Ian McEwan is Clueless about Science Fiction

I have to admit that I never liked Ian McEwan. He always struck me as the sort of white middle class dude novelist who believes that his white middle class dude stories are somehow of universal human relevance. I disliked Atonement intensely and didn’t feel much more charitable towards Saturday and On Chesil Beach, all of which came out when I was at university or – in the case of On Chesil Beach – shortly after I finished and the writings of important and award winning white dude novelists were something I was supposed to care about. Coincidentally, I just realised that McEwan has published four novels plus a fifth, which will be the subject of this post, since On Chesil Beach, all of which completely passed me by, which shows that once I finished university I stopped paying attention to writers whose work I don’t like. Or maybe McEwan’s cultural relevance is fading and his latter books got less attention than his earlier ones.

Besides, McEwan is the sort of writer who inevitably has to weigh in on every political issue and is usually on the wrong side. He made islamophobic remarks, was in favour of the Iraq War and criticised anti-war protesters (though he has since admitted that he was wrong and the protesters right – well, better late than never). Though amazingly, he is opposed to Brexit, so maybe he really has learned. And then there is the appalling treatment of his first wife, who apparently embarassed him in front of his cool friends, because she was into New Age stuff. His Wikipedia entry has the whole ugly story with links and sources.

So in short, I don’t like Ian McEwan and I don’t care for his work. And when I saw that he had a new book out called Machines Like Me, which was apparently about artificial intelligence, I groaned and thought, “Oh great, another white dude novelist who deigns to descend from literary heights and either believes he invented science fiction or that he doesn’t write it at all. And I bet the novel is totally unoriginal and tells a story that has been done to death.” Then I went about my day, cause I stopped caring about what Ian McEwan wrote when I finished university.

However, other folks still pay attention to what Ian McEwan says or does and so Tim Adams’ recent interview with Ian McEwan in The Guardian caught some attention among genre folks for the complete and utter cluelessness both interviewer and interviewee display about science fiction.

Here is a quote:

McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

I guess even at The Guardian (which actually does a pretty good job of covering genre fiction otherwise) you could hear the groans from science fiction folks, as they wonder how McEwan has managed to miss that science fiction has done all that and asked precisely those questions and has done it for decades. And indeed, D. Franklin asks exactly that question in this excellent Twitter thread, which is also full of suggestions for books and movies (There are responses like, “But surely he has seen 2001 or Blade Runner or Humans or Avengers: Age of Ultron or Ex Machina or Star Trek: The Next Generation?”) to fill Ian McEwan’s and Tim Adams’ knowledge gap. And finally, someone also asks, “But surely he has read at least Frankenstein?”

Well, apparently McEwan has read Frankenstein, he just didn’t get it, at any rate if this quote from the interview is any indication:

In this sense, you might say, he is coming at the AI question from the opposite angle to Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. “There the monster is a metaphor for science out of control, but it is ourselves out of control that I am interested in.”

ETA: It turns out that they really did hear the groans at The Guardian, for on April 18, they published a piece of Sarah Ditum about how the snobbery of Ian McEwan and other literary authors such as Vladimir Nabokov and yes, Margaret Atwood, is somewhat behind the times, especially since Margaret Atwood has embraced the science fiction label by now and Nabokov is too dead to comment. Sarah Ditum also tries to explain where the snobbery against science fiction came from and that it is usually based on outdated ideas about the genre. Finally, she also interviews authors who proudly write science fiction and who straddle the line between literary and science fiction. It’s a much better and more interesting article than the Ian McEwan interview that inspired it.

ETA 2: At Factor Daily, Gautham Shenoy also responds to Ian McEwan and declares that McEwan displays a remarkable amount of ignorance for a Booker Prize winner.

