I think a lot about the troubled reltionship between science fiction and literature – at least in part because I consider myself a science fiction writer, and I’m getting my second creative writing degree. I also know I’m not the only one.
So allow me to address the argument, on one side, that science fiction should be accepted as literature (or is better than literature due to the freedom the authors have with ideas), and, on the other side, the argument that science fiction can’t be literature.
There are extremists on both sides: science fiction fanatics who have a high tolerance for bad writing if the ideas are interesting, and literature snobs who will eat up derivative ideas if they’re dressed up in pretty prose.
Neither side of these groups will compromise because neither wants to accept the lexicon of the other. Margaret Atwood wasn’t going to read every mass extinction book since The Purple Cloud so she could figure out where her book fit in that tradition, and David Edelman wasn’t going to read the back-catalog of O. Henry Prize stories to try and find his place in literary discourse. Their fans, for the most part, aren’t going to do those things either. The stereotypes of science fiction as poorly written fluff and literature as boring and stodgy are too prevalent.
One thing both sides have flirted with is the title “speculative fiction,” which may be the most bullshit doublespeak since “fun size.” Never mind that we’re living in a science fiction reality already; all fiction is speculative. Literature speculates about people and their interactions in the “real world” and sci-fi speculates about people and their interactions in a…what…an unreal world? They’re both made up. They both involve people sitting around using what they know about reality to imagine a story.
Here’s my underlying issue with these arguments: they’re being argued dogmatically. I’ve been studying English literature as an undergraduate and graduate for eight years now, and I’ve taken several courses that dealt with science fiction. That’s right, folk, science fiction is in the ivory tower.
On the critical side, N. Katherine Hayles published How We Became Posthuman just over a decade ago, and Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” is in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, just a few billion pages after Plato. On the creative side, I’ve read Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Bear, Sturgeon, Dick, and many, many more, in the classroom.
(Special thanks here to Colin Milburn. Though he’s not the only professor doing this work, he’s my favorite.)
There are current authors too, from Saunders to Derby, who simply write with a love for both traditions. As Saunder’s said, “My impulse is to pretend that ‘genre’ and ‘literature’ don’t really signify anything essential.”
“Literature” is a vague term at best. If all we mean by it is work of artistic and social value, I don’t think anyone can deny that there are works of science fiction that qualify as literature.
And it’s not like anyone’s claiming that all “realist” fiction is literature. Lets not forget that in between Atwood and Didion on the “Fiction” shelf in the bookstore sits The Da Vinci Code – filled with events that could never happen and a completely imaginary history, rendered piss-poor prose.