I’ve been reading Ryan Britt‘s commentary on all things science fictional for several years now, and as a result I was mightily excited to read his new essay collection, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths. The book is wide-ranging, focusing on topics ranging from the deep-seated appeal of Bela Lugosi’s voice as Dracula to (as the title suggests) the idea that the Star Wars universe isn’t one where literature has made much of a foothold. But in reading the collection, one also gets a lot of Britt’s own life in the mix, often movingly so, and the result is a book that resembled Elif Batuman’s The Possessed in its blend of literary analysis and personal observation. I talked with Britt about a host of topics; an edited version of our conversation follows.
In the essays, you talk about your own roots in terms of reading science fiction and fantasy. But I’m curious–when did start writing about it from a more critical perspective?
Before I started doing this, I was writing about sex and culture for Nerve.com. In some of those personal essays, I was incorporating some sly Star Trek references or Sherlock Holmes stuff. There’s a web magazine called Clarkesworld, which is a pretty big science fiction web magazine. I had been sending them my short stories for a while, and not getting them accepted, because they were not very good. (laughs) I looked at the nonfiction section suddenly, and I noticed that the nonfiction was paying exactly the same as the fiction, and they were looking for essays. I thought, well, I could try that. The idea that I had was to write about mainstream literary fiction crossing over with science fiction, which, of course, people talk about all the time now.
This was about six years ago. I pitched them an article, and I said that I could get interviews with big authors–which I didn’t know if I could do at the time, but I said that I could. I did that, and they accepted that article. I did another article that was called “Stranger Than Science Fiction,” and I interviewed Karen Russell for it, Etgar Keret, Victor LaValle, and these kinds of guys. I found that I really enjoyed it. I did another one for them about Sherlock Holmes. That was the beginning of that, and those were some nice essays that I realized I was better at doing than fiction at that time. That led into pitching freelance articles of a similar nature to Tor.com, and that ended up leading to a staff writer job there. It all happened very, very quickly–in the span of less than a year. And suddenly, it was what I was doing all the time.
In the back of the book, where you list where the essays were first published, you mention that some had been revised substantially, and that others incorporated aspects of multiple pieces. How did the process of selecting pieces for the book, and determining the edits that you wanted to make, work?
I think, when people put out writings that had originally appeared online, there’s a tendency to think that it could just be like reading a blog post. The inspiration to do the book at all was–I was thinking about how I didn’t want some of my bigger ideas about science fiction and fantasy to get lost as a clickbait thing that happens for a week. Part of the impetus for it was to preserve some of these ideas a little bit more as permanent artifacts. “Luke Skywalker Can’t Read,” for instance, was originally a much shorter piece called “Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy Are Probably Totally Illiterate.” That was an 800-word piece that I did three years ago. The version in the book is somewhere like 3000, 4000 words. There’s a difference between doing a “grab you on the internet” theory that’s 800 words, which can only do one or two things, and a 3000-word essay, where you’re trying to make it about more than a “gotcha!” moment.
That essay is a microcosm of how that process went. I thought, “How does this read in a book versus online?” Completely differently, it turns out. I have to credit these things in the back of the book and say, “These things occurred in a different form,” because the ideas are the same–and they are my ideas, so I’m essentially ripping myself off. The actual prose, the actual sentences, are almost completely different. There are some sentences that are the same in a few essays–they were seedlings on the internet. But writing a book was a completely different experience.
The other thing was that I was able to include memoir components into these essays, which is not something that you can always do in a piece that’s on a blog. It’s either a piece of analysis or it’s a personal essay about an experience you had; doing a hybrid of that is something that people can sometimes get away with online–and I’m always impressed with people can–but for the most part, you have to save that kind of experimentation for stuff in a book. That was also important to me, because I like the idea of doing personal essays that are also pieces of criticism, that are sort of a hybrid there.
You covered a lot of these topics in pretty substantial depth. Was there ever a question, either when you were writing it or when the book was being edited, about who the ideal reader of this was?
When I was writing at Tor.com, which is a science fiction blog, I always felt like a little more of a populist than some of my colleagues there, insofar as I was interested in whatever the newest literary novel or short story was. I was interested in who was nominated for the Pulitzer; I was interested in what was being published in The New Yorker. This isn’t to disparage people who work in science fiction publishing, because a lot of that is cross-pollinating way more than it used to. But when you’re writing for a blog, and you’re looking to do clickbait for people who are fans of science fiction, most of the people who are doing that are not super-interested in what’s going on in the “mainstream,” because they don’t need to be. I always was, just from having an interest in it. The book is an extension of that philosophy.
