The End of Reality: Why Novels are getting Weirder
I recently did an event at the Chester Literature Festival. At one point I was told to ask the audience a question.
I asked: 'Is there a type of book you would never pick up?'
A woman answered, straight away, and with a hint of pride: 'Yes. A science fiction book.'
'Are you sure?'
I then went for the standard hypocrisy test. 'Even when it is written by Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro or Mary Shelley?'
'Oh, I like The Handmaid's Tale,' she admitted. 'And Frankenstein. But generally I like realistic books.'
I got even grumpier about this, and was going to argue some more, but I didn't need to. Sitting beside her was a member of a science fiction and fantasy book group who grumbled on my behalf. They got into a debate about the phrase 'realistic books'.
I've just been lucky enough to get my mitts on the new Lauren Beukes book, The Shining Girls. Lauren, who won the coveted Arthur C Clarke award for Zoo City in 2011, writes thrillers. But not your everyday Harlan Coben type thrillers. No, no. These are trippy sci-fi neo-noir twisted thrillers. As the marketing blurb says in bold capitals: 'A NEW TYPE OF THRILLER. FROM A NEW BREED OF WRITER.'
I wondered if Lauren ever self-consciously thinks of genre when she writes. So I asked her. 'I write the stories that occur to me' she said. 'That I'd like to read. That are inventive and playful but that still say something meaningful about who we are in the world. I find it easier to be political if you mash it up with the fantastical.'
Lauren reckons this is nothing new. After all, people like Stephen King and Michael Crichton twisted reality in their thrillers decades ago and sold millions in the process. And thinking about genre may help booksellers but it doesn't help writers. Lauren herself finds the genre wars 'incredibly tiresome'. So do I, to be honest. Because where there is such a war, sci-fi has traditionally been on the losing side.
But what I do find really interesting is the question as to why Lauren and this 'new breed' are being drawn increasingly to stories where reality, or historical reality is tilted, twisted, messed about with. Is it because reality itself is getting weirder? For instance, you are no longer seen as a weirdo if you believe in aliens. Because many of the brightest scientists on the planet believe in aliens. And things quantum physics and simulation theory have scrambled our minds even further.
A couple of days ago I chatted with another writer of (very) unconventional thrillers, Nick Harkaway. His fantasy-espionage story Angelmaker was one of the fiction highlights of this year - well, maybe not for the woman at the Chester Literature Festival. 'When you can grow organs on a polymer frame and read images from the brain you're well into things which seem impossible,' Nick says. 'Most literature is in denial about that - as are most people.'
Maybe people who dismiss any subject matter as weird have never really looked at our present reality.
When people sit down to write a 'realistic' novel, right now, you have to wonder what they are writing about. Is there such a thing, in a digital and interconnected age of divergent technologies, media and world-views, as a shared reality?
'It's nostalgia for a kind of permanent 1991,' reckons Nick. 'Written in most cases on a modern computer.' But he notes that literature, and attitudes towards it, are evolving. While there have always been the books that cross boundaries - 1984, Gormenghast, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - people are writing more of them.
'There have been a lot of books messing with "reality" recently, perhaps because the concept has become so slippery,' Nick said. 'Throw in some quantum computing and 'real' is very weird indeed.'
Maybe the problem is that genre terms such as sci-fi and fantasy come with a lot of geeky baggage. Maybe we need something broader. Weird fiction, is what China Mieville calls his work. But weird implies there is an agreed normality somewhere else. Post-realist? Maybe all good fiction now is post-realist. Think of a mainstream thriller such as S J Watson's Before I Go To Sleep. The narrator is a woman who has no idea what her 'real' life actually consists of. To a lesser degree, we all feel a bit like that these days.
Life is so complicated and so shifting that the old model for containing it doesn't fit any more. It's like trying to dress a swimming pool in a suit and tie.
I know this because last year, in my arrogance, I set out to write my masterpiece. A serious novel about where we are, as a species. This was my chance to offer a panoramic socio-realist view of society. The novel, called The Humans, has ended up being a black comedy that owes more to Douglas Adams than Emile Zola. Furthermore, though it is (hopefully) a warm look at love and family life it ended up being narrated by an extra-terrestrial life form. I stared at what we are and concluded that we are becoming quite alien, to ourselves, to each other. And that's funny and scary all at once.
Put simply, the centre isn't holding. The person who watches Fox News is living in a different reality to the person who reads the Guardian or The Huffington Post.
If you are 25 or over the world has changed beyond all recognition in your lifetime. The way we communicate with friends, the way we get our news, the way we buy stuff, and increasingly the way we read books - all that is changing. We are slicing up the cake of reality into seven billion pieces. We are living side by side and miles away from each other all at once. The only way to see ourselves is to take a large step back. Or sideways.
'I think audiences are definitely opening themselves to science fiction,' says James Smythe, author of 'lonely spaceman' book The Explorer, predicted to be one of the break-out sci-fi successes of 2013.
'Popular culture is basically approving more - and weirder SF,' he told me during a twitter chat. 'A few years ago, Scandi-crime and erotica weren't front shelves. Then they sold, and they were.'
James' agent, Sam Copeland of RCW, is one of a growing number who are taking on clients telling stories outside the usual remit for lit fic. He is also positive about the future. But while he senses a growing acceptance and admiration of science fiction, huge prejudices still remain.
'Only last week I had a debate with a very well-known literary author who stated that "As soon as a science fiction book is well-written, it becomes literary fiction". This is not the first time I have heard this opinion,' he told me. It remains though, a ridiculous opinion. Someone like Kurt Vonnegut, now he is dead, is seen as literary, but he spent a whole lifetime fighting such prejudices. And JG Ballard was just as good a writer when he was bracketed as a 'genre' writer as he was writing about the second world war.
I asked James Smythe why writers of our generation are drawn to the post-real. 'I think there's an element of going to it because we're in it. What we remember of sci-fi when we were kids, we're there. Our reality has already been fictionalised over the years so we have no problem accepting fictions that push it further.'
A short while after I heard this, Nick Harkaway sent me a link to an article on slate.com with the headline 'Hackers Could Use Brain Scan Devices to Steal Secrets From Your Mind'.
We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. And we're not in 1991 either.
Our society is rolling into some very strange, dark and exciting new areas, beyond our former imaginings. Shouldn't we be ready - two centuries after Frankenstein - to finally accept that fiction must do the same?
I believe we should, in whatever genre we happen to write.
Reality is dead. We are all post-realists now.