Science Fiction as Literature

Science Fiction is often maligned as a genre of fiction. In truth, there are science fiction works that are lacking and there is exceptionally well written science fiction. I once read a poll by Writer’s Digest where they asked people what types of written material that they liked to read. I was very disheartened that poetry ranked lower than non-fiction books about fishing. The other thing that I found very disheartening was that science fiction was low down on the list as well. People who were asked why they placed science fiction so low on the list responded that it was because they did not know what to read and picking a random novel had proved to be disappointing.

Now, I have to say that walking through the science fiction/fantasy section of a chain bookstore like Borders can be somewhat of a turn off. Science fiction and fantasy book covers leave a great deal to be desired. There often are scantily clad women or spaceships floating in a field of darkened space. Further, as stated above the quality of the fiction can vary dramatically.

I would also say that if one entered the “literary” section of the store there would also be great variance in the quality of the fiction to be found on the shelves. Dickens, Austen, Irving, Chabon, Atwood, Picoult, du Maurier, etc. — all are found in the “literary” section alongside schlock.

So last blog post I said that I would put forth some science fiction titles that I think are literature. They are as follows and I do not believe this is an exhaustive list:

The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
1984 by George Orwell
Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Contact by Carl Sagan
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
The Drought J.G. Ballard
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This is, as I said, not an exhaustive list and it covers decades. Please add to this list and pass it along because I think that science fiction suffers from a bad reputation– a type of ghettoization. Perhaps if more people knew what to reach for on library shelves and at the bookstore, then attitudes towards science fiction might change. And minds might open. In more than one way.

More on this in another post.

Homer the Great Storyteller

Currently, I am researching academic articles for a reference volume about epics and I was in a discussion about the Iliad with a friend. In the middle of that discussion I realized that it had been a number of years since I had read the Iliad and I was speaking from memories of an updated fictional novel about the Trojan War that I had read. It suddenly confused me and feeling a little sheepish I decided that I needed to reread the Iliad.

Wow! I forgot how truly amazing the Iliad is. It is not simply a recounting of the Trojan War. It talks about different aspects of strife and begins with a dispute over a woman who was given to Agamemnon as war booty. Her father tries to ransom her and Agamemnon refuses. Chryses goes to Apollo and asks that a plague be visited upon the Greeks. To stop the plague, Agamemnon has to give up Chryseis. He is not pleased with this idea and despite that he tries to convince Chryses that she is as important to him as his own wife Clymenestra, he then wants Achilles’ war prize, Briseis, to replace Chryseis. Achilles complies because Minerva tells him to. He then asks his mother Thetis to intervene and make sure the Greeks get solidly beaten while he withdraws his troops. It is more complicated than an afternoon soap. And much more poignant.

Things that I have picked up from the Iliad so far are that in telling stories one can choose where to begin. The Iliad begins after the Greeks have beseiged Troy for nine years. The subplots that are put forth give information and perspective on the main plot, make the story interesting, and advance the themes. There is also a great deal of information that is cultural information that is in the background of the Iliad that is assumed that the reader/listener would know and bring to a reading of the Iliad. This unstated information helps to draw the reader in and tighten up the epic. It relies on readers/listeners knowing that Troy has no patron god or goddess because the Trojans didn’t keep their bargain with Poseidon when he helped to build the walls of Troy. It relies on readers knowing that Eris the goddess of strife threw out the golden apple inscribed with the words “for the fairest”. The epic utilizes cultural assumptions like that the intervention of the gods and goddesses is not always a good thing and that fate cannot be averted.

All of this raises questions in my mind to consider when I am writing a piece of fiction. Questions like the following: Whose point of view would be the best one to tell the story from in the most natural manner to get across the subplots and themes that I want to address in order to make the story the most interesting? How could I use the prior knowledge of a reader
who resides in the current time period to cleverly build the world of a future time? What kind of things could I leave unstated and yet the reader would project into a story?

I am still working my way through the Iliad and thinking about the way themes, action, and characters are depicted.

Why Are Some Books Considered Literature While Others Are Science Fiction?

Swirling thoughts like dervishes in cinnamon colored coats are spinning in my head this morning.

You have been forewarned.

