This article originally appeared in Twink #14, edited by E.B. Frohvet
I think I speak for many rabid science fiction fans when I confess that my background in literature is fairly weak. I read all the required books in high school and during the two semesters of college when I was required to take literature courses. But I was a math major, so most of my time was spent with vectors spaces and abelian rings, leaving little time for humanities courses.
I have been an avid reader almost my entire life, as far back as grammar school when I walked to the local library to take out books on a regular basis. Very quickly I realized I preferred the books with the little rocketship stickers on their spines. The Oz books. Tom Swift, Jr. Something called The Light at the End of the Tunnel. At age 15 I discovered Worlds of IF and Galaxy Magazine and for the next thirty years virtually all my pleasure reading fell under the broad umbrella of science fiction. Some fantasy occasionally, perhaps a small bit of horror, but mundane fiction? Never. And literature? Definitely not! My mind still rebelled at those books I was force-fed in high school. Like most students I found them boring and resented being forced to read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare when I much preferred Clifford D. Simak and Roger Zelazny!
Science fiction was fun. It's sense of wonder lifted me out of the boring, slightly-depressing, not-too-happy real world into considerably more fascinating and more hopeful new worlds. And that basic incentive never changed for thirty years.
What did evolve steadily as I grew older was my taste in science fiction. As a fourteen-year old I liked nothing better than the Martian odysseys of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. By the time I graduated college my favorite writers were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Robert Silverberg. Sense of wonder? Sure. This Immortal, Nova and Dying Inside were full of it. But they also had more depth than either Burroughs or Asimov ever imagined. Rather than cardboard figures like John Carter jumping mindlessly from adventure to adventure, "New Wave" science fiction was concerned with real people whose lives mattered. And since their lives mattered, I developed an emotional stake in the outcome of the events they were involved in. I cared what happened to Rydra Wong and Conrad Nimikos and David Selig in a way similar to, if considerably less intense than, the way I cared about the lives of the students I now devoted much of my life to. And the more I cared about the characters in a story, the deeper grew my emotional involvement and, consequently, the greater became my enjoyment of the story as well!
Between the late 1960s and early 1990s I found myself more and more attracted to science fiction that involved me emotionally in the lives of the characters while still providing me with sense of wonder. Stories by such writers as Michael Bishop, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh, John Varley, Lucius Shepard, Orson Scott Card, and Sherri S.Tepper. I read a lot of fine science fiction written by those writers, most of it satisfying my twin needs for emotional involvement and sense of wonder. I was thrilled to have found such a marvelous genre as science fiction, probably the only genre that could possibly satisfy both cravings so well.
The only genre? And how many other genres did I sample sufficiently to be able to make such a definitive statement? And since my preference was definitely leaning toward the literary end of the science fiction spectrum, didn't it make sense to try reading some non-speculative literature as well?
Besides reading science fiction faithfully for thirty years, I was also fairly closely involved in fannish writing as well. And much fannish writing echoed my own high school-influenced views of literature. Literature? You mean a bunch of overbearing neurotics examining their navels for three hundred pages?
Even when the topic of literary science fiction was raised, it often induced derogatory comments as well. Why the hell do you want to do away with all the sense of wonder and write a futuristic Portnoy's Complaints with an alien psychiatrist analyzing a thirtieth century Momma's Boy?
That twin onslaught-bad high school memories and fannish snobbery-kept my own opinion of literature on a distasteful level, an opinion totally uncorrupted by any adult reading of my own! But a half-dozen years ago I was fortunate enough to develop a friendship with somebody who loves literature with the same passion that I love science fiction. And she began recommending titles for me to read, encouraging me to give them a try. This from a person whose opinions and views are very similar to my own, a person whose outlook on life I trust implicitly. Shouldn't I trust her judgement enough to at least give literature a try?
So in the past several years I have read enough literature that I am now in the beginning stages of formulating my own opinion of the genre. And while I am certainly not yet well-read enough for that opinion to be definitive, there are certain facts that my opinion will most likely incorporate.
One, literature is as much a genre as science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, mystery fiction, thrillers, westerns, etc. And being a genre, its works all must have some identifying trademark. Fantasy must have a foundation that is impossible in the world as we know it. Mystery fiction involves an attempt to solve a crime. Science fiction involves some extrapolation from the real world as we know it.
So what aspect defines literature? According to Webster it is writings expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. My own layman's definition would be fairly close to that: literature is fiction about important human concerns. That certainly agrees with the literature I've read in the past few years. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is about the struggle for survival during the Great Depression. Bronte's Wuthering Heights concerns coping with a dysfunctional family. Andrea Barrett's recent Voyage of the Narwhal is about living with failure and lack of self-esteem.
But wait a second! Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is about love and acceptance between two races which are throughly alien to each other. Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore examines coming-of-age in the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. Aren't they important human concerns as well?
Yes, they are. Because the more literature I've read the more I've realized that just as there is a common misconception about the nature of science fiction in the eyes of many mainstream critics, there is also a common misconception about the nature of literature in the eyes of many rabid science fiction fans. Literature is definitely not the small sub-genre of literature currently touted by some members of the literary establishment. What they consider literature is often formless exercises in plotless writing. Stories whose focus is limited to, well, a bunch of overbearing neurotics examining their navels for three hundred pages.
That small sub-genre of literature has scared a lot of science fiction fans away from the breadth and depth of literature in much the same way that B-movies have scared a lot of potential readers away from the breadth and depth of science fiction. Which brings me to the second fact that my eventual opinion of literature will likely incorporate: both science fiction and literature are equally subject to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap! Certainly not every would-be artist who attempts expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest succeeds at it. There is as much bad literature as there is bad science fiction.
While a longtime hardcore SF fan such as myself would never reject the entire SF genre because of the 90% of it that is bad, it is equally foolish to reject the entire literature genre because of the 90% of it that is bad. Yet that has been the popular bias of many rabid science fiction fans ever since the so-called "Golden Age."
It is time for all lovers of great fiction to open their minds to the world of great literature, and realize that much of it is as truly wondrous and provocative as the best science fiction is. I'll even make some recommendations that have moved me the past few years: Toni Morrison's Beloved (a true ghost story even!); Steinbeck's touching Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath; Salmon Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh; The five-volume Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber; Jung Chang's incredibly-moving Wild Swans; Milan Kundera's The Incredible Lightness of Being; anything by the abovementioned Andrea Barrett, including The Middle Kingdom and Ship Fever.
There is such an incredible wealth of literature out there just waiting to be read. And it is such a damned shame that many science fiction fans reject it because of reverse snobbishness. That is every bit as narrowminded as all those literateurs casting aspersions on science fiction without ever bothering to read it! Sure 90% of science fiction is crap, but I love it for the 10% that rises above the morass. Surely literature should not be held to a higher standard than that!