In a writing program, there’s often a bit of pressure to read what your peers or professors are reading. It helps, and it keeps everybody on the same page. In my program, a whole bunch of us read Olive Kitteridge at the same time, and we did the same thing for A Visit From the Goon Squad. Several of us tackled Bolano at around the same time, too.
Now that I’m out, it’s a little different. I feel like I can branch out a little bit more, maybe read some genre stuff, some stuff that actual people and not just MFA students might read, some science fiction. I did read sci-fi while I was in school, but part of my brain always considered it a vacation from the more literary material. My sister gave me The Windup Girl for my birthday, and I tried it out.
As many of my graduate school friends can attest, English departments often have an apathetic attitude toward science fiction. There’s been a turn in the last ten years or so, and more literary authors are writing books with sci-fi or other genre twists to them, but it’s still kind of rare. I’ve never seen one of these books taught in a university (except when I taught Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to my freshmen last year) and, because these books are almost always written by established literary authors, they come with a stamp of approval from writers in the academy. Kind of an, “If Philip Roth is writing an alternative history novel, I guess we have to be okay with it. At least this once,” attitude. But real sci-fi, the hard stuff, the stuff that wins Hugos and Nebulas and your friend who works in IT is obsessed with—that stuff never shows up in colleges.
I was thinking about what science fiction English departments do and don’t like when I was reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I won’t get too far into the plot, but it concerns the environmental and political ramifications of a complete petroleum collapse and massive bioengineering of food, crop-eating pests, and illnesses. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, along with the Locus Award for best first novel, it sold a whole boatload of copies, and it’s already considered a contemporary classic of science fiction. It’s a damn good book, too, but it does a couple of the things that often turn English professors off to hard science fiction:
- It privileges plot and big ideas over characterization. If there’s one defining characteristic of literary fiction (and, as Michael Chabon, a sci-fi friendly literary writer, points out, literary fiction is as codified a genre as any other), it’s that it’s all about character. Psychological insight. Telling details. Complicated motivations. The Windup Girl does have some complicated characters, and their needs always drive the incredibly complex, layered, wicked fun plot, but they’re never the focus. As with a lot of hard science fiction, the focus is always on the ideas and the world. The Windup Girl also has a couple real clunker characters: Anderson, the first main character we’re introduced to, is pretty much a blank slate throughout the novel, and a villain who doesn’t appear on stage until three-quarters of the way through is cacklingly amoral and spews philosophic monologues and might as well be twirling his villain mustachios.
- The writing is bad. Well, not bad, exactly, but not anything more than competent. Literary fiction really focuses on style (sometimes to the detriment of substance, unfortunately), and The Windup Girl doesn’t really have anything going for it.
Still, it also exemplifies a lot of the things that you think would bring academics and critics to the genre: it assumes its reader is very smart and can keep up with a ton of factions and political instutitions, construct a fictional history from a few little details, and find some sort of solid moral ground to stand on in a bewildering sci-fi world. It also occasionally feels terrifyingly close to real life, with political sacrifices, dangerous bioengineering, bacteria turned drug-resistant, and lots of commentary on our current energy crises.
By the end of the book, I was thinking that science fiction is to ideas as literary fiction is to thought and feeling. The best sci-fi (like Bacigalupi’s novel) presents a complicated set of ideas and smashes them together, tries to find all the shades of difference and subtlety, just the way Alice Munro might do with the inner life of one of her narrators. It’s interesting: I can only think of a few books where the fine working of ideas meshes up with the fine working of feelings. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, definitely. The Road, maybe. Any others? I’m not sure.