Of course, it’s possible that McEwan was misquoted or his words taken out of context, as some folks in the comments at File 770 wonder. After all, we’ve seen again and again when writers normally known for literary fiction suddenly decide to write science fiction that even if the writer in question isn’t clueless about science fiction, a lot of mainstream critics are and reviews and interviews tend to reflect that. One example is Frank Schätzing‘s 2009 novel Limit, a science fiction novel (though marketed as a thriller) wherein a space elevator plays a role. Now Schätzing himself definitely isn’t clueless about science fiction, but every single mainstream review of the novel focussed so totally on the space elevator and what an awesome innovative idea it was that they completely forgot to mention what the novel actually was about (aside from a space elevator, obviously) or whether it was any good. Interviews were just as bad, because Schätzing found himself having to explain what a space elevator is and how it works over and over again and wasn’t even asked a single question about the rest of the novel.

So in short, it’s quite possible that interviewer Tim Adams quoted McEwan out of context, especially since The Guardian article is not a direct interview transcript, but rather a profile with quotes. However in the comments at File 770, John S. linked to two more articles about McEwan’s newest novel, which seem to confirm that he really is as clueless as he comes across.

The first of this is an article by Matt Reynolds in Wired, a source no one would accuse of being clueless about science fiction, which literally starts out with the sentence “Ian McEwan has no interest in science fiction.”

The second article, an interview conducted by Barry Didcock and published in the Scottish newspaper The Herald, is even more damning. Here is a quote:

“One of the reasons I’ve never been a fan of science fiction is that by setting a novel in the future it always has a vaguely predictive quality. The chances of it being right are minimal,” he says. “The other is the technological stuff. Although I’m fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying ‘Well if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics’.”

Oh dear, so McEwan is a mundane science fiction adherent, too, not that he has ever heard of the term. Not to mention that even if FTL breaks his suspension of disbelief, there are still plenty of science fiction novels for him to read without a whiff of FTL.

Let’s have another quote from The Herald interview:

He isn’t over-fond of other labels for it either, such as speculative fiction or alternative history. “I think it lies along the path of many of my earlier novels. I think of it as a literary novel.” But he does admit that besides allowing him to have Turing as a character, the alternate 1982 setting makes him “immune from any of the demands of the realistic novel, which I’ve been in flight from for these last few novels. I spent years writing novels which I patiently researched to get everything right and getting everything right is incredibly hard. You always get letters correcting you on this and that. Here, I’m beyond correction because everything is fake. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

And here we have the classic, “I’m not writing science fiction or speculative fiction or alternate history [except that he totally is], I’m writing literary fiction.” Plus, he apparently opted to set his novel in an alternate 1982 with robots and a living Alan Turing, because he was too lazy to do his research, which is certainly something. Though I guess we should be grateful that McEwan didn’t opt to write about an alternate reality where the Nazis won WWII, cause that has totally never been done before.

Now I really wish the endless literary vs. genre fiction debate would die already and I’m not a fan of the blanket dismissals of literary fiction you find in some corners of SFF either. I’ve repeatedly defended Margaret Atwood, who still gets dinged for something dismissive about science fiction (it’s about giant squids) she said in an interview more than ten years ago. Never mind that we still don’t know the full context of the “giant squid” remark and likely never will, unless the BBC releases the full radio interview during which said remark was made. And never mind that Margaret Atwood has repeatedly clarified what she meant and has actually outed herself as a fan of sorts (she read superhero comics and Weird Tales as a kid) since. Large parts of the SFF community still hate her for the “giant squid” remark and wouldn’t even nominate The Handmaid’s Tale TV series for a Hugo two years in a row (while nominating two episodes each of the execrable Good Place in 2018 and 2019), because the TV show which won every award imaginable in 2017/2018 isn’t good enough for the Hugos, cause some people hate the author of the novel the series is based upon.

