Why horror, sci-fi and fantasy deserve more esteem, and why they still don’t get it
The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has been the target of many brickbats in her time thanks to never fully accepting the term ‘science fiction’ about her work. Some would say the criticism is deserved – particularly after the author herself told the BBC science fiction was about ‘talking squids in outer space’, later trying to clarify her position (or exert damage control, depending on your point of view) by adopting the term ‘speculative fiction’.
Many authors and readers of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and what might be termed the ‘fantastical’ genres probably would have preferred someone with such mainstream appeal and the respect of the literary establishment like Atwood had declared loudly from the rooftops that yes, she was an out and proud science fiction author.
But Atwood might have been onto something, as this eloquent argument proves when characterising the elements of sci-fi, spec-fi and beyond, but it’s an ongoing debate. As Matthew Reilly, Australian author behind the bestselling Scarecrow and Jack West novels as well as plenty of standalone thrill rides, says, “The literary vs popular argument is as old as Gutenberg’s printing press.”
Or maybe we should ignore what Atwood says about her work altogether and let it find its way into a genre under its own steam. As acclaimed UK horror author and editor Ramsey Campbell says, “Leave aside the tiresome need some creators seem to feel to insist that their horror isn’t horror. Remember DH Lawrence – ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale’.”
A complex family tree
Although it’s fraught territory, it might help to thrash out exactly what sci-fi, horror and fantasy actually are. Surely anything that has a family in crisis, a murder mystery or a dogfight between fighter planes exists in our world and could be termed drama, thriller or action, quite separate from anything that contains ghosts, moon colonies or dragons?
Maybe, except that Atwood’s 1985 nightmarish magnum opus about a future where the only fertile women left are press ganged into sexual and child-bearing servitude in a repressive political regime has no spaceships, ray guns or alien invasions. Plus, as many of the world’s government pivot towards authoritarianism and the increased legislating and policing of womens’ bodies and reproduction in the late 2010s, The Handmaid’s Tale looks anything but speculative. It’s no surprise the Hulu (available on SBS in Australia) series based on her book is so successful in these politically scary times.
There might just be too many nuances and shades of grey in well written genre stories to pin down. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go from 2005 (as well as the brilliant 2010 film based on it) deals with an idea as futuristic as Mars colonies and astral travel, but being set in the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, there’s not a personal robot or whooshing silver door in sight.
Then you have The Library Policeman, one of the novellas in Stephen King’s 1990 collection Four Past Midnight, which has supernatural elements but couldn’t be a more effective fable about child sexual abuse. JK Rowling’s wizards and George Lucas’ laser-spewing Death Stars make us believe the distinctions are easy, but talented authors make careers out of subverting our expectations about genres.
It doesn’t help when so many readers are prepared to dismiss the fantastical genres as cheap pulp, where ‘serious’ literature is better written. There’s a reason King is as big as he is, and as Campbell says, horror can be conveyed indirectly with real power with laser-like precision. “The narrator may be unaware of what he’s telling us will happen, like he is in WF Harvey’s August Heat, where the narrator reveals his fate without realising, or consider it not to be horrific, which simply makes it more so, like in Never Let Me Go – to my mind unquestionably horror fiction.”
On the margins
But even if we could easily accept something as horror, sci-fi or not, why are the fantastical genres so marginalised? Matthew Reilly thinks it’s because it often requires the reader to take a leap of faith. “The author may introduce a concept or piece of fictional tech which the reader has to first imagine, then remember for later even though the way it works may not be apparent just yet. A good example is Dan Simmons’ The Fall of Hyperion, a very complex but ultimately rewarding sci-fi epic.”
We also tend to isolate some of the hallmarks of a given genre (sometimes easy and lazy ones like elves or warp drives) and use them to force books further into ghettoes even though themes, setting, characters or countless other elements might be as different from each other as Barbara Cartland and Charles Bukowski.
Think of The Shining – no matter how many ghosts so effectively stalked the halls of the Overlook, author Stephen King was writing a parable about the descent into alcoholism.
Those ghettos, Reilly believes, do horror, fantasy, etc a disservice. “One of the biggest problems sci-fi faces is a physical one – it sits in its own section in bookstores,” he says. “It might be good for categorisation, but it’s made sci-fi a scary place that requires initiation and prior knowledge. Some readers avoid it as ‘all too hard’, like the way some people veer away from Game of Thrones because they don’t ‘get’ fantasy.”
Ramsey Campbell adds that some of the conventional wisdom about genres has further muddied the waters. “[Horror] is too often identified with its worst examples or aspects of the field that are most readily perceived. I’m bothered whenever I or anyone else is described as ‘transcending’ the genre. I feel I’m simply trying to live up to the best it can offer,” he says.
All of which adds up to one thing. If you don’t read horror or sci-fi because you’re not interested in talking squids or ghosts who rattle chains in the attic of an Abbey – or if those elements and others that you expect like them intimidate you – you’re missing out.
“It’s more accessible than you think,” Reilly says of the fantastical genres. “Sci-fi allows us to view the world and humanity through a different and really fun lens. Think of Ender’s Game and its analysis of gifted and talented kids, The Forever War and the issues returning veterans face or Dune and its depiction of warring families. We fear what we don’t understand. I know people who don’t read sci-fi because they think they don’t have the imagination to enjoy it fully!”
