Writer-wise, I am a speculative fiction dilettante. I do not have any deep understanding of the form, I have read only around the fringes (Mieville but not Asimov; Mitchell but not Le Guin), I don’t know enough about the tropes and styles to properly respect them. My own writing might be glorified by calling it slipstream, but really it’s just dabbling.
Some proper sci-fi writers reckon that kind of behaviour is rubbish. They would rather you’d at least subscribed to Aurealis Magazine and read the classics before giving it a go yourself. If you don’t, you’re likely to write something which you either think is frightfully clever but has actually been written a billion times before, or you’ll just do a half-arsed job. And I have, in public, dismissed that attitude out of hand. My usual argument is it’s OK if you don’t know your sci-fi, as long as your readers don’t know their sci-fi either.
The most popular form of sci-fi dabbling is some kind of time travel – I faff around with it in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; you may also have heard of a little book called The Time Traveller’s Wife or read The Shining Girls or maybe even The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. Dystopia is huge too, in the dabbler community. Less common, though, is the mainstay of classic sci-fi, human goes to an alien planet. Until Michel Faber came along, that is.
I’ve just finished reading The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. This book has had loads of column inches, perhaps not least because the author declared it would be his last novel, and because his wife died just as he was finishing his final draft.
The critical reaction to The Book of Strange New Things goes a long way to proving my argument that you can massacre sci-fi tropes as much as you want so long as you don’t aim your book at sci-fi readers. But it also makes me want to say, “you can, but please don’t“.
Faber’s book is essentially a story about the breakdown of a loving marriage as two people’s lives go their separate way: hers, into a collapse of everything she takes for granted as Britain slides into dystopia; his, on a mission evangelising to aliens on a far-away planet. The ‘is it still love?’ story is pretty strong. Faber has a lot to say about how much love relies on shared experience and context, and how quickly something that seems utterly solid can become crumbly and unfamiliar, and I think he does it convincingly.
The sci-fi aspects are not handled nearly as well. World-building is a big part of sci-fi. I have a low tolerance for it, as a writer and a reader, and I can’t imagine I’d ever set something in an utterly alien place where everything had to be thought up and then described (mainly because I can’t bear reading long descriptions of physical things). Faber gets around this by just not bothering. Oasis, the alien planet, is flat and mainly dirt. Its notable feature is that the rain falls in some interesting ways and the air is quite viscous. There is one vegetable species, one insect species, one mammal/bird species, and one humanesque species. As far as we know nothing else lives on Oasis, there are no geographical features and not much in the way of weather. I don’t ask for much from my alien settings. I don’t want Tolkienesque mapping and linguistics. But even I baulk at an ecosystem with only four species – how does evolution even work in that kind of set-up? Can there not at least be a throwaway explanation of what’s going on? (In an interview with Ramona Koval, Faber says ‘I think that if there’s anything that sets this book apart from science fiction, if you like, it’s that I’m completely uninterested in the how of it’.)
There are all kinds of allusions to mysteries, probably sinister, which are hinted at then never really explored. Settlers on this new planet are hand picked for their lack of passion and their absence of connections to earth. Bing Crosby plays over the PA most of the time. There are old art posters on the walls and a mess hall stocked with lifestyle magazines with any references to current affairs torn out. No one is to know what’s happening on Earth (except our protagonist, who knows all about it and is free to talk to anyone who’ll listen). There is a nurse who may be some kind of proto human, or maybe not. There is the previous missionary, gone native, whose name is so much like Conrad’s Kurtz that really can it refer to anything else (it does)? But in the end not much comes of any of it – all the usual tropes of conspiracy and giant bad corporations are pumped up, then left to deflate somewhere in a back room.
Meanwhile, on Earth, disaster rockets around the planet, wiping out countries and economies and supermarkets and hospitals in a matter of months, destroying the life of the wife character and further alienating her from her far-off, un-understanding missionary husband. I mean, it could happen, this series of concerted and sudden disasters. But a more elegantly thought-out apocalypse would have made the whole thing more compelling.
So what’s my point? I guess my point is, if you want to write a love story, and you want to write a story which makes us grateful for our resilient human bodies (a point Faber has raised in many interviews), why put it in a science fiction setting when you so clearly don’t care about science fiction? Why not just have it on earth, in the present day? It feels as though he wrote a story and then worried it needed jazzing up a bit with some aliens and an apocalypse (a crime I myself have certainly been guilty of). But perhaps the biggest moral lesson is that it serves me right for reading a book that comes with a recommendation from Yann Martel.
I’ve finished The Book of Strange New Things, which you’ve probably already noticed, and started on Best Australian Stories 2014. I took This changes everything by Naomi Klein off the pile, because after 18 months writing a survival guide to climate change I need a little break; I replaced it with Clade, a climate change novel by James Bradley, because I am an idiot. While I was away at Varuna I read about a thousand books that weren’t on my list and that was very bad but I had a lovely time.
This excerpt from a funny little article in Ploughshares goes some way to explaining how on earth my TBR pile got so out of hand…
Book #1: If you’re meeting all these amazing fellow writers at conferences and festivals, you owe it to them to read their books. It will be so awkward if you meet again in six months and you haven’t read their novels yet!
Book #2: The Guilt Pile beside your bed is going to grow taller and taller until the day you die. It will, in fact, be what kills you.
At least that pile is now 11 books smaller…