ALAN: I’ve noticed that when SF writers do stray outside their genre, they tend to write mystery stories of some kind. Both Jack Vance and Fredric Brown wrote award-winning mystery novels.
One Author, Various Flavors
JANE: Really? I had no idea. What were the titles?
ALAN: Jack Vance won an Edgar award for The Man in the Cage and Fredric Brown won an Edgar for The Fabulous Clipjoint.
Indeed, you could argue that Brown was more of a mystery writer than he was an SF writer. Certainly he was much more prolific in that genre. His bibliography on Wikipedia lists twenty-four mystery novels and only five SF novels…
And Isaac Asimov wrote some rather good classical mysteries as well.
JANE: Time to go check my bookshelves and see if I have either of those first two.
I’ve heard that about Asimov and I’ve read his Murder at the ABA. In 1975, when the book is set, the ABA was the largest convention for booksellers – and consequently attracted a lot of book publishers and writers as well. It still exists in a slightly different form as the BEA.
Anyhow, if you can get beyond the singularly most annoying first person narrator I’ve encountered in a long while, it’s not a bad mystery.
ALAN: It’s been years since I read it, so I don’t remember that. I just remember enjoying the mystery.
JANE: Above you said: “I’ve noticed that when SF writers do stray outside their genre, they tend to write mystery stories of some kind.”
To me this is fairly reasonable, since even when a story isn’t an obvious “whodunit,” much SF has a similar problem-solving ethic.
ALAN: I completely agree about the problem-solving ethic. That overlap is probably the reason why so many SF fans are also mystery fans. And vice-versa, of course.
In the UK, the genre boundaries have always tended to be a little more blurred than they are in America. H. G. Wells wrote across the spectrum and perhaps British writers have taken their inspiration from him.
Brian Aldiss has written several well-regarded mainstream literary novels. The Horatio Stubbs trilogy is particularly good in its depiction of youth caught up in war. And as a bonus, the first volume of the trilogy (The Hand Reared Boy) is the best novel about masturbation since Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint!
JANE: This last is a recommendation??? After I read Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy, I felt grotty for weeks!
ALAN: Of course it’s a recommendation. The book will keep the average teenage boy enthralled and occupied for ages!
I also think you can make a good case for the majority of Christopher Priest’s books being SF-related mainstream novels as well, if that makes any sense. The Separation, for example, is set very firmly in the Second World War. They even made a movie from his novel The Prestige. It’s about feuding stage magicians…
JANE: I’ve heard about The Prestige, though I haven’t read it or seen the film. I’ve always meant to, since David Bowie played Tesla in it…
ALAN: Priest’s contemporary, J. G. Ballard cut his literary teeth in the SF world, but he soon left it far behind. I’m particularly fond of his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun about life in Shanghai under Japanese rule in the 1940s.
I don’t know if James Blish absorbed some of that influence or not, but around about the time he moved permanently to England, he wrote a stunningly brilliant historical novel (Dr. Mirabilis) about the life of Roger Bacon.
JANE: That last one sounds interesting. I’ve always been interested in Roger Bacon.
Certainly, there are American writers who have done/are doing the same. In fact, one could argue that there is a subset of “literary” writers who write SF/F, but because they were/are embraced by the literary community, they often get praised for doing what’s old hat in our field. A few examples…
Margaret Atwood regularly writes what is basically SF/F, but (so I’ve heard) doesn’t think she is doing so.
Michael Chabon’s Summerland was delightful, but certainly contained no surprises in terms of the material he used (a blending of myths, legends, and contemporary material) for anyone familiar with the works of Charles deLint, Neil Gaiman, Roger Zelazny, or, if I dare say so, Jane Lindskold.
Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost was published as mainstream fiction, but… Well, look at the title!
Some SF/F writers find this annoying. Maybe because I realize how under-read in genre fiction most “literary” critics (who often have academic backgrounds) are, I just sigh.
ALAN: Similarly, in Britain we have Doris Lessing, a Nobel Prize winning writer whose Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence are pure SF novels. I never liked them much, but they have their admirers. John Clute is particularly fond of them.
Lessing herself was an avowed SF fan. I used to see her sometimes in the SF bookshops of London, browsing the shelves and buying armfuls of lurid paperbacks, just like I was doing. She was a guest of honour at the Worldcon in 1987.
JANE: So it sounds as if Doris Lessing, bless her, wouldn’t mind being called an SF writer as well as a literary one. How refreshing! Someone who recognizes that it’s not an either/or sort of thing.
ALAN: She was proud of her SF work, and very happy to be thought of as an SF writer. Similarly, there is an up and coming British writer called David Mitchell who is winning lots of mainstream plaudits for novels such as The Cloud Atlas. Like Lessing before him, he seems to be quite impatient with genre boundaries and is more than happy to admit the influence of SF on his work.
Kingsley Amis was also a big SF fan. He published a very perceptive critical examination of the genre (New Maps of Hell) and in the 1960s, with Robert Conquest, he edited the Spectrum series of SF anthologies. He wrote several extremely good SF novels as well. The Alteration is an alternate history in which the Reformation never happened and the Catholic Church continues to dominate world affairs. Russian Hide and Seek is set in a future England that is a subject nation of the USSR. But my favourite is The Anti-Death League, a very odd novel indeed – conspiracy theorists will love it!
JANE: I’ve read – and enjoyed – New Maps of Hell. Oddly enough, although I really liked Amis’s Lucky Jim, I don’t think I’ve read any of the titles you mentioned above. Clearly I need to give some a try. I think that both The Alteration and The Anti-Death League sound interesting.
I’m assembling quite a list!
I also have an idea for next time… Here in New Mexico, we have quite a few writers who have been successful in more than one genre. Why don’t we ask them why they’ve branched out?