Science Fiction, or, Children of a Lesser Genre

I caught an entry on the popular literary blog/magazine Book Ninja, highlighting an article by writer Clive Thompson, revealingly titled “Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing“. I wanted to respond on Book Ninja, but I realised that I wasn’t responding to the article so much as forking the argument in an unrelated direction. That, and, well, when I tried posting my response the bloody “security phrase” was wrong and when I clicked the Back button on my browser my eloquent, finely-crafted response was gone. Consider this a means of channelling my sorrow.

Thompson contends that the strength of science fiction over so-called “literary fiction” is that the latter, in regards to ideas, has become so mired in everyday realism that it’s become less interesting as a result.

While that is debatable, there’s a bit which I thought contentious:

“So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers? Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi’s most famous authors — like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick — have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.”

Firstly, let me get the following off my chest: I hate the term “science fiction”. [Note: Thompson rubs salt in this irritation by including dragons into the mix. Dragons? Methinks he has his genres confused]. “Science fiction” is a left-brained label which conjures 50’s-era Youth Adventure stories with rocket ships and lasers. In other words, the connotation of “science fiction” is that it is a lesser, more utilitarian form of fiction than the hallowed halls of “literary fiction”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, you can’t blame people for thinking this when they step into the Science Fiction section of their neighbourhood Book Behemoth. Row upon row of monochromatic, serialised “space and laser” stories. Blame the capitalists, I say. If you’re a publisher and you know that 16-year old kids will devour clichés so long as they involve space travel, you won’t care about quality.

However, to directly address Thompson’s contention, I would like to know how “execrable prose” and “deranged notions of women” are the sole providence of science fiction? Are we talking about a genetic disorder from which our precious “literary fiction” is immune? Are you telling me that one is cleaner than the other – do you really want to go there, Thompson? Eh?

I do stand in agreement though: science fiction (for lack of a better term) historically represents the bleeding edge of philosophy. What people who shun the genre don’t realise is that it often transpires without a space ship, laser, or tight-pantaloon’d woman in sight. Need I mention the likes of Stanislaw Lem, Eugene Zamiatin, or the Strugatsky Brothers? Some of the greatest sci-fi writers produced their best-known work under political tyranny (it should be stated: the one convenient thing about writing in a genre that the establishment doesn’t take seriously is that one can communicate vast, revolutionary ideas without getting caught).

What bugs me is that when authors of “literary fiction” dip into the conceits of science fiction, there is often praise for their bold move (as if they were writing in a foreign language), yet – outside the likes of William Gibson – there is scant recognition for the science fiction author who transcends the confines (or expectations) of his or her genre.

In truth, as a writer, I’m torn between the gravitational pulls of both “literary fiction” and “science fiction”. I think an otherworldliness can make the everyday more captivating for the reader, but it takes skill to balance both so that you’re neither stretching believability nor betraying the wonder of the other by miring it in mundanity. I respect both strains of fiction yet I consider it tragic that so many good books and stories remain unread because of nothing more than a problem in perception.


5 Replies to “Science Fiction, or, Children of a Lesser Genre”

  1. I’ll give you Heinlein, but PKD’s protagonist Angel Archer in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is one of the most sympathetic, fully-drawn characters in ALL of sci-fi/fantasy (or whatever they are calling it now).

    In most of his fiction, Phil was obsessed with “the brown-haired girl” (his fetish, if you will), usually a deceitful, sneaky, duplicitous teenage girl (with regulation brown hair and athletic build, think of the lead in TOTAL RECALL) who was ready to stick the knife in and twist it at a moment’s notice. This character appears to have been a combination of his real-life girlfriends/wives and sex fantasies, and I used to wait for her to appear in every single novel. (There she is!) Some men run embarrassingly to type. Nonetheless, because she kept appearing in his novels, I felt that I actually knew her. She is given a huge amount of narrative attention.

    The other recurring female character was an older, manipulative woman, always making him feel like an inferior fuck-up, based on his wife Anne. (You might say the first female character manifests his id, the second female character manifests his superego.)

    PKD never presented these women as ALL women, so the whole “deranged inner lives of women” thing just isn’t true. These were the women, these two types–he did not pretend to know about any others. Except, notably, Angel Archer, a wonderful, three-dimensional characterization and a sharp departure from this predictable pattern.

    In short, people better LAY OFF my homeboy, Phil. 🙂

    Feminist PKD fan 4-ever,


  2. I think there may be too much realistic Raymond Carver-Ann Tyler-esque fiction being published, especially in literary journals — but also in mainstream magazines like The New Yorker — and the glut of realistic fiction exists largely because that’s the easiest form to teach in the MFA programs, and the form editors know. Many realistic stories are mundane, shallow imitations of masters such as Carver or Tyler, and there are so many published that it must seem all contemporary realistic fiction lacks anything but mundane ideas.

    Unfortunately, I think science fiction often gets disrespected because of packaging — covers of spaceships and scantily-clad women that out pulp the pulpiest of the pulp magazines. And yet, science fiction/speculative fiction offers us some of the best writers. I have to plug my favorite, Ursula K. LeGuin. Among the spaceships-and-lasers set, some genuine thought-provoking writers are producing work like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which has strong Orwellian overtones, though its plot and setting draws elements from traditional space opera.

  3. Todd – too true. I follow the golden rule of taking a good read of any lit mag I may submit my work to, and I must say that – with few notable exceptions – I find the majority of fiction out there simply unmemorable, and it largely has to do with writers trying to “out-realistic” the next.

    I sometimes wonder if we’re losing our sense of imagination…hmmn, I smell a blog post coming on.

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