A Celebration of Variety

Jason Daniels

Dec 10, 2011

I am unabashedly a reader of science fiction and fantasy. Whenever I have a break from schoolwork, I find myself, often, in a kind of a crisis. There are the books that I need to read, because my advisers and teachers told me to, there are the books I should have read years ago, there are the new books I've read reviews for and want to dive right in and then there are the pieces of genre fiction, books with pictures of exploding spaceships on them, that promise a fun, thrilling read. Unfortunately, I'm not as unabashed as I just said. We only just met and already I'm lying to you. I'm sorry. The books with the exploding spaceships are at the bottom of the pile because, frankly, they're generally pretty bad. I do, however, make time to reread Dhalgren, to pick up the new China Mieville or Neil Stevenson, to work through the Ursula K. Le Guin I somehow missed along the way. They do not comfort me with nostalgia for the books I used to read, though there are certainly moments of such nostalgia; rather they challenge me and make me wonder. This is the job of good science fiction and fantasy. It is the reason why I tend to dismiss those that scoff at genre for the bad writing--there is bad writing in literary fiction as well--and it is also the reason I mourn each bad book of sci-fi I read, because it could have done so much more with its conceit. All of this is to say how happy I am about all of the great sci-fi and fantasy coming from literary writers. In the last year alone I picked up After the Apocolypse, Pym, Zone One, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 1Q84 and The Illumination, though I know that I missed a handful of other ones, due only to the limitations of my own time. Despite the arguments that continue, with their tedious quibbles over definition, or their preposterous claims as to what can and what cannot be great literature; right now, the boundaries between what is "genre" and what is "literary" are porous and often crossed. I have not touched here upon all of the genre writers whose works have gained press of late within literary circles, but it is not insignificant. Heck, even Jonathan Franzen, dismisser of Oprah book club readers and books on anything other than paper and ink wants more excellent sci-fi to be written. All these things have happened before and will happen again. People who carry on these arguments will bring up things such as Mary Shelly, the ghost stories of Henry James, 1984 and so on. Large swaths of time have elapsed in which the realm of genre fiction is secured in its ghetto, safely away from what is literary, and all those that venture over are either banished forever or given special pass because it's not really sci-fi/fantasy/etc., for some silly, nebulous reason. For now, though, it is a triumphant time. I do not think that all books should be fantastical or set in some unimaginable future, as that would be as ridiculous as claiming that none should be. Nor do I think that this genre argument applies to only these genres that I personally care about. Instead, we are in a period where, with the exception of curmudgeons waving their polemics, writers can (and do) write the best stories they can in the best way possible. Sometimes this is realist fiction, sometimes it is genre fiction, sometimes it is that isit/isn'tit of things like magical realism, and on and on. I look forward to more books about zombies and disaffected professionals, aliens seeking contact and illegal immigrants seeking work, pastors dealing with jaded parishioners and geneticists adding gills to bored millionaires. The arbiters of genre and literary distinctions will be back, I know, and they will make Jonthan Letham pay, but until then I am glad for this small respite where the best story is the one written with the most care, skill and urgency, and not the one that meets the guidelines of acceptable topics.