Reading Versus Watching: Science Fiction Picture Show

There's a famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story about the two godfathers of Science Fiction, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Apparently, back in the late nineteenth century, a major British magazine did a cover story on the emergent genre, and proclaimed H.G. Wells the greatest "scientific fiction" writer around. Jules Verne, who had coined the term "scientific fiction," was furious. He wrote a scathing letter to the magazine, saying that H.G. Wells wasn't a scientific fiction writer at all because his books had nothing to do with science. Verne went to great lengths to base his novels on concrete scientific ideas, and not the mere flights of fancy Wells populated his novels with. Wells, for his part, responded, saying that while Verne "could not write his way out of a paper sack," he was essentially right. Wells was not a "scientific fiction" writer. Wells was a socialist.

I've always contended that "Sci Fi" is essentially a marketing term. Michael Crichton, who has written almost nothing but Science Fiction, is put into the "Fiction and Literature" section of the bookstore while Neal Stephenson is put into the genre section when he has written relatively few Science Fiction novels (Stephenson agrees that "Science Fiction" is a marketing term). But it occurs to me that the reasons for book classification run deeper than merely marketing. Consider the popular perception of Science Fiction fans as nerdy, borderline Asperger's cases who like to dress up in Star Trek outfits and practice speaking in Klingon, the kind of people so deftly parodied by the Comic Book Guy character on "The Simpsons." That doesn't come from nowhere. These people exist. We have met them. Some of us are them.

H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were both read by a mass audience. Robert Louis Stephenson wrote Treasure Island and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and at the time the two books were both considered adventure novels. In today's marketplace they would be marketed to different groups of genre fans altogether. At some point Science Fiction not only became its own genre but spun off a subculture that seems both xenophobic and isolated, a group who only read works within the genre, works that were likewise read by almost no one else. Admittedly, this is a generalization, but not an unfounded one.

The problem is that the very things that appeal to the core of this subculture are the selfsame things that turn off those outside of it. Consider, for example, that staple of Sci Fi, Star Trek.

Star Trek was never a good television show. Not the original; not the spin-offs; not the films. Star Trek was light melodrama that never made you think too hard. The good guy would always win in the end, all humanity lived in a psuedo-socialist society that had no currency and where one could happily spend his whole life zipping through the cosmos and hanging out with sexy aliens. The Star Trek Universe was tailor made for Science Fiction fans' escapist fantasies, a universe in which no one had to hold down a day job they didn't like, where everyone was accepted no matter how weird or alien or outcast, and where no problem was so tough that it couldn't be solved with a well-engineered tachyon beam or the occasional non-athletic Vulcan neck pinch. And as long as it's recognized as such, there's no issue; Star Trek fills a particular need in popular culture. The issue arises when the Star Trek fans try to argue that the shows (and worse, the spin-off novels and comics) are somehow great just because there's a huge number of people who find this particular escapist fantasy gratifying. That Star Trek is worthy of some kind of larger merit.

Consider Ray Bradbury, another example. His novel Fahrenheit 451 is taught to our children in schools. Ray Bradbury has a story in my copy of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. There's this whole system of thought trying to present Bradbury as an important writer. Unfortunately, Ray Bradbury really can't write his way out of a paper bag, and the attempt to legitimize Ray Bradbury is part and parcel of what makes Science Fiction fans look so bad. One can't help but think that maybe if these fans read a Saramago novel every once and while they'd gain some of the necessary critical faculties to reconsider Bradbury and Star Trek.

Neal Stephenson has read outside of Science Fiction and it shows in his style and storytelling sensibilities. But part of the reason I think Stephenson works as a "Science Fiction" author is that his major characters are invariably computer programmers and cryptographers and mathematicians, and these are people Science Fiction fans can identify with. And I say all this as both a computer programmer and someone who likes Science Fiction novels. Unfortunately, some Science Fiction writers—like Verne before them—put much more emphasis on the "Science" than on the "Fiction." Writers like Charles Stross or Bruce Sterling tend to fill their books with ever longer asides about the minutia of computers or engineering, and one can't help but wonder if they wouldn't be better off as essayists and technical writers than novelists. David Itzkoff has discussed this problem admirably in his column in the New York Times.

Still, all through the twentieth century great works of literature were produced that were nevertheless essentially Science Fiction. Among those usually presented apart from the Science Fiction milieu are Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange. But even in the milieu there are a number of truly significant works worthy of wider notice such as Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, or works that tried to bridge over into a more mainstream audience, like Samual R. Delaney's Dhalgren or Michael Moorcock's Mother London. Sadly, books like these last two were victims of Science Fiction's niche-ification, too literary for the Science Fiction base but stamped with the Sci Fi imprimatur and so never seen by literary audiences. Is it any wonder that Susanna Clarke marketed her non-traditional fantasy novel, Doctor Strange and Mister Norrell, as mainstream fiction? Or that the most undermentioned aspect of David Foster Wallace's sprawling Infinite Jest is the fact that it's a Sci Fi novel?

In Fantasy, things seem to be getting better, with Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link and China Miéville leading the way into much more interesting worlds than the derivative and repetitive stuff the Tolkienites have been churning out year after year. In Science Fiction, however, one wonders where the pioneers have gone. There's always William Gibson, who invented something wonderful back in the mid-eighties and I like Cory Doctorow. But where is the next Philip K. Dick? Where is the next Orwell? Where's the next Science Fiction writer who through sheer force of talent is going to make the world outside of the subculture stand up and take notice?

Comments

Science vs Fiction

Sure the ideal would be great accurate science and great writing, but how many people can do that?

A lot of stuff that people call science fiction these days is nothing but fantasy with techno-babble instead of magic-babble.

Charles Sheffield uses the term von Neumann machine in his book "Cold as Ice" but although almost all computers are von Neumann machines most computer books don't mention the term and those that do almost never have a good explanation of how one works. For that check out The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. Curiosuly it does not contain the term because it belongs in computer science not electronics. LOL

Of course lots of people with Computer Science degrees don't understand electricity. They are just good at memorizing linguistics and then mostly program by memorization and trial and error. A good Sci-Sci-Fi book will provide correct jargon so a kid that is sufficiently interested can research the real scientific words and learn real science and engineering.

Lois McMaster Bujold writes great but won't teach very much science.

psik