Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This is from a facebook conversation. I am quoting only my side, since I don't have permission to include the other comments:
I read the Margaret Atwood essay on Bradbury in The Guardian. As usual, Atwood cannot deal with science fiction. I was reading Bradbury in the 1950s, along with all the science fiction and fantasy I could get my hands on. It was pretty clear to me he fit within the category. I will defer to my kid self, rather than Atwood, who has some terrible issue with SF.

I knew she could not write an essay about Bradbury unless she tippytoed around the fact that he is pretty clearly an SF writer.

This gets back to what I was thinking about a few days ago: the shape of current science fiction and fantasy. I would agree that it's a lot different than it used to be, due to importance of media SF in popular culture, and the number of writers who operate back and forth across the border of SF. Atwood's squid in space definition didn't work back in the 1950s, when F&SF and Galaxy published a lot of fiction that had neither squid nor space. She is really out of touch now, when SF images and ideas have flooded world culture and influenced many writers (including her) who do not see themselves as genre.

I happen to like the SF category. I have an absolute rule: if I wrote it, it's science fiction. Always. Even if it's fantasy, alternate history, fable, folk tale, a retelling of a saga incident... Arnason=science fiction. Unless the Arnason in question is not me.

I tend to think SF stands for speculative fiction as well as science fiction and includes fantasy, horror, alternate history and so on. So I use the initials -- pronounced ess eff -- for either or both.

Science fiction a way of life for me. I grew up reading it in the 1950s; it was the only kind of fiction that made sense of the Cold War and McCarthyism. I read other things -- a lot of poetry, since the house was full of it, the plays of Shaw... But in general I am poorly read in mainstream/mundane/literary fiction -- except for writers who write some kind of fantasy. Moby Dick is science fiction. Dickens' metaphors and exaggerations put him in fantasy. (His people turn into buildings or machines. His buildings turn into people. He has a dinosaur crawling up a muddy London street at the start of Bleak House.) Jane Eyre has supernatural elements -- and is damn strange to boot. Jane Austen, alas, is not fantastic in anyway -- except for writing romances with happy endings.
Josh Lukin commented that Delany is going to be publishing an essay arguing that it's useful to read Jane Austen as science fiction. I replied:
I love the idea of reading Austen as science fiction. It almost makes sense to me. I loved her novels and the plays of Shaw as a kid. They were similar in the play of ideas. I've always thought of SF as bright and flat. I think what I'm responding to is the ideas and the exaggeration. I love a fiction that slaps a concept down, dressed in a superhero costume. You want truth and justice? Here!

There are -- most likely -- career reasons for getting out of science fiction. Vonnegut started in SF and got out. I read somewhere that this was his publisher's decision and Vonnegut didn't care either way. I guess is Gibson is out now, because he writes very near future or present. I haven't been able to read Letham, so have no opinion of him.

My identifying with SF is partly loyalty. The field has helped keep me sane in a fairly awful world.

I also suspect, though I am not sure, that something happened to high art in the 1960s. I can remember my father saying, "I know there is good art out there somewhere, but I can't find it." In visual arts, the problem was probably the creation of a huge market for contemporary art. To make the money, you have to create something that rich people like; and -- as my father told me another time -- "the bourgeoisie have terrible taste."

Did something comparable happen to literature? It has a different funding stream, though it certainly helps if you write something that does not offend those in control of universities and publishing houses.

I guess in the end I like SF because it does offend. It may be a pillar of Hollywood, but it isn't a pillar of respectable capitalism.


Blogger Jordan179 said...

Literature consciously rejected all "genres," and in the process became about absolutely nothing more profound than the world inhabited by literary writers themselves, which is to say about the world as seen by upper-middle-class pseudo-intellectuals. This left the genres to write about interesting and important things.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Foxessa said...

You can perhaps same the same about the current state of sf/f as it claims everything for itself including Austen:

"...in the process became about absolutely nothing more profound than the world inhabited by literary writers themselves, which is to say about the world as seen by upper-middle-class pseudo-intellectuals."

Except you'd substitute 'pseudo-nerds' for pseudo-intellectuals.

Signed One who Is an Authentic Intellectual, who loves Authentic Literature and Authentic SF/F -- and many other Authentics Whatevers as well!

10:59 AM  
Blogger Jordan179 said...

"The entire universe" clearly includes all possible subsets including, for instance, the society of gentlewomen of the Regency and the society of upper-middle-class women of c. AD 2000; the reverse is not true, the society of upper-middle-class women of c. AD 2000 does not include the entire universe. Hence your premise is wrong as regards the theoretical scope of science fiction as opposed to mainstream fiction.

You do have a point in that much science fiction as written often focuses on a narrow subset of possible social situations. But the best science fiction ranges everywhere, including to tight social and customary dramas: I produce Jack Vance's sociological science fiction in evidence.

Heck, I've even read science fiction and fantasy set in the circles of Regency gentlewomen or contemporary upper-class women.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Bill S. said...

You get a nice, if brief, mention here: http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2012/06/lois-tilton-reviews-short-fiction-mid-june-2/

Well-deserved, in my opinion.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Eleanor said...

Bill -- It is a nice mention. Obviously I need to write more. Lois and others say so.

7:28 AM  

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