fiction.” I think that’s a distinction without a difference. One critic (readily identifiable as ignorant of the field by his use of “sci-fi”) wrote, “Sci-fi sells us fantasies. Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is all about the danger of fantasy.” To those of us who are actually conversant with science fiction, the reverse is true, and is a powerful argument for The Handmaid’s Tale belonging on the same shelf as other brilliantly written feminist dystopian science fiction.
On the other hand, sometimes books like The Time Traveler’s Wife are marketed as science fiction but lack the thoughtful development of the implications of technology (or time travel) on society as well as the lives of a few individuals. Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock (2017, 47North) and The Rift, by Nina Allan (2017, Titan) fall into this category. Both are beautifully written on a prose level and both contain “sfnal” elements, yet to my mind, neither is properly science fiction.
Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock is a series of related vignettes that follow, very loosely, a group of people through a generation. The speculative elements are changes in reproductive technology, beginning with existing current IVF (in vivo fertilization). External artificial wombs give women the option of bearing children without physical pregnancy. Other techniques make it possible for a baby to arise from a single person, male or female, or for two people of the same sex to have a child that is genetically both of theirs. The characters use these and other advances, but the technology often seems an afterthought, one that does not in any significant way impact the relationships between parents and children or step-children, friends, and couples. Couples still agonize over giving their children (unborn or born) the best advantages; single parents cope with stress; children born to single mothers wonder who their fathers are; sperm donors wonder who their offspring are. How is that new and futuristic? The sense of wonder or a wonderful or terrifying future is utterly absent. A gay couple who create a child that is genetically theirs seem in no way different from one in the present day who adopt a child. Perhaps the author’s point is that advances in reproductive technology cannot affect basic human relationships, coming down squarely on the side of biology versus culture. I find that premise, while worthy, to be insufficient to sustain so many pages, especially at the cost of examining the interaction of methods that allow anyone to have a child and burgeoning overpopulation and its effect on dwindling resources, migration, and so forth.
More than that, Charnock’s future plays almost exactly as our world now. There are no significant changes in everyday technology, no climate-driven disasters, no wars or upheavals in government. Tourism abounds; the Earth is a relatively static place.
Charnock’s prose is effortless and her characters are beautifully drawn. I think, though, that science fiction readers will find this collection of vignettes superficial and exasperatingly sedate. Mainstream readers, on the other hand, may love it if they can be persuaded to overcome the stigma of the “science fiction” label.
The Rift, by Nina Allan, is equally beautifully crafted. Both novels show an admirable mastery of language and nuance. Allan’s work is far more dramatic, as well as possessing a coherent central story line. Her story centers on the disappearance of a teenage girl – Julie — in rural Britain, the emotional and forensic fallout, the subsequent disintegration of her family, and the alienation of her surviving sister, Selena. The evidence points to Julie having been the victim of a serial killer. When Julie contacts Selena decades later, she says she has been kidnapped by aliens, a humanoid race very like ours but with a different culture and planetary politics. Parallel story lines follow the initial investigation, the reunion of the two sisters, and the adventures of Julie on another world. Of these, I found the legends and histories of the alien people the most interesting and emotionally involving. “The Mind-Eaters of Pakwa” was chilling and deeply moving.
As gripping as these mini-stories were, however, the book kept circling around to the central question: has Julie really been living on another planet or did she make it all up? And if she did, where has she been? Why has she contacted her family now, after all this time? Who is telling the truth, and what are the consequences of shattering recovery from a tragedy that has defined a family for so long?
Here’s the spoiler: After almost the entire book builds on the believability of Julie’s story, the rich detail of her adoptive planet, and the slow rebuilding of trust between the sisters, the revelation at the end hit me as a total disappointment. The discovery of Julie’s decomposed remains, right where she had disappeared, provide conclusive DNA proof that she died years ago. I wanted to throw the book across the room. Who’s been masquerading as her, well enough to convince Selena (and their mother)? And for what cruel reason? Or is all of this a delusion on the part of Selena, who has given every indication of being a rational person up until now? Maybe an author can get away with such a contradictory ending in mainstream, but science fiction readers demand a higher standard of logic, not to mention clarity. It’s right up there with “And it was all a dream” or “Fooled you!” type endings. Therefore, despite the intriguing possibility that Julie actually traveled through a dimensional portal to another world, and that world is as vivid and troubled as our own, the cop-out ending kicked this novel out of the sfnal sphere for me. Which made me sad because I really did love that other world and its people.
There’s another possible ending, tacked on at the end without any previous suggestion, that Julie is an alien from that other world:
If she never called Julie again, no one would blame her. The DNA test said her sister was dead, she had Schechter’s paperwork to prove it. So what was wrong, then, what was wrong?
Her sister was alone on an alien planet, and she had no one.
No one but me. So what if she isn’t the same as she was when she went missing? What difference does it make?
Whoever the hell she is, she’s still my sister.
That would have been an incredibly cool story. But it isn’t the one I read.