I think a lot about — and probably will be writing more about — my feeling that what literary types like to call “genre fiction” is, pretty inexorably, displacing conventional realistic literary fiction as “the abstract and brief chronicle of our time.” In a recent interview, William Gibson gives a partial explanation for this displacement:

Well, when I started writing in my late 20s, I knew that I was a native of science fiction. It was my native literary culture. But I also knew that I had been to a lot of other places in literature, other than science fiction. When I started working I had the science fiction writer’s specialist toolkit. I used it for my version of what it had been issued for. As I used it, though, and as the world around me changed, because of the impact of contemporary technologies, more than anything else, I found myself looking at the toolkit and thinking, you know, these tools are possibly the best tools we have to describe our inherently fantastic present—to describe it and examine it, and take it down and put it back together and get a handle on it. I think without those tools I don’t really know what we could do with it.

Whenever I read a contemporary literary novel that describes the world we’re living in, I wait for the science fiction tools to come out. Because they have to — the material demands it. Global warming demands it, and the global AIDS epidemic and 9/11 and everything else — all these things that didn’t exist 30 years ago require that toolkit to handle. You need science fiction oven mitts to handle the hot casserole that is 2010.


  1. There's a wonderful scene in Master and Commander where Lucky Jack is holding a wooden model of the Acheron and admiring the innovative form of his adversary's ship and declares,with considerable delight, "What a fascinating modern age we live in."

    And again I'm reminded of a convo with Noah Millman about the (much beloved by him) live theater, and his observance about what happens to a form when it sheds its popular audience and becomes the exclusive domain of the enthusiast.

  2. We can all agree that Gibson is right about science fiction, but to what extent does this apply to genre, more broadly construed? Will we need "nurse romance" oven mitts to handle the hot casserole that is 2015? [ed: I hope so!]

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