Visions of Paradise

Sunday, October 17, 2004

SF or literature?

I have been reading science fiction faithfully for 40 years, and, for most of that time, almost exclusively. As a result of this, my background in literature is fairly weak. I read all the required books in high school and college, but starting approximately from the age of twelve, my pleasure reading almost all fell under the broad umbrella of science fiction. Some fantasy occasionally, perhaps a small bit of horror, but mundane fiction? Never. And literature? Definitely not! My mind could not forget those books I was force-fed in high school. Like most students I found them boring and resented being forced to read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare when I much preferred Clifford D. Simak and Isaac Asimov.

And like most sf fans, my taste has evolved somewhat as I grew older. As a fourteen-year old I liked nothing better than the Martian odysseys of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. By the time I graduated college, my favorite writers were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Robert Silverberg. Sense of wonder? Sure. This Immortal, Nova and Nightwings were full of it. But they also had more depth than either Burroughs or Asimov ever dreamed of. Instead of cardboard figures like John Carter jumping mindlessly from adventure to adventure, the science fiction of Zelazny, Silverberg, and Delany was concerned with real people whose lives mattered. And since their lives mattered, I developed an emotional stake in the outcome of the events they were involved in. I cared what happened to Rydra Wong and Conrad Nimikos and David Selig in a way similar to, if considerably less intense than, the way I care about what happens to the students I now devote much of my life to. And the more I cared about the characters in a story, the deeper grew my emotional involvement and, consequently, the better became my enjoyment of the story as well.

Between the late 1960s and early 1990s I found myself more and more attracted to science fiction that involved me emotionally while still providing me with sense of wonder. Stories by such writers as Michael Bishop, George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh, John Varley, Orson Scott Card, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Sherri S. Tepper. I read a lot of fine science fiction written by those writers, most of it satisfying my twin needs for involvement and sense of wonder. I was thrilled to have found such a marvelous genre as science fiction, probably the only genre that could satisfy both cravings so well.

The only genre? And how many other genres had I sampled sufficiently to be able to make such a definitive statement?

Around 1975, some fairly sweeping changes affected my reading habits. For an entire year I read virtually no science fiction, mostly the result of burnout, but partly a side effect of other changes affecting my life. For the first time in my life, I began reading other types of fiction, including historical fiction, Chinese fiction, and *horrors* literature. And yet, for all these changes, one fact has remained constant: the majority of the fiction I read involves me in its characters while also providing me with sense of wonder.

The purpose of this column is not really to discuss the positive aspects of either historical fiction or Chinese fiction, but to talk about literature. Nearly as long as I have been reading sf, I have been inundated by fairly rigid opinions on both sides of the genre/non-genre line. Literati look down their noses as science fiction to the extent that any fiction they consider “worthy” is definitely not science fiction.

On the other hand, many genre fans are overly-protective of science fiction, stating opinions such as that made by a close friend of mine a few years ago: Literature, my dear. God protect us from such pomposity. Characters (who) have so many fears, neuroses and hangups they'd be right at home in a Woody Allen movie.

To be perfectly honest, I might have agreed with that opinion a decade ago, before I read enough literature to be able to formulate my own opinion of it. And while I am still not well-read enough in literature for my opinion to be definitive, there are certain facts that I feel comfortable stating.

One, literature is as much a genre as science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, mystery fiction, thrillers, westerns, etc. And being a genre, its works all have some identifying trademark. Fantasy must have a foundation that is impossible in the world as we know it. Mystery fiction must involve an attempt to solve a crime. Science fiction must involve some extrapolation from the world as we know it.

So what aspect defines literature? According to Webster it is writings expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. That's pretty close to what my layman's definition would have been: fiction about important human concerns. That certainly agrees with the literature I've read as well. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was about the struggle for survival during the Great Depression. Bronte's Wuthering Heights was about coping with a dysfunctional family.

But wait a second! Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness was about love and acceptance between two races which are throughly alien to each other. Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore was about coming-of-age in the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. Aren't they important human concerns as well?

Yes, they are. Because just as there is a common misconception about the nature of science fiction in the eyes of many mainstream critics, there is also a common misconception about the nature of literature in the eyes of many modern readers. Literature is definitely not the small sub-genre of literature currently supported by the self-important New York City literary establishment. What they consider literature is often formless exercises in plotless writing. Or stories whose focus is limited to, well, characters (who) have so many fears, neuroses and hangups they'd be right at home in a Woody Allen movie.

That small sub-genre of literature has scared a lot of people away from the breadth and depth of literature in much the same way that B-movies have scared a lot of potential readers away from the breadth and depth of science fiction. Which brings me to a second fact about literature: both science fiction and literature are equally subject to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap! Certainly not every would-be artist who chooses to create writings expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest is successful at their craft. There is as much bad literature as there is bad science fiction.

And while no hardcore SF fan would reject the entire SF genre because of the 90% of it that is bad, it is equally foolish to reject the entire literature genre because 90% of it is bad.

Another complaint of many genre fans is that science fiction has "gone bad" because some writers feel the need to be taken seriously, replacing literature with entertainment for entertainment's sake. Nobody decided that science fiction needed to be taken more seriously. While the "new" SF writers of the 1930s and 1940s generally entered the field with backgrounds in science, the "new" writers of the 1960s and 1970s often entered the field with backgrounds in literature. They chose to infuse SF with literary qualities of their own volition because they wanted to enjoy the best of both worlds, a fusion of which I heartily approve. Some of the results of this fusing produced formless exercises in plotless writing, but others resulted in the masterful works of such writers as Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Bishop, and Kim Stanley Robinson. And the ripple effect of this fusion produced such writers as China Miéville and Dan Simmons who combine aspects of both genre and literature without sacrificing any sense of wonder.

There is certainly nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment's sake either. Last year I went on a Jack Vance reading spree, and enjoyed every word of it. Right now I am reading early 1950s issues of Galaxy Magazine, most of which is pure entertainment. However, that enjoyment does not change my preference for stories which combine genre values with literary values. In my 30+ years of reading science fiction I cannot recall a novel that provided me with more pure entertainment than Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. Yet that book was about ideas of permanent or universal interest as much as any SF novel ever written. Literature can be entertaining, in spite of what the New York literary establishment and its pompous supporters might have us believe.

In summation, it is very common for a hardcore lover of science fiction to blame many of its current weaknesses on literature, but that is as narrowminded an attack as all those literateurs who cast aspersions on science fiction without ever bothering to read it. Sure 90% of science fiction is crap, but I love it for the 10% that rises above the morass. Surely literature should not be held to a higher standard than that?


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