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Science Fiction; or Why Is It Looked Down Upon?

April 21, 2009

It infuriates me whenever I hear, “oh, science fiction is for children”, “it’s all a bit silly isn’t it?”, or words to that affect. I have to keep refuting this ridiculous idea that science fiction is a genre for no-hoppers, geeks, nerds and people who are stuck in the clouds.

Space, the final frontier…these are the voyages of the Star Trek enterprise. These bold words, spoken with that RADA[1] acting voice, have three effects. The first is it enlists the listener into its world; these are the fanboys or fanpeople if you are offended by gender-specification. The second are the people who despise the world of ST[2], deeming it irrelevant and shockingly below their standards. The third, naturally, are very indifferent and look at the first and second groups with an air of mutual annoyance.

I can hear the collective puzzled groans of my non-readership, puzzled over what exactly is this “fine” man is writing about?

That, my fellow travellers, is a marvellously well thought of question. It is one I cannot answer, or, rather, it is one I cannot answer with any semblance of intellect.

In all serious, however, my point is that the commonly held view; and I suppose this is a simplistic belief, but whenever some people hear the words “science fiction”, they automatically picture space ships, and aliens with prosthetic foreheads. The Star Trek syndrome, if you will.

It is a shame, because, if begin you begin to look at science fiction you begin to realise that there is more than just aliens, rockets and lasers.

It’s troublesome to realise that it’s better not to pronounce that a book is science fiction, in fear of it not selling.

The science fiction author Brian Aldiss wrote in The Times:

But I do see that a wall much like the Great Wall of China has been erected against SF – although H.G.Wells has escaped the general banishment. It is a shame, for the authors are so different one from another, so disconcerting, so thought-nourishing. So despairing, so optimistic… There could be something most of us are missing.

Perhaps snobbery is involved. Stephen Fry has asked: “Why do science-fiction writers take themselves so seriously?” The answer is that seriousness is in general a characteristic of any writer or artist taking his work seriously. The Americans are great readers and creators of SF – I owe my living, and my gratitude, to American readers. As for the Italians, you are classified as an Intellectual if you enjoy fantascienza…

To be a writer needs much endurance, a tolerance of neglect, a publisher who likes books, and pots of luck. On these grounds, you might think it was hopeless to work in the SF field. Happily, some of us can’t help it.

I totally agree, here in the UK people see to stick their noses at sci-fi. However, if you look more carefully you’ll see that a lot of novels fall under the umbrella of this magnificent genre.

I remember when Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake came out. She said that it was speculative fiction and not science fiction. She wrote “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.

She did present a better argument in an article in The Guardian:

For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms – science fiction fantasy, and so forth – and others choose the reverse.

This takes science fiction for granted, and I’m not too sure what Atwood means by “speculative fiction […] employs the means already to hand”. Science fiction can do that and it does. For instance, Blood Music by Greg Bear is set on Earth and is grounded in science, although it has been fabricated but a lot of the science in it is factually true. It’s the same with Oryx and Crake, based in fact but changed so the borders between fact and fiction become blurred.

For me, speculative fiction is a ridiculous word. It brings up, for me, the idea that the author does not want to associate their book with the stigma of labelling it science fiction.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson is clearly a science fiction book. However, I’ve seen it being advertised as literary fiction (a silly label for any book) and placed no where near the sci-fi section.

I’ll have to end it here. I’m at the university’s library and my laptops battery is running out.

Questions: What are your thoughts on science fiction, do you think it’s lowbrow or highbrow?


[1] This stands for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. An entirely non-factual view, but it is common to think that all drama students speak with perfect diction, proNOunce every WOrd with dramatic vigour and share the distinctly similar “Shakespearian” voice style.

[2] Star Trek, or, to be more precise, Star Trek: The Next Generation. A rather lacklustre ST[†], mainly derivative plots, po-faced, and far too much like a liberals’ wet dream. Although, it does pick up the pace halfway through and has a run of mildly successful episodes; the introduction of the Borg is not one to be missed.

[†] It might be contested that every Star Trek series is lacklustre. It is and it isn’t; they all have their individual strengths and weaknesses, occasionally turning out to be very enjoying, yes, even Star Trek: Enterprise. Although, all ST pales in comparison with the far superior Babylon 5.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2009 8:10 pm

    Science Fiction is one of my favorite genres. I’ve read many of them and have about 8 other books I want to read and more I want to buy.

