Saturday, March 19, 2005

Literary Science Fiction

One discussion I never seem to tire of is what science fiction works should be considered as literature. John Scalzi brought up the question in his blog here, and while I contributed, I just couldn't resist the temptation to blather on even further...

This, of course, begs two rather difficult questions almost immediately:

What is science fiction?
What is literature?

You can write a book, nay, a series of books, on either of these questions. People have. Here's my initial attempt at beginning to answer them.

Science fiction includes some scientific property or problem in a central manner-- whether in setting, plot, character, tone, or what have you. One important point to make is that a book doesn't have to be futuristic at all to be SF. To many people, lots of the starships and zap guns style of SF is more technically fantasy as it doesn't really address any questions of science at all. I don't want to be this picky, however, and I'll allow the Duck Criterion... if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck.

Fantasy as Literature
is another discussion. Let me know if you'd like me to talk about it. I don't think Lord of the Rings is literature, to start off, even though I think it's one of the best stories ever told.

However, I do want to stress that many other works do feature scientific questions and deserve to be included as SF, even if they traditionally aren't shelved there in the library or bookstore. In the 60s they invented the term "speculative fiction" for SF books which were then marketed as "Fiction" in bookstores, to elevate them out of the very real science fiction ghetto of perception and marketing. This ghetto still exists. Read the NYT Review of Books and see how many SF titles they talk about, or read scholarly journals for the same. Have fun waiting...

And science isn't the same as the hard sciences such as physics, astronomy, or engineering. There are many excellent SF novels which deal with the social sciences like psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Perhaps even the philosophic scientific method should be a criterion, for many novels approach topics with it in mind or in it's manner. There's also a lot of work which deals with the many questions of humanity vs. technology, which I feel can be included in some instances.

The question of what literature might be is a little tougher. I'd start with the following criteria:
Excellence -- demonstrates a mastery of the craft of writing.

Timelessness -- will people still be reading it in a couple of centuries?

Expansiveness -- address questions larger than itself.

Innovation-- did something particularly well or novel.

Depth -- succeeds on more than one level. More than plot, character, setting, and so on, does it lend itself to analysis of abstraction, symbolism, or universality?
Some people would add the quality of literary awareness, but to my mind allusions to other works are certainly nice and add points to "Depth" but aren't strictly necessary.

What's always hard in these types of discussions is the culling out of the many incredibly superb SF novels which just aren't literary. There are just so many books which emotionally I really want to include in such lists, because I'd love for people who don't think they like SF to read them. But, dammit, they're just not literature by my standards so out they go! Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card comes oh, so close... but not quite literary enough *sigh*

Anyway, here's a start on the list of SF novels which I feel qualify as literature, in no particular order:

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (the first SF novel, by the way)
1984, by George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuinn
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
Novels which I'm not quite sure about, and which I'd love to hear opinions on, are:

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (somewhat new, may need to age for timlessness' sake)
Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series (perhaps too symbolic for its own good)
Dune, by Frank Herbert (the characters are flat)
Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Authors who seem to write novels both literary and SF but whom I haven't read enough of to form an opinion about:

Stanislaw Lem
Samuel R. Delaney
Octavia Butler
J. G. Ballard
Novels which I've seen in similar discussions but haven't read yet:
Ada, by Vladimir Nabakov
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy (thought her He, She, It was lacking, though)
The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin (may not be SF)
There are a couple of authors who are both literary and write SF whom I have to exclude because they don't write novels: Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but who certainly deserve to be mentioned.

There are many authors who are supremely important in the world of science fiction, but for one reason or another don't quite make the cut into literature like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein.

And finally, there are postmodern authors who seem to get included in discussions of literature, who arguably do write SF sometimes, but who I think won't be read in a couple of centuries: Dom DeLillo, John Barth, Umberto Eco...

To wrap up, Bruce Sterling coined a new term, "Slipstream", for writing which seems to blur the boundaries between the "Fiction" and the "Science Fiction" sections of the modern bookstore. He wrote an interesting article which concluded with a great reading list if you're ever looking for something good to pick up.


Blogger fatoudust said...

Two more in the I haven't read them but read great things category:

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I think Gulliver's Travels should be in the "almost but not quite" category, and is certainly really not SF but more fantasy unless you include political science. I'm willing to hear arguments, however...

4:53 AM  

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