I have been reading “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass. In this book, he talks about how some writers who are considered to be literary authors have written “breakout” novels that are science fiction. And how this bums out some science fiction authors. He writes that he believes that while there are many very good authors with outstanding works in the science fiction genre, they don’t always achieve a level of amazing success because the stories are dark and have unsympathetic characters. Maass writes:

“Readers love speculative elements, but even more they love a layered, high-stakes story about sympathetic characters who have problems with which anyone can identify. Perhaps that is why mainstream writers more often break out with speculative elements than dark-toned, hard-edged speculative novelists in the mainstream.”

I am trying to wrap my head around the whole this because it sounds to me like he is saying that The Handmaid’s Tale and The Sparrow are more upbeat than most science fiction and have more sympathetic characters and I am not sure that I agree with this. Earlier in “Writing the Breakout Novel”, Maass validates the idea that scifi writers sometimes get ghettoized and then kind of says that scifi writers shouldn’t be down on The Handmaids Tale but rather write more upbeat stuff. I thought The Handmaids Tale was good, but not particularly upbeat. Also, there are some scifi authors who are just plain old knock your socks off and are upbeat. Connie Willis (who has won nine or ten hugos) springs to mind. But even Connie Willis has not experienced mega sales. Nancy Purl in her book, Book Lust, calls Connie Willis an author not to miss and singles her out rather than including her as one of the recommendations in science fiction.

Yesterday I was at the mega-chain bookstore where I work part time. Marketing has been proposed by some folks as what will make a book huge. I talked books for a solid four hours yesterday. Jim Butcher’s newest is out. Jim Butcher finally now merits an actual display. Probably because they made his Dresden series into a television show and sales of his books were up last year. I am mentioning this because marketing seems a capricious thing unless based on sales. I can honestly say that the publishers sink money into authors who have a following and whose books have sold in the past. Mega chains have buyers who talk to publishing reps and everybody figures out a print schedule for books. Sometimes it is accurate and sometimes not. I have seen the books of reeeaaaallly big authors over printed and end up as bargain six months later. Bargain books sometimes are an indication of the anticipated mega-hit that didn’t happen six months prior. Most authors don’t get much of any kind of marketing. At least not marketing that originates from bookstores and publishers– but they get marketing from people who read their books whether it is good or bad. So I am not so certain that the marketing that comes from categorizing matters– except that readers who won’t go near scifi with a ten foot barge pole will read scifi from the lit section.

I do think most authors kind of labor in a type of obscurity, even if published, and if marketing helps to get them seen by people and entices risk avoiding readers to try their books that is good, but I am not so certain marketing is the holy grail.

If you are a writer and had the chance to be published under the literature category, as say Chabon, Atwood, or Mary Doria Russell, or under science fiction, which would you choose? Why? Would it matter? What would have happened to Salman Rushdie’s career if he had been published under science fiction? What would have happened if Connie Willis had been first lumped in literature?

Carrying the what-if’s further. What if John Scalzi wasn’t such a nice guy with a really funny blog?

I don’t have answers. More or less exploring the topic and wondering about stuff. I was kind of wondering if anyone had any ideas on why some books that are science fiction/fantasy end up in literature and others that are equally as good are science fiction. I was trying to see if anyone had any theories on this.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that categories are bad. And arbitrary, but they have loads attached to them. Not a new conclusion for me. Science fiction has a bad reputation and turns some readers off. But there are gobs of science fiction and fantasy in the literature section.

Carrying this farther, should a writer cater his/her writing to the audience? Yes and no. I think a writer needs to write what they feel impassioned about and tell a good story, but I also think that if they cannot find a publisher or an audience they aren’t going to be writing for long. I don’t think anyone should try to imitate another author or aim for a category that isn’t in keeping with their writing style or the stories they want to tell, it would be false. Inauthentic. The writing would be derivative and just plain lacking. I think if a writer can dig deep in themselves and write fearlessly, something good will come out. People encapsulate their lives in stories and thoughts are the front soldiers for passionate beliefs.

If you are a writer, where do you think that your ideas come from? What do you think is necessary for an author to make a standout book? What is the line of delineation between a midlist book and a “breakout” book?

So I am not reaching conclusions, just tossing out my thoughts on the table. I am not sure there are conclusions to be reached, but the exploration of ideas might be worth the effort. It is giving me a place to work from to edge my ideas and writing up. Thoughts proceed other stuff for me.