"Coming Out": I'm KB, and I'm a... a...

…wait, this is difficult. I think… Well, okay, I sort of know… No, I know… Okay, let’s start again:

I’m KB, and I’m a [wannabe] sci-fi writer.

There you go, I said it. It’s been difficult. It’s taken me years to admit it. But it’s liberating. Hopefully. Anyway… I’m out!

Well, look: the problem is this. For years I have laboured under the crippling delusion that I was going to write a literary novel (which is, actually, a meaningless expression: Philip Pullman said in a recent article that the “literary” part of a novel is just the part that isn’t the story). Something deep and insightful that would sit somewhere between Barnes and Borges on the Fiction shelves of Waterstones. My ex-girlfriends would read the reviews in the Sunday Times Books section or the Guardian Review and would weep at letting such a genius get away. There would be Booker Prize dinners. Invites to appear on the Newsnight Review. An eventual slot on Grumpy Old Men on BBC2. And so on.

Never mind the fact that the only books that I read voluntarily between the ages of 13 and 19 were the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Or the fact that it was Slaughterhouse 5 and a book of short stories by Philip K. Dick that made me want to write when I discovered them at 19, like a light going on in my head. (And more importantly, which started me reading again - and voraciously - after school turned me off books.) And it was of course of no relevance that all of my favourite movies were sci-fi.

And the fact that all the ideas I had were sci-fi didn’t mean anything. I was bound to come up with something else. Those ideas were just silly…

No more! Damn it, I’m out: I’m going to write a bloody science fiction book and actually use the ideas I have, and so what if there are clones or artificial intelligence or whatever else in it. I’m going to enjoy it. Me. Sod those ex-girlfriends and the Sunday Times Books section. And it will probably be utter crap, too, but that doesn’t matter either.

I am, it turns out, an idiot. A pretentious one, too.

Why is it that sci-fi is held in such self-esteem not only by the “literary establishment” but also by those who - in actuality - like it? (Three of my favourite series of the past few years: Farscape, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica; just as good as The Wire, The Shield etc which I also love.) This only applies to literature, too: films don’t have the same stigma attached to them. The Matrix, Donnie Darko - mainstream audiences wouldn’t avoid them because they were - ugh! - sci-fi. And this is true of sci-fi literature. I have a feeling that Star Trek is partly to blame (I hate Star Trek). And books with spaceships on the front. And associations with adolescent boys. Or something. Anyway.

Phew! Glad that’s off my chest.

I’m tempted to write SF as well. I write non-fiction - books and articles (I should be working on 3,500 words on truffles for Gastronomica today, it’s only a month late) - but I always try to tell a story. Or “the story”, in journalistic terms. That means getting the flow right, and - for the sort of stuff I write - telling it clearly and directly. I do have a “voice”, in that people who know me tell me they can hear me speaking when they read my stuff. This probably both good and bad…

So: can I make this work in fiction? I’ve read SF on and off since my pre-teens (The Island Of Dr Moreau - at about 10 - was a shock to the system), and particularly enjoy the work of Banks, Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon is nearly perfect), Alistair Reynolds and so on.

But, but, but… there are two problems. The first is that I have a couple (or more) perfectly good non-fiction projects to work on that might earn money, so a novel of any kind is a distraction, particularly as it might remain unpublished. And what story? I have ideas, but when set against the immense fictive universes of Reynolds, for instance, they’re just flimsy things.

That said, I do have something I might do if I can stop dissembling on the real work and find a couple of hours a day for fiction. A re-telling of Gulliver’s Travels, set in a post-global warming world, where Lemmy (aka Lemuel Gulliver) travels the globe visiting the remaining pockets of civilisation - each based on some aspect of the modern world.

But, but, but… I’m no Swift.

And I never will be, if I don’t do it… :wink:

Pip pip!

SF, fantasy, heavy metal and comics all share this ‘image problem’. They’re for underdeveloped minds, inferior to ‘proper’ books/music, not worth wasting your career on, etc etc.

They also share another trait; a majority of their fans dream of one day being creators in the same genre or medium. The only explanation I can offer for this is that they are, in fact, superior to ‘proper’ books/music.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, I’m a devotee of all four, and endured the inevitable years of disdain and mockery with aplomb. I learnt to say fuck 'em, if you’ll pardon the french, and made no apologies for what I liked and aspired to. Life’s too short to kowtow to snobbery.

After all, who decides what is or is not ‘literary?’ The same stuffy people who come up with all those convoluted etiquette rules that make ‘fine’ dining such a chore? The same people who give nasty food a fancy name, serve it in mouse-sized portions, and charge ridiculous prices for it?

