Masquerading as Science Fiction

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.

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Masquerading as Science Fiction — 6 Comments

  1. I’ve noticed that a lot of mainstream writers are using speculative elements in their fiction these days. I, too, have had trouble with the ones that are supposedly science fiction, and I think you’ve put your finger on a key problem: they’re not really changing anything.

    The ones that I think have worked well have been those that included a fantasy element of some kind. I particularly liked Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird (where the elements are slight but really work well with the story) and Song Yet Sung. And, of course, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In all those cases, the fantasy element makes the story more real in key ways, though it does not make these particular books (all are about the horrors of slavery) easier to read.

  2. It’s all in the marketing. Since most mainstream readers won’t touch anything labelled science fiction, the publishers call it something else. “Dystopian.” “Speculative.” The authors, fearful of losing sales if their book is classified as SF, join in. I once heard Tess Gerritsen give a lecture in which she claimed her book GRAVITY was absolutely not sf. It was set on the International Space Station and it involved a microorganism that hitched a ride to Earth on a meteorite from Mars, and when said organism went up to the space station, it mutated into a virulent disease that killed most of the ISS crew. But, Gerritsen hastened to add, all this was POSSIBLE and PLAUSIBLE, so it wasn’t at all sf. Never mind that we have discovered no living organisms on Mars, let alone ones that could mutate in microgravity into something that could attack a life form that evolved on an entirely different planet so far away it takes light three minutes to get between them. No, no. This is totally possible. So it isn’t SF, and GRAVITY is shelved with the thrillers. Michael Crichton’s awful nano-tech book was also shelved with the thrillers, right there beside JURASSIC PARK. Kurt Vonnegut long claimed his work wasn’t science fiction, even though it took place on another planet in the future, and you find his work in the mainstream section of the bookstore. Write SF. Just don’t CALL it SF.

    • It isn’t just marketing, though. For me, the most useful way to think of genre is as a conversation: which books and authors is a given work responding to? If you use spec-fic tropes but your story is focused on addressing the concerns of literary fiction rather than those of science fiction or fantasy, then you wind up with something that looks but doesn’t feel like genre, regardless of where it got published.

      For me, the example that made this really clear was the film Stranger Than Fiction. Its central conceit is fantastical — a novelist discovers that she’s apparently either writing about the life of a real person, or else creating that person and his life by writing — but the movie is wholly uninterested in all the questions I immediately had, like why this is happening and which way the causation is going and so forth. Instead it was out to make a point about tragic endings and why literary fiction prizes them as “more meaningful” and whether that preference is valid.

      It’s possible for something to straddle the line, at least some of the time, but if you try to have two conversations at once, all too often they both wind up being unsatisfying.

  3. I’m not sure I agree with you on The Time Travellers Wife. I don’t think the SF element necessarily has to change The World as long as it changes the protagonists’ world. It isn’t just in romance that these characters lives are changed.
    I’m not arguing that it is great SF, it has faults, but in my opinion it is SF.

  4. Thanks, Deborah! A good discussion, and I agree with your distinctions. The interesting part of SF (in addition to real characters and good writing) is the impact on society of the technical changes from our current (or past) reality. I would consider “The Time Traveler’s Wife” to be fantasy, as (to my recollection) there was no mention of any technical reason for his time travel.

  5. I think I saw a semi-definition somewhere that fantasy is about the impossible and science fiction is about the improbable – which would potentially make Time Traveller’s Wife fantasy, not science fiction (because no actual mcguffins were introduced, if I remember corectly, to facilitate the time travel – it was just something that HAPPENED to that person.. making it impossible for other people, not just improbable…) (I just noticed that Sara Stamey posits the same thing…)

    What you might be discussing is the dividing line between HARD science fiction (i.e. things involving literal science, or literal space travel, or literal aliens…) from SOFT science fiction (which involves future societies and ramfications of human life therein and how they are changed from ours by passage of time but without necessarily explaining the ThingThatChanged that made it into that future society).

    I mean, would you consider a romance between a human and an AI android to be science fiction – if that was ALL the SF that there was, with the rest being purely “romance” tropey?

    I guess what I am asking is, what’s the “science” threshhold that needs to be met in order for a story to be considered “science” fiction…?