Wednesday, July 11, 2007

That Definitional Thing

It's very hot here in Seattle, & somehow iced tea and the fan running on high just isn't cutting it. Sad to say, I'm a weary zombie from lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I thought I'd note that a certain perennial subject came up last night at Kelley Eskridge’s reading at the Science Fiction Museum. Kelley read an excerpt from her story "Alien Jane" (which closes Dangerous Space) and longer excerpts from the new title novella, "Dangerous Space." She took care to leave about half an hour for the Q&A typical of Clarion West readings, during which she fielded a wide variety of questions about her work. Among these included a request that Kelley explain how “Alien Jane,” a story without any fantasy or science fiction elements, came to be included in a collection labeled “science fiction” and whether she had had any problem getting it published originally in genre publications.

Kelley began her response with a review of the story’s genre history. In sum: "Alien Jane" debuted in the first issue of the prestigious, beautifully produced Century edited by Robert K.J.Killheffer; it was a finalist for the Nebula award and won the Astrea Award (for lesbian literary fiction); it was reprinted in Nebula Awards 31 (ed. Pamela Sargent); and finally, the SF Channel then based an episode of Welcome to Paradox on the story. The story, Kelley noted, was treated within the genre as sf, and that was all that mattered. The label is just a label. She’s happy to have the label of being an sf writer (and herself chooses to call her work “speculative fiction”), but she doesn’t care about definitions.

On reflection, I think “Alien Jane” offers a good example for the argument that sf is not identifiable through a set of definable parameters but is, simply, what people who edit sf choose to publish and what people who read sf choose to read. “Alien Jane” is, in fact, less “speculative” than Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See.” For some reason, this didn’t provoke the sf Border Police back in the mid-1990s the way Karen’s story did in 2002. And for some reason, the SF Channel made it into a television drama. I could, I believe, make a comparable argument about “Alien Jane” to the one I made about “What I Didn’t See” in “Something Rich and Strange: Reading Karen Joy Fowler’s `What I Didn’t See’.” “Alien Jane,” like most of the stories in Dangerous Space, is in conversation with feminist sf. Like “What I Didn’t See,” most of Kelley’s stories can be read with pleasure as literary fiction: but how much richer and deeper they are for those engaged in the conversation of feminist sf!


Nancy Jane Moore said...

It clearly works the other way. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God were both published by mainstream presses, I believe. And they've got both space travel and aliens. Ditto Jonathan Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music (sapient kangaroos, among other things) and, of course, such time-honored examples as Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut. I like claiming these works as SF/F -- even when the authors don't -- because they definitely contribute to the ongoing conversation. There is possibily more advantage to publishing SF/F as mainstream than the reverse, because it widens the audience. But then, you can also say that the feeling of a story like "Alien Jane" fits nicely within SF/F. I think you're right, Timmi: a story fits in a genre because the editor wants to publish it.
BTW, we have very nice weather in the other Washington today. It was nasty hot earlier in the week, but today it's warm, but not hot, and dry and sunny. Wish I were outside.

Kelley said...

I've been thinking about this exchange since it happened at the reading. I think perhaps one thing the questioner was pointing to indirectly is a notion that I've come to about speculative fiction: to wit, one way to be speculative as opposed to "realistic" is to simply not explain and not justify.

"Alien Jane" is speculative because it does not bother to justify many of the plot points of the story: for example, the description of the research program is clearly unrealistic -- there are no government guidelines, no forms, no infrastructure... But who cares? I certainly don't, and an attempt to bridge that particular gap between the world of the reader and the world of the story seems silly to me. "Alien Jane" is speculative because it probably wouldn't happen that way, and trying to convince a reader that it might would simply obscure the real point of a young woman alone with her lack of physical pain and her overwhelming pain in every other way.

Of course much speculative fiction is concerned with explanations: the science, the alien culture, the magic, the monster, the problem and its solution. But much of feminist sf, it seems to me, takes the other path: the path of assuming the world is as it is in the story, and requires no explanation. The path of fundamental assumption, rather than of constantly explaining why the world of the story is better or worse.

My Mars stories are speculative in several ways, the most overlooked of which (until recently) has always been the lack of reference to Mars' gender (I've seen Mars reviewed through the years as both male and female, with no discernible notice on the part of reviewers that there might be another way to read...) And recently I had someone who had never read one of the stories ask me, "But the first thing we do when a child is born is ask is it a boy or a girl? How can you justify that no one around the character ever comments on the character's gender, when we do that all the time in real life?"

And eventually I got impatient and said, It's speculative fiction. I can do anything I want.

Timmi Duchamp said...

That's an excellent point, Kelley. A person who escapes gender-hailing (what Althusser calls "interpellation) from birth-- without comment-- even when everyone else in that world experiences it in fact constitutes a "what if" premise. It's the sort of premise Sturgeon occasionally used, though unlike your Mars stories, his stories were explicitly about the particular (narrative) consequences of such a premise. Your use of the premise is necessarily invisible to the other characters (since the premise dictates that that is so); instead of showing us narrative consequences, your stories illuminate the reader's responses to that invisibility.