Did Anyone Ever Know?

Over at Bookslut, Paul Kincaid has an interesting column about award processes (he either was or still is administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke award), and he takes the time to ask the question, “Does Anyone Even Know What Science Fiction Is Anymore?” A sample:

…we have lost our sense of what science fiction is. The genre is notoriously hard to define and most of us, whether we admit it or not, probably fall back on some form of Damon Knight’s ostensive definition: we know it when we see it. But now it’s not so easy to see. Look at the science fiction shelves in most bookshops and they contain a preponderance of fantasy, while a lot of what most of us would consider science fiction has migrated onto the general fiction shelves. Mind you, it’s easy to understand why this is happening when writers like China Miéville deliberately blur the line between SF and fantasy, when others like Jon Courtenay Grimwood blur the line between SF and crime, when fantasy authors like J.K. Rowling win the top SF award, and when an increasing number of supposedly mainstream writers use SF devices as if they are an unexceptional part of their literary arsenal.

I taught a graduate seminar in SF this past spring, and one of the things that I and my students wrestled with was the problem of defining SF. Me, I don’t think the enterprise is worth the energy that’s been devoted to it, but it sure provokes illuminating discussions when you get ten smart people (I’m talking about my students) in a room and kick-start a discussion in which they all end up coming up with exceptions to everyone else’s definitions. It was a good class. In the end, I think that SF has always been plastic enough that while there’s a lot of stuff that you can point to and say, “That’s SF,” there is no single workable definition. Which is as it should be.

Another interesting tidbit from the bookish corners of the internet is this Guardian list (courtesy of Sebastian Beaumont) of 10 great books about psychological journeys. Three cheers for the inclusion of Jeff Noon’s Vurt, which is a terrific book. So is his Automated Alice.

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