A little while ago, a columnist at Slate published a piece about mainstream writers venturing into science fiction. It’s a piece that has been pretty widely mocked in sf circles, though not always for the right reasons. But the truth is that this is not a new phenomenon; the distinction between sf and mainstream has always been tenuous at best. All sorts of mainstream writers, from P.G. Wodehouse and Joseph Conrad to E.L. Doctorow and Hilary Mantel have written genre fiction. The real problem with the column in Slate is when the writer declares:
Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself.
That is balderdash. Yes, sf readers have resented some literary tourists, when those writers don’t pay attention to what the genre can and has done, and when they don’t take the work seriously. Prime examples would be Paul Theroux’s appalling O-Zone or Children of Men by P.D. James (and don’t be fooled by the fact that the film is actually quite good, the novel is terrible). But the truth is that any mainstream writer who makes a serious attempt to produce innovative science fiction is welcomed by most science fiction readers. Witness the number of mainstream writers who have been shortlisted for the leading science fiction awards, or even, in a surprising number of cases, have won them. What is particularly silly about that quote from the Slate article is that it was written about Emily St John Mandel, who had actually won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. That sort of resentment I think I would welcome.
Anyway, in alphabetical order, these are just some of the mainstream authors whose work has made an impact on science fiction award shortlists.
Kingsley Amis started out as one of the radical new generation of British writers in the 1950s with his classic comedy, Lucky Jim, but he quickly became a prominent member of the British literary establishment, winning the Booker Prize among others. But he had a long-standing interest in science fiction. His series of lectures on the subject, New Maps of Hell, was one of the earliest critical studies of science fiction, and in the 1960s he co-edited the sf anthology series, Spectrum. His own major work of sf was The Alteration, an alternate history story in which the Protestant Reformation never happened, which also includes a vicious satire on many of his contemporaries. The novel won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1977.
By now, Margaret Atwood is widely recognised as a science fiction writer, with several novels that are clearly science fiction, and a book, In Other Worlds, composed of essays and reviews of sf. Science fiction even plays an important part in her Booker Prize winning novel, The Blind Assassin. But at the time The Handmaid’s Tale came out, that was far from being the case. She had published five contemporary realist novels that had marked her out as a significant Canadian author and a leading figure in feminist fiction, but nothing to suggest even a passing interest in science fiction. She even took pains to distance herself from science fiction. Still, the book is now acclaimed as one of the most significant works of science fiction, and at the time it was shortlisted for the Nebula Award and won the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award.
William S. Burroughs
William Burroughs was one of the leading figures in the Beat Generation of the 1950s, famous for novels that built upon his own experiences of drug use, homosexuality and prison. He also invented the cut-up technique in which previously-written texts would be cut into fragments then these would be chosen at random and folded into the new text. He would become an iconic figure for the counter culture of the late 1960s, but in the early 1960s that did not include the strait laced world of science fiction, for whom the drugs and sex and literary experimentation would have been anathema. Yet in 1966, Nova Express, which was written using the fold-in method and in which police and criminals are as interdependent as virus and antivirus, was shortlisted for the Nebula Award.
Michael Chabon was part of that generation of hip young American writers to emerge in the late-80s and early-90s. Although his early work was largely autobiographical, there were hints of a familiarity with science fiction that emerged quite clearly. This became overt with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which combined his interest in comic books with the history of the middle years of the 20th century. But his major entry into science fiction came with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a noir crime novel set in an alternate history where part of Alaska has been reserved as a Jewish settlement. The novel comfortable won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 2008 as well as being shortlisted for other science fiction awards.
Don DeLillo is a multi-award winning author who is widely regarded as being among the best of contemporary American novelists. His books cast a spare, sharp, often satirical light upon contemporary American attitudes and mores, often taking recent events as their starting point, from the Kennedy assassination in Libra to the attack on the World Trade Center in Falling Man. He had already shown some interest in science fiction with his fourth novel, Ratner’s Star, which involves deciphering an alien message. His most recent book, Zero K, which involves cryogenics, has been shortlisted for this year’s John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
Dave Eggers is best known as the founder of the literary journal, McSweeney’s, which has published many of his contemporaries, such as Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders; and as the author of essayistic fictions, or fictionalised biographies, that often draw on his own experience, such as his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. His novel, The Circle, was a satire on contemporary high-tech industry, based on a fictional company that resembled Google. Eggers has shown little interest in the fantastic otherwise, but the way this novel shifted into the near future earned it a place on the shortlist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2014.
The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh is mostly known for novels that address the colonial history of the East, covering subjects such as the Opium Wars in China and the Partition of India and Pakistan. He is equally prolific as a writer of non-fiction, most recently in The Great Derangement, which looks at why modern literature fails to address the issue of climate change. But in The Calcutta Chromosome he combined his concerns about colonialism with a futuristic plot and a revisionist take on the history of medicine, suggesting that it was Indian researchers who were behind crucial breakthroughs in the study of malaria, breakthroughs that in turn led to the establishment of a secret society of immortals. The novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1997.
Russell Hoban’s fiction has always had a strange, loose connection to realism. In Kleinzeit, everyday objects talk to the mentally damaged hero, while in Amaryllis Night and Day, the hero and his girlfriend have the ability to enter into each other’s dreams. But his best novel, and the one that most thoroughly engages with science fiction, is Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic story told in a startling debased language and played out in a very precisely defined portion of Kent where it incorporates aspects of a legend associated with Canterbury Cathedral. The novel was shortlisted for the Nebula Award in 1982.
