Science Fiction Vs. Literature

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.


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8 Responses to “Science Fiction Vs. Literature”

  1. Tacos?! Says:

    Great post and very informative!

    Science fiction is sometimes looked down upon due to the stereotypes it has received over the decades. But how can science fiction not be considered literature when fantasy is considered literature?

    But to be honest I like science fiction books in which the science is based in reality, i.e. humanoid aliens, faster than light travel, and all that stuff. But that doesn’t mean I’m a hard science fiction snob. I always love a good piece of fiction and if that means some of the laws of science must be bent or broken, so be it.

    Also, Neuromancer is a great science fiction and I highly recommend it if you’ve not read it yet.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      I really like Neuromancer, it’s an excellent book.

      I haven’t read much fantasy, but it does mostly get lumped in with science fiction – at least as far as shelf-space in book stores go. I do like Neil Gaiman, but I wouldn’t call his stuff “literature.” It is well written, though, and very enjoyable.

  2. Dan Says:

    My class has been talking at some length about the artist as prophesier, and also about science fiction as, maybe, the most concrete example. This has been an ongoing discussion throughout the term, but most recently we were discussing it in relation to Elias Cannetti’s book Crowds and Power, specifically the section “the power of unmasking,” in which he discusses the power of masks, and the artists as perhaps one who is unable to project a fully formed mask and thus remains permeable to the world. This comes up in a lot of other texts as well, this idea of permeability.
    Science Fiction, well, yes, just like any other genre of writing has a lot of bad writers practicing it, and yes, just like all other genre-writing gets pushed off to the side of the literature tower. But, it’s in science fiction that this idea of permeability and prophesy is most clearly manifest. We’re not fantasizing about flying cars because its a great idea, but because it’s been prophesied, and the debates over real world AI are fueled by sci fi speculation.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what I was originally going to say in this comment, I’ll leave it at that.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      I think theorists like Katherine Hayles and Deleuze & Guattari push that idea of permeability even further (particularly with disembodiment and the body without organs).
      Literary notions of prophesy (especially in the modern, literary short story) tend to operate in a closed loop within the work. In science fiction the prophesies are so grandly external in their origins that the work has to allow itself to be a body without organs.

      Or something. Hey, remember life before grad school, when we could talk like normal people?

  3. Ira Nayman Says:

    As somebody who both enjoys and writes science fiction (that rare breed of science fiction humour, actually), I must respectfully disagree with the idea of the prophetic nature of science fiction. In fact, most of the technologies written about in science fiction have NOT been created (thus, the many jokes where people wonder where their jetpacks are – I will admit it, I have indulged in them myself…). In cases where a technology did seem to be predicted by a science fiction story, it was usually a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the scientists who worked on the technology had been fans of the story in which it was described and consciously worked to make it a reality. Would the technology have been created, or would it have developed along the lines that it did if this process had not taken place? We will never know…

    I was recently on a panel at a science fiction convention where I argued that most science fiction is a reflection of the ideas prevalent at the time it was written. Examples abound. Remember the mutated creature films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Them! and, of course, Godzilla? They were reflections of fears about atomic energy run amok. The original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers reflected post-WWII paranoia, with pods standing in for Communists. More recently, the film Avatar represents both a nod to our reemerging environmental consciousness and a parody of American military hubris (as the use of terms like “shock and awe,” which was prevalent in the run-up to the Iraq War, indicates).

    There may be some isolated examples of science fiction being truly prophetic, but I believe they are the exceptions, not the rule and, furthermore, that that is not the purpose or strength of the genre.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      I totally get what you’re saying, but just on the level of semantics I don’t feel that “prophesy” here necessarily means “describing something that WILL occur.”

      Science fiction, in all but its pulpiest guises, is always about the present in some way (in fact, at worst science fiction is just unconsciously about the present). The “future” or other alternate reality acts as a way to highlight and address some present issue. We make claims about the future, and within the text, those claims are treated as truth.

      By prophesying, the writer asks us to consider that world and its ramifications to our own. I can’t think of any science fiction authors who actually claim to be predicting a real future – but predict they do, nonetheless. This sort of prophesy is more a call to dialogue than the issue of a mandate; the good science fiction writer uses science fiction to direct our attention, not dictate something absolute.

      It says, “Here, for better are worse, are the people you might be.”

  4. CS Says:

    As a slight tangent, I’d like to share that I love where science fiction and social theory meet. In an urban anthropology class that I took a few years ago, the prof used “Blade Runner” to demonstrate the early 20th century Chicago School of thought on the future of The American City:

    The perceived massive influx of dirty immigrants with their filthy habits, unpronounceable names, and rabbit-like breeding patterns would result in a creole mish-mosh of race and language and a breakdown of Christian/American values. (Most of those groups, of course, are now “white.”)

  5. Ira Nayman Says:

    Will: I hadn’t thought of prophecy in those terms, but, of course, now that you have made the argument, it makes perfect sense.

    CS: One aspect of Blade Runner that is only implied in the film but is stated directly in Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is that the earth is dying, and that most people who could afford to have moved off-planet. Since, at the time of his writing, most of the wealth had been concentrated in the west and, in particular, white westerners, those who were left behind were more likely to belong to a visible minority. This was probably a major factor in the creolization portrayed in the film. (Regardless of the rationale behind it, it also makes for great mis-en-scene.)

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