Book Festival: Ken McLeod and Adam Roberts

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Ken McLeod and Adam Roberts, Stuart Kelly

This Edinburgh International Book Festival event was chaired by, and part of a series of events chosen by, Scotland on Sunday’s Literary Editor Stuart Kelly. The topic was no less than “The Future of Fiction: Bonfire of the Genres”, or more straightforwardly put: why does mainstream literature suck, while all the interesting stuff is happening in science fiction and speculative fiction? To address this Kelly had summoned two authors of the latter field, Scots sci-fi writer Ken McLeod and the, to me at least, less known Adam Roberts.

On the question whether the “literary novel” needs inspiration, “a blood transfusion”, from science fiction, McLeod began by telling that he recently read a mainstream novel, “one of the most highly praised literary novels of the past few years, which was Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” McLeod was surprised by McEwan’s novel. He thought it was “over-praised, the plot was that of a Victorian melodrama,” and that the novel’s science, mainly brain surgery, was done in a rather “clunky” way. A science fiction writer writing a novel like Saturday “would have angled in the brain surgery and the economics and the politics in a very different way.”

Science fiction as a genre, McLeod said, originally got its very own blood transfusion from another genre, after establishing itself as its own genre in the 1920s, and that genre was pulp fiction. “The very clipped dialogue, the way of conveying information by implication rather than by explication,” all techniques coming out of that “rather unrespectable origin”. It was a style of writing that, according to McLeod, Hemingway brought to a form of art and into mainstream literature, and upon which science fiction grew, and still is growing, to some extent.

Roberts, who is also a professor in English literature at the University of London, put forward the thesis of a colleague of his that in the beginning of the 20th century there was “a kind of battle between science fiction on the one hand and literary modernism on the other. A clash between Wells on one hand and Conrad on the other. And literary modernism ‘won’; it won as far as that’s what the academy decided to focus upon.” This means, Roberts argued, that science fiction went down the popular route, in the footsteps of Stephenson, Doyle, Scott or Defoe, essentially a far older literary tradition.

Roberts had also read McEwan’s Saturday - “a terrible novel” - but also the same author’s most recent novel Solar, which is exploring a science fiction theme of global warming. McEwan, said Roberts, like some other writers, is interested in science fiction because some of the most interesting stuff is being done within that genre. So why doesn’t it work when mainstream writers like McEwan or Philip Roth take science fiction elements in their work? Because they don’t know the backlog of the genre well enough, they haven’t read sci-fi novels since their teenage years, and are sometimes unaware of what’s already been tried within science fiction.

All in all a splendid event in front of a much too small crowd at this year’s Book Festival.