When is a book SF?


A look at The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
First, let me get a few things straight. Any attempt to categorise fiction and place each story into its correct genre box is basically futile. Even asking questions like “What’s the difference between fantasy and science fiction?” or “Is this work mainstream fiction or genre?” is pretty ridiculous if you expect a definitive answer. And I am happy with that. No book has to be put into its little named box before I’ll read it and enjoy it. I read at least two books every month which are neither fantasy not SF, usually mainstream fiction, occasionally non-fiction. And all novels are made-up, and therefore unreal, by definition anyway…
So please don’t tell me I am a bit silly to even step into this topic: I know it!
Second: I don’t care whether David Mitchell’s book is SF or mainstream or not – I’ll read anything he writes and love it nonetheless; that’s the kind of writer he is. I read this one and I devoured it. If I have any carping to do, it’s only minor. I did think it a tad uneven, but maybe that’s only because parts of it are brilliant. I did think that a couple of times he lost the narrative drive in order to digress, but the digressions are so interesting, I was willing to forgive them.
For those of you who haven’t read it, a brief recap: it’s set around the late 1790s into the early decades of the 1800s. It’s based on historical fact – the Dutch trading post on an artificial island that is now part of Nagasaki, during a time when the Japanese was trying to keep foreign influence at bay and contact with foreigners to a minimum. Mitchell’s characters are fictional for the most part, but have their historical counterparts. He does mess a little with history, but not much.
So is there anything fantastical in the story? Well, yes, there is. But then, any writer delving into this period of history, or into Asia, is going to have to deal with the fantastic, and I thought he did it very well. Human beings are always seeking explanations for what they don’t understand (perhaps because the science hasn’t got there yet) and their explanations often read more like a fantasy novel. Or sound more like a religious belief. There are characters in the book who see things and read a lot into them; there are premonitions and a spiritual aspect to life.
Perhaps because I live with this side of Asia on a daily basis, I saw Mitchell’s coverage of these parts of his tale as very close to the reality. People here believe deeply in the ghosts and spirits and premonitions. I am constantly praised for my bravery when my job means I sleep in a tent deep in the rainforest or peat swamp. And the speakers are not talking about leopards or bears or malaria or leptospirosis and all the REAL dangers; they are speaking of the spirits. Of the unknown and feared. Of the things that come out in the dark of night. How brave I am not to fear these things! I bask in unearned glory…
To Mitchell’s characters, the oddities they feel or see – or think they see – are real. I thought he captured that side of both Asia and the 18th-19th century period very well. But I never saw the novel as being a fantasy, where these things have real dimension in the context of the story.
So, when I saw that Locus Online had listed the book on their weekly SF/F bestseller list, I tweeted about it, basically saying  “SF/F? No way!”, and followed up on Facebook. 
Now, thanks to pal Cheryl Morgan, I see that David himself said there was an immortal in the book. There was? Help, talk about giving me an incentive to read it again! I totally missed that. (For those that haven’t read it, part of the plot is to do with a particular nasty search for immortality by some of the characters, one of whom claimed to have lived for a some centuries  — but does a claim make it true?) And Cheryl’s blogpost sent me over to Galley Cat, where in turn I was led here, to Capital New York and a post about Mitchell’s future books and a question-and-answer at one of his readings:
…one young man asked about the novel’s villain, a serenely amoral abbot who may or may not have been alive for 600 years. The slightly irritating questiondid he really live for 600 years?elicited an unexpected response. Mitchell announced … that Jacob de Zoet will be followed by two more books dealing with the theme of immortality and delving further into the realm of speculative fiction.

Just to be snarky, I’ll say that doesn’t make The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet SF/F.

And at the same time, I’ll say: Who cares? Go read it. It’s a fascinating book.



When is a book SF? — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the heads up Glenda, anything I have read which was recommended by you, I have enjoyed.

    Surely 'speculative fiction' is the best cover for all of the different classifications.

  2. Thanks for the discover again^^
    It's a strange illness in our society not wanting to Die, not wanting to grow older. May be it is why vampire stories are so successfull. I think i'll givre a try for this Book.

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