Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

What Difference an M Makes

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

One of my pleasures is reading. It is also one of my guilty pleasures as I tend to read books of a speculative nature. My thoughts have always dwelled near the question why would I want to read about the world I live in? Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the escape? Yes, I’m an escapist, and that has included worlds of alternative reality, fantastic worlds, futuristic worlds, and even alternatively represented worlds such as animation. With that (probably unsurprising) admission out of the way I can get to a topic that has bothered me for quite a while, which has also had a new development (new if only in the case that I recently noticed it).

Authors, genres, sorting and status.

An author I’m rather fond of is Iain Banks. he writes fiction. Most of it could be in this world although some of it is a bit iffy, or at least somewhat psychotic. Okay, that describes most fiction as how “real” is the illuminati in comparison to Area 51 and extra terrestrials? I first read Banks’ Dead Air, which I borrowed from a friend in 2004. I loved it, but I couldn’t remember who had written it after I gave it back and didn’t read anything else of his for half a decade. When I finally did figure out who that Scottish writer my Scottish friend loaned me was I was confronted with two things. The first was Iain Banks. I proceeded to read The Steep Approach to Garbadale, The Business, and Whit. The second thing I found was Iain M Banks, the author of the Culture series of science fiction and various one offs. Those of you who might have bothered to guess will probably realize that Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks are the same person.

Average logic seems to hold that people cannot write for multiple genres at once. Or that audiences don’t shop for multiple genres.

But maybe logic should think of all the pseudonyms out there. And then maybe question the purpose of those alternate pen names: Banks wrote 3 books as Banks then got his publishers to publish a sci-fi book. it came out under M. Banks so as not to confuse audiences (or so holds the WIkipedia entry). Maybe it’s for the readers. It’s definitely not because Banks cannot write for both genres as he does well and has done will for over two decades and twenty books.

So why is it that the United States publisher (Orbit) has chosen to publish Banks’ latest novel, Transitions, by Iain M. Banks? It was published in the United Kingdom as a book by Iain Banks and the two book covers are visible, unproblematically, on Banks’ website showing the different covers and different names.

Banks has no problem with his name separation (and integration). So why do I care? What is it that I see as troubling and annoying about both the separation and integration of a science fiction identity and a fiction identity? Mainly status.
Salman Rushdie is a good, similar example. Rushdie’s works are fantastic. They question reality. But they’re “Fiction.” Even one of his earliest works, Grimus, a very “science fiction and fantasy” novel if ever there were one, is happily labeled “Fiction” and sorted alongside Rushdie’s other, “serious” books. While it is labeled “Fantasy novel/Science Fiction” on Wikipedia the Amazon entry (as well as most other booksellers) has ignored this and simply lists it as “Literature & Fiction.”

In bookstores’ entry systems especially of 20 years ago, when both the M and Rushdie’s singular straying happened, Fiction was the high genre and anything more “generic,” anything that needed a modifier, be it fantasy, science fiction, thriller, romance, was the low move toward rubbish, or at least special audiences (where special has all of its connotations, good and bad).

Rushdie rode his barely (and yet very) “Fiction” style out to be one of the most influential writers of the late 20th century. This has many parts to do with his status as a post colonial, and yet British, subject as well as the politico-religious issues surrounding Satanic Verses. However, as his work was “serious” it brought in the very not serious early novel. This preserved the singular location of an author within a store, and essentially, the analogue archive.

In contrast, Neal Stephenson, a second prime example, whose early work was in fiction (The Big-U, Zodiac and a few disavowed co-written works) before he smashed onto the scene with Snow Crash and Diamond Age, two cyberpunk highlights. Stephenson is located in the science fiction section. Again, this is in contrast to his incredibly popular (alternative) historical fiction Cryptonomicon and Baroque Cycle. Because his original hits were in science fiction he has remained in that area. This has not prevented him from garnering support and sales, but it has prevented him from winning awards other than those in science fiction, which his popular historical fiction novels do not fit. It has placed him, marked him, classified him, as a science fiction author.

The placement within the archive, one’s labeling/identificying denotes the status of the author. Rushdie is respected as he is in Fiction. Stephenson is less respected as he is in Science-Fiction. Banks avoided this very possibility with the little M., which separated identities, forced his presence into both places of the archive (and store). With the doubled name Banks broke the status game.

But that is exactly where I see the problem now. My guess is that within the United States, where sci-fi is low, but popular, M. Banks and the Culture novels sell better. This might be switched in teh UK where Banks is known as a Scottish author and gets additional sales because of that and the brogue of his Fiction novels.

The collapse of Banks to M. Banks within the US does a few things. It attempts to ride M. Banks’ greater popularity so as to increase the Fiction sales. This is fine as far as anything Capitalistic goes. However, it also will problematize the location, and therefore status of Banks in the Ficiton section. As M. Banks his previous Fiction books stand to be reissued as M. Banks and relocated to the sci-fi section. In some ways this makes no sense, in others it’s good business, but I see it simply as the denigration and codification of generic borders.