North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Is Science Fiction Literature?

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Joseph Bottum writes at FIRST THINGS: On the Square:

There exists an intellectual defense of science fiction, but what’s interesting is that the query produced a hundred comments and, as near as I can tell, not one of them attempts the intellectual defense. What they pursue, instead, is a systematic assault on the notion of literature.You can’t discount the American horror of appearing to be snob: Ordinary readers like science fiction, and we’re all just regular folk, after all. But what’s curious is the deployment of postmodern tropes: Some years ago, literature professors (of the MLA persuasion, anyway) turned against the whole idea of literature, the Volokh Conspiracy commenters note. So if even trained literary critics are unable to say what qualifies as literature, why can’t science fiction be literature?

There’s something a little odd in the use of this line by a group of lawyers and law professors who are known for their rejection of the postmodern turn in their own profession of law. Still, as an anti-intellectual argumentative strategy, it’s pretty smart: You get to deny that there is any specialized knowledge necessary for determining literature (‘even the trained people don’t know what it is’), and at the same time you get to appeal to the authority of those specialists to promote your favorite reading.

But smart ain’t the same as intellectual. As I say, there is an intellectual defense of some genre writing. But—believing, as I did, that lawyers tend toward being natural intellectuals—I would have preferred to see the discussion begin with the acknowledgement that Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe produced literature. Now, does any science fiction stand near them?

(Via Ignatius Insight.)

I wholeheartedly agree with Joseph Bottum’s takedown of the “there is no such thing as Literature” argument, I can’t go where his last question seems to lead. His question seems to suggest that science fiction isn’t literature because it is so different from the examples he gives. I recognize that generally speaking, most science fiction does not deal at all well with character. Excepting science fantasy, which is fantasy with lasers rather than swords (think Star Wars), most science fiction is written by a certain kind of man – a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer. The intricacies of character writing are not (usually) a strong point with such a person. In particular, they seem to be quite unable to write a woman believably. What we get instead is either an Mrs. Cleaver or, more commonly, an Amazon of various stripes. Can we concede all that and still admit science fiction as literature? Can do so if we further concede that most such men have only crude knowledge of what to do with symbol, metaphor, or synecdoche?

Without a doubt I think we can. If most science fiction fails the “man vs. man” test, and is not stellar at “man vs. himself” either, the genre is generally much better at “man vs. nature”. It is often argued that the genre is made up of “reality with a twist” and I think this is correct. The question of what nature is comes up frequently and the answers are often imaginative and breathtaking. This is true if nature is regarded as nature, machine or time (the supernatural is almost by definition ruled out of the genre). Rather than rule science fiction out of literature, I would argue that it can be seen as a great step in exploring our circumstances. It has to be recognized that it is a philosophical rather than romantic genre.

The older writers Bottum mentions simply did not live in the kind of world we do. The closest thing they offer- and it is a close thing indeed – would be man vs. God (think Job) or man vs. fate. What sets the moderns apart from the old world is, I think, that they are keener to show how perceiver and perceived are intertwined; that perception is not a passive or neutral act.


Written by Curt

December 28, 2006 at 10:46 pm

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