SciFi Themes Invade the Literary World

Ideas and themes once found only in science fiction are now a staple of films and novels. But not all writers dipping into the genre want to be associated with it. Rick Kleffel of member station KUSP reports.

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The stereotypical science fiction book is filled with spaceships, aliens and rampaging robots. Although that was true in the first half of the last century, the sci-fi genre actually began to branch out in the 1950s, but it still couldn't completely break free from the stereotype. Now in contemporary culture where, as the saying goes, technology is sometimes indistinguishable from magic, science fiction is moving into the mainstream. From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel explains.

RICK KLEFFEL reporting:

Imaginary worlds, evolutionary changes, alternate histories, the literary techniques used by science fiction writers are everywhere, from the Booker Prize short list to character-driven Hollywood romances.

(Soundbite from "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind")

Mr. JIM CARREY: (As Joel Barish) It would be different if we could just give it another go-around.

Ms. KATE WINSLET: (As Clementine Kruczynski) Remember me. Try your best. Maybe we can.

KLEFFEL: The "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" plays like a complex tale of love lost and rediscovered, but it's based on a technology that does not yet exist.

Mr. TERRY PRATCHETT (Author): People who say that they don't like science fiction or, `My book is not science fiction,' or whatever don't really understand that science fiction is now many, many different things.

KLEFFEL: Terry Pratchett is one of science fiction's most popular and best-selling authors. He's been around long enough to understand just how pervasive science fiction is.

Mr. PRATCHETT: It's always been my theory that what are known as genres are, in effect, flavors, and one of the things that we do notice over the years is that areas that were once colonized by science fiction are now being colonized even by literary fiction as well. You know, people no longer worry too much about having a bit of SF in an otherwise literary novel.

KLEFFEL: Take, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker Prize-winning author of "The Remains of the Day." His new novel, "Never Let Me Go," is short-listed for a 2005 Booker Prize. It's the touching story of three students. There's just one catch.

Mr. KAZUO ISHIGURO (Author): It follows the lives, the loves, the relationships and friendships between principally these three kids who grow up to be young adults, but they gradually discover who they are, which is that they're cloned children, and they've been cloned for a particular purpose, which is to supply organs for an organ donation program.

KLEFFEL: This may sound like the plot of the science fiction movie flop "The Island," but in Ishiguro's hands it becomes an evocative meditation about the nature of humanity.

Mr. ISHIGURO: I'm interested in that question. So what does it mean to be human? So in this novel, I can ask that question in an almost literal way. Because I've introduced the notion that these people are cloned, their very humanness is challenged by other characters.

KLEFFEL: While science fiction ideas are being used by literary authors, it's also true that literary influences are hard at work in the world of science fiction.

Ms. SUSANNA CLARKE (Author): I've drawn upon a lot of 19th-century English writers like Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, to sort of provide the language, and to some extent I've copied their settings.

KLEFFEL: That's Susanna Clarke, author of the best-selling novel "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell." Clarke won the Hugo Award for best novel at the World Science Fiction Convention this year in Glasgow. In spite of her literary inclinations, Clarke explained in her acceptance speech that her novel is first and foremost a work of genre fantasy.

Ms. CLARKE: I was having some conversations with a really lovely man, and he said, `But I'm rather worried by your tendency to call this a fantasy novel. Couldn't you say it's a novel of the fantastic, but not a fantasy novel?' And I said, `It's got magicians and fairies in it, you know. Of course it's a fantasy novel.'

KLEFFEL: "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" is the story of two magicians in 19th-century England who turn magic into a technology to fight the Napoleonic Wars. In this passage, Strange, when offered a mumbo-jumbo explanation of how magic works by a guest at a dinner party, corrects that notion.

Ms. CLARKE: (Reading) `"I am afraid I have never done anything remotely resembling what you described," said Strange. "It seems rather complicated, and I do not think it would work. As to how I do magic, there are many, many procedures. As many, I dare say, as for making war."'

KLEFFEL: Though the language and manners of her novel are influenced by 19th-century writers, Clarke says that science fiction and fantasy offer a broader palette from which to create.

Ms. CLARKE: With science fiction and fantasy, the possibilities are endless. You can do what you like as long as you can find the language to make it work, and that's very liberating for the writer and it's very liberating for the reader.

Mr. ISHIGURO: You need to enter into fictional landscape...

KLEFFEL: Again, Kazuo Ishiguro.

Mr. ISHIGURO: ...where the usual expectations of realism are announced to have been abandoned right from the word go, and I find that quite an exciting place to put the reader.

KLEFFEL: But Ishiguro is careful to explain that "Never Let Me Go" is not exactly science fiction. Like most literary authors, while he's willing to use the concepts, he's not eager to embrace the genre.

Mr. ISHIGURO: I don't know. I mean, I worry less about categories and genres, you know. I use whatever I can. I'm kind of used to that, you know, that ambitious art reaching out and using science to create what--all right, you want to call it science fiction, fine, but I mean, it might not fulfill a lot of the genre expectations of sci-fi fans.

KLEFFEL: It's true, you won't find "Never Let Me Go" shelved in the sci-fi section of the bookstore. You won't find Michael Cunningham's "Specimen Days" or Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" there, either. Even words that were once pure science fiction, robot, clone, genetic engineering, are now part of our everyday vocabulary. Author Terry Pratchett.

Mr. PRATCHETT: I think the future of science fiction, alas, is to be subsumed into mainstream literature. Not necessarily the Booker Prize-winning subset of mainstream literature, but just the books that we read every day. It's become part of the culture now.

KLEFFEL: And Pratchett may be right. To quote a famous science fiction franchise, "Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated." For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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