Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Science Fiction categories, Part 2

All science fiction can be divided into people-oriented or plot-oriented fiction. This is not a judgmental categorization although on first glance people-oriented sounds a lot nobler than plot-oriented. But aren’t all Harlequin romances people-oriented? And, perish the thought, where does pornography fit into these two categories? I don’t think even the most rabid erotic fan would consider than plot-oriented! And what about fiction in which the idea is central (which is certainly true in some science fiction, such as Olaf Stapledon’s galaxy-spanning epics)? For the sake of simplification, idea-oriented is an obvious sub-category of plot-oriented, since both are concerned more with the what than they are with the who.

All science fiction can be divided into escapism or literature. This distinction is actually symptomatic of all fiction. I feel obligated here to remark that I am not referring to that narrow restriction of literature which is fiction accepted by the literary establishment, but rather literature in its broadest sense, which is all fiction about the human spirit. This categorization is a lot less definitive than genre vs. non-genre, especially since one reader’s escapism can sometimes be another reader’s literature. Consider a novel such as Dune. To many people this is the quintessential “good read,” which sounds like plot-heavy escapism. But it has also won numerous science fiction polls the past thirty years as the best sf novel ever written, and I’m sure a lot of those voters consider it true literature. The solution might lie in the twilight zone where escapism and literature overlap. After all, can’t a novel be primarily concerned with the human spirit yet still contain large dollops of escapism? Charles Dickens might be an excellent example of this. His novels were written for the general populace as serializations, intended–to paraphrase Alfred Bester–to grab the readers by the lapels and hit them repeatedly in the face until the author’s arm grew tired. There was a genuine element of escapism in every Dickens novel, yet who would deny that they are not great literature?

All science fiction can be divided into science-oriented or history-oriented. Surely there cannot be much controversy here? Either an sf novel is concerned with science–Stephen Baxter, Larry Niven, et al–or it is concerned with historical development–Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, Kim Stanley Robinson. Oh, yeah? What do we do with the fact that the name “science fiction” is merely an antique creation of Hugo Gernsback who insisted that all fiction printed in his pages must not only be about science but must be designed to teach science to his young readers? Within a few years after he made that proclamation Amazing Stories slipped out of his control and immediately the breadth of genre science fiction began spreading. F. Orlen Tremaine made no such claim for Astounding Stories; nor did John W. Campbell, Jr. a decade later, although both their tastes ran towards science-oriented stories. F&SF and Galaxy did not insist on such a restriction two decades later, and when genre science fiction began spreading into original paperbacks courtesy of Ace and Ballantine Books in the 1950s, it’s safe to say that “speculative fiction”, the name championed by New Wave devotes in the late 60s, was a more apt description of the field, in spite of the resistance of purists who insisted that “science” was a necessary ingredient in sf. To which I point to Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Bishop as counter-evidence. Every one of them is accepted as a full-fledged member of the genre sf fraternity, yet all are less concerned with science in the majority of their fiction than in future history. So unless we’re willing to declare that any accepted aspect of the real world is a form of science, “science” fiction is a sub-genre of the speculative fiction category rather than the main emphasis of it.

So what’s the point of all these categories? Individually, probably not much, but combining the four categorization groups into one grid we can get a fairly accurate description of a particular story’s emphasis by how it fits into all four categories, so that a reader might have a better idea if a story appeals to his or her taste than simply by a rather amorphous description such as “literary space opera” or “fast-paced urban fantasy”. Let’s try placing a few stories as an example.

Title / Genre vs non-genre / People vs Plot / Lit vs Escapism / science vs history
War of the Worlds / non-genre / people / literature / science
Childhood’s End / genre / plot / literature / science
Canticle for Leibowitz / genre / people / literature / history
Lord of Light / genre / plot / literature / history
Forever War / genre / plot / escapism / science
Neuromancer / genre / plot / escapism / science
Brittle Innings/ genre / people / literature / history
Mars trilogy / genre / people / literature / history

Considering my personal preferences, I’m much more likely to choose a novel such as Canticle For Leibowitz or Brittle Innings, because of their people/lit/history orientation, than Forever War or Neuromancer with their plot/escapism/science orientation. Not that I don’t appreciate the latter books, but I would not want a steady diet of such types (while I could probably go several months reading books of the former type). While my categorizations above are not intended to be totally black-and-white, they do give an overall description of a book which might serve as a reader’s guide of sorts, especially since book reviews have an otherwise built-in weakness: the prejudices of the reviewer. Presumably readers of VoP have read enough of my reviews to know my taste, and thus know how much to be guided by what I like or dislike, and that’s probably similarly true of regular reviewers in other publication as well. But since most zines are irregular, and most reviewers are virtual unknowns to the reader, unless each review contains a detailed description of the particular reviewer’s taste and prejudices, reading one or two reviews by a person might be a futile experience causing a reader to select an acclaimed book that they quickly learn after a few dozen pages might be outstanding but does not necessarily appeal to their own particular taste. I’ve done that a few times myself.