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There is a rage shared by most critics of the literature of the fantastic. It is the rage we feel when some iteration of that literature--a novel by Jeff Noon, perhaps--is mufflingly misdescribed as non-generic by its publishers, or by some moat-defensive critic more concerned to defend his patch than to tell the truth about the text before his eyes, or even by authors--like Jeff Noon himself, whose increasingly chrome-plated career track seems to require a repudiation of his roots in genre. Noon's recent statement that he does not write sf, and his publisher's contortuplicated efforts not to mention sf in the jacket copy to Falling Out Of Cars (London: Doubleday, 2002)--jacket copy which manages therefore not to mention that Falling is set in a near-future England decimated by a strange plague whose effects on humans can only be staved off by a brandname drug distributed by a mysterious corporation--does rather seem a trahison des clercs.

Because what Noon and his publishers have done to Falling Out Of Cars is a discourtesy to adult readers. They have unlabelled the book, which may sound a noble thing to do ("Let my fable go") but which is not. In the sick, febrile market now operating in the book trade, a book which is unlabelled is not a book readers come to with eyes washed of preconceptions, like Israelites entering a Promised Land; it is a book precisely marketed to mandate a particular kind of preconception in the reader: which is that the book in question is safe, that it is a mundane extension of the mimetic novel, that it is unlabelled because it is unnecessary to label a window into the real world.
--John Clute, Scores, p.392
And then there is an argument based around reading protocols, which goes something like: when Falling Out Of Cars is approached as mimetic, it reads very differently, and (crucially) worse, than when it is approached as science fiction. Having not read the book, I can't comment, but that's ok; my reservation is about his more general point.

There is an awkward interaction here between, as ever, science fiction the marketing category and science fiction the form. I agree with the above to the extent that I recognise the rage, because I agree that most decisions to unlabel a book seem to be made in, for want of a better phrase, bad faith--made as marketing decisions only. I'm less convinced that this matters because it leads us into the work by the wrong route.

Firstly, I'm inclined to think we can work out how to read something as we go, based on the text itself. The label is useful, but it's not essential. (And I can think of cases--one of Michel Faber's books comes to mind--where the unfolding of expectations is so deliciously well-handled that it would be a bit cruel to give the game away on the dust jacket.) But more than that, I'm inclined to think that the act of unlabelling usually Just Doesn't Work. There are arguable cases, like Never Let Me Go, but in general it's a safe bet that a review that bends over backwards to explain how a book isn't science fiction, honest, is in fact a review that tells you, very clearly, precisely the opposite.

So why the rage? For me, Clute got it right at the start: because it's not telling the truth. I'm sure immortalradical will come along at this point and accuse me of trying to claim texts "for the genre", but I don't think that's what I'm doing; to say something is science fiction doesn't have to involve saying that it's part of the genre. My problem is rather that all the evasions and denials smack of either simple snobbery--the "it's good, so it can't be sf" attitude--or, more seriously, a patronising lack of faith in the reader--"don't worry, this one's ok because it's not really sf." And that's a disservice not just to the reader, but to the book and to the form as a whole.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I cite that review in my chapter on Vurt in the Clarke volume. I do rather agree - read as avant-garde mimetic it holds together even less well than as an sf novel. And it's not a very good sf novel, as I'm sure greengolux will affirm.
I think an underlying Clute argument - not stated here, though elsewhere in plenty - is that sf is a literature in uniquely intense conversation with itself. (Hence, for Clute, why it matters so much to get dating right - dating is the crucial anchor in that time-bound conversation.) Disowning sf is disowning that conversation. The real problem with the treatment of Noon (or, also Karen Joy Fowler's Black Glass or Bear's Darwin's Radio) is the presumption that sf is in some way inherently *shameful*, either in a marketing sense or an aesthetic one. As Delany has suggested more than once, sf might do well to ditch the anxiety about "As Others See Us" and adopt the rhetorical and mental stances of queer rights. ("We're here! We're geeks! Get used to it!")
In Noon's case it's not just how others treat his work, but how he treats himself. I probably shouldn't, but here's a taster from the Clarke anthology that's relevant:

Noon, therefore, is not really coming from an sf tradition. He did not emerge through the fanzines and sf magazines, though he read American superhero comics avidly as a child. He was a playwright who could not get his plays mounted, until Stephen Powell persuaded him to write a novel for Powell's new imprint, Ringpull Press. Noon extracted a subplot he had inserted into an unproduced stage adaptation of Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden, and Vurt was born.

It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that Noon is ambivalent towards sf. On the one hand, he is [or was] happy to be interviewed by Vector and Interzone, and appear at sf conventions. On the other, he is keen to distance his writing from science fiction (about which he has some strange ideas), and Falling Out of Cars is marketed as a non-genre work (to the annoyance of Clute). Interviewing him, [Andrew M.] Butler asks, 'What is your attitude to science fiction these days?' After six paragraphs of Noon's reply, I'm still not sure what his answer is. But the suspicion is that he views his peers as Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Nick Hornby, writers who appeal to the 'rock'n'roll kids' that Noon considers the most important part of his audience, rather than Iain Banks and China Miéville.

Disowning sf is disowning that conversation.

I think this is getting there. Though it could just as easily be simple disinterest in the conversation (though clearly some knowledge of it is required to write an interesting fantastical work), rather than any pejorative dislike of it.

