Some of our favorite science fiction authors appear to have left SF behind, after creating stories that live with us forever. We asked Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, Samuel R. Delany and Mary Doria Russell why they left the genre.
I was talking to some friends online about the writers we miss the most from science fiction, and these four's names came up again and again. So I was moved to get in touch with them and ask them if they thought it was true that they'd stopped writing science fiction. And if so, why was this the case? Their answers say as much about the genre as a whole as they do about the individual writers.
Mary Doria Russell wrote the breathtaking first-contact novel The Sparrow and its sequel, Children Of God. Since then, she's written two historical novels, A Thread Of Grace and Dreamers Of The Day. She writes:
My husband and I talked this over last night, and it's not clear to us that anything significant changed when I began my third novel. I didn't decide to switch genres. I simply told a third story, and then a fourth, and now a fifth.
In my personal life, the most unconventional thing about me is how relentlessly conventional I am have remained for nearly six decades. I married my high school sweetheart almost 40 years ago. I was a PTA mom who stayed at home to raise my kid. Don and I still live in a Cleveland suburb and I'm on the City of South Euclid's Planning and Zoning Commission, for crissakes. At the same time, intellectually, I am drawn to borderlands and to the people who inhabit them: marginal natives, newcomers, travelers, people who don't fit and who therefore have an interestingly slanted view of the cultures they inhabit. Remember: I was an anthropologist long before I was a novelist. We are trained to seek out marginal natives; no one can give you a better perspective on aspects of culture that statistically normal people simply accept as, well, normal.
Admittedly: I have turned out to be kind of a genre slut. I will stand on the literary street corner and get into any genre that drives by and offers to take me to a good par-tay. And sometimes I don't go home with the one who brung me to the dance.
DREAMERS OF THE DAY is about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference and the invention of the modern Middle East, but it's also sort of a romance, and it ends as magical realism, complete with Egyptian gods and a bitchy little tiff between Napoleon and General George McClellan. And I'm almost finished with EIGHT TO FIVE, AGAINST.
This new book is in some ways a classical Western about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but I see John Henry Holliday as a heartbreaking figure: born in the antebellum South, educated in the North for a professional life in the East, trying not to die on the rawest frontier of the West. Doc might as well have been THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH: frail, lonely and desperately homesick, surrounded by people who are not nearly as sophisticated or educated as he was. At the same time, this story is a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878.
So I guess what this all adds up to is: who gives a shit about labels? I write about what fascinates me, and I use whatever tools seem best suited to do the job at hand. What happens after that is marketing.
Karen Joy Fowler wrote Sarah Canary, which is widely viewed as a type of first-contact novel. Her story "What I Didn't See" won a Nebula Award, and she co-founded the James Tiptree Jr. Award for speculative fiction stories that consider gender in new and interesting ways. (Full disclosure: I was a Tiptree juror.) Her more recent novels, The Jane Austen Book Club and Wit's End, have fewer overtly fantastical elements. She tells io9:
So this is something I've been thinking hard about ever since I published Wit's End. I've just finished yet another of my maybe-they're-aliens-maybe-they're-not stories, (Gardner Dozois calls this the "is that a dinosaur in the shadows?" stories) and am about to write an incontrovertible ghost story.
Here are some of the things I've been thinking.
1) I don't set out to write in any genre; that's just not my working method. I start with whatever I have, some tiny incoherent image that I hope to make into a story. And then I take what I need to make that story work. Maybe what I need comes from science fiction, but maybe not. I won't know until I write it.
2) I'm really interested in genre and draw a lot of energy from it. So even if the things I write aren't, strictly speaking, genre piece, they all seem to be in conversation with genre in some way. (I like mysteries as much as I like sf, by the way.)
3) What I love most about science fiction is the short fiction. Almost all my short fiction spins around a science fictional idea even if the resulting story isn't quite sf. Charles Brown of Locus told me once that I'm a science fiction writer because I think like a science fiction writer and I was enormously flattered and hope that's true.
4) But even if it is, mystery writing with its emphasis on plot and sf writing with its emphasis on tech don't really play to my strengths.
So — what I'm asking myself now is: if my ideal readers are sf readers, doesn't it seem, well, logical, that I would please them most by writing sf? Which is really what they want to read? And I'm not sure I can be anything but the writer I am. But I'll keep trying.
One final point. In the last couple of weeks I've read about toxoplasma — the parasite that alters our behavior until we're simply pawns in the paws of housepet cats; a woman in India found guilty of murdering her fiance based on her brain scan; a site on the internet where for a monthly fee a computer will pray for you ceaselessly. Stan Robinson says we all live in a science fiction novel now and it's clearly true. So I truly believe that science fiction is realism now and literary realism is a nostalgic literature about a place where we once lived, but no longer do.
Nicola Griffith won the Tiptree Award and the Lambda Literary Award for her first novel, Ammonite, and the Nebula and another Tiptree for her second novel, Slow River. She co-edited two queer speculative fiction anthologies in the Bending The Landscape series. Her last few novels have been crime fiction, and her most recent book is a memoir. She says:
I'm a native of sf. You can't leave that kind of thing behind. Just as everyone I meet in the US knows I'm English, everyone who reads my work knows I'm a skiffy geek. It doesn't matter how long I've been away; my English sf upbringing colours my accent, my attitude, my vocabulary. It's who I am.
But I've been visiting home more often lately.
Yes, the next novel I plan to publish is a 7th C. historical — but, hey, think of it as basically a big fat fantasy novel with no magic.
So, no, I haven't left. I'm still part of sf, and it's part of me.
Samuel R. Delany became a published science fiction author at the age of twenty, and wrote the Nebula Award-winning novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection. His novel Dhalgren is considered one of the most important works in the genre, and his other novels include Nova, Triton and Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. Since the mid-1980s, he's focused on writing literary fiction, essays and erotica. He talked to us by phone yesterday, and here's what he said:
I certainly don't feel that I've abandoned science fiction in any way. I still love it. It's true, I don't either read or write it, the way I used to. But I've always basically considered myself, dare I say it, just a writer. In an odd way, I never really made a decision to be a science fiction writer. I was about 19 years old. My then-wife, Marilyn Hacker, got a job as an assistant editor at Ace Books, and she would come home complaining about the stories she would edit. Her major complaints had to do, mainly, with the women characters. This was back in 1961 or 1962. The heroines tended to be unbelievably wimpy and would hang around waiting to be rescued, and the villainesses were so dastardly, you couldn't believe them. And there was nothing in between. The women characters tended not to resemble anything that you could recognize as a human being at all.
So I began to write a science fiction novel for her, and I tried to work specifically on the female characters, and to make a couple of characters who started out looking like they were fulfilling the stereotype, their reputations came through. And then when you actually spent time with them, you discovered they were a little different than that. That was the Jewels of Aptor. To make a long story short, we submitted it. It was sold, and because it was sold, I began to write another one, and then another one and then another one. And by the time I had written a fifth, I suddenly thought, "Oh, I must be a science fiction author." Because I had now written five of them and had had sold four of them, and was on my way to selling a fifth. As I said, it was something that just kind of happened. I never decided I wanted to be a science fiction author, per se.
So I never saw myself as either giving it up, or exclusively committing myself to it. I was just interested in trying to write well, and to tell stories using whatever generic constraints seemed to highlight what I was trying to do in that particular story. That's how I've always looked at the process.