Science Fiction, literature, and the haters

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it. Heart of Darkness—forerunner to modernism and one of the deepest and most mysterious novels I’ve read—had only about 40,000 words. In those 40,000 words, it contains more than the vast majority of novels I’ve read with four times as many. The Great Gatsby isn’t very long either—60,000 words, perhaps?—and yet by the standards of contemporary science fiction, apparently neither would be publishable. If this is true, then the production system for science fiction might be harming the ability of writers to produce fiction at the highest possible level.

The other rejection came from an agent who read the entire manuscript. He said he liked it and thought the writing was sharp—an adjective I’ve seen before in rejection letters—but that it was “too literary” and shouldn’t be as “complex.” It can’t bode well for science fiction in general if its gatekeepers are allergic to the idea of literariness, that ineffable quality that haunts this post even as I don’t or can’t define it. To be sure, it’s possible that the agent who called Pearle Transit “too literary” was being nice or using a euphemism and really saying he thought it was boring, or stuffy, or something to that effect, but even if he was, I still think his word choice is illustrative.

The two rejection letters and the literary quality of Day of the Triffids show specific examples of a general phenomenon regarding science fiction. It’s unfortunate that the entire genre gets tarred as junk by some critics and readers when in reality it’s not entirely junk—if it were, I wouldn’t write a long essay describing it. I have a theory as to why science fiction often gets labeled as junk: it values other qualities than aesthetic novelty/skill and deep characterization. It’s more concerned with ideas rather than how ideas are expressed, while the greatest literary fiction sees ideas and their expression as inextricably linked. At the same time, though, I think that science fiction’s defenders might bring on the literary snobs’ ire by doing things like calling them literary snobs when many aren’t actually snobs, but just have standards that science fiction too infrequently reaches in part for the reason I just stated. This is also why, I suspect, science fiction has trouble achieving the critical and academic recognition it should probably have, especially given its larger impact on the culture. I’m one of the defenders of good writing being good writing regardless of where it comes from, but the more science fiction I read, the more I realize so much of it just doesn’t have the skill in narrative, detail, character, sympathy and complexity, language, and dialog that readers of literary fiction demand. I still like a lot of science fiction, but most of it now causes me to roll my eyes and skip pages: characters have no life, the books have no lifeness, clichés abound, and strong setups devolve into variations on cowboys and indians.

There are very significant exceptions, as I said regarding Day of the Triffids:

The only science fiction novels I’m aware of that could stand on their own as a literary achievement is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Some others are serviceable and worthwhile, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Walter Michael Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Philip K. Dick’s better novels. But none are great novels, though Gibson comes closest, and while I don’t think the genre is incapable of housing real greatness, the relative lack of literary merit gives me pause when I continue searching for satisfying science fiction.

Jason Fisher of Lingwë – Musings of a Fish wrote an e-mail pointing out that Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 probably belong in the “exception” category too. I agree, as long as they’re fully included in the science fiction umbrealla—while Orwell and Huxley were kind of writing science fiction, their books were much closer to the traditions of allegory and satire, even if they happened to use some of science fiction’s trappings. Someone like Stanislaw Lem or Le Guin, on the other hand, produced genuine science fiction. Bradbury I’d forgotten about, but it’s been too long since I read his books to judge them. Granted, this argument might turn into boundary dispute regarding what’s science fiction and what isn’t, but I think there is something to be said for the science fiction that’s grounded solidly in the “science” as in the technological future world, whereas I see Orwell, especially, and Huxley, to a lesser extent, as being closer to something like Gulliver’s Travels.

Typing “Top science fiction novels” in Google reveals lists like these: the top 50 science fiction novels, the top fifteen great science fiction books, and the top 100 sci-fi books (never mind that some science fiction writers and readers hate the term sci-fi for reasons that are still unclear to me). Most of the novels on those lists don’t meet conventional—an inappropriate word, given that great literature is by definition unconventional—literary standards, with the exceptions already mentioned. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion gets close—very close—but still has that “not quite” feeling.

