Edge detector

Via Adam Roberts, I’ve just discovered Jez Winship’s long response to the SFE launch. Since it’s very positive, obviously I like it – even encyclopedists are human – but he raises an interesting point:

I’ve already noticed that there is no entry for Jeff Vandermeer, or for the New Weird, the cross-generic hybrid form which he helped to coin and to promulgate.

As I’ve said, we’re partway through the work of updating, with many authors in the last chunk of the alphabet not yet added (like Jeff VanderMeer – and, for that matter, Ann VanderMeer, whose work is equally relevant here.) Frankly, though, there’s a problem here. In the nearly-20-years since the last edition, the edges of “science fiction” have become much more blurred. That’s not to deny there aren’t still core writers like, say, John Scalzi. But a movement like New Weird, as I understand it, is at least partly about problematising genre expectations. Which is, from one point of view, just what art should do – mess with expectations, push boundaries, and so on. But it’s a pain in the neck for encyclopedists, who have to make a binary decision: is this something that we have to cover as “science fiction”? Much the same applies to Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books which, though they may have sf-nal justifications, are a very long way from what most people would think of as sf.

In the past, we’ve erred on the side of inclusiveness. So, for instance, the entry on Karen Joy Fowler includes discussion of her great novel Sarah Canary. It’s a book that’s entirely open to readings of it as a first contact story – but also to readings that see nothing fantastic at all about it. My point, more generally, is that these cases are becoming increasingly frequent. If China Miéville hadn’t published this year, in Embassytown, a novel that was clearly sf, we’d have some of the same problems about whether he should be included. Going back further, we cover H.P. Lovecraft, though not many people would think of him as primarily an sf writer.

As with other things in the SFE, I’d suggest that the theme entries like Fabulation are really important here – both in defining where we’re coming from and trying to describe the field. But there’s no denying that the term “science fiction” is getting far more interestingly complicated – which, as I say, is good for everything except encyclopedists’ blood pressure.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Edge detector

  1. jeff vandermeer

    You know, it’s kind of a psychic burden on a writer when they have to in this context point out the obvious because no one else is, but Veniss Underground is SF.And I believe you may even have reviewed it. I know Clute as WF Award judge was a little huffy it was considered fantasy and got on that final ballot since it was clearly SF. To say nothing of many SF stories and my ongoing SF serial. It is patently exhausting to have to point this out to someone who is a historian of the field and I don’t like being put in the position by an incomplete consideration in this post. I’d appreciate an apology. JeffV

  2. Jeff, that’s fair enough: I did indeed review Veniss Underground in 2003 (though, looking at the review again, I see that I said “genre labels are increasingly unhelpful in describing works like Veniss Underground”). So apologies for any offence caused by what I wrote above, and I’m sure – though it’s not my beat – that we will cover your sf. That said, it does seem to me that (as anthologist and writer), a lot of your work is to do with subverting genre expectations and boundaries – or would you disgaree?

  3. jeff vandermeer

    No worries. It’s just a context in which I would prefer not to comment at all. Whether taxonomically I fit in or deserve to be in an encyclopedia of SF is up to you guys–no one can hold you to a criteria put forth in a blog post (fantasy writer must have at least one clearly SF novel to be considered). I just want to make it clear to anyone reading this blog post that I do indeed write SF, even if it does blur boundaries at times. But I do wonder if at some point fantasy & SF will need to be integrated into one encyclopedia given that lots of bleeds btwn are occurring. (Okay, I’ll leave it alone now.)

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