Don’t Hate SF, Because It’s Beautiful

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

I figured if I was going to be taking over a science fiction writer’s blog, even for just one day a week, I’d better reacquaint myself more fully with the field. You see, I used to read almost nothing but SF as a teenager, until I started grad school right around the time the first issue of Wired came out and suddenly the real world was looking awfully SFnal…(Wired got lame eventually, but that’s another story for another time…) Anyway, I kept up with just a handful of my favorite writers for the next decade or so; I always knew when a new William Gibson or Neal Stephenson book was out, and eventually I stumbled onto George R. R. Martin’s big ol’ epic, but mostly I was busy reading mainstream stuff for fun and profit.

So when a copy of Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age of Maturity, 1970-2000 showed up recently, I figured it’d be a good way to get up to speed. Especially since it covers the most intense period of my immersion in the field, so it’d bring back some memories as well. And it’s fine as far as it goes. 1970 is a good time to start, as the New Wave was by then entrenched enough to make its influence felt, and when you get to lead off with stuff like Riverworld and Ringworld, you’ve dealt yourself a good hand. Likewise, if you’ve got to end someplace, 2000 is as good as any–it brings you up to Cryptonomicon, although as Darren Harris-Fain points out, then you have to ask yourself whether that’s really SF or not.

The only problem is that “as far as it goes” actually covers a very limited theme, which we’ve all heard before: some SF is really, really well written and why doesn’t the literary establishment get that? In Harris-Fain’s case, he puts forward “Octavia E. Butler, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe Haldeman, John Kessel, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe.” The point isn’t so much who’s not on the list–but where’s James Morrow? To me, it’s more like the consistent focus on the most innovative or “literary” work of the period doesn’t necessarily lead to a full appreciation of what was going on in science fiction during those decades. For example, Ringworld is the only substantial mention of Larry Niven; there’s nothing about his subsequent collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, nor about the entire subgenre of Reaganite Cold War military SF that followed in their wake. (Remember Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr? This won’t jar your memory.) Perhaps that’s because it runs counter to the classic explanation he offers, by way of quoting Charles Brown, for why Michael Crichton isn’t really science fiction: unlike other genres, SF refuses to be “consolatory” and reaffirm our cozy assumptions about the way of the world. Which is pretty funny, because as he points out, a lot of classic SF is pretty much grounded in the notion that, sure, science and technology are going to change the world, but “the American way of life” will assuredly prevail.

In another case, Harris-Fain mentions in passing that Asimov returned to the Foundation series in the 1980s, but he doesn’t go on to mention how he then tried to tie together everything he wrote into a Heinleinian future history. For that matter, he doesn’t have much to say, beyond noting that some longtime writers could eventually get big advances, about how fandom helped the earlier Grand Masters extend their shelf life so you had, to pick two random cases, Asimov could run through Foundation sequels and prequels and Heinlein could churn out increasingly solipsistic material. (Let’s face it: The Number of the Beast? Job? Not the man’s finest hour.)

I’m not going to lose much sleep over most of what’s missing, especially the huge chunks that fall squarely under Sturgeon’s Law–and I suppose you could even make a good case that the Gor books are actually fantasies rather than SF, so he’s off the hook there. (Or wait, maybe “John Norman” was British…) And it’s hard if not impossible to fault any of the choices for “mature” works worth singling out. I’m not particularly keen with his emphasis on the “fix-up”–I think it’s fine to point out that a lot of book-length works were cobbled together from short stories and novellas, but I don’t think the term realistically applies to the expansion of a single short work into a novel, but that’s a minor quibble. Just keep in mind that this is only one story about what’s been going on in American science fiction since 1970, a story designed especially to appeal to the sensibilities of English departments and literary critics. Introducing mainstream readers to this tiny segment of the genre might make them feel better about reading science fictionl. Saying that it’ll get them to really “understand” it, though, might be like saying you only have to read Bridget Jones’ Diary to understand what’s going on in chick lit.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Hate SF, Because It’s Beautiful

  1. Book does sound interesting, tho’. Oh, and it’s very sad that I know this, but John Norman isn’t British. His real name is John Lange, and he’s a philosophy professor at Queens College, CUNY.

  2. Science fiction was my gateway drug to politics, philosophy, and eventually media. English professors would rather talk about a bunch of French philosophers who didn’t make it into the PHL101 class, because if they taught SF the students would know more than they do.

  3. Thanks to Andrew for reminding me about the ISBN; that’s fixed now.

    For Tros, there’s actually a funny moment in the book where he describes a hapless English Dept. grad student who has to TA a class that’s been assigned The Handmaid’s Tale and all the students tell her it’s full of “corny images we’ve all encountered in a million novels.”

    Despite everything the book’s missing–as I pointed out, no Morrow and no Pournelle, but also no Chalker, no Malzberg, and though Dick gets mentioned, Valis doesn’t–I still say it’s definitely worth reading for the sake of starting a conversation, much like arguing over who you’d pick for the Greatest Baseball All-Stars of All Time. And, hey, it namechecks James Blish’s Spock Must Die!, so it’s got that going on!

  4. Dude! Science Fiction is still so new enough, it is hard to see where it is going (unless you are immersed in it, then it becomes obvious) for anyone treating it like history analysis. No wonder there are so many names missing. You should read Samuel R. Delany’s analysis on the science fiction world. It really makes you think.

    When I was a young girl, the librarian would often suggest something more palatable. I was a shy girl, but this is one spot where I held my ground. Especially on the Gor series (oh! the artful way of hidding the covers from my parents…teehee). I learnt everything in the middle of huge science fiction and fantasy novels.

    But it is possible. From a parallel issue, I was actually part of a modern classical music analysis class where we discussed Madonna and her videos. Because the professor got it. Madonna had a great influence everywhere, whether you want to admit it or not.

  5. A question for all you guest bloggers and Scalzi readers regarding science fiction: Is there a personality type that gets bored with science fiction at a certain point in life?

    I ask this because in my teens and 20s I devoured all the science fiction I could find and loved it. After 30 I started to find it boring and eventually stopped reading SF altogether by about age 33. Now I am experiencing a similar phenomenon with literary fiction in general. All of a sudden in the last year or so, I find fiction boring and have begun to devour 19th century travelogues and journals and other nonfiction. So, SF writers and readers in your 50s, did you go through this? Is this a known phenomenon? Will I start liking it again when I turn 60?

  6. I have just experienced it, and have since come back to science fiction. What I was reading instead: relationship books, how to get back into dating, other self-help self-actualization books, finding your soul-mate, you get the idea…

    In a similar way, I used to play 15hours a week computer games. All kinds, and especially violent and on-line. Now, I am lucky if I can do 2 hours of gaming a week. I started gaming in 1991, and was done to almost nothing in 2001 (new baby and all).

    My boyfriend doesn’t game anymore, either, and he was doing a lot more than I was. He is into working out (he is really buff). He still reads his science fiction, but wishes there were better new books…the new ideas are less forthcoming and the old ideas are not getting an innovative enough treament.

    If you were that much into science fiction, then probably you were into decoding new styles in order to make the new realm concrete. Most people can’t do that and refuse to learn something new, to boot. I think that you are still reading in the same way, and your new interests reflect this.

  7. Snagged your site googling for Darren Harris-Fain. I am enjoying “Understanding Contemporary Science Fiction”. Like you, I hate to see any list that looks definitive pass over people and works of great worth, but I suppose a critic has to stay sane somehow and the decisions get made, in part, as a matter of expediency. If makes me wonder if we need to evolve more categories of analysis or ways of valuing artistic works as the world gets bigger and bigger, and more and more fragmentary.

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