Science fiction and literary reputation: looking deeper

The tired debate over sci-fi being less clever than other genres needs to be put to bed. Good writing is good writing, says Aliya...

Phew! It turns out reading science fiction doesn’t make you stupid after all, according to a new study conducted by Washington and Lee university professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson. The study, entitled The Literary Genre Effect, shows that the insertion of the word ‘robot’ into a story does not lessen comprehension in the mind of the reader. This comes as a great relief after Gavaler and Johnson’s 2017 study suggested that reading a story set in space “triggered poorer overall reading”.

You know what? I don’t think I’m needed to leap to the defence of science fiction on this occasion.

It would be easy to misrepresent this whole thing into sides. Science fiction versus literary. Academic study versus common sense. Stupid people versus clever people. It’s an easy but inaccurate takeaway. While we’re looking at a study on the subject of careful reading, I’d rather try a bit harder to give it more than a cursory glance followed by the requisite level of outrage.

The recent study has yet to be published, but a closer look at the 2017 study makes for fascinating reading. A breakdown by one of the authors outlines that there’s more to comprehension of genre than simply setting a story in space; higher levels of in-depth character exploration are assumed to be present in what we call literary fiction, whereas science fiction perhaps spends more time on world-building, for instance. And there are many other factors that influence how we engage with what’s on the page. For instance, the story used in the 2019 study has a one word title: Ada. It’s written in the first person, present tense. It focuses heavily on the physicality of the moment it creates, and for that reason, on first reading, I was reminded of the crime genre more than anything else. Can a story be literary, crime and science fiction all at once?

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It’s not just about the genre. If you don’t care for first person, present tense stories you’d probably have stopped paying attention pretty early on in the study. (You can read the story in question here.) The title, too, comes with its own baggage. A woman’s name, on its own: where does that fit into our expectations? This much is clear – if it was a straightforward business to work out how we felt about a story, any story, then we’d all be an agreement when it comes to fitting it into a five-star rating.

Reading is always going to be a subjective business. A story is not simply science fiction because it contains a robot, but it’s not necessarily literary because it addresses a character’s deep thought processes. Is ‘literary’ really even a genre if all it can be measured by is the level of interior development? Recently I’ve found myself picking romantic novels off the library shelves more often than not, possibly because we’re living in politically stressful times. Does one genre offer escapism more effectively than another? If any could make that claim, it might be the romantic novel, but when people talk about these books it’s clear that they have been deeply involved in the characters and events, and often break down their reasons for enjoyment into how “well-written” the books are. Deep thought processes are just as much part of some romantic novels as love is.

None of these choices of reading material, and the act of feeling engaged or otherwise that comes from choosing them, boils down to that loaded word: stupidity. It strikes me that the act of being asked to read something, anything, in order to take part in an academic study might well make a reader give extra attention to the text. But at the end of a long day, fighting to keep your eyes open in order to get a little bit of reading done, how much attention can you really claim to be paying? In such times the right book might well not be one that makes you pick apart the reasons for human existence.

When I worked in a library, I often asked customers if they had a favourite author. James Patterson’s name came up regularly. The reason I heard for his popularity, more often than not, was this: interesting stories told in short chapters. So many people only get a few snatched minutes in which to read. On a bus journey, in a lunch hour. The act of reading is never a stupid one, in such circumstances – any choice of material that takes a person away to a different world is an act of using empathy and imagination. If you don’t have the time or energy to fully read every line with care, that’s pretty understandable. A short chapter might be just what you need.

For all the reasons that I throw out about why this whole business is far from straightforward, here’s the thing: the authors of the study themselves are happy to engage with all of these issues. In this case, it really is worth reading the comments on the website for an in-depth conversation of the study and its possible flaws.

But, at the end of all this close examination, it turns out I can’t help myself. I’ve reached the bit where I say that modern science fiction – short chapters or otherwise – is in great shape. I don’t need to defend it, but it seems I will. All of us fans will. We continue to do so, even when it makes no sense. This might explain why, when I asked my publisher if he had any thoughts about the whole science fiction makes you stupid issue, he responded with a link to Sturgeon’s Law.

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Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety per cent of everything is crap. Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction author who came up with the rule, really did mean everything, not just books: “film, literature, consumer goods, etc…” Why does science fiction continue to get it in the neck as one of the worst genres for quality of writing, then? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that it’s yet another easy, lazy response to make without looking at what’s really going on, or indeed, what even qualifies as science fiction nowadays.

Contemporary science fiction is often involved in questions that one might term as literary, such as the slippery qualities of understanding, communication, emotion…

I’ll finish up with a short list of some of the science fiction stories published in the last few years that I’d call literary novels for the level of deep understanding and investigation they bring. They’re also crime novels, coming of age novels, and are capable of bearing many other labels. In the end, perhaps our level of involvement is owed to nothing so much as that strange, unfakeable thing we call good writing:

The Smoke – Simon Ings (2018)

An examination of loneliness in an alternative future where Yorkshire factories make parts for spaceships and London life is divided into three separate types of humanity. Complex and filled with atmosphere.

The Rift – Nina Allan (2017)

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Seventeen year old Julie goes missing, and her sister Selena searches for answers. Does the truth lie in alien abduction? How do we reconcile ourselves to missed time, and difficult answers?

The Machine – James Smythe (2013)

The machine in question eats the traumatic memories of those who have served in the military, but in the case of Beth’s husband, it’s taken far more. Her struggle to rebuild him breathes new life into classic science fiction territory.

The Migration – Helen Marshall (2019)

A coming-of-age tale that contains elements of deep strangeness with utterly relatable teenage emotions. Climate change is remaking the world, and young people are suffering from a fatal immune disorder that has no cure – and then it becomes clear that the victims won’t stay dead…

Zero Bomb – MT Hill (2019)

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A hunt across a city, a conspiracy of the near future, a world in which technology is taking over: Zero Bomb is exciting, surprising, and yet also personally meaningful. It’s a crime story and a science fiction exploration, but most of all, it’s emotional.

Aliya Whiteley’s latest literary fantasy-horror novel, Skein Island, will be published by Titan Books on 5 November 2019.