Tuesday, April 1, 2008

It’s Grrreat!

At the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim a few years ago, I was on the H. G. Wells panel. I reported the upshot of a discussion I had with some friends years ago, the basic question being “Are there any science fiction novels that are both great novels and great science fiction?” I reported that the only novel that we could generally agree as fitting both criteria was Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Well. You can imagine. My, what a brief ruckus, brief being operative because the moderator of the panel soon simply said basically, “Move along folks. Nothing to see here.” But there were plenty of suggestions that were taken as clear proof that I was wrong, wrong, I tell you, so many, many, novels that everyone agreed were great in every sense of the word.

Except most of them weren’t, and all were highly debatable.

Now obviously what I’m getting at here is the difference in standards of judgment that one applies to science fiction as opposed to general literature. Part of that argument is the difference between general literature and genre literature. Another, more subtle point is the difference between the novel and shorter works of fiction. There are any number of science fiction and fantasy stories that stand up to any short story in English literature. I read Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” in a 6th grade literature book, for example.

But novels are a harder sell, especially for science fiction, which isn’t really a genre that is well-suited to the novel. Science fiction, as such, is about ideas and speculation, and it’s hard to stretch an idea to book length. So you have to put more into it, and the “more” is often either inferior to the original conception, or is more like “ordinary” literature. Over the past several decades, for example, SF has become more “character oriented.” This is fine, but it rarely adds to the science fiction content per se.

Of course there are no objective standards for “great” in art, or anywhere else for that matter, but one can point to criteria that need to be fulfilled before something can be legitimately considered as great. In general literature, it’s easy to come up with at least a partial list:

The prose quality should be high; transcendent is better still.

It should be culturally influential. It should have cultural impact. It should add images, phrases, and concepts to the general intellectual discourse of the culture. “Quixotic” and “tilting at windmills” are part of world culture, and that fact is part of why Don Quixote is a great book.

It should be influential in the literary sense. It should inspire other writers to imitate it, copy it, and steal from it. It should also inspire other works in other arts, such as theater, motion pictures, painting, or whatever.

It should be broadly read, at least at some point in its life.

It should stand the test of time, connecting to audiences past its nominal shelf life.

So what about science fiction? How does a work get to be great science fiction? Well, SF is a literature of ideas, as noted earlier. The ideas should be novel, interesting, stimulating, and well-communicated. If the SF is future-oriented, it should convey real insights into the actual future. It doesn’t necessarily need to be predictive, although that’s certainly a plus, but it should make the future that does occur easier to understand. That applies generally, in fact. Great science fiction should make whatever it is writing about easier to understand.

Then, of course, there is the “gosh wow” factor, that ol’ sensawanda. It should be more than merely intellectually stimulating. Great SF stimulates the poetic sense.

Finally, like every other genre literature, to really make an impact on readers, even good SF (to say nothing of great), must be aware of the conventions of the genre. It may follow them, play off of them, or break them, but it must know what the genre is and how it functions.

On this last point, War of the Worlds could be said to cheat a little, since it is one of the works that establishes some of the conventions of SF, and many of the conventions came about because later writers imitated Wells. But that’s just another indication of greatness.

So let’s take a few of the works nominated by the panel in rebuttal to my suggestion. For example, Brave New World was mentioned, but, frankly BNW isn’t really that good a novel. It has practically no plot, the characters are writer’s puppets, and at the prose level, Huxley is pretty pedestrian. Or take The Stars My Destination. It’s definitely great SF, but who reads it besides SF readers? And as for literary influence, if someone wants to use the plot, they’ll go to the place that Bester stole it, The Count of Monte Cristo.

I’ve seen a lot of people reference LeGuin’s The Dispossessed_ as somehow typifying great literary SF. If so, the enterprise has failed. Yes, The Dispossessed is taught in schools and universities, but always as science fiction. I’ve looked at some of the academic literature around it, and it’s the SF elements that are taught, not the literary elements. And again, who besides SF readers (and the occasional university lit student) has read it? What influence has it had, other than among dedicated SF readers?

For my own part, I’m much more likely to go with 1984 as filling the “double great” bill. My quibble would be that it’s barely science fiction. It’s ostensibly set in the future, (which, of course, in now our past) but that’s really just for the distancing effect. In that sense, it’s similar to Animal Farm which deals with some of the same themes. Of course the “gosh wow” feature is wholly absent, but that’s par for the course for dystopian futures.

I’d personally also make the argument for Naked Lunch as a great novel and great science fiction. Of course, I then run into the problem that very few SF fans have read it. On the other hand, a Google search on “Naked Lunch” gives many more hits than does “The Dispossessed.” On the other, other hand, the movie version of Naked Lunch was amazing.

One can complain about the “science fiction ghetto” thing, but that’s gotten pretty old, given the amount of SF teaching at the university level and the general penetration of SF tropes into popular culture. Besides, detective fiction was hard core pulp until The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Now it’s an accepted form for serious fiction. For that matter, science fiction is considered an acceptable form for serious fiction, e.g. The Handmaiden’s Tale or Gravity’s Rainbow, but SF readers rarely accept the results as being good SF. So maybe the ghetto thing is self-imposed.

War of the Worlds on the other hand, succeeds on practically all levels. In the literary sense, it put Wells on the map, as it were, and, as SF, it carried along with it descriptions of warfare that were novel in 1898, but all too mundane by 1918. Additionally, it established the apocalyptic novel, introduced the idea of “death by exotic disease” into general public discourse, and made Mars the home of imaginary civilizations for generations that followed. Wells set the bar very high, and SF writers have been trying to jump over it ever since.


JP Stormcrow said...

I might quibble with Brave New World, but it is not something I worry about too much. I am fine with no (or almost no) overlap. I enjoy SF for the ideas and the worlds, the writing is almost a distraction. For instance I think Snowcrash is pretty dismal as a story and It is hard to wade through the writing, but it has a lot of good and a few great ideas/extrapolation, so it was an immensely satisfying SF novel for me.

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