Call it a sign of the times: A Public Radio discussion about the future of science fiction turned into a conversation about the ways SF is struggling. On the one hand, it's lost ground to fantasy, which has become the more popular book genre by far. On the other, the best science fiction writers still don't get the respect and attention accorded to a Cormac McCarthy. What's the solution? Tear down genre lines — maybe starting with the fantasy/SF split.
Talking to George R.R. Martin and Ursula K. Le Guin, NPR program To The Best Of Our Knowledge turned a discussion of genre boundaries. On the one hand, LeGuin talked about why science fiction and fantasy don't get the same respect as literary fiction:
To be labeled a genre writer, in the eyes of about 90 percent of readers, is to be labeled [as] second-rate. Face it. So obviously a lot of people bristle and say "Well, all right, I'm a scifi writer and I'm proud of it." I just wish they'd forget the darn labels. A lot of my books, they don't classify easily as scifi, or god help us, science fiction. They may be fantasy, but that may not be the important thing about them. These genre labels are marketing labels. They make it easy for readers who are addicted to a certain type of fiction to find it, in the library or the bookstore. They make it real, real easy for the publisher to sell it. Otherwise, they are useless. And they can be very useless, when you get writers like me, or like Michael Chabon.
People who say they don't like science fiction often haven't read it, adds Le Guin.
Martin, meanwhile, quoted Faulkner as saying the only stories worth telling are ones about a human heart in conflict with itself. But he was less concerned with tearing down the divide between science fiction and literary fiction than with merging SF and fantasy. He says SF, fantasy and horror all fit under an umbrella of "weird stuff," and really it's just the furniture that's different:
I'm 60 years old, and I come from a time where, at least, science fiction, fantasy and horror writers did move easily from one [subgenre] to another. That's not so true for new writers breaking in. When I was young, when I was just breaking into the field in the 1970s, science fiction was much more popular than fantasy. Today, the reverse is true. And there are some science fiction writers who seem threatened by this, and [they react by] drawing these hard distinctions between science fiction and fantasy, and saying that they're two totally opposite things. I don't think they are totally opposite things, and that's where my "furniture rule" comes in. I think they're basically the same thing, and what varies is the furniture. You have an elf in one and an alien in the other, and both of them perform the same literary function as a trope of the respective genres.
So maybe if we stop trying to draw such stark distinctions between fantasy and science fiction, the next step will be tearing down the distinctions between speculative fiction and "literature"? In any case, Martin feels sad when he sees a section in a bookstore labeled "literature" instead of just "fiction."
And why has science fiction been losing ground to fantasy? Martin says it's because we're no longer optimistic:
The social changes of the last 50 years [have] made the future someplace that we no longer want to visit the way we did when I was a kid. I mean, back in the Fifties and Sixties, when science fiction was perhaps as popular as it's ever been, we really had a lot of belief in the future. I mean, we couldn't wait to get to the future. The future was going to be much better than anything in the present. We were going to have robots and flying cars and all these labor-saving devices... Now, most people think their children are not going to have better lives than they do. They think their children are going to have worse lives.