Literary SF – To be, or not to be….

Charles Stross on his website, as part of the comments to Rudy Rucker’s 8th guest post came up with an interesting little bit of history as to why science fiction is not considered literary and I quote:

“… around 1900-1920, the nascent modernists in literature came to a fork in the road: they could choose to document the existing human condition in photographic detail, or they could choose to explore the human condition via metaphor, confabulation, and extrapolation (the tools of SF and fantasy). They took the former path; thus defining SF/F, by virtue of having taken the other route, as a refutation of the literary virtues.”

And yet now some of these literary writers are finding their way back into science fiction. I can only speculate as to why. But one guess is that they have nearly exhausted what they can do to examine the human condition in detail. They see that science fiction is still going strong, coming up with completely new ideas, doing rather novel takes on old SF themes and placing the humans in completely different settings so they have to react totally differently.

But I reckon even if the literati continue to step over into SF, the divide will continue. Why, you well may ask?

They will tend to use the tried and trusted SF tropes to examine the human condition, which is after all what they tend to be good at. Yes, they’ll tweak the SF tropes to their own ends, but that’s all they’ll do. Tweak.

What most of them will not do is come up with completely new ideas.

Yes, the dividing line will move, but the dividing will still be there.

Will the two groups (ideas-SF and human-reaction-SF) work better together in the future? I hope so, if only to allow the ideas-SF to use the human-reaction-SF as a catalyst for developing even more new ideas.

And how does this affect me?

Well I’ve just done a first draft of a short story, which is an interesting new scenario, one that I haven’t seen the like of anywhere in science fiction, or other literature for that matter. The problem is it is so out-of-the-box that in places it is difficult to explain, or to put across the emotional impact. It’s almost as if I need a whole new set of words to explain it. This is exactly the kind of new idea that the literati can build on and explore from the human reaction viewpoint. Maybe one day… well a gal can dream, can’t she?

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6 thoughts on “Literary SF – To be, or not to be….

  1. And yet now some of these literary writers are finding their way back into science fiction. I can only speculate as to why. But one guess is that they have nearly exhausted what they can do to examine the human condition in detail. They see that science fiction is still going strong, coming up with completely new ideas, doing rather novel takes on old SF themes and placing the humans in completely different settings so they have to react totally differently.

    The cynic in me feels that the literati see sci fi as more financially lucrative in the long run.

    The optimist in me feels that they see a greater potential in exploring their issues through the medium of speculative fiction.

    Either way, it seems that the chains of snobbery are being broken.

    1. Hello and welcome to my little blog.
      Whatever the reasons behind the literati exploring SF, I feel there is still some way to go before the barriers will be finally broken. In the meantime, I welcome the interaction… you never know where co-operation will lead.

  2. Thanks for the welcome!

    I think those barriers are slowly coming down. I read somewhere recently that Hammer Horror is going into the fiction market this year and has already signed up some literary names to write some sci fi and horror.

    And with Justin Cronin branching out into the genre, things are looking up. I hope its not just a fad.

  3. I’ve heard that the real split came after a head-to-head bout between H.G. Welles and Henry James. Jame’s camp won, and literature went inside. But, while I liked James’ creepy “Turn of the Screw,” I’ll take “The Invisible Man” or “Time Machine” any day.

    That said, I am a bit of a “retread” SF geek, after grad school while working full-time, running a business, and taking a foray into the University of Chicago Great Books list.

    And I am glad that I took that time off. Because I get to read a lot newer writers, like China Mieville, with completely new eyes. And I am amazed by how much SF/ Fantasy has matured since my “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Neuromancer” days.

    That said, I am apprehensive of “Literary SF.” for instance, I recently read Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Krake,” a stab at literary SF, and was let down. It was beautifully written. But I found the science behind the future implausible. And I was annoyed with the protagonist’s apathy. He just mopes . So the SF geek in me gets annoyed, and says “exploit the simple tech you have around you!. While the literary me says,”Atwood can really write.” And yet, I find the book pretty poor all considered (I gave it two-stars on GoodReads).

    But, at least Atwood is trying. Lord knows that I don;t want to spend another evening trying to plow through the very boring, and overrated “Infinite Jest.” Which may be near infinite – Foster Wallace does need an editor in a bad way. But not funny.

    Gaiman and Pratchett in “Good Omens,” on the other hand. Side splitting. Readable. And thoughtful.

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