The corporate society has been an enduring wellspring of stories over the last century. Inspired by the factory production line, Aldous Huxley predicted a future where humans were born and bred only to fulfil a corporate function in Brave New World. The cyberpunk vision of William Gibson’s Neuromancer charted a future where government had collapsed entirely, and society was ruled by a few super-powerful corporations.
Paulo Coelho, in a blog post inviting others to steal his books, recently shared the idea that all writers are only recycling four stories.
First, because all anyone ever does is recycle the same four themes: a love story between two people, a love triangle, the struggle for power, and the story of a journey.
I collect ideas of this kind. Aristotle said there were only two stories, Comedy and Tragedy. We know quite a lot of what he thought about the latter, but his ideas on the former have been lost for some years. Arthur Quiller-Couch devised the rather Man centric seven plots of Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man against God, Man vs. Society, Man in the Middle, Man & Woman, Man vs. Himself. Also weighing in for the number seven is Christopher Booker, who puts forward a convincing argument that all plots revolve around the conflict between humanity and our selfish ego, only then to ruin it by trying to argue that all 20th Century literature represents the capitulation of the the self to the ego. George Polti outlined Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations including Deliverance, Pursuit, Disaster, Revolt and thirty two more. Perhaps my current favourite has recently been republished in Plotto : the Master Book of All Plots by dime novelist William Wallace Cook which represents a possible 1,462 plots. Wallace once wrote fifty-four novels in one year. Take that NaNoWriMo fanatics! In probably the most famous typology of story, Joseph Campbell trumped everyone by declaring there was only one plot and naming it the Monomyth, thereby determining the formula for almost every Hollywood blockbuster from Star Wars to The Matrix, Toy Story and The Dark Knight.
Are these theories actually of any use? No idea. I like reading them, and from a commercial perspective the Monomyth has proved to be a horrendously successful formula for very, very, very profitable stories. But I completely understand the writers who cover their eyes and ears the moment any mention of this kind of idea appears, for fear that it will forever pollute their original voice.
Are there really only two, seven, thirty six or however many plots? Again, who knows. I’d love to argue for the infinite mutability of story, and I’m sure I could quite convincingly. But at the same time stories, however diverse they appear on the surface, are all made from much the same thing underneath. Some characters. A plot. A theme or two. Half a dozen symbols. A bit of conflict to get it all going. And yet, much like the seven chords that make up all songs, the same elements used in much the same ways seem to yield staggeringly different and original results in the hands of each artist who picks them up. There may only be seven stories, but there are uncounted storytellers, and each one must contribute some unique spark, or the story will never take life.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct your attention to the shortlist for the Kitschies, the annual awards organised by the folks at the Pornokitsch blog, which is quickly establishing itself as one of the two or three most relevant awards in fantastic literature. And the nominated novels are:
The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (Orbit)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Tor)
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker Books)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
Osama: A Novel by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
There are two additional categories for best debut and best cover, information here, both strong shortlists but I want to focus attention here on the best novel category. Because not only is this a strong shortlist, but an important one for fantastic literature, because it really asks the question of how seriously we take ourselves, or expect to be taken by others.
This has not been a good year for SF awards. The Hugo and Nebulas both came under criticism for shortlists primarily determined by partisan fan factions rather than quality writing, and the British Fantasy Society awards literally collapsed under the weight of their own nepotism. Earlier comments on this issue lead me in to a protracted argument with John Scalzi through the medium of Twitter. John didn’t seem to think having awards shortlists full of bad books was a problem because, you know, quality is just a subjective issue and people have different tastes and any suggestion that more than a few of these books were were incredibly lightweight was ‘kvetching’.
So the Kitschies shortlist leaps out as actually doing that thing that awards should do, which is awarding the best work in their field. And in those terms I doubt there will be a stronger shortlist in any award for fantastic literature this year.
Jesse Bullington’s work came to prominence after an unusual call for attention through Jeff Vandermeer, and his two novels to date have established him as one of the most talented prose writers out there, shaping incredibly dark worlds of deep moral uncertainty. The Testament of Jessie Lamb became one of the few works of science fiction ever to pick up a Booker prize longlist nomination in 2011. Embassytown is a novel I’ve already heaped praise upon in The Guardian for its treatment of radical political themes through the lens of SF metaphor. Osama : A Novel has placed Lavie Tidhar in the top rank of todays SF writers for its intelligent and complex examination of post-911 politics, filtered through a Philip K Dick influenced alternative reality. But much as I like these books, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd is quite simply a masterpiece, continuing Ness’s powerful exploration of themes of violence and male identity, and probably deserves to win any award shortlist it finds itself on this year.