I never wanted to sell this book to a science fiction imprint–not because I don’t love science fiction imprints; I love them deeply. If I write a science fiction novel, I know where I’m going to shop it around. But for an essay collection, I thought, “This is the kind of thing that a science fiction editor is going to say, ‘There’s no reason for this.’” Whereas a mainstream editor would say, “This has never been done before.” My feeling was that I wanted it to be a book that anyone could read, even if they had no interest in any of these thing–if they had no interest in Doctor Who or dinosaurs–and they’d get something out if it. I’m friends with people who aren’t interested in the things that I’m interested in , but we have conversations, you know? I think that this book had that philosophy. That being said, if somebody is really into Star Wars or Sherlock Holmes, I think that they’re going to enjoy it in a different way.
Has looking at genre work from this perspective affected the way that you write fiction at all?
Yes. I think that I’ve always loved metafiction. I’ve really loved metafiction that has science fiction in it. Kilgore Trout in Vonnegut’s books, for instance–a science fiction writer existing in a science fiction narrative. To me, it doesn’t get any better than that. I know the world doesn’t need any more books that feature writers in them, but I really like that, particularly when there’s a sci-fi component.
I just interviewed Rick Moody a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about his previous novel, The Four Fingers of Death, which has a science fiction writer in it. John Wray tells me that he’s got a book coming out that’s got a science fiction writer in it. I love John’s writing, and I’m so excited for that. There’s this great guy named Paul Park, who is a science fiction writer; he has a character named Paul Park in some of his stories, that blur sci-fi and memoir. I would love to do that in fiction. If this book is having a coffee in the morning with the idea of blending sci-fi and memoir, I’d love to have an all-night rager of that. And I have some ideas for it.
In terms of affecting it, I think it’s made me more confident in blending genres and using my own voice as much as I can.
You talked about looking at the overlap between traditionally genre work and traditionally literary work before it was done all that frequently. Since then, as you said, things have changed: Jeff VanderMeer is being published by FSG, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was nominated for a National Book Award… What do you think has been the cause of the two styles becoming closer?
I try to be careful when I talk about these things, because I never want to make it seem like I’m bashing the sci-fi publishing establishment, nor do I want to make it seem like I think that the literary establishment has been asleep or anything like that. That being said, there are components of that hyperbole in all of this. The real reason, I think, that biases have gone away is that time has passed. Not to be too blunt about it, if publishing is in a situation where they need to figure out how to survive, then they’re circling the wagons. Perhaps people who were in one wagon who were doing one thing are now closer to the people in another wagon for the sake of survival.
I’ve been trying to popularize this term, and it’s never caught on. I think it has less to do with genre boundaries breaking down and more to do with readers sharing. The idea that someone who buys [Victor LaValle’s] Big Machine could also be somebody who reads short stories on Tor.com is something that people weren’t really talking about six years ago. I don’t want to be a dick about this, but I tried to get Victor to write a short story four years ago. He’s doing it now, and that’s because Ellen Datlow is a much better and more persuasive editor than some chump-ass blogger like me.
The point is, it’s the fact that it’s possible that the same reader who would be interested in reading A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan would also be interested in reading a science fiction novel by Jeff VanderMeer–that we’re not going to call a science fiction novel. It’s not like anybody got super-enlightened. They were just going, “Well, fuck–let’s sell some books!” And I think that that has a little more to do with it. The other thing is, if you think about it–you and I are about the same age. I’m a month apart from Karen Russell; we talk about this all the time. Karen and I and you and all of these other folks, we grew up in an age when science fiction and fantasy was the mainstream for us as children and teenagers. And now we’re in charge. (laughs)
I do hear horror stories, though. A friend of mine is an undergraduate, and there’s some crazy creative-writing teacher who tells the class that no genre fiction is allowed. A good friend of mine teaches at Hunter, and he said that a student had been told that fantasy was garbage. There’s still this insane bias. I would love to meet one of those people, because I’m sure they’re a lot of fun at parties. I can’t imagine who these fucking people are, at this point. It blows my mind, because it’s so close-minded. The flip side of it, though, is that it’s not like there are science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts who go around bashing [literary fiction]. But the reverse does happen.
