Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.


I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.


The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker–A Powerful Literary Science Fiction Novel

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker came out June 26th and it’s already getting tremendous press.



I listened to the audio edition with pitch-perfect narration by Emily Janice Card.  The Age of Miracles is a science fiction novel told in first person by eleven-year-old Julia, so it feels like another science fiction YA novel, but it’s not marketed as either as SF or YA, and it’s far from another hit young adult novel for adults.  It’s a literary novel about a young girl witnessing the Earth undergoing a catastrophic change called “the slowing.”  Earth begins to slow its spin.  Before the novel is over the Earth’s day is over twice as long.


As soon as I saw the announcement for this book I knew I had to read it.  If you loved The Lovely Bones or The Secret Life of Bees, there’s a good chance you’ll love The Age of Miracles.  However, if you loved Earth Abides, The Day of the Triffids, Alas, Babylon, there’s also a good chance you’ll love this novel.  If you ever wished Catcher in the Rye had been science fiction, then this book is for you.  When The Age of Miracles is pitched to movie producers I’m sure they’ll summarize it like this:  coming of age in the apocalypse.

The editorial reviews collected at rave about this book.  The customer reviews are a bit mixed, with most people loving it, and a few people complaining, some rather bitterly.  A few complainers weren’t expecting a YA novel.  Other complainers object to the science.  I too had trouble with some of the science, but I think Karen Thompson Walker is right in that we’d weigh more if the Earth’s spin slowed.  For those people objecting to her science, just read “If the Earth Stood Still” and you’ll realize Thompson is up on the details.

But I’m not sure the details of the science are important to this story – science fiction has often been wrong about science.  The Age of Miracles is an allegory about how nature turns against us and how we respond.

The Age of Miracles is more literary than YA – there are no teenagers fighting to the death on television.  It’s more literary than science fiction, it’s not about heroic astronauts trying to save the world.  The narrator is telling her story from years later, after the events, so we know she survives.  The Age of Miracles is a very simple tale, a coming of age story set against our world falling apart.

The defining issue with any end-of-the-world novel is how people react.  I can’t help believe that the slowing is a metaphor for global warming, but don’t let that stop you from reading The Age of Miracles if you’re on the wrong side of that political question. The Age of Miracles is science fiction at its best because it’s all about sense of wonder.  I’ve always found tremendous sense of wonder in end of the world novels.  These novels aren’t predicting gloom and doom, but exploring how people face the immensity of reality.

Julia is just an eleven-year-old kid that has a mother and father, a few friends, a music teacher, and a sheltered life where’s she shy and timid, but like most kids her age, wants to fit in.  Half of The Age of Miracles is about Julie coping with normal life.  The other half is about coping with a world going through a lot of scary changes.  The people in this story decide to fight their fears by leading ordinary lives.  This is not a post-apocalyptic novel with Mad Max type warriors.  This is the end of the world coming to suburbia, soccer moms and mini-vans.

Most of the classic end of the world SF novels came from the cold war era.  The Age of Miracles is maybe what J. G. Ballard would have written about the Internet Age facing the apocalypse if he was channeling Harper Lee.

End of the world novels usually draw the reader in by getting them to imagine what they would do in the same situation.  The Age of Miracles is different.  I’m 60, and I’m being asked to imagine how an 11 year-old would see things.  It’s a powerful motif.  I can’t help but wonder how young people feel today growing up and imagining what global warming will bring.

In the past decade there have been a number of literary novels that used science fictional plots and they have been very successful.  In fact, they have generally kicked genre butt.  Stories like The Road, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Sparrow brought deep characterization and a sense of realism to very far out ideas.  I can’t help but wonder if would-be literary writers haven’t noticed that pairing literary style with the fantastic sells, especially if it also appeals to both the YA and adult readers.

I can only speculate why Karen Thompson Walker wrote The Age of Miracles, but whether intentionally or by accident, she’s hit on a perfect combination of literary and science fiction styles.  Is Ms. Walker a science fiction reader trained in a MFA program?  Or is she a literary writer influenced by all the science fiction in our society.  There’s a good chance that the science fiction genre played no part in influencing the writing of her story.  Did George Orwell need to read SF before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four?  We could assume Karen Thompson Walker is like Michael Chabon and attempts to live in both the literary and SF genre worlds.

Maybe Ms. Thompson is even more savvy than that.  Maybe she wanted to write about global warming and knew the topic would turn off many readers, so she developed the slowing as a stand-in.  If she did, it will be just as effective for making people think about our future.

I bet there will be a lot of literary and science fiction writers wishing they had written The Age of Miracles.  I’m sure it’s going to spawn a lot of imitators.

JWH – 7/5/12

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