Science Fiction: Overrated

When I see people, especially those engaged in generating science fiction, touting it as The Literature of Ideas, I have to roll my eyes and ask myself whether these people can properly be called literate.

Anyone truly interested in a literature of ideas is advised to do a general survey of, for instance, Russian literature, which if it can lay claim to anything it is that it is founded on and dependent on ideas. Russian literature (and I’m talking mainly about that which grew before the October revolution with the exclusion perhaps of Solzhenitsyn and Zamistin) was written by, for, and about intelligent people in dire straits. The ideas and issues of the day got wide play… and were very important to those who read them. In comparison to just this branch of literature, Science Fiction is the idle pastime of dilettantes and camp followers, of popularizers, cranks, and enthusiasts with no convictions.

And I say in comparison because in fact every literature is concerned with ideas, is in fact a literature of ideas. In that sense, this calling any literature a literature of ideas is redundant. But in my view, the Sci-Fi aficionados are expressing an overcompensation, being a touch too defensive in response to previously non-existent questions about the whole endeavor.

I grew up in a home that had plenty of bookshelves in every room; and plenty of space was devoted to Sci-Fi. I had access to Worlds of SF, Galaxy, F & SF, Amazing, and Astounding, and Analog, which magazine was represented practically in full since the famous name-change, including the rare 8 1/2" by 11" editions. The first thing I recall reading was a story in Analog, in fact. I have read most of the classics and plenty of the minor classics, but though I’m familiar with the field I have not stayed in contact enough lately to say that I am well-read in it.

If I am to pronounce judgement, which I dearly love to, I must say that Sci-Fi as a literature of ideas is largely a fraud. To those familiar with the other branches of literature, it is clear that in the case of science fiction, more often than not the genre is used primarily to force conclusions and convictions that the author would have great difficulty doing in another scenario. I am saying that Sci-Fi is too easy. You will find mountains of dated, tired propaganda in the field of science fiction, written by lightweights who got (and stayed) excited about this or that and then had to create an entirely new world in order to prove it or support it. By and large the science fiction that we like is the science fiction that expresses moral conclusions that we like. (For non-moralists, take the appropriate referent of your choice.) It is propaganda of the cheapest sort, demeaning and at times even insulting. For the most part it does not accelerate moral ambivalence or stress; it will not allow into the plots any characters any shade of doubt: all is black and white. There is hardly and meat there for the alert reader to grab onto and chew at, thinking things out. The symbolism likewise is tawdry and transparent. This stuff is for sleepers and those who lie in bed trying to go to sleep, written by the same kind.

The difference is that it takes a lot more work to make a statement or to produce a really comprehensive and honest appraisal of issues in other literatures. (I speak primarily of realist stuff, though I have a task for symbolist work.) In other literatures one is saddled with the problems of characters who are not one dimensional; of worlds in upheaval or uncertainty, of loose ends. With a stroke of the pen we can wipe away all this; we can create a new world that simply ignores critics, opposing views, deeper analysis that shows our flawed premises, and so on. Indeed, while a world is turning away, for instance, from regimentation, authoritarianism, hierarchy, and militarism (as expressed in the classics), we find all of these things in abundance in the glittering spectacles of the Sci-Fi Masters, who drool and squirm in delight at having done away with all the nasty problems.

In science fiction the need is to be able to heavy-handedly abolish those same challenges to authority and force; that the authors of this obnoxious literature must leave the realms of reality is but and indicator of their abject puerility, their sterility and impotence at answering, or constructing, a world view that comes to their preferred conclusions without sacrificing honesty.

Now, I am not saying that I dislike science fiction. I actually like it, in small doses and select. But I am tired of potato chips and pop; I grew up on them, malnourished, and have been eating a healthy diet for years.

And to defray, offset some of the fire earlier, I must allow certain things. For one, I do not condemn the entire field; just as there are hacks rampant, a few shining stars of capability and strength make appearances. Just as some of these same despicable lazy hacks worship authority, god, home, apple pie, senators, technology and mom (not to mention flag, virginity, baseball and hot dogs and like maudlin trifles cynically abused), there are those who brave the winds of a slavering bootlicking audience and actually write novels and stories willing to call these things to the bar of justice. And just as there are gems to be found on the Other Shelves at the bookstore, immense shelf space is spent purveying the lightest tripe, the sickest and sickliest junk. Each of my charges is balanced in that there are those who do not so sin.

What, then, is the charge? Of what is the defendant accused? We accuse him of being an overrated product, a puff sold by fanatics with shining eyes, a grisly humorless body of work devoted in the main to the worst in our national culture. When illiterates like Sam Konkin “write” in their pamphlets that they have found the literature of libertarianism I must spit. What he is saying is that he hasn’t paid the slightest attention to the actual nature of this retrograde industry and that he wants to leap on the bandwagon of people who confirm that this “literature” is naught but a cheap propaganda. Now, overrated. The crime is identified, if not applicable to call in some sort of class action suit in reverse. What I want is to put my readers on warning that no longer will they get away with mouthings to the effect that science fiction is the literature of ideas. Imagine! The gall of it! What utter tosh!

Any takers?

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