Not to mention that there is a lot of very good SFF published outside the genre, e.g. Zone One and Underground Railroad (which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Clarke Award) by Colson Whitehead, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (as well as Gentlemen of the Road and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which are at least genre-adjacent) by Michael Chabon, The Power by Naomi Alderman, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, Vox by Christina Dalcher, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas and yes, The Handmaid’s Tale as well as The Heart Goes Last and the MaddAdam trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

But whenever it seems that we can finally lay the old genre vs. literary fiction debate to rest for good, some white dude literary writer, usually of the critically acclaimed sort, comes along and writes the world’s most cliched science fiction novel, only that he of course would never lower himself to write SF, oh no. And based on the interviews and articles linked above, Machines Like Me does sound like the world’s most cliched science fiction novel. I mean, the robot models are named Adam and Eve. There is a love triangle involving a sexbot (actually, if those robots have any other purpose than sex, it’s not discernible from the articles). There is the question whether robots can distinguish between justice and mercy, a debate that Elijah Bailey and Daneel R. Olivaw already has in The Caves of Steel sixty-five years ago. And based on this excerpt from the Times Literary Supplement, the novel is just as bad as it sounds. The infodump in the second excerpt is particularly groan-worthy. Though at least we learn that the robots aren’t good only for sex, but also give cooking advice and vet potential dates for you.

ETA: According to this largely positive review by Marcel Theroux from The Guardian (though he does criticise the infodumps), McEwan also explains the technical details of how his robot Adam is able to able to achieve erections, for those who really care about the tech specs of sexbots. This book really seems to be veering off into Alfred and Bertha territory.

ETA 2: Here is another review of Machines Like Me. This one is by Julian Lucas in The New Yorker. Once more, the review is largely positive, though Julian Lucas is less clueless about science fiction than Ian McEwan.

Honestly, when I read about Machines Like Me, I kept thinking: This has to be an elaborate parody. Not even Ian McEwan could be so clueless. After all, he’s friends with Martin Amis, as every article unfailingly notes (well, they’re both the same kind of unpleasant white dude novelists). McEwan must have known Kingsley Amis or at least met him. And Kingsley Amis could have told him how very cliched his “not really SF” novel was.

But alas, it seems that McEwan is one hundred percent serious and truly has no idea how silly and cliched the plot of Machines Like Me sounds. So I’d like to close with this great 2011 article, also from The Guardian, by the late Iain M. Banks, which Gareth L. Powell mentioned on Twitter. Banks couldn’t possibly have known about Ian McEwan’s totally original, never done before “not science fiction” novel, though the hypothetical example of a clueless literary writer pitching the world’s most cliched mystery novel certainly sounds like he was taking aim at McEwan (though there are so many other examples).

So let’s have a quote from Iain M. Banks:

The point is that 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. In a literature so concerned with social as well as technical innovation, with the effects of change – incremental as well as abrupt – on individual humans and humanity as whole, this is a grievous, fundamentally hubristic mistake to commit.

And here is the moneyshot:

In the end, writing about what you know – that hoary and potentially limiting, even stultifying piece of advice – might be best seen as applying to the type of story you’re thinking of writing rather than to the details of what happens within it and perhaps, with that in mind, a better precept might be to write about what you love, rather than what you have a degree of contempt for but will deign to lower yourself to, just to show the rest of us how it’s done.

This last bit of advice applies not just to literary writers dabbling in SFF, by the way, but indeed to all writers, including indie writers who write romance, because they think it’s easy money, though they have no real knowledge of and respect for the genre and would rather write something else.

So write what you love. And have some knowledge of the genre you’re planning to write.

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12 Responses to Ian McEwan is Clueless about Science Fiction

  1. It could be worse; Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer for a cliched and derivative alt-history SF novel.

    Or did I miss something special about his book that made it special?

    • Cora says:

      He won both the Pulitzer and the Clarke Award, so a lot of people in the literary and SFF world liked that novel, though it wasn’t my cup of tea either.

  2. Mike Glyer says:

    Initially I was in the “offended by Atwood’s quote” camp, til she said some of the things you reference, and even showed up to participate at the Kitschie Awards. It was only when I had the impression she didn’t want into sff that I was annoyed. Like everybody else, if she wants in, she’s in!