That Michael Crichton gets on any lists is a bad sign: the best review I’ve seen of his wildly popular and equally wildly uneven, and usually bad, work is in Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, when he praises Crichton at his best as “a blend of Stephen Jay Gould and Agatha Christie” and then discusses what’s wrong in the context of The Lost World, but it could be transposed to most of his Crichton’s novels:

The job of characterization has been delegated to two or three thrashed and downtrodden adverbs. ‘Dodgson shook his head irritably’; ‘ “Handle what?” Dodgson said irritably.’ So Dodgson is irritable. But ‘ “I tell you it’s fine,” Levine said irritably.’ ‘Levine got up irritably.’ So Levine is irritable too. ‘Malcolm stared forward gloomily.’ ‘ “We shouldn’t have the kids here,” said Malcolm gloomily.’ Malcolm seems to own ‘gloomily’; but then you irritably notice that Rossiter is behaving ‘gloomily’ too, and gloomily discover that Malcolm is behaving ‘irritably.’ Forget about ‘tensely’ and ‘grimly’ for now. And don’t get me started on ‘thoughtfully.’

So many science fiction novels suffer from the same problems: adverbs that proliferate like triffids, characters who are more alive silent than when they speak, and descriptions that deserve the Amis treatment, above.

Even Philip K. Dick, who aspired to be a literary writer prior to turning to science fiction, gets mixed notices, which Adam Gopnik explores in the New Yorker:

As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go. At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences. His facility is amazing. He once wrote eleven novels in a twenty-four-month stretch. But one thing you have to have done in order to write eleven novels in two years is not to have written any of them twice.

That’s probably why Dick’s reputation as a serious writer, like Poe’s, has always been higher in France, where the sentences aren’t read as they were written. And his paint-by-numbers prose is ideally suited for the movies. The last monologue in “Blade Runner” (“All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die”), improvised by Rutger Hauer on the set that day, has a pathos that the book achieves only in design, intellectually, because the movie speech is spoken by a recognizable person, dressed up as a robot, where Dick’s characters tend to be robots dressed up as people.

Gopnik is right. Dick himself wrote How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, which Jason sent me. It’s a wonderful essay more about ideas and coherency than skill in conveying ideas through words. It’s hard to imagine him writing something like Kundera’s The Art of the Novel or E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Maybe Aspects of the Science Fiction Novel, but that cordons science fiction from the greater literary sphere. I dislike the cordon, and yet the more I realize regarding what science fiction seems to value and what literary fiction seems to value, the more I wonder if it’s really undesirable. In his essay, Dick is ready to join literary writers when he says: “The problem is simply this: What does a science fiction writer know about? On what topic is he an authority?” I read much bemoaning of what place, if any, the author has in times of national strife, like 9/11. The answer seemed to be, “not much.” So Dick has something in common with literary authors. In his essay, however, Dick proceeds on a metaphysical binge rather than the deeper realms of what makes great fiction, as James Wood does in How Fiction Works, or Jane Smiley does in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, or Francine Prose does in Reading like a Writer. He writes with great verve and depth about the nature of reality, our place in it, and societal problems—but he doesn’t handle aesthetic problems or people as manifestations of those problems well. Characters come off as manifestations of problems instead of people, which is another way of saying what Gopnik did.

Other writers, like Roger Zelazny in the first section of The Great Book of Amber, is more bad than good, and his writing is frequently irritating for its James Bond tone in passages like this:

I forced my mind back to the accident, dwelled upon it till my head hurt. It was no accident. I had that impression, though I didn’t know why. I would find out, and someone would pay. Very, very much would they pay. An anger, a terrible one, flared within the middle of my body.

The lack of a conjunction between “accident” and “dwelled” doesn’t work here and is jarring, along with the running together of the sounds “it” and “till,” especially when followed by the alliteration of “head hurt.” Finally, the endlessly repeated action-hero trope of “someone would pay,” is expressed exactly the same as it has been thousands if not millions of times before. Occasionally Zelazny wanders in the land of exquisite, terse writing, almost by accident, as when he says: “The night was bargaining weakly with the sun.”

I’ve discussed a few of the novels that appear on those top science fiction lists and I’ve read most of them, although some, I admit, not recently. I like many though love few and suspect I would like far fewer had I not read them in that formative period where novelty is much easier to achieve simply because you haven’t read all that much relative to how much you will. I think there is also something in the modern adolescent temperament that science fiction and fantasy appeals to: the idea that you’re being held back and oppressed and that with time you will acquire devices or skills that lend you great power to overcome forces that seem to be evil. Later, unfortunately, you discover that those forces are not so much malicious as incompetent and lazy and that the structure of the world is very hard to change; what those novels often don’t show is how the heroic quest is symbolic in the real world not of battling demons but of study, thought, and work. As Paul Graham says:

But if a kid asks you “Is there a God?” or “What’s a prostitute?” you’ll probably say “Ask your parents.”