It’s also worth remembering that relegating a book to a horror, fantasy or sci-fi section is a relatively new practice, one dictated by the commercial realities of bookshops in the 20th century rather than the artistic intent of the author. “Some of the classics of the field came out of the mainstream,” says Campbell. “The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t tagged as horror at the time, any more than The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. Horror fiction came out of literature – or more correctly was a lively element of it – before it was hived off as a category.”
Taking society’s pulse
To many readers horror, sci-fi, fantasy and related areas are actually the most literary of genres, with a long history of talking about the human condition and political mores of the time with a finesse the more realistic (for want of a better term) genres can. Depending on the prevailing political mood, sci-fi and horror are often the only way artists and writers can address social themes to avoid censorship or censure.
Star Trek – objectively a pretty cheap and campy program that had plenty of Atwood’s talking squids – showed the first representations of multicultural inclusion, tolerance and even interracial sexual relations many people had seen in the prudish and paranoid 1960s.
In its most thrilling forms, US author David Brin (who’s as proud to use the term ‘sci-fi’ as any author you’d care to meet) says the genre might even have saved us from ourselves at times. “In each decade, the higher-end science fiction was revolutionary, bold and questioning, like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me or Joanna Russ’s The Female Man,” he says. “The chilling warnings of 1984, Brave New World, Doctor Strangelove, On The Beach, Soylent Green or Silent Running all arguably helped to save us with their self-preventing prophecies.”
The kind of work US sci-fi author Greg Bear refers to as ‘imaginative literature’ reflects modern history and culture and comments on it. “That’s one of the reasons I grew up so strongly influenced by it and loving it,” he says.
So after seeing Atwood bristle against the term sci-fi, and with plenty of writers of horror, fantasy and beyond staunchly defend their genre assignations, does it rankle most authors for their own work and that which inspires them to be so rigidly categorised?
“The argument will never go away and it’s a shame it persists,” says Reilly. “It’s like a schoolyard bully saying ‘what I read is cool, but what you read is lame’. I read for enjoyment. That’s it. I don’t really like it when some literary types or awards-givers tell me what they enjoy is more ‘important’ than what I enjoy.”
Brin adds that while some authors do break out of the ghettoes (such as Ursula LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood and Samuel Delaney), he says they’re swarmed by ‘flatterers who urge them to shed and even publicly disdain the term ‘science fiction’.”
Finding the way in
All of which leaves us with one important question. If someone wants to get over their fear/disinterest/uncertainty about horror, sci-fi or fantasy, where’s a good place to start? Should they seek out the orcs, aliens and unpronounceable names that typify the genres to orient themselves at a baseline and let their consciousness expand from there? Should they look for more ‘literary’ examples like Atwood or Ishiguro to ease them in by portraying higher minded fantastical concepts in the more familiar world we live in?
Reilly’s career has offered plenty of easy pathways in, from the twisting, turning time travel of his latest book The Secret Runners of New York to the alien rough and tumble of his first novel Contest and thrilling fun he says even 10 years olds can enjoy in Hover Car Racer.
When it comes to ‘hard’ sci-fi, he again mentions the Hyperion books. “It’s a difficult series but the world-building is amazing and worth the investment of time,’ he says. “You just have to trust the author and accept some things before you really know what they are or how they work.”
Although the 1997 Kevin Costner film based on his 1982 book The Postman wasn’t well received, Brin stands by the novel’s intention, saying it can be compared to the the big hearted and visually gorgeous film that (‘alas, had little brains’).
“The original books for the films The Martian, The Arrival and Annihilation would be excellent introductory bridgeheads”, Brin says. “Zelazny’s Lord of Light is a classic that introduced millions to Hindu and Buddhist cultures through a totally fun future-adventure saga in the 1970s. Anyone interested in alternate history might try the tales of Harry Turtledove and Erik Flint. There have been many Feminist waves in sci-fi and the latest is huge with authors like Anne Leckie leading the way.”
Bear, by contrast, doesn’t want to be prescriptive, and he seems to advocate that oldest of axioms around books. To paraphrase, don’t judge a book by its section. “I believe in freedom,” he says. “[Readers] should wander through bookstores and libraries and do what Ray Bradbury recommended. Pick up many books, dip into them, flip through them, and if they think they’ll love it or benefit, take it home!”
Sidebar – sci-fi everywhere
For better or worse, horror and fantasy novels are very much their own animals with their own rules and strictures, imposed upon them by consumer expectation and our cultural mindset and making them easy to find (or avoid).
But here’s something interesting. Since it became so fashionable to love the stuff that used to be for children like comic books, video games and superheroes, many of the trappings of sci-fi have broken their banks and now pervade every sector of entertainment.
It’s particularly true on screens, where a science fiction movie has the highest box office revenue in history (Avatar), and a CGI superhero movies crammed with sci-fi elements (Avengers: Endgame) has just knocked the previous number two film (Titanic) off its perch (in case you’re not convinced, numbers four – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and Five – Avengers: Infinity War – are sci-fi as well).
“People happily go and watch sci-fi like Star Wars and the Marvel movies, “Reilly observes, “Yet for some reason, it’s different with books.
“I strongly suspect those who claim this still watch Game of Thrones or Handmaid’s Tale or Lilo and Stitch or superhero films,” says Bear about people who ‘don’t like’ sci-fi or fantasy.