Iain M Banks on why science fiction is not for dabblers

Twitter (which gives me so many great links) led me to this article in The Guardian by Iain M Banks. In it he addresses the crossover of literary writers into SF. He uses a great example of a writer coming up with a fantastic new idea – basically, a murder mystery where the crazy twist is that the butler did it! And he equates this to non-genre writers dabbling in SF. And he’s right.

If a person hasn’t read a great deal of SF, then decides to write some, it’s almost certain the person in question will be, to some degree, rehashing old ground. If the sum total of a person’s SF experience is Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey then anything they come up with is likely to have been dealt with before in one way or another.

Banks says:

…science fiction is a dialogue, a process. All writing is, in a sense; a writer will read something – perhaps something quite famous, even a classic – and think “But what if it had been done this way instead . . . ?” And, standing on the shoulders of that particular giant, write something initially similar but developmentally different, so that the field evolves and further twists and turns are added to how stories are told as well as to the expectations and the knowledge of pre-existing literary patterns readers bring to those stories. Science fiction has its own history, its own legacy of what’s been done, what’s been superseded, what’s so much part of the furniture it’s practically part of the fabric now, what’s become no more than a joke . . . and so on. It’s just plain foolish, as well as comically arrogant, to ignore all this, to fail to do the most basic research.

As he says, failure to do this research when trying your hand at SF leads:

…usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.

It’s not elitism, it’s simply respecting the genre you’re writing in. There are some genres where repeating the old tropes in new places with new characters is enough, and the readers enjoy that. But even those old genres still evolve and new ideas permeate well-trodden ground. But with science fiction the development of ideas is so rapid and all-encompassing that not studying the genre is foolish.

If you want to be a good writer, you must read. I don’t know any good writers that don’t read like books are being rounded up and burned the next day. We can’t read enough. I’ll read a page at every opportunity. Apart from experiencing how others writers do it, you’re an integral part of the evolution of fiction by being a reader. Do you know any artists that don’t visit galleries? Do you know any musicians that don’t listen to music?

Reading voraciously is a pre-requisite for being a good writer. And reading within your genre is essential to know what’s happening in the field of writing you want to be involved with. It’s essential also to read outside your genre – everything from novels to short stories to newspapers – to get as broad an experience of writing as you can and to learn from that. But it’s never more important to know your genre than it is with science fiction.

Read all of Banks’ article – it’s essential reading.

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4 thoughts on “Iain M Banks on why science fiction is not for dabblers

  1. “reading within your genre is essential to know what’s happening in the field of writing you want to be involved with”

    With the exception of LOTR, I never read much fantasy fiction. Then I started writing, and found myself gravitating towards writing fantasy. I have since started reading fantasy as a result. A humbling experience, but a wonderful one. Currently on book 3 of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which I bought on a whim – a whim that must have been smiled on by the gods, highly recommend it if you haven’t already read it.

  2. I adore Iain Banks’s work. He writes like his stories simply exist. Any writer who can do this is at his or her core an avid reader. So many people don’t understand that learning in the field of writing, involves reading heaps. “Shouldn’t we practice instead?”, they ask. Getting some people to understand that it is important to read all works, not just masterful works, is really difficult.

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