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.