Most of the works that you’re talking about in this book have had a lot of staying power, whether it’s Dracula or Doctor Who. Do you anticipate that there’s any work being done now that will have the same staying power? Or do you think that, a few generations down the line, it’ll be more variations on Dracula and Star Trek?
We’ll see. There is so much homaging and so much pastiche. A few weeks ag, I interviewed Mark Gattis, who’s one of the co-creators of Sherlock and who writes for Doctor Who. I was asking him what he would want to do, and he said that he would really like do something new, but that it’s really hard to get something like that off the ground. He was kind of laughing, because he’s associated with these big reboots or continuations. But he’s a giant, this guy who’s written novels, who’s an actor, and he’s chomping at the bit to do something new. I think it’s possible, though.
I mentioned The Matrix in one of the essays, because I didn’t like it as a teenager, and I think that part of the reason that I didn’t like it was because it was new. Game of Thrones is relatively new; even the books are relatively new compared with some of the things I wrote about. I’m not the biggest Game of Thrones fan in the world, but…
Also, Harry Potter! That’s fucking new! That just happened. And as I talk about in the vampire essay, Harry Potter has effectively displaced our vision of what a wizard is. It’s always possible. In terms of something that’s happening right this second, I would say, look at what’s happened with The Hunger Games. Will it have staying power? I think the first book will, and the reason why it will is that the protagonist is more interesting than, say, the protagonist of 1984. And it is effectively giving us the same message as 1984. But it’s not a 1984 remake–it’s a new series. And you can talk about all the things that it borrows from, Battle Royale and stuff–that’s silly. The fact of the matter is that it’s a new franchise, a new property. That might stick around. You might be surprised to see what happens there.
People are always hungry for it, even if they don’t admit it. Sherlock Holmes said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and Sherlock Holmes was an extremely original idea. But of course, there are literary critics who claim that he’s not, and that it’s all drawn from Poe and other stuff. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, the truth is very reliant upon our own point of view. I could tell you a million ways right now about how The Matrix is the most unoriginal thing that ever came out, and then I could turn around and tell you that it’s the most original. In terms of something that has a brand-new name on it, it’s difficult, but it is happening, and it will happen again.
I can remember reading something not long after Pacific Rim had come out, asking whether Pacific Rim would have done better if had been a Godzilla movie–even if everything else about it had been the same.
Did that movie not do well financially?
I think it did well overseas, but maybe wasn’t as huge in the US as had been expected.
I don’t know. I loved Pacific Rim. I thought it was really cool. There were some things that I might’ve done differently. I guess I would need to ask a child on a playground what they thought of Pacific Rim. I’d love to ask a ten-year-old, “Hey, did you like Pacific Rim?” “Yeah, Pacific Rim was awesome!” I think Pacific Rim did fine. (laughs) Or an eighteen-year-old, saying, “That movie was rad. We saw it on opening night.” “Was it better than the new Godzilla?” “Actually, yeah, it was.” I would take that word on the street over box office numbers any day.
Some of these movies that weren’t big hits… Mad Max was a huge critical and financial hit this summer, but it’s not like all those movies were super-successful at the box office. Maybe the first one. But I would be willing to put some money on the fact that some of the other ones would be considered disappointing now, even adjusted for inflation. I think that the bottom line is that Pacific Rim was a ballsy movie. It pandered a little bit to certain tropes that came before, but I think it did fine.
What are you working on now–more essays? More fiction?
Both. I’ve got an idea for a way another essay collection would go. And I’ve been writing new essays, newer than the ones in the book, so I’ve got an idea of what that would look like. It’s a very clear vision. I have a hazier vision for a new novel that I’m working on, that would be a little like what I was talking about before, but also would be about fans of these kinds of things. I like the idea of having a protagonist who’s kind of like George Lucas, who had an amazing first science fiction movie that everyone loved. What if everyone turned on him with the sequel? I’m interested in that, in a character like that. And I like the idea of creating fake science fiction, too. Maybe it’s my reticence to write real science fiction. I want to write about it, and I want to create fake science fiction. I don’t know which one will happen first. It kind of depends on a variety of things. We’ll see. Maybe the novel will coalesce in the next few months–I’m going on a small book tour in January, and I’m hoping to come back in February with one of these manuscripts completed. We’ll see.
Photo: Kirsten McNally