"In Preparation for Necessary Mutations" - Walter Mosley’s Approach to Science Fiction
One of the pleasures of attending Book Expo America in New York City early in June was meeting Walter Mosley, best known for the Easy Rawlins mysteries. He’s also a science fiction writer whose book The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin is comprised of two novellas. “The Gift of Fire” takes as its inspiration the ancient myth of Prometheus, but is set in present-day South Central Los Angeles. In “On the Head of a Pin,” researchers find something hiding in high-tech animatronic film footage that leads them beyond reality. The book is the first of three sets of unique doubles by the O. Henry Award winner, part of his “Crosstown to Oblivion” series.
Mosley participated on the SF in the Mainstream panel at BEA, along with me, my wife Ann VanderMeer (The Weird), and John Scalzi (Redshirts). A relaxed and free-wheeling conversation in the green room beforehand included Mosley’s ruminations on airlifted crocodiles in Australia, among other topics.
As for the panel, at 30 minutes it was too short. I felt we were just getting into the meat of the topics when we had to stop. Early on Mosley called science fiction “the kind of writing that prepares us for the necessary mutations brought about in society from an ever changing technological world,” and as a result “The mainstream hasn’t excluded SF; the mainstream has excluded itself. No one told Jules Verne he was a science fiction writer, but he invented the 20th century.”
Later, talking about the idea of genre and of audience, Mosley said that when he sent his early novel Gone Fishin’ to publishers, he was told, “White people don’t read about black people. Black women don’t like to read about black men. Black men don’t like to read. So who’s going to buy your book? If it was true, it was because they made it true.” I agreed with Mosley, citing his example as just one way in which the book world can hamper itself with narrow operational realities, which is another way of saying you can see a failure of vision at times that is comparable with the obsession with classification that creates genre divisions.
Mosley noted the similarities between books across many genres, on a thematic level, to make the argument for the unimportance of genre distinctions. This resonated with me since reconciling the genre/mainstream divide has been important to our anthology projects. Somehow we also got onto the topic of the aesthetic of Steampunk, which I said had appeal because while the seeking of perfection was a very human impulse, attaining it was a kind of insanity—as evidenced by the kind of seamlessness of Apple products. We want to see the human element in our technology. Reacting to the Apple comment, Mosley said “like white sugar,” which I thought was a great observation. Refined sugar is supposedly a great leap forward, but you could also see it as the end product of the work of mad scientists who knew not what they wrought. This could have led even more fascinating discussion, but our time was up.
In the end, the idea of a panel on SF and the Mainstream didn’t just spark a great conversation, ably moderated by Ryan Britt; it also helped bring some interesting books to readers’ attention. Whether the debate itself, which has been part of genre convention panels for years, will ever reach some kind of definitive conclusion is unclear…and probably unimportant.
For more on the panel, read these useful reports, from which some information was taken for this feature:
--Rose Fox, Publishers Weekly
--Ron Hogan, Tor.com