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Not Science Fiction

Maureen McHugh has an excellent post over at Eat Our Brains on discussing Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union where she talks about “Not Science Fiction“, the kind of science fiction that some classify as anything but. Maureen’s book Nekropolis is described as a literary novel in sci-fi clothing, so she knows what she’s talking about.

Sez Maureen:

Not Science Fiction is a genre of books which are declared Not Science Fiction, usually by the publishers and the critics. There are dozens of reasons why a book that takes place in the future (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood) or describes a fantastical break with space and time (The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing) or even a journey to another planet in a spaceship where the hero meets aliens (The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell) are declared Not Science Fiction and they range from the legitimate to the pernicious. But as a person navigating a bookstore, I find it a useful category. Certain types of books are never Not Science Fiction. So I know that if I go wandering off to find my title in the general fiction stacks, there are certain characteristics of genre it won’t have. (They aren’t usually series, they tend not to emphasize the science, and they tend to avoid certain conventions like Galactic Empires-tropes I don’t dislike but that I don’t like all that well when it comes right down to it.)

Other Not Science Fiction Books:

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Children of Men by P.D. James
  • Oryx and Cake Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

8 Comments on Not Science Fiction

  1. “oryx and cake”?

    You guys are SO getting a strip for that! :-@

  2. Sweet! Fixed, but sweet!

    And bonus points for scooping Fred out of a spellcheck!


  3. I’m curious if this “Not Science Fiction” runs in the same vein as putting PD James’ Children of Men in the Mystery section because that’s what she writes. It seems to me that claiming these books as “Not Science Fiction” (which I think is a great term) is a way of saying – very pretentiously – that these authors are better than Science Fiction authors because their works “are above and beyond” typical Science Fiction.

    I think it kind of goes back to the whole “literary elite” who arbitrarily decide that certain books are worthy of being dubbed a classic and certain books aren’t.

  4. I believe that is the reason JB. Whether its the publisher or author (or both), someone believes that to label a book SF means the kiss of death sales-wise, so they will say anything to convince critics and readers that the story is ‘Not Science Fiction’, when very clearly it is. It seems to me that all the books mentioned above are Science Fiction.

    Hell, since The Man In The High Castle is science fiction, all of these are too. Dick’s book doesn’t emphasize science at all, so all the other books that are set in the future and don’t highlight science should also be considered SF. There’s no need to be scared, we won’t bite. Unless you insist on being a literary snob.

  5. Also “Never let me go” by Kazuo Ishiguro, and anything by Michael Crichton. Except Jurassic Park and co., the terminal man, the andromeda strain etc., which are so *definitely* SF they couldn’t even pretend.

  6. Short note: Dave Langford’s “Ansible Link” has a regular paragraph entitled “as others see us” which usually covers someone trying desperately hard to distance themselves / their book / show / whatever from the SF label.

  7. “And bonus points for scooping Fred out of a spellcheck!”

    I have to sleep sometime. Plus, I actually have a paying writing gig now, so I need to write that stuff…editors never seem to relax, they always want the next column early, and when you give it to them early, they want it earlier next go round!

    On Philip K. Dick, I’ve seen his books, especially the Library of America volume (good set, BTW, and a very sturdy volume, like all of their high quality tomes) in both the SF and “fiction” sections.

    Is the SF label the “kiss of death”? It hasn’t hurt Tolkien (yes, fantasy, but he is in that section). Has it hurt John Ringo (who has written a series of very non-SF books for Baen that seem–for some reason–to be much beloved by fans of romance novels!)? Has it hurt George Lucas?

    Maybe it should be that “lovers of serious literature” (MFA types) think the label is the “kiss of death”, but seeing how many professorial careers got started writing “pulp” SF (Le Guin and Delany to mention two), I think they are just spewing hot air.

  8. And now for a list of “Not literary” literary SF? πŸ™‚

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