Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon? poses a familiar problem, asked countless times over many years, and always likely to reappear in the run-up to the Man Booker prize (judges were announced back in November, longlist will land in July). Unfortunately, it is an uninteresting question, badly put. Damien G Walter asks whether speculative fiction can ever "receive the critical recognition accorded to their literary cousins", and he conflates this lack of recognition with a lack of success in garnering gongs for literary fiction. Lack of critical kudos is "a fact most evident in" SF not achieving the success in "the major literary awards, not least the Man Booker prize." The same question was asked by Kim Stanley Robinson, back in September 2009, when he accused the Man Booker judges of "ignorance" in neglecting science fiction, which he called "the best British literature of our time".
Years back, Ian Rankin made the same plea for crime fiction to receive the Man Booker's approbation (Crime writers are denied prizes by literary snobs, says Rankin). And he's continued to grumble about it ever since. Acres of newsprint, TV series, sales in the hundred of thousands via a loyal and vocal and intelligent (and ever-growing) readership is not, it would seem, enough. Crime fiction, like speculative fiction, wants the distinction, indeed the eminence, granted to literary fiction by prizes. Their own prizes are not enough (for SF, e.g. the Hugo, the Nebula, the Philip K. Dick and the Arthur C. Clarke; for Crime, see this wikipedia list), what they want to win is literary fiction prizes.
This is a very curious thing. There are often criminals in speculative fiction (China Mieville’s The City and The City is a hard-boiled SF novel), but I don't see the SF crowd clamouring to be awarded the CWA Gold Dagger. Why, then, the lack of self-confidence? Why the angst? Why does one genre (SF) want to win the awards handed out to another (literary fiction)?
Ah! Well, therein lies the rub. Damien G Walter, like Kim Stanley Robinson and Ian Rankin before him, and countless others who make the plea for 'SF to be taken seriously', has bought into the biggest myth around -- one propagated by publishers, authors and the media at large -- that Man Booker fiction isn't a genre, and that it is synonymous with Literature. SF doesn't really want to win literary fiction prizes, it wants to win literature prizes, and its planet-sized blind spot is thinking that the Man Booker Prize is such.
I've always thought that Plato's theory of Forms has a wonderfully SF-feel to it. The world we see is a mere reflection of an alternative universe, and it is that alter-space that is really real. Here on our own tiny planet, spinning slowly next to a dying sun, what we think of as real, true, solid is illusion. The Ideal, the Real, is out there. But glimpses, suggestions -- ghosts of the Real, if you will -- haunt the everyday, with the Forms making palpable what we think of as real, supporting its gossamer, embodied insubstantiality and giving the corporeal a vestige of solidity.
I have a similarly Platonic notion about literature. We see what literature is through those books that nearly measure up to our Ideal of it, and that have plotted out the topography of the space that it could or should inhabit. Shakespeare shows us that a poet's ear for language and a gourmand's relish for words is vital; Dante that the demotic can stand for the divine; Beckett that the absurd, relentless quotidian needs minute examination, to show us its heartlessness and humour, its pain and pathos; Proust that literature begins to discover itself only in pursuit of ineffable time, ever a fragment, detail after detail failing to stop the sand running out of the hourglass...
Literature is the Form that subverts what we think of as real. It is not is the pomposity of an Ian McEwan, the priggish politics of a Monica Ali, the smug, sub-Bellovian comedy of a Martin Amis. Genre fiction, as pleasing and entertaining, as comforting and exhilarating, as it most certainly can be, merely affirms the real. At best, it only shows us what we already know.
Literature is always more than this. An excess, a supplement. It is Real, and it is out there. And SF should reach for it by writing towards it, and not by clamouring for prizes given to those books that can claim nothing except complacent, establishment-pleasing credentials.