Science fiction genre as literary fiction

Science fiction offers a lot of flexibility for a writer — it can work at the level of salacious titillation, popular mainstream adventure, as a highly intellectualised story form, as a didactic, a satire, and as literary fiction with time travel and robots.

The real question is one of tone. And the tone relates to how ‘high’ or ‘low’ you want to pitch the story. How entertaining (action packed), or how intellectually satisfying should it be?

The tone is how you tell the story and it’s just as critical to the success of a story as the way a comedian tells a joke. The pitch is where the writer wants the story be be positioned along a line between entertaining and thought provoking. The critical final question is — how do you achieve this without confusing the reader?

The idea of an ‘intelligent blockbuster’ has been around for a while but it’s usually applied to contemporary films. I’ve heard it being used in conjunction with Christopher Nolan’s films like Batman Begins, Inception and Interstellar. It represents a kind of backlash against the ‘dumb’ blockbusters with big explosions and booming, thumping sounds, films like Transformers and Pearl Harbour (the kind of films designed to appeal to fourteen-year-olds). In some ways, the ‘intelligent blockbuster’ is a return to the original blockbuster format offered by films like Jaws and Star Wars.

What’s the ‘intelligent blockbuster’ version of a science fiction novel?

You could argue that all books are ‘intelligent’ because they require more input from the reader in terms of their imagination, interpretation, and comprehension skills. These are skills that watching a film possibly doesn’t offer in quite the same way.

Using the language of film, movies can easily pivot from comedy to tragedy, just through the visual storytelling (the environmental clues, the actors’ reactions, and the film score). While it’s also possible to do this with fiction, I think it’s harder to pull off. Film can literally cut from one thing to another and feel continuous — from light hearted to a menacing tone, from realistic to fantastic.

It’s harder to pivot like that in a novel without creating a jarring reading experience. Of course, a writer can do anything in a novel, technically — but chopping and changing like that can easily confuse or annoy the reader. That’s probably why controlling the pace of a novel is a clear display of a sophisticated writer (something we all aspire to be).

Novels like Ian Ian McEwan’s, Machines Like Me (which is a literary fiction novel that uses science fiction tropes) and Ursula K Le Guin’s, The Left Hand of Darkness (which works within genre expectations to explore cultural politics) both work because they abide by a simple rule. What’s that? They are what they are right from the start without pretending to be something that they’re not. Right from the start, Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us is literary fiction, written in a literary fiction ‘style’, by a literary fiction author. It’s not pretending to be anything else and it keeps to its tone — pitching itself as a science fiction plot delivered through a character based literary fiction story. There’s no confusion about what it is. This is what I found challenging about Station Eleven. It begins — consciously or inadvertently — as a post-apocalyptic story and then it turns into a literary fiction novel. The confusion probably comes down to the way the novel’s been marketed as a post-apocalyptic adventure.

Audrey Niffenegger’s, The Time Travellers Wife, straddles the divide between genre plot and character-based literary fiction style by using two first person viewpoints that reflect individual character. John Lanchester’s The Wall uses a simple, cooler, more minimalistic style that’s very proficient at breaking down the protagonist’s thought processes and action sequences. And yet it’s really a novel about tone over action.

The tone is an important part of how you pitch a science fiction story and it’s important to use the language to signal to the reader what kind of story they’re in, so that they don’t feel frustrated or tricked.