Since we all agree [about lies to tell kids and forbidden questions], kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation.


I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.

And when you’re 15, you also have a lower threshold for art because, at least in the United States, most 15-year-olds aren’t all that well-formed and haven’t experience much; hell, I’m 24 and still don’t feel all that well-formed. Still, if you get someone with plots about breaking through the surface world into some other world underneath, you’re going to speak, in many cases, much more convincingly to 15-year-olds than you are to disgruntled adults who have the freedom to seek whatever they think the truth of the world is and choose not to exercise it, or who are responsible for keeping those 15-year-old dreamers fed and going to school on time. I’ve left out a small but very important group of adults who are still dreaming of greatness and trying to pierce the veil of reality, but I suspect they are entirely too small a group, and those who might join it are often invested in ideologies or systems or other simplifiers of what is a world too complex to explain through simple chants, or what Alain Badiou calls simulacrum and betrayal in his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.

I still like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I still appreciate some of the criticisms he directed at judgmental society. But if I read him for the first time today, I would’ve already encountered his ideas, and there wouldn’t be the depth of characterization or the skill in writing to carry me through. Then, it seemed original, and I wasn’t old enough to perceive Stranger’s paper-thin chatter masquerading as philosophy. Even Brave New World, for all its virtues, has some of those problems, as when the savage discusses Shakespeare.

This essay discusses science fiction, but its sister, fantasy, suffers from some of the same problems, which I alluded to in my review of The Name of the Wind and The Daughter of the Empire. In contrast to those writers, Tolkien gets deeper and stronger as you get older and more sophisticated, and I suspect Lord of the Rings is a well that will never run dry. First-rate fantasy seems to pop up more often than science fiction—here I’m thinking of Le Guin with Earthsea, or Philip Pullman with His Dark Materials. Even then, it’s still common for writers to churn out elements in different configurations instead of trying, like Paul Muad’Dib in Dune, to break the nature of the genre publishing system itself. How ironic that a genre dedicated to transcending the scrim of reality relies on endless repetition of its core language and features.

After almost 3,000 words, I’ve described a problem, diagnosed some of its causes, shown some ways it operates, but not come to any conclusions. I’m not sure any exist, given the marketplace and reader incentives involved with both the production and consumption of science fiction. And if there is a solution, I hope readers of this are looking for it, and that I can be a part.

EDIT: A follow-up post deals with some of the issues raised in the comments and via e-mail.

25 responses

  1. The reason as I see it that almost all science fiction writing falls short of literary merit is that its audience wants it that way. It is formulaic and surprisingly conventional because its readers have a preference for this kind of writing. While interesting and even novel ideas are often advanced by writers like you mentioned, especially in my opinion, Dick, the readers do not have any expectation that their expression will be other than merely readable. In fact, I would venture to say that the kinds of people who regularly read science fiction might even consider a more literary presentation an affectation or pretense. I am unsure of why this is the case, but it is the case. If a book which was mostly science fiction should attract a wider audience suddenly, I think it would lose its appeal to the Sci-Fi community. Maybe the answer lies in a kind of clubbishness, a shared identity outside of mainstream culture. That may be part of it. I also think that most science fiction readers do not wish to be forced to come to terms with the implications which a literary book on the subject might confront thekm with. They are looking for entertainment–space opera–and not a metaphysical journey. Just my 2 cents worth, adjusted for the cost of living since the expression first appeared.


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  3. The biggest problem I see in regards to your personal submissions of SF is that you’re submitting to people that don’t publish literary fiction in the first place. (Or I assume so). There are plenty of presses that will publish literary style SF, you just have to look for them and submit. Tor (as an example) isn’t likely to print a literary style book because they are a business and as such have to publish what they believe will sell. Literature is a business. Try some small presses. They are more receptive to the more “high brow” creative efforts (at least in my experience).


  4. The real problem with this essay is a simple one: It doesn’t ask the corresponding question, but merely assumes difference.

    Why does so little “literary fiction” even come close to the purported standards of literary fiction? Consider, for example, the execreble prose in Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom books; or the self-congratulatory miasma emanating from virtually anything published in THE NEW YORKER since the late 1980s (ironically enough, with the obvious exceptions of two “science fiction” writers…).

    Thus, my short response:





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  6. A genre novel doesn’t automatically need to be 100k words but any novel of any genre needs to be at the very least 80k or a publisher won’t buy it. Thus an agent turning it away. Those writers who get away with very short or very long novels are those writers who already have a substantial career in-print and can afford to break the rules within reason.