Though of course I dispute rather strongly that sf is a literature in uniquely intense conversation with itself. (In fact, I don't see how this argument stands up to a moment's scrutiny. Feel free to enlighten me.) Its writers made be in uniquely intense (and uniquely minute) conversation with their readers, but that's not quite the same thing, is it?
When the Clarke Award judges gave the 1992 award to Marge Piercy John Clute was one of the more vociferous critics of our choice. In a guest editorial for Vector he referred to how Body Of glass made no mention of SF on its cover, and implied that this was one of the reasons we had made the wrong choice. In the same article the judges decision to exclude Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary was condemned.
In fact the judges chose to give Fowler a special mention, along with M John Harrison's The Course Of the Heart as notable but not SF. As with most other years there were many good SF novels under consideration, many of which did not have the label SF on their cover, and we felt no need to include novels which clearly were not SF simply because the author had also published SF previously.
What is relevant here is that Clute's preferred winner that year did not bear any mention of SF in words on its cover either. Kim Stanley Robinson would never deny that Red Mars is SF of course (though I could envisage a case for that.)
We as commentators on SF and non-SF do have a duty to make the distinction, but only when the distinction tells us something about the work in question. Clute's defensiveness on this issue does not do that.
*hauls out his copy of Look at the Evidence*

In a guest editorial for Vector he referred to how Body Of glass made no mention of SF on its cover, and implied that this was one of the reasons we had made the wrong choice.

Well ... sort of. What he actually says is more along the lines of "not only has this award been given to a book that I think doesn't deserve it, but here is some evidence that the recipient and publisher don't care that they've received it, which makes it a double slap in the face". It's the fact that they didn't mention the award after the book had won that annoys him, not that it originally didn't mention sf on the cover.

Kim Stanley Robinson would never deny that Red Mars is SF of course (though I could envisage a case for that.)

*boggle*

My edition (which is, admittedly, US paperback) has a quote that calls it "epic science fiction in the best tradition of the term".
Current music: Ashes - Embrace

You're just doing this to torment Nat, aren't you?
Of course.
I do agree that the type of book I'm expecting to read directly affects my interpretation (and thus my enjoyment and anything else I get of it) and this is also true of other media. Trying to watch V for Vendetta as literal, rather than as a parable, would have significantly decreased my enjoyment of it (for instance).

I also object to people saying "It's not SF" purely because they mean "It's actually good.", but that's because I view this as a simply baffling way of looking at the world and makes no sense to me.
to say something is science fiction doesn't have to involve saying that it's part of the genre

Then what is it saying that is useful to the reader in approaching the book? (You suggest it tells the reader how to read the book, but then rightly point out that a decent novel will tell us as we go.) And why do we not say that a non-genre work (Cloud Atlas) 'uses' science fiction, rather than 'is' science fiction?
Then what is it saying that is useful to the reader in approaching the book?

On one level, it's a map; it says "this book probably shares some characteristics with those books". More importantly, though, it's useful when thinking about and discussing the book having read it--a quite separate activity to reading it.

And why do we not say that a non-genre work (Cloud Atlas) 'uses' science fiction, rather than 'is' science fiction?

Well, you don't, and Abigail don't, for starters. :-p But I say that it is a science fiction novel because the science fiction is literally and thematically central. You could chop out, say, 'Letters to Zedelghm' and have basically the same book (indeed, we know this because we know Mitchell's first draft had eight or nine stories); you couldn't cut out 'Sloosha's Crossin' and Sonmi-451's stories and say the same. It is important that the book's stories go into the future, and portray the world as it hasn't yet been.

Of course, this doesn't stop you also calling it, say, a historical novel; that's the beauty of venn diagrams, after all. Different people will find different labels for that book most useful to think with, which is fine.
Which of these would you consider to be sf?

1) "Left Behind" series.

2) Mystery series in which the detective is a dinosaur disguised as a human.

3) Survivalist novels.

4) Mystery novel which begins with the protagonist coming out of coldsleep.

5) Small town is being taken over by Satanists and liberals. But a small group of true Christians (no Papists need apply) are fighting to take it back.

6) Time travel romances.
I know your question is addressed to Niall, but my answer is (again) the Delany one: we need to get away from the binary idea that something "is" or "is not" science fiction and that we might be able to articulate a single definition which would give us, as it were, an algorithmic sorting process to put all works into one or other of those boxes. We can certainly talk about characteristics of sf (characteristics of the sf conversation, to go back to my earlier comment) and the extent to which a given work partakes of them. Pretty much all the examples you give mix stuff from the sf tradition with stuff from other genres (explicitly in cases 2, 4, 6 and implicitly in 1, 3).
My view is much less sophisticated than yours, Clutes or other commentators - I feel personally affronted that my choice of reading is disparaged by a bunch of know-nothings and I'd like to smack 'em :-)
There are arguable cases, like Never Let Me Go, but in general it's a safe bet that a review that bends over backwards to explain how a book isn't science fiction, honest, is in fact a review that tells you, very clearly, precisely the opposite.

This is actually tangential to your earlier argument - labelling books and reviewing are two very different stages in the life cycle of the book. But that aside, I do so agree with you.

If you have to explain what a book is not doing, it's a fair bet that it is something you don't want the book to do, and so the argument is about your preferences and prejudices, not about what the book is actually doing.