“I used to distrust the term “literary SF” as a coinage employed pejoratively by SF militants”

I used to distrust the term “literary SF” as a coinage employed pejoratively by SF militants, implying that as science fiction writers we should concentrate on turning out gristly, tech-based novels packed with abstruse conceits, since questions of character, language or formal aesthetics were irrelevant side-issues best left to the namby-pambies of the literary mainstream.

Recently, though, I’ve found this epithet creeping into my discourse more and more. If there is a better shorthand for describing a novel that uses the trappings of science fiction as fashionable upholstery rather than as an engine then I wish someone would enlighten me. I for one would have hoped that the increasingly widespread adoption of science-fictional concepts into the mainstream lexicon might have led to an integration of all the talents, a proliferation of novels in which literary excellence and speculative curiosity performed equal roles, thus opening the genre up to wider recognition and more broadly informed debate. What we seem to have instead is a steep rise in the number of hand-wavy novels that attempt to hide their literary blandness behind the woo factor of commercially commodified tropes, and in terms of their science fiction do absolutely nothing. […]

“Worldbuilding” is another science fictional term I have previously shied away from as representing a Tolkeinian ideal I would naturally react against. Yet the fact remains that if as a writer you are intent on constructing a literary polemic about an imagined future (or past, or alternate reality), then without a convincingly realised backdrop your argument is likely to flounder.


There is no rationale for any of this – no argument. I felt so frustrated by this illogic, I found myself positing that tired old science-fictional interrogative: how the hell did we get there from here?

Nina Allan


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