    Do bear in mind that – as with editors – every agent has different tastes in reading. Getting one or two rejections is not an indicator that there is something wrong with the genre as a whole. It also doesn’t say anything about your own writing. It merely makes a statement about those particular agest who rejected your manuscript.

    And as for SF/F not being “literary” enough…well, you are obviously not reading the right SF/F. Do try reading the novels on the Clarke Awards shortlist sometime.

    DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was written nearly fifty years ago. Would you want all “literary” fiction judged by Philip Roth’s THE BREAST? Christ, I would hope not.

    (And yes, I would agree with the above statement that John Updike is execrable prose.)


  7. I think perhaps the genres of literary fiction and science fiction have split wide apart due to that ugly word “science”. And some of what passes for SF has little science in it – the cowboys and indians example seems appropriate, as do other plot constructions that merely provide a slightly different set of characters and monsters for the same old story. Or, perhaps, there is one good big idea driving the book, but a lack of new little ideas and approaches to get there.

    While a bit off topic, you might find my essay on trying to combine science and fiction to be of interest: .


  8. A.C.Clarke didn’t write a “Rama” series. He wrote “Rendezvous With Rama”. Gentry Lee came along after the fact and wrote some sequels. Pointing the “Rama” sequels at ACC is like suggesting that Gene Roddenbury was responsible for “Star Trek: Nemesis”.


  9. A.C.Clarke didn’t write a “Rama” series. He wrote “Rendezvous With Rama”. Gentry Lee came along after the fact and wrote some sequels.

    If he didn’t, that would explain why the novels are so bad. However, his name appears on them as one of the authors, implying that he at least approved whoever of their contents.

    DensityDuck, do you have any citations for your assertion regarding authorship?


  10. This is a friendly email, and wait for it but I have suggestion re. your novel, but I’d say your ignorance of the genre is showing. M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, and Samuel R. Delaney’s novels all feature strong prose, complexity of idea, and they are all absolutely genre writers (though Harrison and Wolfe are not excluively science fiction writers). Another is Lucius Shepard. And what about Neal Stephenson? Or A Clockwork Orange?

    I consider myself to be pretty ignorant when it comes to science fiction–my genre interest lies primarily with horror (which has a significantly worse reputation than science fiction). But I do know that a lot of the most powerful–and respected–writing produced within the genre is done in the short forms. That’s where a lot of the language is, where a lot of the best ideas are… but of course, there’s no real money to be made writing short form fiction. So you gotta be sincere to do it.

    The other problem is that some of the best science fiction is being published by small presses. Because, as the agents pointed out, they can’t sell a book that isn’t a trilogy or 100,000 words.

    Note two things, and this may be useful: the science fiction publishing world is still small and somewhat friendly, and you CAN submit novels to some of the big houses without an agent–something you can’t do if you’re a mainstream author. Also, submit your book to the small presses that publish science fiction. Give up–for now–your dreams of wealth and get the work out there.

    I edit New Genre, a journal of horror and science fiction. The website address is in the form I filled out before I posted this comment; visit if you’re curious. I came by your blog from Quid plura (I’m translating Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, which is what led me to that blog). Good luck with your book.


  11. Jake Seliger probably won’t be back to see this, but regarding the Rama series:

    [partly in response to your follow up post as well]

    I find a fair amount of this discussion bewildering. I’m not remotely convinced that there’s any problem. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to solve. The literature industry serves to churn out large amounts of literature that the market will find bite-sized and digestable. Books serve different functions in people’s lives, and High Art, or Literature is only one role a book may take. When I’m taking a hard math class, I read no less than 3 cheesy fantasy novels a week. It’s part of my basic emotional survival. This drive is what the bulk of the literature industry serves. And occasionally, when I have the time, I like to sink my teeth into some Serious Literature, or maybe some Philosophy. It takes longer to read. I certainly don’t need a thousand pages a week of it. This ratio is reflected, reasonably, in the industry. So I guess I agree that to some degree, yes, the audience wants it this way. But what’s so wrong with that?

