Tag Archives: Perdido Street Station

Literary SF

A friend on Facebook has asked to make a few suggestions of Speculative Fiction that straddles both mass market and literary audiences. I thought the answer might be of more general interest, so here we go…

It’s a good question. As I suggested last week over on The Guardian, while SF is generally perceived as mass market, it’s equally possible for it to be literary. SF is like a set of tools that an author can pick up and use. They might choose to use them to please a mass audience, or to speak to a literary readership.

Why is it difficult to do both? The mass market and the literary readership demand almost polar opposites from fiction:

Mass Market – has expectations it wants fulfilled, hence likes genre. Wants to be entertained, distracted, given an escape from real life.

Literary Readership – wants its expectations to be defeated, dislikes genre. Wants to be challenged, improved, and shown the truth of real life.

Clearly, it’s difficult for one book to give both sets of readers what they want. One of the most popular examples of Literary SF at the moment is China Mieville‘s ‘Perdido Street Station‘. It’s one of the best fantasy novels of recent years. But, many readers of fantasy dislike it. Why? Because PSS is a tough read. Both on the language level, where it frequently departs the ‘transparent’ prose the mass audience enjoys. And as a narrative it is tremendously dark. The stories heroes are deeply flawed. They fail to defeat evil, but instead discover that evil is all powerful and are lucky to escape with their lives. Most works of Literary SF that succeed in appealing to both mass market and literary readers do so in similarly incomplete ways.

This is not a problem unique to SF by any means. All art has to deal with the divide between mass / elite, low / high, popular / critically acclaimed. Its rooted very deeply in how different parts of society engage with and use art and culture. ‘Low’ culture sees art as just another commodified product to be consumed. ‘High’ culture sees art, along with science, as one of humanities great tools of advancement. Its no wonder the two don’t get along! And its no wonder SF writers, readers and critics who believe in its value as part of ‘High’ culture are so determined to make the argument against its continual pigeon holing as ‘genre’ and ‘low culture’.

Its also no surprise that the artists who succeed in being both high and low, mass and elite, are the ones we acclaim as great. So the task of suggesting titles that are both Literary and SF almost becomes the same as listing the classics of SF. So, I have tried to keep to reasonably contemporary authors that both a mainstream SF reader, and a Literary Fiction reader might both read with pleasure:

Light by M John Harrison
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Natural History by Justina Robson
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Air by Geoff Ryman
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Iron Council by China Mieville

This is a necessarily incomplete and subjective list. Objections? Tell me why. Suggestions? Let us know your thinking.