    • Cora says:

      I remember being shocked about that Atwood quote, because from some references to Doctor Who, the Shadow, Weird Tales and other genre-ish things in her books, I’d gotten the impression that she was a fan of sorts. It was only when I tried to track down the actual quote for my MA thesis that I found out that it was from a radio interview (which I really, really wish the BBC would put online) and that we don’t know the full context. I’m willing to accept that she expressed herself badly. And if she wants to be an SF author, she is one. Meanwhile, Ian McEwan obviously doesn’t want in, so good riddance to him.

  3. The thing about labels is, you can apply as many of them to a book as you want. Labels aren’t folders or shelves. You have to choose WHERE to put something when you put it in a file cabinet or on a shelf, but in today’s digital world, you can slap on multiple labels to any document.

    A book can be science fiction and literary fiction and alternate history and romance. It can be fantasy and YA and adventure. Writers like Atwood have two reasons to dislike the science fiction label: one is snobbery (to them, if it’s science fiction, it can’t be good) and the other is money (they think it won’t sell as well if it’s thought of as science fiction). I suspect for her it’s the latter, but I’m guessing.

    In a way, the ultimate label for a book is its cover. The cover tells you what to expect from a book. All of my novels are science fiction; most have some kind of love story, but if the romance is so intrinsic to the story that it can’t be removed I make sure the cover has the main characters because that is the tip-off to readers to expect a romance. Covers raise expectations, and a writer should not raise expectations and then not meet them. This is why my cover characters are always fully clothed. I don’t write steamy sex scenes, and nothing says steamy like a naked torso.

    • Cora says:

      I totally agree. Books can be and often are more than one genre and most books are shelved in multiple categories at Amazon and other online vendors anyway.

      I’m not sure if it’s always about sales either. With big name literary fiction writers like McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro (another one who doesn’t write SFF, though he clearly does) and Margaret Atwood it probably is, but a lot of the lesser known literary authors don’t sell all that well and might do better in SFF. On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem started out published by an SFF imprint with respective covers and is now marketed as and considered a literary author, though many of his books are still genre and he doesn’t deny it either. His latest is a very entertaining crime novel. Or take Lauren Beukes, who started out as an SFF author, but is now marketed as a mainstream thriller author, even though her novels are still SFF. But mainstream thrillers and crime fiction are the most popular genre in the UK, where most of Beukes readership is, and her sales are probably better now she is considered a thriller author, especially since The Shining Girls was pushed by Richard and Judy’s Book Club.

      Regarding covers, the cover for Machines Like Me is a really cheesy CGI image of a shirtless man, which falls right into the Uncanny Valley and looks a bit like the Poser-generated covers of erotic romances in approx. 2008. Not sure what message the publisher is trying to send here, but then McEwan’s covers have always been weird. The cover for Saturday, a novel about a neurosurgeon finding his comfortable middle class existence disrupted by a burglar, was a photo of London’s Post Office Tower a.k.a. BT-Tower, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the novel. It’s also photoshopped (Why?), cause that view of the BT-Tower isn’t possible in real life. At least, the cover of On Chesil Beach was an arty black and white photo of a beach.

  4. I tried to read Don Delillo’s “not sci-fi” novel Zero K a few years ago and gave up halfway through. It was dreary and pompous. I don’t know if Delillo made any “I don’t write about spaceships and laser swords” comments to the media because I didn’t care to look, but it certainly read like the author believed he was inventing the wheel.
    Thanks for pointing out that it’s not about “lit vs. genre” but a specific type of (bourgeois, white, usually male) author who clings to such “high modernist” distinctions. Plenty of writers classified as “literary” engage with genre and vice versa, and we are all better off for it.

    • Cora says:

      Come to think of it, I’ve never heard whether Dom DeLillo considers his genre-ish books science fiction or not either, but then Dom DeLillo isn’t a very talkative author anyway. He’s a bit too much of a white middle class dude author for my tastes, too.

      But then, Thomas Pynchon has never to my knowledge weighed in on whether his books are genre or not either and nonetheless I have always viewed his novels as genre and so did the SFWA, when they nominated Gravity’s Rainbow for the 1973 Nebula Awards.

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