In different ways all of the books on this shortlist demonstrate what it is that is truly great in fantastic literature. They are all great books by any definition. Books with heart and soul, and also with meaning. Books we can find insight in, and learn about what it is to be human, even in a world as weird and strange as our own, and which use the metaphors of fantastic literature to create that insight. They are intelligent works of fantastic literature, that deserve to be recognised and rewarded as such.
Fantastic literature is a broad church. Many of the congregation are there for a bit zombie apocalypse or steampunk adventure. And that’s OK. Really it is. A world where every novel had the intellectual heft of Mieville would be a hard one to enjoy. Absolutely true. But when it comes to awards, are we really doing ourselves justice by lauding popcorn novels with major prizes? I’m going to fully enjoy John Carter of Mars when it hits our screens, but I would be profoundly disappointed if it took the Oscar for best movie or the Palm d’Or. And I would start to take those awards less seriously, then ignore them all together, if films without any substance won them often. Awards stand or fall on the basis of the quality they reward. Some of SFs major awards may be falling by that measure. But it seems new awards are there to replace them.
Today’s Guardian books podcast, which I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in alongside Lauren Beukes, Alaistar Reynolds, Jeff Noon and Michael Moorcock, asks if 2012 is the year Science Fiction enters the ‘mainstream’. Beukes upcoming novel the Shining Girls, recently purchased by HarperCollins, is one of a number of SF novels to win a major advance from a mainstream publisher this year. Terry Pratchett‘s Snuff became the fastest selling adult hardback novel since records began, SF imprint Gollancz have signed three six figure deals this year alone, and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones has reinvigorated epic fantasy. Following on from the British Libraries major SF retrospective, it seems SF is poised to dominate the popular consciousness of 2012.
Our discussion for the podcast touched on a range of reasons why SF is growing so quickly in popularity. One argument is, of course, monetary. In hard economic times SF might represent a safe bet for publishers. But then the work of writers like Beukes is far from safe or traditional. Perhaps SF itself has changed, with writers like Beukes and China Mieville among many others producing work which defies the cliches and stereotypes that repel so many from reading the genre. And surely social media plays a part, where a tremendously loyal and tech-savvy fandom are able to shout far louder for the books they love than the relatively luddite world of literary fiction.
But I would argue there is something more of the zeitgeist to SF’s new found energy. Perhaps more than any other literary genre, SF responded to a 20th Century that was driven by wave upon wave of technological change. For millions of readers SF became a trusted guide to a world being transformed by scientific discoveries so fundamental that the world of 2001 would have made little or no sense to the people of 1901. The physical changes have been vast, but psychological impact has also been vast, and there the literature of SF: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, have all emerged as ways of exploring the psychology of our changing century.
I have no doubt that the changes ahead of us in the 21st century will make the 20th seem positively pedestrian. And from the ever growing popularity of SF, I believe many other people feel the same. SF is no longer an emerging literary genre. It is established and here to stay, although its appearance may, in deed will, change radically. And more and more people recognise that, while it has its roots in the pulp and the popular, SF provides one of the best ways of examining the rapidly changing world around us. Because, once one strips surface appearance of SF, the rockets and rayguns and swords and sorcery that define Sci-Fi in the popular imagination, once the furniture of genre is carted off, the literary heart of SF is the metaphor.
The faster the world changes, the less familiar it feels, and the weirder it becomes, the more impossible the task of directly describing our experience of it. Instead, as generations of artists have done to explain the inexplicable, we reach for metaphors. In the 20th Century the metaphors of SF are perhaps the most powerful of all. Invaders from Mars as metaphor Britain’s Imperial invasion of the world. A metaphorical glass bead game that prefigured the computer. Big Brother and ‘one ring to rule them all’ as metaphor for totalitarianism and the march of the industrial world. The ghostly metaphor of ‘cyberspace’ that introduced us to the internet before we even knew we needed one. These metaphors, and hundreds more crafted in SF, have shaped how we perceive the changing world of last century. And now writers like Lauren Beukes, with her ‘animaled’ humans, are shaping the metaphors that will guide us through the century of change ahead.
“People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Or read about it in books, we can assume. Which is all very well for Francois de La Rochefoucauld, French nobleman and writer of maxims, to say – but is much harder to live by. Yes, perhaps, in the postmodern sense love is just a construct, cobbled together from bits of old Arthurian romances and BBC Jane Austen adaptations. But try telling that to your New Year’s Eve date and see how far it gets you. If love is just a fantasy, what does the fantasy of today say about love?