Besides The Wasp Factory, I’ve never been a fan of Iain Banks’s non-SF novels. They often strike me as dull and unoriginal—they don’t really ring true, or have the same verve and energy as his Culture SF novels. I really wish he’d stop trying to show the literary crowd how it’s done. The howls of derisive laughter from that quarter might be politely private, and even motivated by a bit of tribalism, but still…
Have I got your attention yet?
Mostly, I’m just reversing some of the hypotheticals set out in Banks’ recent article in The Guardian about how “literary” writers are slumming it in SF without having done the proper reading of science fiction (so as to avoid hackneyed ideas). Not only are they slumming it, they’re apparently cynically writing novels just to cash in a paycheck—ride that popular SF/F wave.
…but…it takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel. The paychecks aren’t always necessarily that big. I kind of hope most writers are writing out of affection toward what they’re writing about, even as, of course, everyone wants to make a decent wage while doing so.
I might also point out that (1) the originality of ideas rarely seems to be the reason for most SF novels to exist—prudent recycling can yield good results; (2) non-SF audiences may not particularly care about the originality of the idea as opposed to the execution (including characterization), and (3) a lot of “SF” writers I’ve read recently don’t seem to have read much science fiction, either.
On the other hand, in some ways Banks’ fiction might prove his point. I don’t really hate his various incursions into “mainstream literary” subjects, but I do prefer the author’s science fiction more, and I know I like the SF because Banks does have a great knowledge of the field. I’m fairly sure his space opera is much wiser and richer because of that knowledge.
But that’s a different thing to say. For me to say this about a particular writer working in a particular specialized subgenre doesn’t mean I’m engaging in the same kinds of gross generalities as Banks in his article—at least I hope not. Mea culpa, if so.
(These generalizations remind me in a way of some reactions to Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel, The Sparrow. “She isn’t one of us, she hasn’t been properly consecrated,” and then those people had to eat crow because it turned out Analog’s Stanley Schmidt had helped her edit it and she had a very good working knowledge of the field.)
While space opera might be a leap if you’re known for frothy, funny relationship stories set in Manhattan, I’d also argue that there are scenarios in SF that really don’t require that much novel reading research. For me, at least, I can count the interesting post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read on one hand, so me trying to determine McCarthy’s reading habits seems somewhat irrelevant to whether The Road was going to be any good or not. Just for example. Just for me.
Anyway, I absolutely love many of Banks’ novels, I’ve learned a lot from his fiction, and admire him greatly for his book on whisky, so I contemplated not even writing this post. As it is, there’s no heat in these words—mostly just bemusement that it seems like over the past 20 years (the period of my involvement in the field) nothing has really changed in how we talk about genres, define our fellow writers, or, apparently, construct scenarios about other people’s motivations and intent in our heads.