As a SF/Fantasy writer myself, I think people who look down on those genres need to have some of the stuffing knocked out of them.

You know, Keith… I, for one, am quite curious to read your sci-fi novel, or short story, or novella. Whatever. But only if you enjoy writing it. I know for a fact (because I live with a writer) that those are the best.

So… damn (or like some people that we learned to love would say say: frack!) literary! (Most are boring, anyway.) Long live enjoyment, for the writer and for the reader. :smiley:

PS. I’ll cry if this strike in Hollywood kills the last season of BSG. :frowning: (I’m totally for the strike, but I fear that the %$# studio will do something nasty in its follow-up.)

They still have the image problem, but I think Ms. Rowling proved once and for all that there’s money in “that stuff.”

Which brings its own problems, of course. Potter knockoffs now compete with LOTR knockoffs in the epically bad fantasy category.


So who cares whether it’s literary? I used to be a newspaper reporter, and I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have been kicking a good SF yarn around in their heads, but are too intimidated by the “literary” crowd to work on it. I recently finished my first novel - a so-called “space opera” - and even if I never get it published, I had a heck of a good time writing it.

My advice: Write that baby!

Here you are, again. This is what I would call “literary science-fiction”. Add to these some books by Ballard, Disch, Zelazny, Sterling, and you are done. This is post-modern literary fiction: a game of/with styles, that makes you a man of your time, and at the same time a writer who plays with literature. Sci-fi lovers will consider you a snob, mainstream reader will ignore you as a strange boy with some personality problem. However, you will be the center of attention at all sci-fi conventions, since everybody would like to see your green skin. I hope to be there, too…


Let me add Ursula Le Guin to the list. I started reading “genre fiction” nearly seventy years ago – my first book was a collection of Robin Hood stories. Been reading sci-fi and mysteries and fantasy ever since, except for a few years wasted in grad school studying LITERATURE. (Though that did turn me on to stuff like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, it also semi-fried my brain with Pamela and The Mill on the Floss (always thought there might be a good dentistry novel there, called the Floss on the Mill)).

When I was teaching junior high, I steered dozens (at least) of students into book by reading aloud to them scattered portions of The Wizard of Earthsea (take THAT, y’ scurvy Potterites) then making them track down the books to find out what happened.


Oh, there’s money in all of them. But if anything, that’s just more fuel for the snobs. After all, if it’s commercial then it can’t possibly have any artistic merit…

KB - for some wise, witty words on the issue of science fiction v literature, read Ursula Guin’s brilliant letter:


Great piece, Ursula. I would add that other mainstream writers, like Houellebecq, have been writing sci-fi for years, without calling it with its name. And generally writing low quality, unimpressive sci-fi novels.

I remember that during the Thirties-Fourties, the great screenwriter Cesare Zavattini had to use a different name for his work for sci-fi comics. Only in 1949 he decided to use his real name. But it seems that times have not changed very much, in decades…


The other side of the argument being that SF is fiction and if it didn’t insist on calling itself that it would be discussed along with other novels. Problem is that people say they ‘only read science-fiction’ (or romance, or thrillers, whatever) and create the category. When people ask me what kind of novels I write I’m left gasping. The right answer, according to booksellers and category lovers, is ‘literary fiction’ the stuff that those you call snobs read. I tend to say ‘oh, fictional novels’. It’s astonishing how many people nod knowingly. But if people just wanted to write and thought about books by the quality of their writing and ideas, there wouldn’t be such a weird division. Also they would not be so tentative and restrained by their own categorisation. The idea that Philip Dick or Vonnegut or Ballard are not proper writers is ridiculous. Also ridiculous is the idea that eg Ian McEwan is a serious literary writer. Put your own over rated in.

:slight_smile: I can think of a fair few (although I have to defend McEwan’s Cement Garden and First Love, Last Rites… Couldn’t read anything else of his, though - I put down Enduring Love after the first chapter).

I suppose some people do that, true. But there also those who turn their nose up at science fiction, too, which makes those who like both feel a little guilty about dabbling in the “genres”. (Not to mention magazines that refuse to publish sf, literary agents who don’t accept it and so forth.) It may just be that the demand for sci-fi in its so-called “golden age” meant that a lot of poor writing got published which gave it a bad rep. I have no idea. All I know is that I literally look around me and make sure no one is looking before nipping into the “Science Fiction” section of a bookstore, then quickly dart back to the general fiction area. It’s all those pictures of spaceships, I think. I love the Science Fiction Masterworks collection (or rather, I love a good number of the books I’ve read from it), but I do wish the covers were a little less… 1950s boys’ magazine-ish, I guess.

