Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

Why Science Fiction is the literature of change

Science Fiction is often called a “literature of ideas”. Maybe it is better understood as a literature of change.

Listen to the Guardian books podcast: Science Fiction now and tomorrow.

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.

Untitled Project: SCIENCE FICTIONS
Image by untitledprojects via Flickr

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.

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