I don't read SFF, but...
With mentions of Sea of Tranquillity
by Emily St John Mandel
Recently, I went to my local book club to read Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St John Mandel. Now, as a disclaimer, there is a lot to love about this book, and I’m grateful to be able to be part of an anglophone book club in the middle of France, so I don’t want to sound like I’m disparaging the people who set up the event. But one of my frustrations with the text was a comment that a lot of attendees kept repeating, which was along the lines of: “I don’t normally read SFF, but I did like this book.” It’s a comment I’ve heard before, and that never fails to annoy me.
It's a problem that’s part of a much broader literary conversation: many literary authors will say that they don’t read or engage with ‘genre’ fiction, then turn around and write a science-fiction novel with the impression they’ve reinvented the wheel. I’m not the only one to have complained about this.
I hadn’t planned this, but after discussing why we should read the classics last time, let’s now discuss the opposite: why aren’t the literary authors, who believe they are writing the classics of the future, not reading us, the SFF authors? Why is this not a two-way street?
I’ve already mentioned that for me writing is like joining a conversation. When people butt in without having listened to anyone who’s come before, to me, it feels like someone interrupting at a party to raise a point that someone has already made. The only thing it proves is that they haven’t been listening.
I felt like this reading Machines Like Us by Ian McEwen – as have many critics, according to reactions online – and, unfortunately, four years later, I’ve felt the same about Sea of Tranquillity.
In short, the novel asks the question “what if we’re living in a simulation?” and answers “it doesn’t matter, only the human scale matters.” Now I don’t disagree with that idea, but it feels like a non-answer, a non-exploration of the subject. It doesn’t explore the questions of reality or truth or ethics raised by the notion of living in a simulation.
By focusing on the individual lives only, it bypasses other big picture questions worth asking – if it’s a simulation, who is it for? Do other people exist, or are they all in our head? Maybe it doesn’t matter if other people don’t exist and are only in our head, because they exist for us, and what matters is to be kind to beings whether they’re real or unreal – but that notion isn’t explored. Or maybe St John Mandel could have made a statement about otherness. Otherness, as a philosophical concept, whether it exists, and whether we can prove it exists or whether we’re stuck always believing that everything is only in our own head, and how that affects our relationships, is a question that’s been debated for centuries. But that, again, isn’t raised.
Another theme of Sea of Tranquillity is that, when travelling through time, changing the timeline is worth it to save an individual life. I was still left with questions unanswered. What are the consequences on human lives of upending the status quo, who is condemned when one person is saved? Is this a variant of the utilitarian trolly problem (save one, condemn many), or is the narrative crux something else, about the price of disrupting institutions that cling to power and how pervasive they can be?
I feel questions of simulations and time-travel changing the past have been explored before, which is fine. I also feel this book is not adding to the conversation, which bothers me.
I’ve seen the structure before (going from the past, moving through time into the future, hitting a key middle point and then moving back towards the past anti-chronologically) in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’ve read a report of how pandemics, especially repeated pandemics, affect people’s lives and habits and relationship to illness in To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, which I also feel does a better job of representing marginalised groups, be it queer or neurodivergent characters, who are lacking in Sea of Tranquillity. I’ve already read a literary novel which asked philosophical questions about reality and answered them with love, while threading different POVs and questioning the reality the characters lived in, in Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward.
It doesn’t matter if books are similar, and if two books published at the same time have common themes, that’s just serendipity or the Zeitgeist at work. But I do mind that Sea of Tranquillity doesn’t acknowledge that it’s standing on the shoulders of giants, being fed by various influences, recognising them, and then adding a different spin, twist, or flavour to the well-known story. It seems to have wandered into the room without listening to what’s been done before, and it’s being read as if it is adding to the conversation, showing us that readers are still very much ghettoed by genre, and have no idea how original or not this story actually is, in context.
What can we do about this? I think we need to try to remember that genres, before anything else, are marketing labels. They’re not creative. Their purpose is to sell books. As readers, I don’t think genres should limit us. We should read literary fiction even if what we love is SFF; we should read romance even if we’re prejudiced into believing it’s girly; we should read science-fiction even if what we love is intimate, character-driven stories with little outside drama. We might be pleasantly surprised. A broader horizon and reading pool can only be good. This doesn’t mean we can’t discriminate, pick stories we like and feel are well-written – but genre should not be a way of sorting out our TBR pile.
As writers, the best way to use genres, in my opinion, is to use them as we do tropes: as a tool.
In that case, genre can be useful, in the sense that it can give us an idea of what we’re trying to achieve. If we decide, as writers, “I’m doing a noir detective romance”, then there is something there about tone, character arcs, mood, that can help us fashion our story. And we need to know that genre in order to use it. Similarly, we need to understand a trope and be aware of its history if we’re going to write around it – it’s important to be aware of how and why and how often “woman dies so man has an arc” has been used, in order not to unwittingly throw that in at the start of the book and make fools of ourselves for missing out on long discussions on the viability of the trope and its problematic connotations, or being under the illusion we’re creating something purely original.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to create something original, but often originality comes from two elements which are not unheard of, separately, coming together in surprising ways. A bit like a painter might mix colours to invent a new shade. Sometimes, maybe, we might be able to make something that hasn’t been done before, maybe by changing the angle or approach that others have taken to a similar story, or maybe even create something purely original. But I think that’s extremely rare, and it's better to be aware of your inspirations and sources, in order to answer them in interesting ways, rather than ignore them and pretend the words have come from nowhere, or from some untainted well of inspiration.
So, let’s not be snobbish or close-minded about literary genres we know nothing about. As readers, let’s ignore marketing categories. And as writers, let’s have fun upending them to create something new.
19 Sept. 23