Science fiction versus literary fiction

We all know what literary fiction is, and we all know what it is not – but coming up with a robust definition is more difficult. Some readers divide the world into literary fiction and pulp fiction, or literary fiction and genre fiction. Science fiction is definitely not literary fiction, according to these people – the type of reader who claims to be open minded, but will describe the plot of any science fiction novel as ‘stupid’ when it is described to them. These readers divide the word into books with characters in them and books with space ships in them.

However, when you ask these people to codify the difference between literary (worthy) fiction and science (vapid) fiction the best they can come up with is something close to the following definition from the Huffington Post:

‘The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.’

So science fiction or genre fiction is escapism, where literary fiction focuses on illuminating the real world of complex relationships, deep emotions and life experiences. I can think of several science fiction writers who deal with the latter. The work of Philip K Dick derives most of its dramatic tension from character drama, instead of environmental conflict.

Dicks novel Now Wait For Last Year focuses on the relationship between the protagonist, Eric Sweetscent, his wife Kathy (who hates him), and his employer, Gino Molinari, the elected leader of Earth. There is a wider science fiction story about an intergalactic conflict and a drug with strange powers, but these are part of the backdrop, used in the same way as literary novel might use the Russian Revolution or the Second World War as a backdrop. Now Wait For Last Year provides understanding into how relationships function under pressure, how they form and collapse. Human relationships are the substance of this sci-fi novel as much as they are for any literary novel.

This is true of many of Dick’s other novels, as well as other sci-fi works. The Man In The High Castle is another novel by Dick which is primarily focused on character relationships and interpersonal conflict, within a science fiction setting.

Literary novels can be enjoyed as escapism. Ernest Hemingway, one of the great literary writers of the 20th Centaury, can be read as escapism. Novels like For Whom The Bell Tolls and To Have And To Have Not take the reader away from their current existence and allow them to be immersed in the Spanish Civil War or smuggling rings in pre-revolution Cuba. These novels perform the same function for their readers as science fiction novels do for their readers.

From my own research into the difference between literary and genre fiction, and from the books I have read from both camps, I have come up with a list of characteristics which are generally used to separate genre fiction from literary fiction. Literary fiction is character focused with less emphasis on narrative, sometimes leaving it unresolved. The narratives also tend to be non-linear. Literary novels have a stylistic flair to their prose, where as genre novels try to be accessible. Literary fiction is generally considered to be darker, more serious in tone, and slower paced, as well as being part of the on-going academic conversation of literary novels, which is mainly achieved through influences from and references to past novels in the conversation.

Most science fiction novels are considered not to match this definition; they focus on plot over character development, have linear narratives, are fast paced and exist in the on-going conversation of science fiction novels. They do tend to be serious in tone, but most literary fiction readers believe them to not be serious because the plot is focused on aliens or space travel; this is a major point of difference between the fans of both genres.

Dan Simmons’s novel Hyperion is a science fiction novel that meets all the above characteristics of literary fiction. It has a non-linear, character-focused narrative which is very similar in structure to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as the novel is a series of interlinked stories developing the characters and their backgrounds. The narrative is left unresolved, and the tone of the book is dark and serious, often crossing over into horror. Simmon’s prose has flair, and he gives each section its own unique style which relates to the character whose tale is being told. Finally, it contributes to the on-going academic literary conversation through references to the work of John Keats, which are woven into the novel.

However you define literary fiction, some science fiction fits into it. The two are overlapping circles on the Venn diagram of literature, with common ground between them. They are not as separate as some literary fiction readers would have us believe.

Iain Banks is an author whose work firmly sits in the overlapping areas of literary and science fiction. This is especially true of his earlier work, before he had decided to split his writing into Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Walking On Glass, his second novel, has three main plots: the first is a relationship study set when the book is written, the second is ambiguous about whether it is science fiction or not, and the third is set in an alien war in the far future. This was Banks’s attempt to write a novel that spanned both genres.

Banks was more successful in this attempt with his later novel, The Bridge. This follows a man in a coma, but his coma dreams take him to a strange world with many recognisable mythological, fantasy and science fiction elements to the story, most notably the giant endless bridge the novel is set on. This novel is a great accomplishment of both literary and science fiction.

Banks’s novels which are clearly science fiction, such as his Culture novels The Player of Games or Consider Phlebas, are as much about the characters’ inner lives and their development as the dramatic events which they are swept up in. All of Banks’s novels are complex character studies, as well as having explosive external narratives. Banks also has a distinctive literary style, exemplified by the Scottish colloquialisms he uses in The Bridge. His novels, at least his non-‘M.’ novels, are considered part of the on-going academic literary conversation.

Despite his literary credentials, some readers still turn their noses up at Banks’s science fiction. It completely perplexes me why people read the Iain ‘without-the-M’ Banks, but refuse to read Iain M. Banks. A few science fiction classics like Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness are grudgingly accepted into the on-going literary conversation, while novels like The Time Machine and 1984 are not considered science fiction so that literary fiction readers are allowed to enjoy them.

Margret Atwood is an example of science fiction writer who shirks the labels of science fiction in particular and genre fiction in general . One assumes this is to preserve her standing in the academic, literary world and not to taint it by associations with less profound genres.

If the difference between literary fiction and science fiction is nothing more than hot air, then why do we not see sci-fi novels nominated for the Man-Booker prize? Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice deserves a nomination for this award, for its detailed exploration of character, serious tone, and literary experimentation (especially in regards to gender pronouns). Ancillary Justice meets the requirements of being sufficiently literary to be nominated for the Man-Booker prize, as well as having more imagination than most books which do get nominated for it, but still a genre stigma persists.

I can see no substantial difference between science fiction and literary fiction, other than an artificial classification used to separate ‘real literature’ from ‘entertainment’. Some works of science fiction fit into the classification of literary fiction, but generally the distinction is artificial and can be snobbish. Readers should be less worried about what genre or style they are reading and more whether it is an imaginative story.