The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Aliens and Spaceships Do Not a Science Fiction Make

Recently in my South African Literature course my professor, in talking about Nadine Gordimer's July's People, mentioned that the story, while not based on any sort of reality that we understand to exist, is also not a science fiction story because it doesn't contain aliens or spaceships or anything like that. I, obviously, disagreed, but didn't say so in class primarily because I didn't want to have an argument over something that largely wasn't relevant to our discussion at the time.

This sort of misconception of science fiction seems to be rampant in the "literary" world and I'm not quite clear as to why. While it is certainly true that much of what makes up science fiction literature, film, art, etc. revolve around the tropes (spaceships, aliens, etc.), there is also an enormous body of science fiction that is completely devoid of these elements. But they aren't seen as science fiction. Why?

Is it because the "literary" world refuses to acknowledge that science fiction is about far more than just aliens and spaceships, that it's a genre of speculations about what may be under the umbrella question "what if?" Authors such as Margaret Atwood have made it clear they dislike being labeled as science fiction, and, of course, you have to wonder why. After all, quite a lot of people read science fiction, and if you could act as a gateway into other literary forms that those SF readers might not have encountered before, isn't that a good thing? And it works the other way too. What's wrong with reading science fiction? Should we enjoy the reading process and isn't the fact that people actually read at all a good thing?

When starting this post I immediately thought of such works as Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and McCarthy's The Road, among others. Both are science fiction stories, but written for a "literary" audience. Perhaps this is a trend now; we put the works that lack the most flamboyant of SF tropes in the "literary" category as a way of marketing them to an audience that may not have been receptive with the SF name flashing on a metaphorical billboard. I simply would like to see the "literary" world acknowledge that science fiction isn't limited to aliens and spaceships, but is a genre that encompasses politics, sociology, biology, and much more. Being marked as a "science fiction tale" is not a debasement, but, perhaps, an honor.

If you liked this post, please stumble it, digg it, or buzz it.

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book


  1. Interesting post... I agree with the points you make. Sci-fi has become too stereotyped.

    -Sarurun Kamui (Carrie)

  2. Agreed. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment :).

  3. The 'literary types' use that 'spaceships and aliens' comment precisely because it allows them to dismiss the entire genre.

    How often do we hear them discussing Poe's SF stories when teach Poe? How often is A CT Yankee in... included in the Mark Twain syllabus when teaching Twain?

    Almost never for both of the above.

    They have it firmly stuck in their heads that it is necessary to have a whipping boy in order to elevate the works they consider to be of value and for a variety of historical (and probably undocumented) reasons, they've chose SF/F/H to be that whipping boy.


  4. I simply would like to see the "literary" world acknowledge that science fiction isn't limited to aliens and spaceships, but is a genre that encompasses politics, sociology, biology, and much more. Being marked as a "science fiction tale" is not a debasement, but, perhaps, an honor.

    Don't hold your breathe. The prejudice against genre fiction is deep-seated.

    I encountered much the same in art school. Paint a conventional landscape for an art class and all is well. Do a painting of Jupiter as seen from the surface of one of its moons, no matter how well executed, and all you'll get is ridicule.

    As if creating work about the cosmos that science has begun to reveal to us were not a valid pursuit for an artist.

  5. Crotchety/David: I'm well aware of how the literary world treats us :P. It's rather sad considering what can be said about genre fiction from a literary standpoint.

  6. I know Greg Bear's books with his wonderful new ideas are very readable. But being a Manga fan I enjoy the old schlock, shoot-em-up thriller, alien invasion scenarios too. They may have aliens portrayed as little green men, but it is done on purpose to bring out the action scenes more rather then a boring soapy melodrama, which I could whatch on 'Days Of Our Lives' on TV.
    I think these genres do well as books too, and with a good fast easily readable format. I have written a novel called Doom Of The Shem.
    I love the endless scenarios that space with its limitless depth can create in the imagination. There are so many wars and conflicts that food gathering species do to each other that take the concept of a peaceful universe to new extremes. One species exploiting another for food is considered not an immoral act till it is us that are on the dinning room table. This concept is quite common in writing and forms the basis for many very highly popular works of science fiction and fantasy writing. I hope you enjoy this small taste in science fiction writing.

  7. Clarke: I don't think readability is one of the things that literary folks tend to dislike about science fiction and fantasy. Literary fiction places high value on language (how things are said, what ambiguous words are used, etc.), while popular literatures tend to focus more on things such as plot, character, theme, etc. This isn't always true, but generally true. Literary folks tend to see that as a reason to discount the entire genre, along with all the aliens and spaceships (swords and elves).