    I have a hard time giving credence to notions that a fluff-dominated literature industry can pose any serious threat to Literature. Perhaps I’m being a naive San Franciscan, but it seems that genius eventually gets harvested wherever it grows. As prior commenters have noted, there are a quite respectable number of scifi novels that are well crafted Literature. As he hasn’t been mentioned, I would add Vonnegut to the list, although Gibson, Brunner, Bester, Dick and Le Guin all came to mind when reading this. And frankly, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a comparable list of mainstream writers. While that probably speaks more to my taste than the mainstream, I have noticed that there’s quite a lot of crap out there masquerading as Literature. At least scifi has the guts to be frank about itself.

    I’m quietly marveling to myself at finding that I seem to have faith in the system. But so far, that seems reasonable to me. I see no “general trend toward the lack of literary merit in science fiction.” I certainly feel confident in saying that scifi is well represented up into the 80’s. I hesitate to make claims about recent works, because I find that it takes a decade or two for the cream to float to the top, and that I’m less certain in my opinions of books that haven’t had a chance to age gracefully (or gracelessly as the case may be) but I think that there’s enough potential that I’m not concerned about the last decade or two.

    And I’m going to really go out on an optimistic limb, but if there is a problem, I think you’re already part of the solution. We’re here, we give a shit. We support the excellent literature that does get published. And we write long, rambly blog posts on the internet about it.


  12. I’d like to retract part of that. It seems there’s an excellent chance that Jake Seliger will indeed be back to see that, because apparently this is his blog. Hi! I was just referred to your post by a friend [].


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  14. Good essay overall. A few brief comments.

    I consider Ray Bradbury a good crossover author (and really he always considered himself a fantasy writer than a sci fi one). His stories will remain readable over the centuries. (His Zen in the Art of Writing is quite clever and autobiographical; it makes clear the wide ambitions Bradbury has always had.

    It doesn’t bother me that editors transmit that attitude to you. They’re on the lookout for potential bestsellers. Novelists always have to struggle to assert the right of their novels to exist and be noticed….

    By the way, one very esteemed sci fi critic is Matt Cheney, aka Mumpsimus . I see on his blog he has departed from doing strictly litcrit, but he’s generally a reliable critical voice that “gets” the ways speculative fiction can aspire to profundity.

    Speaking of sci fi, here’s a trivia question: can you name the author of a sci fi novel in verse who won a Nobel Prize for Literature….because he served on the Nobel prize committee? And killed himself 4 years later? I’ll give you 2 hints: 1)he shared it with somebody else, 2)during the year he won, Graham Greene and Nabokov were considered to be the year’s favorites.

    Personally I find most sci fi boring (even highbrow sci fi). I think almost all storytelling has to start inside a niche, and sci fi is as good (or as bad) as any.

    Ironically I think the reason a lot of sci fi is junk is because the genre is so commercially viable.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’d say that the reason that so much sci-fi is junk is pretty simple. Much of everything is junk, much is passable, little is good, and great is rare.

    On a reltated note, someone mentioned that some people see a ‘literary’ tone as affectation or pretense. I’m one of those, broadly speaking. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘literary genre’. I find theres a stronger arguement for a ‘literary’ book to actually fit another genre; mystery, horror, crime, whatever.

    I can’t think of any shared conventions or iconography for literary fiction. I could be wrong, but as it stands it seems to me that the literary label is just a way to distance your work from the junk assosiated with the genre that actually matches it.


  16. As a note: there is at least one sequel in ‘high literature.’

    In 1961 Joseph Heller wrote Catch 22, which is now required reading in most high-schools. But most people don’t know that he wrote a sequel more than thirty years later: Closing Time (1994).

    Wikipedia link to Closing Time.


  17. As an editor and writer of both science fiction and literary fiction, I’d say that, while the boundaries are amorphous, science fiction (and genre fiction in general) is more about what happens (plot) and lit fic is about what happens inside. The former can get predictable, the latter can (and does) get twee. I think they really both need each other at this point in time to connect our ideas about what the future may hold with what that future would actually feel like.


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  22. I disagree, i would call Neuromancer great, not just a worthwhile science fiction novel.
    The part about Zelazny is a little nitpicky. I can’t comment on the work as a whole, but i don’t see a problem with that paragraph. I will give it a pass for its James Bond tone, because it came out in the early 70s. I didn’t read him yet, but i have a few acquaintances who are fans of him.
    Other than these, i agree with the post overall.


  23. About Heinlein and Huxley: You have to consider the time period their novels were published.

    It’s easy to see Brave New World as scaremongering about technology in retrospect, but that doesn’t do it justice.
    Heinlein is no philosopher, but the ideas presented in Stranger in a Strange Land were actually pretty controversial at the time considering the culture and the political climate.


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