The thing I’ve noticed, writing these blog posts, is how often when I’m writing about a book I really rate the word I reach for is “challenging”. I use it all the time. I use it far more than you see, because I notice the repetitions and look for a synonym or rewrite the sentence. But it is there all the time.
I really do think science fiction has to be challenging. In fact, any science fiction that isn’t challenging isn’t doing its job right.
After all, what is it that unites science fiction? It’s about the other, the strange, the different. It’s about futures we haven’t seen yet, technology we don’t have, aliens we’ve never met, ways of seeing the world we’ve never encountered before. The one consistent feature of the best science fiction is change.
And you really can’t write about something that is radically different and make it safe and familiar and comfortable. Quite the opposite, in fact. Because the very best science fiction should make us think. Hard! And thinking hard can never be cosy and comfortable, because you’re not thinking hard enough if you’re still in your comfort zone.
So the ideal response to reading a science fiction story should be: wo! What’s going on here? What would this be like in reality? How would I feel in this situation? How does this change things?
Okay, I admit, that’s not always how we feel when we read sf. Sometimes we think: oh, so-and-so’s my favourite character; or, that’s cool; or, I wondered what happened after the last volume; or, this is my idea of comfort reading. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the familiarity of an on-going series, or re-reading an old favourite. We all do it. But sometimes science fiction has to take us outside our comfort zone, because if it doesn’t it’s never going to go anywhere.
What is it about a science fiction book that is challenging? It could be several things: the language, like the debased language of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; the structure, like the forwards and backwards narrative strands in Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks; a confusion of voices, as in Fools by Pat Cadigan. Or it could be that the story itself is unsettling, disturbing, perhaps even perverse, like Crash by J.G. Ballard. Nor does it need to be a huge element in the book, an unsympathetic central character might be all it takes.
Whatever it is that challenges us about a book, that forces us to struggle with it, cannot be there simply as a grace note, a decoration, a way for the author to show off. The challenge has to be integral to our full understanding of the book. Struggling with the distinctive slang used throughout A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, for instance, tells us more about Alex and his droogs and the hopeless urban world they inhabit than the story alone can do. Facing the stream of consciousness, and the litter of newspaper headlines and advertising slogans, that we find in both Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner and 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson provides a broader understanding of the world within which the actual story tells us only one small part.
The six books we’ve chosen to illustrate this, a mixture of recent works and classics, aren’t necessarily the most challenging works out there. And since everyone is a different type of reader, there are some you may sail through without any difficulty whatsoever. But they display the different ways in which a book may be challenging, and why it can be so rewarding to accept that challenge.
A youth with no name (he gets called variants on “kid”), who may just have got out of a mental hospital, wanders into a city where some inexplicable disaster has occurred, mingles with various outcasts, starts running with a street gang whose members wear elaborate holograms, and becomes a poet before wandering out of the city again. There is so much in this book to challenge the reader. It starts and ends mid-sentence; the structure is episodic and broken, the long final section including crossings-out, marginalia, incomplete sentences, and passages out of sequence; most of what happens is not explained; there is explicit violence and sex; major characters appear and disappear at random; we never even learn what the title means. And yet, the structure of the book, apparently incorporating passages written by the kid, and others that were in his notebook when he took it over, reflect both the disjointed character of life in the city of Bellona, and also the disjointed nature of the kid’s mind. The sex and violence of course illuminate the nature of life on the street, and incorporate elements that we see echoed in Delany’s later autobiographical writing. Elements of myth play out throughout the book; the way the half-sentence that opens the book (partly) completes the half-sentence that closes it, makes literal the philosophical idea of the eternal return (while also paying homage to James Joyce). In other words, the very difficulty of the book expands upon and illuminates the story being told.
The language with which an author chooses to tell a particular story is the most common source of challenge within a work, and few books represent such a challenge as vividly as this extraordinary novel which occupies a very nuanced position between fantasy and science fiction without ever wholeheartedly dipping into either. As in Dhalgren, the elements of the plot drawn from myth and folk song and legend are full of repetitions and recapitulations; yet alongside the story in which successive young women ritualistically recreate the same fateful role, there is also the story of a woman who invents the telescope and so initiates a scientific renaissance. The language, full of poetic cadences and so many allusions it would be impossible to identify them all, takes on a rural voice somewhere between Southern Scottish and Northern English, and in time somewhere between medieval and modern. It is not a language that comes naturally to any of us, and incorporates so many lost or dialect words that it is very difficult to read. Yet the language is our way into the minds of the characters, into the belief system and world view that they occupy. A modern, easily readable English would not make sense of the rituals and passions in the way that the dialect of the novel does. It could have been written in an easier language, but it would not have been anywhere near as powerful, as intense and as successful a novel if it was.
