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.

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