In a way, the genre is meaningless anyway. To place Flowers for Algernon in the same category as, say, Star Trek novelisations is plain ridiculous. (That’s it! That’s what I hate about the Science Fiction section of the bookstore - the fact that no matter what you are looking at you are never too far away from Star Trek or Angel novelisations!) And why is Flowers for Algernon and the works of Philip K. Dick in the Science Fiction section, but Brave New World and Clockwork Orange filed under general fiction? Likewise, why is the Handmaid’s Tale not defined as sci-fi?

Hmm, I’m just thinking aloud here. If all the good sci-fi were in the general fiction section and the bad stuff comprising the tales of muscular men in spaceships rescuing damsels in distress from cyborgs were restricted to the Science Fiction section, maybe I could understand it.

Anyway, my intention in my original post wasn’t to accuse anybody of snobbishness except for myself: my inner snob has prevented me using the sorts of ideas I naturally come up with. It’s as though something inside me - the part that loves Dostoyevsky and Chaucer and Salinger and Murakami and Chekhov and… well you get the idea, the part that’s saying it likes these authors right now in fact - has stamped its foot and said that some subjects are beneath it. Sadly, that part of me has never been near my imagination.

Oh… Another long post when I was supposed to be doing something else. Whoops.

All the best,

But the big trick of writing - almost the only big trick - is to give yourself permission to do whatever you need to do. Knowing what you need to do rather than thinking there is something you ought to do is the point. One that, say, Borges, Marques and so on know well enough. If you don’t tell agents and publishers that what you’ve written is SF, they really won’t know. I insist that good writing refuses definition. And writers need to divorce themselves from bookshop definitions.

I think the problem, as you suggest, is shelving. Bookshops need the categories. Have you seen Daunt? Everything shelved geographically: fiction, non-fiction, genres. Mad but very liberating. (In Ireland I was once in a bookshop where the fiction wall was divided into Novels by Men and Novels by Women.)

Completely agree about those first books by McEwan. Astonishing ability to write, and growing loss of ability to write for himself rather than others.

Happy New Year to you too.

Of course, you have that same problem in the general fiction area as well. Borges, Fowles, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Heller, and Joyce are stacked right up with Grisham, Dan Brown, and Clancy. Oh, Orwell’s 1984 and Well’s science fiction usually get “honorary” general lit status, too. If you are lucky your bookstore has a “classics” section where there is a modicum of qualitative shelving, but more often than not, this just means cheap re-prints of public domain material that are popular enough to sell anyway.

Still, I like that. People come across things they haven’t thought of, good and bad, and vice versa. They get to choose and make their own judgement. As a teenager I picked Maugham, Nabokov and Pearl S Buck off the library shelves for no particular reason - because they were there - and had to make what I could of them. It’s when books are divided off from each other into recognised sections that you get people heading for only one or the other thinking that’s the only place to look. They called it browsing. Now bookshops only have piles of books on tables that publishers have paid to be there. No surprises.

Yes, and I agree. My point was more that Muscles & Rockets festering in one section shouldn’t be the reason for bringing the the genre down, because there are a lot of Muscles & F-15s in the other section.

I’d rather have it all in the one, general fiction section, though (with, perhaps, novelisations in a section of its own next to TV & Film :slight_smile: ). Dan Brown is there, therefore so should Daniel Keyes and PKD be. There are lots of good books I missed out on until a few years ago just because they weren’t on the general fiction shelves and I didn’t venture into the other sections. There are undoubtedly lots of great books in other genres I’m still missing out on, too…

Browsing is indeed one of the nicest things about entering a bookshop. I always forget what authors I like when I enter a bookshop, anyway, so I have to browse (I have the same problem in record stores - the number of shelves just make my mind go blank). And browsing is best when there is a massive variety to browse through, in terms of both form and content.

The fun thing about writing SCI-FI is you are only limited by your imagination. If you were writing a book that was based in the “real world” then sometimes you are governed by things such as physics and gravity, etc…

SCI-FI though you can manipulate your world to follow or not follow any rules that govern that world and you can always use your imagination to “explain” the unexplainable.

If you think about it Wizard of Oz was a sort of Sci-Fi / Fantasy tale :slight_smile:

I say write it. SCRV is polished enough to not need so much of your time. Break out the Cheese Puffs and Beer and spin us a tale in the SCI-FI genre.