Tuesday, 8 January 2008

The Survival of Artistic Modes...

In an interview at Focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy, author Jack Campbell (AKA John G Hemry) says: "I think SF has a good future as long as it doesn't take itself too seriously. By that I mean it has to remain focused on telling the story, rather than trying to be Literary."

Which is where I do my impression of Ben Kingsley from Sexy Beast (here: warning - not for the easily offended or faint of heart.)

Rather than refuse to take itself seriously, science fiction needs to grow up. The word "literary" (capitalised or not) is not an insult, and should not be used as such. It is an aspiration. As long as sf continues to trivialise itself and its ambitions, then it will be seen as the province of children and sad nerds in anoraks. And that's an image those of us who are serious about the genre having been trying to throw off for decades.

Just because mainstream critics and readers sneer at science fiction, that's no reason for reverse snobbery. That's no reason to take the complaints levelled at sf by mainstream critics and proudly claim them as the genre's defining characteristics. We shouldn't celebrate crap characterisation. We shouldn't claim that lumpen "transparent" prose is superior to any other form. We shouldn't privilege "idea" because it's unique to the genre - and so that's a competition we'll always "win". Neither should we privilege world-building, just because that's an area in which we've had so much more practice...

I'm not saying we should dispense with story, or no longer consider it important. But neither should other aspects of fiction be ignored. Science fiction is not exempt from the rules of good fiction. If anything, it's harder to do well because there is so much more which must be done well to succeed.

Also, it's not about the genre surviving. Genres evolve, and that's how they survive. It has nothing to do with taxonomy, or what letters publishers put on the spine of a novel. It's about individual works surviving. A century from now, will people still be reading supermarket bestsellers? Or will they be reading the "serious" works? The history of literature so far suggests the latter. I don't see any penny-dreadfuls still in print... but Dune is, 42 years after its first publication.

Science fiction is capable of so much more than trivial action-adventure tales dressed up with spaceships, aliens and robots. Why limit ourselves? I mean, isn't that the whole point of sf? That there are no limits?

4 comments:

Carl V. said...

Amen! One of the most frustrating things about being a fan of science fiction is dealing with the reverse snobbery attitudes of those who love the genre. I'm not a fan of book snobs of any fashion and it is certainly not something we need in the science fiction community. All I would add to what you have said is that I believe "action-adventure tales dressed up with spaceships, aliens and robots" need not be trivial either. Those can be approached with the same desire to create a good literary product as any other type of science fiction and should be.

Ian Sales said...

I suppose in one respect it's all about immediate gratification. Readers don't want to think overly hard about their entertainment, publishers want to shift a zillion units today... But to then claim that as the One True Way, to say that any book which does not do either of those is a bad book... That's just plain wrong. Surely books considered notable enough to be studied in colleges, books still earning money for their publishers 40 years after the first edition... surely they're good books?

Cliff Burns said...

Ian, you bastard, this is lovely, lovely stuff. The problem with SF is that it refuses to evolve--its fans detest change and its authors are only happy to fulfill their low expectations. As an author I want to challenge my readers, even risk offending them or turning them off. Each one of my offerings is unique and different and I struggle mightily to avoid the allure of formula. I wish my SF colleagues would show similar consideration and respect for their readers...

swine said...

It must be some kind of literary masochism; I often aim to turn off potential audience, or discourage it from reading.