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Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Literary Nazis: Part Two

...or Why the Literary Academia Hates SF...from my viewpoint.
Well, I thought I'd do a little extension on this post. What exactly makes those who seem to control the literary world and decide the fate of individual works of art hate science fiction so much? Given the discussion in my Literary Interpretation class, I think I have a couple ideas. Feel free to add your thoughts and ideas!
  • Science: Most people who read are not scientists. Trends in science fiction have gone from fantastical truly unbelievable settings to ones rooted in reality. Some novels go as far as to bring up concepts that are rather complicated and hard to grasp for a lot of people--namely the current trend to use Quantum Physics. This can all be intimidating.
  • Simplicity and Lack of Thought: I think I mentioned it in the previous article, but there is an unfortunate belief that science fiction is all pulp-fiction. They think it as simplistic, possibly formulaic writing. The likely reason for this is the overabundance, or at least the common presence of shared world SF. Things like Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, and others. Sure, there are some wonderful books in those series', but they're not remotely the same as original SF. This leads the literary academia to believe that SF is simple, that it relies on the work of others to make its mark. Simplicity also seems to extend to the idea that SF doesn't address valuable issues or have complicated internal ideas--mythological concepts, humanistic qualities, man vs. self, and the like.
    Perhaps the idea that SF doesn't create situations that make people think is something that is holding SF back. My Professor for my Interpretation course spoke of this issue in conjunction with simplicity. When you go to Walmart, you rarely, if at all, see the works of SF that are truly the most powerful and influential. You see Star Wars and maybe a couple books by authors who are big names in the field. The books that end up on the shelf at stores like Walmart represent the simplified works in the field, in general. They tend to be the books of straight entertainment. Not only SF is in this bind, but other genres too, and when the literary academia looks up they don't see all the works that really matter, but the works that are the 'in thing' right now. You can imagine what that looks like to them.
  • Failure: This might turn out to work in SF's favor, but there has been a steady decline in sales and popularity with SF. This seems to have a lot to do with the surge of popularity in fantasy. J. K. Rowling, Scott Westerfeld, and a myriad of others who are flooding the market with what the public obviously thinks is fantastic literature--that has a double meaning of course. Science fiction, on the other hand, seems to be dying, or at least falling slowly as fantasy continues its relentless dominance in the speculative field. On the one hand, this means that less science fiction is being seen, and inevitably losing some critical acclaim. This could be seen negatively. Perhaps literary critics see this decline as the mark of a genre that can't survive. On the other, maybe they will see the 'failure' or science fiction as the public losing interest with something that actually is worth studying.
  • They Just Don't Get It: That should be clear enough. Literary academia just doesn't understand SF as a whole. They fail to see its significance because they can't see past their snobby noses.
  • They're Hypocrits: This is related to the point made before this. I don't know if you could call it a reason for hating SF, but since some SF books have made it into the canon, primarily books of a literary or classical nature (1984 or Brave New World), they feel that they don't have to count those as part of SF.
So, did I miss anything? What are your thoughts?

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  1. Having read a ton of sci-fi, and then moved on to other genres, I have this to say:

    Most sci-fi I pick up lacks compelling characters. The story might still be good, but the characters lack. Look at the Spiderman movies...they feature a great story, battles, action, etc, but the story remains at its core a story about a man.

    While I loved reading Clarke's Rama series, looking back, it was a story about some cardboard figures who did stuff in a big tin can. The characters were OK, but the adventure was the story. If the characters would have been the story, it would have been a better read...commercially too.

  2. Very good point. I think one thing that has changed with SF in the last 20 years is that characterization has become significantly more important. I've read a lot more books where the characters were more important than the world. A lot of the old SF was very much focused on the worlds. The reason, of course, was that SF was so new, so fresh, and so full of grandiose ideas that it was more important to dazzle with a brilliant setting than with truly rounded characters. There are exceptions of course, but that was the general idea. This might have had a lot to do with the literary academia refusing to accept SF as real literature. But SF has gone through a lot of phases. I'll have to write a post about that, and Asimov's 'ages of SF'.
    I should send you a list of books I think you might more enjoy that were character based in SF. Ender's Game comes to mind, as the setting wasn't nearly as important as the development of Ender throughout the book. There are plenty of others too, and I certainly have not read enough SF in my 24 years of life (I started on share-world fantasy junk). I have a hope to read every Golden Age SF book ever published in might never happen though...that's a lot of books :S

  3. I think one thing that has changed with SF in the last 20 years is that characterization has become significantly more important.

    This is certainly the case. Since you mention Asimov and Card, it is interesting to look back at the way his characters related to one another often in a one- or two-dimensional manner (I'm thinking of the Foundation books) and to compare that with the way today's readers expect more well-rounded characterization now, such as in the first Ender novel. There is I feel some way to go yet to achieve the kind of fully three-dimensional beings that the best of non-genre literature has to offer now.

  4. I would argue that there are plenty of novels that include 3-dimensional characters. I'm currently reading Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon and the main character, and even some of the secondary characters seem very rounded.
    But certainly there is an issue in older science fiction of lesser characterization, but that is much the case with a lot of non-genre works where characterization is sacrificed for being flashy or 'important'.