    I think people are entitled to their own opinions (however uninformed those opinions may be). If someone claims Science Fiction is lowbrow, I would try to have them read or watch one of my favorites. If they still feel the same, I’ll give up. I don’t ever want to force someone to have the same opinions as me, because I may be the one with the wrong opinion.

    • April 23, 2009 9:03 pm

      You don’t have the wrong opinion, trust me. 🙂

      I suppose I’m the same, I generally would start lecturing why the person is wrong, and go onto a long tirade against the persons’ stupidity. I wonder where I’m going wrong. Although, in all serious, I’m not talking about forcing somebody to like or dislike something, however, I think you can successfully put forward the advantages of something so that the person would, perhaps, re-evaluate their opinion.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. May 1, 2009 5:11 am

    I blog a lot about this topic as well, actually. I never really understood the whole diversionary practice of shunning SF. I’m actually going to grad school to study the stuff, which is a surprise here in the U.S., actually. I’ve always seen the U.K. as more academically open to the prospect of SF as a serious form of literary study.

    In any case, it’s all silly to me. Science fiction can be “literary” and it can be serious and important. It can also be fluff and pure entertainment. But so can most genres…

    • May 1, 2009 11:09 am

      Thanks for replying.

      We have a couple of courses involving science fiction; generally, they’re a module in a degree rather than a degree in itself. I think, mostly, European countries are more favourable to science fiction. Of course, I haven’t done any research so I might be generalising here. It is a shame that it science fiction has a stigma because I honestly believe that it has much to say as a novel that wins the Man Booker prize.

      I’m not a fan of the term literary. It’s constantly thrown about as if it’s some kind of standard of excellence. The trouble I find with it is that it implies that the novel is in the upper reaches of thought and no novels can compare with it. Whenever I read it, I always imagine some stuffy, polo-neck wearing pseudo-intellectual saying, “o, this novel is so literary, it has a delectable rhythm that twirls around magnanimously”. Bleh.

      I just noticed you linked to me. I feel so privileged. Thanks.

  3. patricksoon permalink
    May 3, 2009 8:59 pm

    You make a really good point and one that a lot of my fellow classmates in my dystopic lit class made this last semester. We gave a presentation on the novel as a future movie (directed by George Lucas). I recorded the audio on my blog, here. For me, science fiction literature has fast become my favorite genre, replacing thrillers such as John Grisham’s and Dan Brown’s novels. I think the main reason why critics feel SF is low-brow is because of a generational divide. Our generation is replete with technology and science, we are comfortable with the notions of technology and its consequences. There are however, some authors within the SF genre who use the technology to obscure important literary features such as characterization and plot, sidestepping traditional “rules” in order to further the description of fantasy technology.

    In the case of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, she makes dubious distinction between SF and speculative fiction. Though most of the technologies she references are possible, they are clearly many (many) years away. We still have not been able to splice human and other species’ DNA, or clone humans successfully. For me, O&C was SF. No question.

    This distinction, however, breaks down in other novels. As you’re in the UK, you might have heard of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”. Without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that there is little-to-no technology in the novel, and yet it can strongly be tied to the speculative fiction genre. There will be a movie version coming out soon starring Kiera Knightly. Franklyn, a movie set in the London is often touted as a science fiction film. I feel again, as with NLMG, that though it may have been fantasy, there clearly was no science in it at all. Movies and novels that do not feature science or technology should be labeled fantasy or speculative fiction. If a work does feature science, there’s little the author can do post-publication to label it otherwise.

    • May 3, 2009 9:43 pm

      There are however, some authors within the SF genre who use the technology to obscure important literary features such as characterization and plot, sidestepping traditional “rules” in order to further the description of fantasy technology.

      Totally agree. You could say, however, that it’s the same with any genre, occasionally an author “shows-off” in expense of good writing.

      The boundaries between what constitutes a genre are very weak; there are no special criteria that an author ticks off. China Mieville’s novels are, I think, a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. Franklyn is slightly SF although very soft-SF. Honestly, I really dislike the word “speculative fiction” as if books without this label suddenly have nothing to say, they don’t “speculate”. It’s the same with “graphic novels”, that’s another word that annoys me, it’s for people who don’t want to say comics.

      I know what you’re getting at; for me, however, I don’t really bother distinguishing or, rather, I don’t pay any attention to the genre. Of course, I have a natural disposition to go for certain genres.

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