Science Fiction: Genre, Community, Literature

A few weeks ago, Strange Horizons published my review of Junot Díaz’s immigrant novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both Jonathan McCalmont and the commissioner of the review, Niall Harrison, were kind enough to link to it and say it was half-decent, but of course the comments section of the review itself inevitably descended into fannish naval gazing.

For those of you unaccustomed to science fiction reviewing, here’s a rule of thumb: reaction to a review will always hone in on the point most applicable to the community that reads science fiction, rather than anything which might relate to science fiction itself. In a way, this is inevitable in a field of criticism largely conducted by enthusiasts, and in a genre so thoroughly sealed off from respectability (national newspapers frequently review crime fiction, but rarely give science fiction more than a passing nod).

What to say about genre? It’s been observed by many writers that most other genres are named after the effect they aim to have upon the reader: horror, thriller, romance, even fantasy might be said to capture in their label the quality for which they are read. Westerns appropriate a geographical locator; crime fiction an element of their plot. Science fiction is in this cast of labels curiously – and excitingly – broad. It leads inevitably to endless debates and quibbles about which books should be given passage through the genre’s gate, and which should be asked to reside in a gentrified suburb a safe distance from the ghetto. But surely what most interests about SF is its endless capacity to reinvent itself and to tackle almost anything to almost any effect.

Díaz’s Oscar Wao is similarly drawn to the ‘sense of wonder’ permanently possible in science fictional writing. It is what fixates him and seduces him, in no small part due to the drudgery of his everyday existence. Díaz is in a way guilty of stereotyping: his Wao is a typical fan, all acne and airfix, memorising episodes of Star Trek and referencing obscure comic books. And yet, it seems to me, Wao too would have replied to my review with a comment about my mischaracterisation of his community. Stereotypes can still be accurate.

Some years ago, Niall Harrison, aforementioned editor of Strange Horizons Reviews who doubles as editor of the British Science Fiction Association’s journal of record, Vector, interviewed me for a fanzine article he was writing. He asked me whether I self-identified as a ‘fan’. My instinctive response was in the negative: being a fan, I argued, meant putting aside some or all of one’s critical faculties.

A Manchester United fan may gripe about team selection, but he will probably never abandon his team. If you’re going to talk seriously about books, you need to be able to abandon the ones that are bad. Being a fan is like carrying the card of a political party: it asks you to bury your misgivings and stick up for your crowd against the other bullies in the playground. I was alone among Niall’s respondents; the rest quibbled about what the definition of ‘fan’ was – the response of someone already signed up to a self-selecting tribe. (There are of course tribes with tribes: SF fandom is nothing if not endlessly recursive.)

Such is science fiction criticism: a field in which amateurs are as welcome as academics, which in a way is a beautifully egalitarian thing, but in another simply suggests that everyone’s just a bit too close to their subject. Science fiction, that boundless literature of future shock and alienation, is in truth a bit cosy. Inevitably, in a community so small, sealed off, and self-selecting, the artifacts themselves become vehicles for the movement. A book as light on consequence as Ken Macleod’s Learning The World is seen to be in rapturous dialogue with its genre by throwing in references only the initiated will catch; an author who disowns the community (Salman Rushdie, even Kurt Vonnegut) will be quietly shuffled out, like a senile old uncle; a book that is embraced by the mainstream (Cloud Atlas) will not be shared happily but held on to for grim, stultifying death. What matters is not so much the work as the way it talks to the community.

I pause for breath. Because Paul and Martin are decent, thoughful chaps, and not at all rampant fanboys whose every rabid waking moment is spent thinking about Fandom, I feel a bit unfair. (In fact, thanks for reading the review and taking the time to respond, guys.) They’re both active SF critics, though, and it seems to me to become an unthinking response of such writers to refect upon – to include in their cogitations – The Community. It is not that what makes the genre particular (if anything beyond marketing strategies) is not worth studying; it is that there are wider perspectives to bring to that study than the purely generic dialogue of a given work. Nay, if Díaz has not written about a fan I recognise – or one that another reader may recognise more than the one I do – it may well mean that there are wider perspectives even within the community, Oscar, than are dreamt of in your taxonomy.

5 thoughts on “Science Fiction: Genre, Community, Literature

  1. But there’s another fanboy at the heart of Diaz’s novel: the one who tells the story and who knows all about the genre. Yunior. And he’s a fanboy playboy who gets all the girls, who is socially adept, who defies all stereotypes. I think Diaz is up to a lot here and Oscar is not meant to stand in for all fanboys. But Oscar and Yunior together . . . that’s when the coversation in the novel about fanboy-ness gets interesting . . .

  2. Yes, that’s true. Yunior is always very careful to be at one remove from his fannishness, though – he is deliberately not self-identifying. Oscar would define himself, I think, as a science fiction fan. Yunior, on the other hand, has all the knowledge and appreciation without any of the need for community.

    I think the novel is about identity politics of all stripes, so I think you’re right that there’s something in this. What interests me, though, is the sense that Yunior is precisely the sort of polyglot perspective that fannish discourse tend not to pay much attention to…

  3. It seems that the point of the book is not genre, not SF/F, not comix, not about fanboys or girls, not who gets girls or who doesn’t get girls.

    It’s about how someone coming out of a colonialist – immigrant culture, a culture was daily and individually terribly repressed, oppressed, tortured, raped and pillaged by a succession of evil tryrants, can use genre almost as a force for healing. Sauron and Sauroman help Yunion understand his own world and himself, and how to understand his friend, Oscar. In the meantime, the author employs the familiar tropes of various genre works to help him explain his people’s history to readers who probably couldn’t tell you where on the map to find the Dominican Republic.

    The book is about what it is like to have been born into the Dominican Republic, and then attempt to bridge and heal from competing and conflictin cultures and histories, both nationally and personally.

    It’s impossible for me to understand why the sf/f reader isn’t discussing any of the brilliant uses Díaz made of genre tropes and Truijillo in telling the story of two individuals born out of that terrible history?

    Love, C.

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