Science Fiction as Real Literature

I have a number of reviews on the backburner, but one of the things I’m reading in-between is The Secret History of Science Fiction, an anthology with an agenda. The basic premise, as explained in that link, is that if Thomas Pynchon’s critically-acclaimed novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, had won the Nebula, rather than the much pulpier Rendezvous with Rama, maybe science fiction would have earned some degree of respectability. The person who originally put this argument forward was Jonathan Lethem, a writer known both in literary and sci-fi circles, and his short essay is reproduced here.

I got a little annoyed with Margaret Atwood a few years back when she stated that her excellent novel, Oryx and Crake, was not science fiction. I took that to mean that she felt she was too good to write that speculative stuff. It’s a great novel with important societal themes, but it is unquestionably science fiction. The decision to categorize books in a certain way is usually simply about marketing, and not determined by the author. But it can give the false impression that real literature is one category while science fiction is another.

In reality, quality writing, character-driven narratives, and social relevance can all be found both in and out of science fiction. Science fiction isn’t about style or substance, the only real requirements are that it asks some kind of speculative question and the universe follows rational laws.

Great examples of highly literary science fiction include some of Atwood’s works, another Canadian writer, Robert Charles Wilson’s works (particularly Spin), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s brilliant work, The Wind-Up Girl.

What about something like Slaughterhouse-Five, or Charles Yu’s debut novel, How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe (which I reviewed here), or even Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is as likely as not to be found in the literary or “chick lit” section? If you click that review link, you’ll see I argued that Yu’s novel, at least, is not science fiction.

Is that because the book is a little too post-modern, a little too emotionally immediate for science fiction? How else could a book about time-travel not be sci-fi? I must think that mature themes don’t fit into the genre, which must be limited to juvenile adventure fantasies geared towards 12-year-old boys. Well, no. I don’t consider it science fiction because the book is very self-referential, contains aspects of self-parody, and its narrative follows more of an emotional logic than existing within a consistent, objective universe.

In this case, the work is more meta-fiction or modern allegory than anything else. The metaphor of the narrative takes precedence over the logical details of that same narrative. That’s not a knock, it’s just the kind of book it is, more akin to the style of someone like Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) than the tighter plots normally found in both general and genre fiction.

The point is, there’s no tier-based system as far as quality goes. You’ll find hack work in every section of the book store. If you know someone who is, or are yourself under the impression that science fiction (or mystery, or fantasy, or historical fiction, etc.) is hack work exclusively, you should consider taking a look at a couple of the books mentioned above (or any number of other great sci-fi works, Flowers for Algernon is rightly on many school reading lists).

Perception is everything. I’ve been stealth gifting non-SF friends with top-tier speculative works for years. (The key is in finding the right edition, without the pulpy covers some of the mass market paperbacks have.) If you’re a lover of literature, and you want to read the best that’s out there, you can’t limit yourself to one genre, even the genre of general or literary fiction. The best writers doing their best work are not found exclusively in any one category.

Leave a Reply