It’s refreshing to finally find Gibson and Coupland sold under the same umbrella. These two writers (Vancouver residents both) have, for decades, been poking away at the genre/literary divide from opposite banks, their efforts combining to build a stable and lasting bridge. Gibson’s early work founded a genre, infusing the gritty truth of modern life into the near future other writers insisted on seeing through rose-tinted lenses. Since then, the settings of his stories have marched steadily backwards in time and finally, with the Bigend Trilogy, landed squarely in the present (or, by the time the books actually hit the shelves, the recent past). And yet, in spite of the dearth of speculative elements, these are books that the science fiction fan can dive into and feel immediately at home.
“Now we move onward. Fiction and reality have married. What we have made now exceeds what we are.”
— Douglas Coupland, Player One
Douglas Coupland is a name that exists on the periphery of science fiction. His work is a moving target jumping all over the place, from fiction to coffee-table photography books to sculpture to essay collections, as though he is never comfortable in one place for more than a moment. When he’s writing fiction, though, there is a strong thread that runs from one book to the next. It’s a fascination with the big idea, with the world mankind is making for itself and the way we’re going to live in it — if we manage to survive at all. You’d probably have a hard time shelving Microserfs or Eleanor Rigby in science fiction between Arthur C. Clarke and Julie Czerneda but, all the same, these are our kind of books. And there are others of his novels, like Girlfriend in a Coma and his latest, Player One, set at Pearson airport in the violent aftermath of a sudden peak oil apocalypse, that would be quite comfortable on that shelf. But you won’t find them there, of course. Coupland’s fiction lives, as a whole, over in general fiction alongside Oryx and Crake, Slaughterhouse-Five, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Bookstore shelving though is famously unfathomable. At the centre of the problem is the category “general fiction” itself, with its absurd implication that Michael Crichton shares more in common with Jane Austen than he does with Robert J. Sawyer. The ghettoization of genre has an even stronger effect when you consider those authors, like Coupland, who work in more than one sphere. Stephen King’s On Writing, half memoir and half how-to manual, is routinely found shelved in the horror section. And, if you go into certain large Canadian chain bookstores in search of William Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy, you will inexplicably find the first volume, Pattern Recognition, in the science fiction section but the follow-ups, Spook Country and Zero History, shelved under general fiction.
If nothing else though, it’s refreshing to finally find Gibson and Coupland sold under the same umbrella. These two writers (Vancouver residents both) have, for decades, been poking away at the genre/literary divide from opposite banks, their efforts combining to build a stable and lasting bridge. Gibson’s early work founded a genre, infusing the gritty truth of modern life into the near future other writers insisted on seeing through rose-tinted lenses. Since then, the settings of his stories have marched steadily backwards in time and finally, with the Bigend Trilogy, landed squarely in the present (or, by the time the books actually hit the shelves, the recent past). And yet, in spite of the dearth of speculative elements, these are books that the science fiction fan can dive into and feel immediately at home.
More at home, in fact, than the same fan feels within the pages of Oryx and Crake or The Road, despite the overt speculative nature of those books. The difference is simply that, in the century since the American pulp magazines first sequestered away genre fiction, a unique style and outlook has developed that can’t easily be co-opted. Science fiction, we say, is the literature of ideas, and this is certainly true. But it is also the literature of dissociation. Through all the attempts at a definition of science fiction, the one that stands out as the most functional (aside from Damon Knight’s tautological “science fiction [is] what we point to when we say it”) is Darko Suvin’s identification of the necessary “interaction of estrangement and cognition.” There is a language of the weird, a grammar of the outlandish in science fiction that peers into corners — not just of the universe, but of the mind — that mainstream fiction can not probe.
This is why, when a Margaret Atwood or a Cormac McCarthy brings their considerable literary talent to bear on the genre, the science fiction reader is left strangely nonplussed. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s brilliant satirical voice brings the characters of her dystopian future to vivid life, but the future itself is so dull. Of course, this would be nothing to complain about at all if Atwood were making a point with that dullness. But, on the contrary, it’s clear that she is quite taken with the wit and originality of her vision. She goes to great lengths to describe the amoral decadence of her future society, but her descriptions of ubiquitous drug use, perverse games and violent pornography seem at times more like tired repetition of “murder simulator,” “teen sexting” and “strawberry-flavoured meth” media rhetoric than it does like satire. Likewise, her pointed portrayal of a world where science degrees are a noble pursuit and arts degrees a badge of disgrace is bewildering. The trend of lionizing the technical at the expense of the creative is not one that has escaped anyone’s attention. And it takes more to lampoon than simply pointing and saying: “That’s crazy.” Even Atwood’s biological apocalypse, the book’s big speculative payoff, is basically just a bioweapon scare pulled from the pages of an airport lounge thriller and shunted a few decades into the future. Which is not for a second to say that it’s a bad book. It’s not; it’s excellent. It simply doesn’t lean on the quality of its speculative elements to thrill. Oryx and Crake is a book that is neither about genetic engineering nor about the future. It’s a book about friendship and obsession and disillusionment. It’s set in the future so that Atwood can use a bio-engineered Holocaust as a device, not because she truly wants to write science fiction. She’s made it clear in interview after interview that she doesn’t.
Similarly, in The Road, the scorched and desolate future is strictly backdrop. McCarthy brings nothing new to the post-apocalyptic genre. Every situation and spectacle in the work has featured already in so many zombie flicks and survival horror video games as to have become pedestrian. But McCarthy isn’t trying to write science fiction either. He refrains from dwelling on the speculative elements of his story at all, making it quite clear that he is not enamoured with them and doesn’t expect us to be either (a lesson that Margaret Atwood could well stand to learn). McCarthy’s cataclysm is neither portent nor extrapolation. It is instead a stark reflection of the impotent torment in the mind of a father who knows he will be unable to protect his son. Again, it is an amazing novel, but it should be little surprise that those who come to it from a love for post-apocalyptic SF are left unsatisfied.
None of which is by way of value judgment, positive or negative, of science fiction or its readers. For too long science fiction has had an inferiority complex, striving to prove that it can indeed be the equal of mainstream literature. Yet the only proper answer to the question of which genre is superior is “mu.” Science fiction and literary fiction developed in isolation for so long that speciation occurred. As recently as twenty years ago, the two were apples and oranges in every way. We couldn’t, as Michael Chabon has proposed, do away with the distinction and “just have two sections, ‘Good Stuff’ and ‘Crap.’” No single metric could reasonably measure both genre and non-genre fiction.
But then something started to happen. The New Wave of science fiction had come and gone and a new crop of science fiction writers like Greg Egan, Paolo Bacigalupi and Peter Watts started writing, with nothing to prove, science fiction that didn’t care which measuring stick you brought to the table. At the same time, authors like Michael Chabon and Iain Banks (who, despite their credentials as mainstream literary giants, are very much genre insiders) started writing science fiction, embracing it in a way that neither Atwood nor McCarthy can manage.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that science fiction is more robust for this influx of literary sensibilities. There are things, like real depth and complexity of character, that literary fiction is so much better at than science fiction has traditionally been. It would be both snobbish and foolish to reject that. The point that is too often missed is that there are also things, like the refinement of a narrative device to monofilament sharpness, that genre fiction has spent the last century perfecting and on which general fiction could stand to take the role of student.
Fortunately, where the flow of ideas between bookstore sections has previously been carried out via catapult volleys like Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale, writers like Coupland and Gibson are hard at work building not just a bridge but an isthmus across that gap. The intermingling that follows will strengthen both domains. More exciting still, with any luck, a rich new hybrid form will grow on the terrain that these two Canadian writers are even now mapping out.