‘Call Me a Science Fiction Writer. I’ll Come to Your House and Nail Your Pet’s Head to a Coffee Table.’
Ian McEwan’s new novel, “Machines Like Me” — set in an alternative past, and grappling with issues surrounding artificial intelligence — debuts on the list this week at No. 10.
If “Machines Like Me” sounds like the stuff of science fiction, well, it is, and McEwan recently touched off a firestorm when he dismissed the genre in an interview with The Guardian. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” he said, “not in terms of traveling at 10 times the speed of light in antigravity 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.” Later, he told The Associated Press that “Machines Like Me” was “an old-fashioned novel about an ethical problem pushed on us by technology.”
The sci-fi community began calling out McEwan’s genre snobbery on Twitter and in opinion pieces. “It is as absurd for McEwan to claim he’s not writing sci-fi as it is for him to imply that sci-fi is incapable of approaching these themes interestingly,” said one. “Alternative history and nonhuman consciousness are established sci-fi motifs.” Another wrote, “Anyone is entitled to try out ideas. What you can’t do is write a detective story and think ‘the butler did it’ is a world-first clever twist.”
As Dwight Garner noted in his review of “Machines Like Me,” “people are touchy about genre.” Kurt Vonnegut famously complained that he was “a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” And Harlan Ellison once said, “Call me a science fiction writer. I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”
John Sandford’s series starring the Minnesota detective Lucas Davenport began in 1989 with “Rules of Prey,” and the 29th installment, “Neon Prey,” enters the list this week at No. 2. On his website, Sandford writes that although he plans to wrap up the series soon, nothing bad will happen to Davenport: “My editor has told me that it would kill sales of the back stock.”
Nothing bad has happened to Sandford, either, though rumors of his death have been popping up ever since his fellow suspense novelist Lawrence Sanders died in 1998. “The names were close enough that it caused some confusion,” Sandford says. “In 2005, Christian minister and author John A. Sanford died, and the rumors started again.”