Born in Japan but raised in Britain, Kazuo Ishiguro’s early fiction were about coming to terms with being Japanese, but with his Booker Prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day, the focus shifted to coming to terms with being British. His novels are largely set in the past, sometimes a past that incorporates elements of the fantastic as in his most recent novel, The Buried Giant. But in Never Let Me Go, he examined an alternate version of contemporary Britain, one in which clones are raised in order to donate organs and body parts as required to their original. A profound and moving fable about growing old, it was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2006.
One of the problems for writers who are not part of the science fiction world is that their work may go unnoticed by those who would best appreciate it. That nearly happened with Eleanor Lerman, an award-winning poet who has only rarely turned to fiction. Her second novel, Radiomen, which details a strange, tenuous contact with aliens who have long since been abandoned on Earth, passed virtually unseen by sf readers, attracting no reviews or other notices, until it was picked up by the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, winning the prize in 2016.
Emily St John Mandel
We’ve already noted that Emily St John Mandel was one of the writers picked up by that Slate article, and yet she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her one venture into the genre. That winning novel, Station Eleven, was her fourth book. The three previous novels had genre elements, but it was crime genre. Station Eleven was the first time she had moved into science fiction with a story that moves back and forth in time, before and after a plague that wipes out a large proportion of the world’s population. The move into science fiction seems to have served her well; in addition to the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the novel was also shortlisted for a number of mainstream literary prizes.
The fact that Tom McCarthy is the co-founder of a semi-fictitious organisation known as the International Necronautical Society devoted to a surreal engagement with death is probably all you need to know to understand the nature of McCarthy’s wild, distorted and disturbing novels. They are not exactly realist, but neither are they exactly science fiction or fantasy. His novel C moves from the dawn of the twentieth century up to the time of the Second World War, and deals with wireless communication in ways that affect the central character and the world he grows up in. The novel was shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2011.
It was no surprise that David Mitchell should introduce elements of fantasy and science fiction into his novels, after all he had been writing book reviews for the British Science Fiction Association while he was still at university. And even his first novel, Ghostwritten, includes distinct science fiction elements. But it was his third novel, Cloud Atlas, that cemented both his position in British fiction and his engagement with science fiction. It starts aboard a 19th century sailing vessel, but then before that story is complete it shifts forward in time, then again and again, before finally repeating the journey in reverse. Of the six linked stories that comprise the novel, the middle two are both openly science fiction, one set in a dystopian near-future Korea, the other in a post-apocalyptic world. The novel was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Nebula Award.
You don’t have to be a novelist to enjoy a literary reputation, of course. Jan Morris has been one of the world’s leading travel writers for decades, particularly known for her evocative portraits of the world’s great cities. But in 1985 she produced a short novel, Last Letters from Hav, which used the techniques and manners of a travel book to describe a fictional country in the Eastern Mediterranean. The novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, relates the various peculiar social customs, religious differences and political tensions experienced by a visitor to the country. In 2006, she added another short novel, Hav of the Myrmidons, describing a return to Hav after war and revolution, noting all that has been lost and the changes that have occurred. The two, published together as Hav, were shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2007.
Iain Pears has had a curiously divergent career. An art historian and journalist, he began writing fiction with a series of crime novels all of which revolved around art and were set in Italy. But even before he had finished the series, in a sudden change of direction, he wrote An Instance of the Fingerpost, which centres on a murder in Oxford just after the Restoration of 1660. But the story is told in memoirs written years after the events by four different witnesses, each of whom contradicts the stories told by the others. More novels, similarly structured, followed, but with his most recent book he changed the character of his fiction. Arcadia manages to incorporate a dystopia set in our far future; a bucolic rural parallel world; a spy story set in Oxford in the 1960s; and time travellers. It’s a heady mix that was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016.
In an essay called “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction“, Jonathan Lethem argued that the moment when Arthur C. Clarke won the Nebula Award for Rendezvous with Rama marked a lost opportunity for science fiction, the point where science fiction and the mainstream might have merged. Because the novel that lost out to Clarke in that race was Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon was the star of American postmodern fiction, famous for his densely-crafted novels full of paranoia and conspiracy that seemed to lay bare modern American angst. Gravity’s Rainbow was his most celebrated work, an encyclopedic mish-mash of mathematics and music, history and religion, sex and rocketry, set at the very end of the Second World War, and exploring the complicity of the western corporate interests in the Nazi war machine.
Okay, Paul Theroux’s one venture into science fiction is best forgotten, but his son has made a pretty decent fist of the genre. His early novels were mainstream, but his fourth novel, Far North, which tells of civilisation unravelling against a stark Arctic background, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and his fifth novel, Strange Bodies, won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. This is a dazzling novel about identity which begins with a man claiming to be someone when he clearly is not. The rest of the novel explores how this came to be, including the resurrection of Dr Samuel Jonson in the present day and an obscure Soviet plot.
It is still a rare thing for the same novel to win both a major literary prize and a major science fiction award, but Colson Whitehead might just achieve that. The Underground Railroad, his haunting novel of an escaped slave, and the surreal journey she makes through different versions of the black experience in post Civil War America has already won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and it has also been shortlisted for both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Whitehead is no stranger to genre, his last novel was the extraordinary zombie novel, Zone One, but he is still mostly considered to be a mainstream writer. But, regardless of what that article in Slate said, he has found an equal welcome on both sides of the mainstream/science fiction divide.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.