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!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Entrenched Opposition: Science Fiction Ain’t There Yet (Part One)

(This is part of a potential new series of posts. I really want your thoughts on this, particularly constructive criticism. If you hate this, say so. I don't care if you hate it. It's what's on my mind, and if it's leading me in pointless directions, I'd like to know.)

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.

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book


  1. I really don't care what a bunch of academics think. Some SF works definitely have literary value. Some is pulp trash. I enjoy most of it regardless what the professors in the ivory tower think.

  2. I do think this exploration would make a nice series of articles.

    I don't think that the "but it isn't SF" argument is uncombatable. There are many ways to challenge that claim, not the least of which is asking for a definition of what literary fiction is; if it can claim the tropes of every literary genre or just science fiction; and how, if it does utilize the furniture of genre fiction, it can separate itself from them at all.

    Finally, I've yet to see anyone address the argument from this angle: those who proclaim the existence of something called "literary" fiction (which carries the implication of good, intelligent, high-brow) never seem to mention the hundreds, if not thousands of works in that category that are not 'good', the ones that weren't critically acclaimed, didn't win awards, weren't chosen by academia or literary reviews as exemplars.

    I believe it is easy to challenge the contention: demonstrate that their definition of literary is no different from an artificial and arbitrary dividing line between good fiction and bad fiction.

  3. Frakking Christian spambots!

    No, Science fiction does not have a near impenetrable no-mans land to cross. No, Science fiction does not have an impenetrable social barrier to destroy. Science fiction has grabbed the hearts and minds of the populace.

    Who these days are not born with the concept that maybe, just maybe, the future will be awesome. Maybe, just maybe, our race will not lob deathweapons at every soul on earth.
    I know you are a young white male. Who of your peers are not touched by science fiction in a very personal manner? Do you have friends who are Star Trek geeks? Or Star Wars nerds, perhaps. We are fucking science fiction, and many people realize our scientific and technical world.
    To quote William Gibson;
    "I am a Technical Boy."

    What argument are you rallying against?
    You quote Margaret Atwood without taking into account her context. She does write literary fiction, even though I sneer at her applying such a label to herself. She has never denied that she has written sci-fi novels. Her commentary to Oryx and Crake proves that (forgive me for not citing correctly).

    You do not provide an adequate counter-argument for your statement. There is no pro to your anti. There is no thoughtpolice to your Winston. Instead you fawn over the achievements (and great achievements they are) of the sci-fi greats of the past (though you missed out a few. The genius of Olaf Stapledon, and the portentous paranoia of Ballard and Burgess did well to establish sci-fi as mainstream and as *ahem* winning) and while fawning you provide no counter.

    Instead you use an "us-vs-them" mentality, which does nothing to forward the so-called "cause" of science fiction.

    Science fiction was born (as we know it. Fiction magazines of the thirties etc) as a product of the popular.
    Science Fiction is a Popular Movement. "We" won with the printing of the first paperback sci-fi novel. We won when the first person read that novel on the train.
    The distinction between science fiction and "regular" fiction is blurry at best, as is the distinction between "literary" fiction and science fiction.
    Hell, what's to stop a detective novel being a fictive literary work? Detective fiction has been regarded as trash just as long as sci-fi has, and just as unfairly. This does not mean that detective fiction has lost its battle against the Plebes, or the Masses, or the Workers, or whatever the fuck you envision the Other to be.'

    Every single person with access to Western mass-media has access to science fiction. Everyone has seen Starship Troopers. Everyone has seen Alien.
    Both films have been reviewed as high art. Both films are considered to be exemplary specimens of their work, and both have been analysed as being more than their constituent parts, one being a commentary on Fascism in the military and one being a deconstruction of rape. (bonus points if you can tell which one is which. Not as easy as you'd think.)

    As to academia? Real learning has never been by rote, taking down notes in a class taught by someone with the appropriate credentials.
    Real learning has been the experience. If you write a PHD thesis, and it's accepted by your university of study, you can probably make your own class. When you start teaching your own beliefs on science fiction, much like those at Liverpool, VUW, MIT and fucking Oxford, that's when science fiction will have won. Science fiction is, and has been a legitimate field of study since the moment someone thought that there might be more to writing than words on a page. Without that mindset, we wouldn't have theology, ethics or philosophy.

    and with that, /rant. I'd love to have a real time conversation with yez, bra.

  4. NorCal: Well, a lot of people who read the stuff don't. I generally don't, except that I wish to pursue the field as an academic one. But you're certainly allowed to flip the bird to the academics and go on your merry :).

    Crotchety: I agree. That might be something I'll have to pursue in these series. What is literary? Good question. I need a literary person to come in here and talk about that :P.

    Riadan: I'm going to write a post specifically talking about all of what you've said've written too darn much for me to adequately deal with in the comments. So, you get a dedicated post.