When can we say that science fiction has officially crossed the boundary into becoming a legitimate field of study in the eyes of academia (or, at least, the scholars that fill up the positions that, collectively, are known as the literary academia)? Is it possible for science fiction enthusiasts, critics, fans, readers, lovers, obsessives, or psychotics to raise up their hands and say, “Victory?”
Science fiction has earned its place in history and in the classroom; we, the science fiction enthusiasts and lovers, know this as well as we know that the sun must rise every day (perhaps only a handful of you would argue otherwise). Science fiction deserves to be taught just as Mark Twain deserves to be taught. These are facts, incontrovertible. And science fiction has, in a way, reigned victorious over the opposition, and has reigned for as long as it has existed as a genre (even hidden and un-remarked-upon by its makers, for Mary Shelley and the handful of others before her could not have known that their speculative visions would have sparked an entire literary movement that stormed onto the scene in the early half of the 19th century and never let up). 1984, we would argue, is science fiction; Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, Cyrano de Bergerac, and all those names forgotten by, or never exposed to, public school students have written science fiction, no matter how hard some of that lot would argue otherwise.
But, despite all this, despite 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Utopia, and other “literary” tales, science fiction has not won. Despite the extensive study of the genre in universities across the world, despite the Science Fiction Studies degree program at the University of Liverpool, the Science Fiction Research Association, the Modern Language Association’s inclusion of a science fiction and fantasy discussion board, or the various high-profile literary critics like Phillip Wegner, Frederick Jameson, Samuel R. Delany, Darko Suvin, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., science fiction has not won. The opposition is entrenched, buried like a human being’s personality under a mountain of psychosis. We are the foot soldiers marching across flat terrain to an “enemy” set up in fortified positions, in trenches and bunkers and underground tunnels, who have been preparing for this battle without knowing they were doing so. And they have superior numbers.
You see, for all that we have managed to achieve, science fiction has yet to claim “victory.” It can’t, because whenever we say “well, science fiction has been in school curriculum for decades,” the entrenched opposition throws an un-combatable argument back at us: “1984 is not a science fiction novel. It’s literature. It just uses the furniture of science fiction, but it’s not SF. It’s real literature!”
(Image found here)Margaret Atwood, bless her soul, has been one of the most vocal about this position, along with Harlan Ellison. They do not write science fiction; they just use the furniture. Interesting how you don’t see it work the other way: imagine a science fiction author being called “literary” and telling everyone, “I do not write literary fiction. I just use the furniture.” Does the argument make sense? Of course not. But if the entrenched opposition made any sense, this “war” would have ended long ago.
But these arguments are what maintain the divide. The indefatigable persistence of this position lends itself well to the ears of those who turn their noses at the SF/F community. Science fiction, they say, is not literature. It’s mindless fluff. It’s escapist drivel. It’s nonsense masked by weak prose and hebetudinous style. Therefore, 1984 cannot be science fiction. It’s too good for that label. Margaret Atwood is a literary writer; she does not stoop to that all time low embodied by the science fiction genre. No. We are too good for that.
You see, science fiction must combat this entrenched mentality; it must push against the fold that cannot be unfolded, and must learn the tricks that are not tricks. We cannot use their language; we cannot say “it is science fiction, even if you say it isn’t,” because our realities are different. We do not presume to hold science fiction up as perfect. Just as the literary establishment segregates itself from the popular literature (that, they claim, devalues all that is wonderful about the written language), science fiction enthusiasts and critics segregate. We have to, because we are not naïve to think that all science fiction is good or worth subjecting to critical inquiry. Science fiction is a mixed bag, but we seem to have a decent idea on what constitutes good and bad, what is worth more than the label of “escapist fluff.” Some of that fits into the rigid universe of the entrenched opposition; some of that does not. It is that which fits that we must reconcile and drag out of the abyss the opposition has created for it. 1984 is science fiction. It does not “use the furniture.” It created the furniture (dystopian furniture, to say the least) and became a model. The models are our friends, our allies in the fight.
But how do we wrestle away that which fits? How do we un-entrench the opposition long enough for them to see that science fiction is not a label of debasement, but a mark of honor? To be called a “science fiction writer” is not to be called “garbage,” but to be seen as worthy of the adoration of a niche, of rabid fans who devour anything under the science fiction label with at least half as much fervor as the fans of Twilight devour Edward. This is the question to be asked and answered. I have asked the question. The answer will come soon.