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Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Literary Nazis (Against Science Fiction)

I wrote the following as a journal entry for one of my literature classes this year. It came up during class really, the idea that the literary world considers science fiction, and fantasy, to be either not really literature at all, or lesser literature. This has become a sort of campaign for me now--attempting to change the minds of people about science fiction. Someone also brought up the idea that the novel is dying. I decided to address the issues in a journal entry. Keep in mind, I may not be right, and this was somewhat of an emotional response. Here it is:
Something I am finding rather difficult to deal with and accept lately is this somewhat negative concept in the literary world that books like The Immoralist and similar ‘classics’ are significantly better literature than books that hold somewhat more higher prestige with the majority, such as Harry Potter. It was brought up in class today whether it is true that the importance of the novel is dying. I think the problem isn’t that the novel is dying, because in reality, it’s not, but rather that the rigid and sometimes rather close-minded idea of what constitutes as true literature is no longer something that any significant majority of people are interested in. Certainly people read the occasional classic, and perhaps it is because those classics are somewhat simplistic, or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that people, in general, want to be entertained, and some classics still seem to do that. 1984 by George Orwell is a great example of a novel that still manages to captivate people. Even if you’ve already read it, another reading proves even more insightful than the last. So in reality, I don’t think that the novel is becoming less important, but more that there is a shift in what constitutes importance now. We’re a money driven society, and in some ways you could say that money tends to drive people as much as it drives the market. A book that sells is a book that gets heard about more often and is more likely to continue selling.
Granted, I will admit that there must be more than a fair share of novels that have no literary merit, but of the ones that do have some significant importance socially and culturally seem to get shunned away by the literary crowd as simplistic or lower literature. Science fiction, for example, is one of the most influential genres in the history of literature. The computer, cell phone, space shuttle, moon missions, the Mars missions now and in the future, are all products of science fiction thinking. Science fiction’s influence is so great that there are actually websites devoted to keeping track of the technologies created in science fiction books that have become reality. And there is a stigma with science fiction that I would say exists due to the rise of the pulp magazine and pulp SF books in the early age of science fiction. Often people think of it as wild fantasy in space. They think green aliens that are evil with super spaceships, interstellar wars, hot babes in skimpy clothes, and suave Captains who always get the girl. In reality, the bulk of true science fiction is well-thought and more relevant now than it probably was during the early 20’s and 30’s. Many SF novels deal with real world concepts set in obviously futuristic landscapes. When you look right down into the bare bones of these novels, you realize that they are as complex and revealing as the classics. They deal with politics not only on an external scale, but on the internal as well. They deal with concepts such as stem cell research, genetic manipulation, nuclear war, global warming, and the like. These are issues that are strikingly strong in our society today. The stigma also extends to the authors themselves. On one side people think of these authors as the dork living in a basement—likely a relative—writing silly stories about stuff that isn’t real. The ironic part of the last part of that stereotype is that all writers write stuff that isn’t real, even literary fiction writers. The reality of the situation is that the majority of SF writers don’t fit into the stereotype at all. Isaac Asimov, who may very well have paved the way for true, gripping, and relevant science fiction, was a degree holding scientist who went off to write many papers and books on legit subjects. SF writers are biologist, astronomers, astrophysicists, sociologists, teachers, and political scientists, just to name a few. Carl Sagan was a scientist renowned for his representation of the cosmos and for writing many wonderful books on scientific subjects—a book of note would be the Dragons of Eden which, despite its fantastical name, was actually a study about the evolution of human intelligence that delved not only into the structure of our brains, but into the structure of our mind and the evolving nature of our psyche. But Carl Sagan also wrote science fiction. He wrote Contact, a novel that was eventually turned into a movie with Jodie Foster, and his son has continued the family trend.
So, I continue to question this somewhat ignorant stance that science fiction is lower literature. And I also really question the notion that the novel is losing importance. Perhaps there is a hint of truth to this if you were willing to say that the novel is changing on an individual level, which would account for the flood of young adult fiction in the market and the surging sales and surplus of paranormal style fiction novels. But really the novel is doing just fine. As of yet the idea of eBooks has not quite caught on, and I don’t know that they ever will, though perhaps that will change in the next generation or two. Many of us cannot stand to read a book on the computer. Some of us reason this by saying that it hurts our eyes, and the rest of us just really want paper in our hands. But I just don’t think the novel itself is losing importance. I think it’s simply a shift in where that importance lies. In years to come we can expect to see probably the most influential book of the last ten years—Harry Potter—being analyzed in classrooms. Certainly Tolkien has had this luck, as well as C.S. Lewis, both authors who deserve that sort of respect.

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