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Monday, November 15, 2010

Science Fiction Criticism: Inside vs. Outside

One of my colleagues recently asked me what I thought about the academic texts on science fiction we had been reading over the semester.  Specifically, she was curious about my opinion on the inside and the outside, and who, more or less, has the "right" to comment upon the genre.  Before I get into that, I need to explain what I mean by the inside and the outside.

There are two kinds of science fiction critics (or maybe more than two, but I'm only dealing with two for this post):  the critic who grew up in the "community" and transitioned into academia (the inside) and the non-fan who, by some twist of fate, perhaps, came to the genre having never had much interest in it before (the outside). The latter group might be comprised of fans, or it might not, but the first group most definitely is a fan-based critical circle, since the impetus for shifting to academia as a "science fiction critic" has everything to do with their experience with the genre.

In principle, I have no problem with the outside.  They are just as capable of talking about the
genre as anyone else, and their opinions and knowledge may add something new to science fiction studies.  Likewise, I have no problem with the inside, since having an intimate connection with the genre lends a kind of unflinching passion to academic life (as an academic, I can attest to the fact that many academics seem to lack passion for their field, or at least seem to lack that passion).  But neither group is without flaws, and it's when the flaws become noticeable in the critical product that I start to have a big problem.

You see, sometimes those who are on the inside are often incapable of thinking on the outside.  They have become so "obsessed" with the field in which they have extended themselves academically that they are largely incapable of dealing with the genre within its own terms and within the theoretical frameworks that exist outside of genre entirely.  These are the folks who write about how much they love SF rather than about what SF does.  These are also folks who should probably remain fans, since being an academic (within the academic world, obviously, since one should be able to separate the two) requires (or should require) a certain level of objectivity and intellectual breadth.  For me, this has always been a problem, because waxing lyrical about my favorite science fiction texts means very little in the academic world (we care about "why" more than we care about "thought").  I've had to separate my fan side from my academic side enough so that the two only overlap in a very small space (as in a Venn diagram, for example).  Some people can't do this, though, and they need to understand that they're doing the genre no favors by flooding the academic world with love that, inevitably, has very little meaning in terms of its substance and what it actually offers academics and the field in general (remember that academics, who may be fans, are still different beasts altogether).

However, things become even more complicated when one starts to talk about the outside.  In the last few years, there has been (or seems to have been) a surge of academics working on SF who have never done so before.  Some of them have simply felt it was time to shift things over to other things they enjoy, but a good portion of them are individuals who have come to the genre without even understanding it as a genre and as a fan-element (i.e. as popular culture).  This latter group is the problem group.  These are the folks who treat books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road as though it is a remarkably original post-apocalyptic novel, intentionally ignoring that The Road essentially lifts every cliche and plot from the sea of post-apocalyptic novels that preceded it.  These are the individuals who treat everything but a very small handful of SF texts with derision, isolating their work entirely from the critical framework of science fiction studies.  They proclaim by action that they are "the outside," proudly and with flare.  They're not interested in learning about the genre (except, perhaps, cursorily) nor about what makes SF texts function (which is essential to any academic project on an SF text).

Now you might say that the outsider group I have just described is comprised of lazy academics.  Perhaps they are, but that doesn't change the fact that some of them get a lot of respect for talking about SF in an obviously lip-service sort of way.  What they're really interested in are the texts they happened to like (maybe they didn't even know they were reading SF until it was too late or someone pointed it out to them).  And these folks I have a huge problem with.  It's a territorial thing.  I don't care if outsiders come to SF, learn it, and write articles/books about it.  They're adding something valuable to the discussion.  But I do care about people who come to SF with a clear unwillingness to address the genre on its own terms.  That would be akin to a non-canon (genre-fiction only) reader waltzing over to Charles Dickens and claiming it as their own without looking at the historical and critical framework set up by Dickensian scholars.  To me, that's a slap in the face.

To put it another way:  if you have no intention of being a fan, then don't write about texts within my genre.  Outsiders can be fans.  They might not like some of the stuff in the SF world (hell, even I don't), but they are still willing to see the value in the genre and find their niche within it.  They can become fans (perhaps not obsessive ones, but that doesn't seem necessary).  SF deserves passion from its academics.  But when academics come to the field without embedding themselves into the field (even slightly), they are doing the genre a disservice and turning themselves into pompous assholes.  And that's the kind of thing we don't really need.

That's what I think about that.  Academia isn't cut out for everyone (and there's nothing wrong with that). If you love SF, become a writer or an amateur critic or a review writer.  Not everyone can be a Darko Suvin or a Fredric Jameson (hell, I probably never will be).  And that's plain okay.

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  1. What I'm constantly amazed by is that people try to write things like technical SF without doing any research. Especially when there's such an amazing wealth of information out there.

    Just today, I've stumbled across dozens of articles from hard-thinking, serious scientist-types about the logistics and practicalities of heading to Mars. Over at the Journal of Cosmology.... So easy to get the 'right' info!

    - Pip

  2. That's definitely an important aspect of writing SF, sure. I don't get so bothered by inaccuracies in SF unless they are excessively absurd.