Although I have spent most of my career writing crime fiction, my first published books were science fiction, released between 1981 and 1983. In places where respectable writers meet, it is customary for the crime novelist to lower her voice when introducing herself. But if you mean to confess to writing science fiction, it’s probably wise to don a false moustache as well. So the respectable writers won’t follow you home and throw stones at your windows.
These artificial divisions between writing genres are the bane of our industry. They make readers pick sides, and actively avoid books and writers they might very well enjoy. They make writers choose between their literary and commercial ambitions, when both are equally laudable and productive. Worst of all, they divert attention from the only division which matters, the one between good writing and bad writing.
My three science fiction books hold a special place in my heart. I’ve written more successful books since; I’ve probably written better books since. But these were the first that I saw published, and I’m proud of them.
By the time I was writing The Matrix – no, not that one, but I used the title first – I’d just about given up on finding a publisher. I’d tried different types of book – harder and softer edged, more and less literary, trying my hand at whatever seemed to be in vogue that season – and though I received some encouraging comments from publishers, no one came through with an offer. So I thought, In that case, I’m going to write what pleases me. And it was to science fiction that I returned (you can read a free extract of The Matrix here and there are details of discounts to my SF books below).
I thought then and I still think that it is the ultimate test of creativity in a writer. We all invent our own little worlds for our characters to inhabit; but in SF you have to, or at least can, do it literally. Invent worlds. Invent places, people and political structures that are entirely alien to our own. And by so doing, focus the reader’s mind – more sharply, more clearly than in any other way – on what it means to be human. What are our abiding strengths and betraying weaknesses. What things matter most to us when everything familiar is stripped away.
And how the urges that motivate us, the courage and honesty and self-respect that keep us up on our back legs, slugging away against iniquity, when it would be so much easier to slink off and leave the job to someone else, in fact all those moral and psychological imperatives that we recognise as the burden and stamp of humanity, may also be shared by creatures whose physiology is entirely unlike our own. Suggesting – to put it at its simplest - that being human is not a question of whether or not your ears are pointed.
And maybe that is the real achievement of good science fiction. It makes you think. It even makes you think outside the box. If it stirs, amuses and entertains you at the same time, what’s not to like?
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Jo Bannister published her science fiction novels The Matrix, The Winter Plain and A Cactus Garden in 1981, 1982 and 1983 respectively. All three novels are now available for the first time in ebook, and are now in print again via Bello's print-on-demand programme. Pan Macmillan's Bello imprint gives wonderful out-of-print books a new lease of life, and you can see more of their titles here.