Sci-fi and literature

A conversation with a journalist friend (who is a literature and journalism graduate from Oxford) reminded me of a pet peeve. So here I am going to unload that and rant a bit.

This friend and some others that I have met (all literature graduates and devoted to the written word, some writers in their own right) had a very strange thing in common. Strange at least in my opinion. At the risk of generalising (and I synthesise their opinions into one song here), the impression I formed from these literati was this: Science fiction is not real literature for them.
What? How is that even possible?

They contend that great literature is all about human feelings: of love, jealousy, rage, despair, hope, fear, romance and so on. The art is in the words, how acutely the writer observes human behaviour and how beautifully s/he expresses it. I agree with this, though there is more.

“But but but…..” I spluttered ineffectually to them, my outrage making me incoherent. My PhD in Physics and lack of literature credentials rendered my opinions amateurish and not of sufficient literary cachet. I suppose if a literature graduate criticized Maxwell’s equations, I might take a similar attitude.

So what is my beef?

1. Missing from their list of human emotions is curiosity. Curiosity is a driving force in human beings and it ranks up there with other human emotions such as love. Our desire to explore the unknown, to discover our origins, the working of the world around us is responsible for our scientific progress. Yet my friends did not consider curiosity worthy of literary analysis. That to me is strange and crazy!

2. My friends had not really read much science fiction. So they had preconceived notions about the genre. Many sci-fi books and authors deal extensively with philosophical ideas and human emotions. Using the construct of sci-fi and fantasy they are able to create settings (and universes) where philosophical constructs can be articulated and explored in a non-abstract setting. Stories, characters and dialogue are an incredible way to explore intricacies of what makes us inherently human, even if the characters include non-humans.

I quote Michael Swanwick about one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy writers, Gene Wolfe: “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it. Shakespeare was a better stylist, Melville was more important to American letters, and Charles Dickens had a defter hand at creating characters. But among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning”

Yet how many literature students will read Wolfe? How many literature syllabi will have books by Gene Wolfe, Philip K. Dick, John Wyndham, Cordwainer Smith, C. J. Cherryh?

I think that is a disservice to literature as a whole not just the genre of sci-fi/fantasy.


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