Some novels are challenging simply because they occupy their world so hermetically that the reader is left struggling for clues as to what is going on. You piece it together only very slowly, but that effort means that when you do appreciate what is going on, it means so much more to you. That is the case with Kairos. It is, as one reviewer has suggested, a novel that spends much of its length refusing to look you in the eye. It tells of a disintegrating relationship against the backdrop of a disintegrating country, but we pick up this by allusions and asides. Nobody is prepared to face the world, and so nobody is prepared to face full on what these scenes add up to. But slowly the world starts to change, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people’s perceptions of the world change. But we see this only through the eyes of the self-obsessed characters, more concerned with their own emotional problems than with what is going on around them. So for much of the novel, the story of a transformation of the world is glimpsed only out of the corner of the eye, and the reader has the task of putting it all together and working out exactly what has happened. It makes the world that much more real, because that is how most of us are, but it also makes our final comprehension of the novel we have just read that much more satisfying.
One way in which a book challenges the reader is when it demands absolute and unwavering attention, because one word, one casual phrase, might be enough to change the meaning of everything you have read to that point. Christopher Priest is a master of this sort of storytelling; there are no hostages to fortune here, if the reader can’t keep up then something of the complexity of the novel will be missed. In his novel The Separation, for instance, there is one brief scene that is repeated word for word some 200 pages apart; the effect of the scene is different in each case, but anyone who has caught the repetition will also see something deeper going on within the story. And that subtlety of reading is especially necessary when you face The Islanders. It’s a gazetteer of some of the islands of the Dream Archipelago (the setting for many of his novels and stories since the late-70s), arranged in alphabetical order. Some of the entries are stand-alone short stories, others are jokey, but as you read you begin to realise that there are several plot strands running through the novel, but these plots arise in different entries often many pages apart. Because of the way the entries are arranged, elements of the plot may not come in chronological order, and sometimes one entry will flatly contradict another. The reader, in other words, has to carry an awful lot of information as they read the book, and then place it together in such a way as to unravel the several different stories that are being told. Reading the novel is, in other words, a work of detection that is complex and multi-stranded, but very rewarding when you see the final shape of the novel.
One of the many strands that go to make up science fiction is what the French call the contes philosophiques, stories constructed to illustrate a particular idea or philosophical concept. English language philosophers talk of a thought experiment, which is something similar. The modern master of the contes philosophiques is Adam Roberts, and nothing better illustrates the form than his latest novel, The Thing Itself. It’s a mash-up of Kant’s idea of “the thing as such” and John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There” (filmed as The Thing), and at the centre of the novel is a paradigm shift: by seeing the world differently, the world becomes different. It’s a complex, hard idea, difficult to grasp. And when Roberts intersperses his main story with chapters set at different periods in history and that pastiche the literary style of the time (the pastiches of 18th century fiction and of James Joyce are particularly brilliant) it seems to confuse the issue even more. But in fact as we struggle through these different writing styles dotted throughout the book one of the things we are seeing is that our perception of the world has constantly changed. The writers of the 18th century or the late 19th century wrote differently because what they were expressing, their view of the world, was very different. As we come to recognise that, through these historical chapters, then the paradigm shift at the heart of the story becomes that much easier to understand, because we have already seen it in action.
Some books are challenging even when they are written in crystal clear prose. They are challenging because the ideas in the book, the story being told, are uncompromising. That was always true of Joanna Russ, one of the best but most uncompromising writers in the history of science fiction. Her books contained a sustained expression of feminist views, expressed in a take-no-prisoners style. At the time, when male privilege was even more taken for granted than it is today, she alienated a lot of (men) readers; at the same time she cheered up a lot of others. Even today, her books can be hard to take, because she eschewed easy answers, neat romantic ideas, or happy endings. She can be the most invigorating writer you read, but she is not comfort reading. This is an obvious example, a plain, clearly-told tale of a small group of humans who crash onto an alien planet. The men immediately set to finding ways to survive and colonise the planet. Only one clear-eyed woman sees the folly of this notion, and in the end has to use violence to defend herself from rape as the men plot a futile effort to expand the population. In one sense it is a despairing, hopeless vision that is very hard to read, yet it is a vivid and important book that has a lot to say to every reader.
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.