Is Science Fiction literature?

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Reviews, recommendations, books to avoid. What have you been reading?

Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby GregB » October 28th, 2012, 12:50 pm

A comment Steve made on one of Games threads yesterday about one of the SF writer Brian Aldiss's books, and my own response to that, set me thinking about the genre. Is it basically pulp fiction, albeit with a few inspired ideas, or can it be read in its own right as a literary genre? Are there SF writers who are a pleasure to read for the quality of their writing? I used to be keen on SF in my younger days but I don't recall any of the writers as being especially outstanding in literary terms. Some like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had some brilliant ideas, some of them ahead of their time, but I found their prose pretty leaden and uninspired - even full of literary clichés at times when not dealing with the hard science itself. I even thought that one of my favourite SF writers, Philip K. Dick, was no great master of prose

Any thoughts? And any SF novels or collections you would regard as outstanding in the fullest sense?
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- T.S.Eliot 'Four Quartets'.
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby Sprocket » October 28th, 2012, 1:55 pm

It can be great literature, but most of it isn't. The same could be said for Westerns and love stories, two other sub-genres commonly associated with pulp fiction. I remember once reading Kingsley Amis writing that 'Nineteen Eighty-four' was sci-fi, but because it was also manifestly great literature, people didn't think of it as such. I'm not sure about that - there are sci-fi elements - the speak-write machines, for example - but they are fairly peripheral, and its main sub-genre is dystopian fiction. Exactly the same could be said of 'Brave New World'.
I think there are different types of sci-fi: some novels are written by authors, such as Asimov, who are also highly-qualified scientists, and who primarily want to explore certain scientific ideas; some are written by authors who, centuries ago, would have been writing tales of magic, but who use improbable and almost certainly unworkable future science instead (although straightforward tales of magic have enjoyed a renaisscence since 'Lord of the Rings', most of it utter rubbish but some of some Literary value: LOTR itself is great, but very flawed in various ways); some is mainly sociological rather than scientific - how would humans react to a very different situation to the one we have? Post-apocalyptic fiction is of that type; and then there's time-travel and alternative-history novels, which are a sub-sub genre on their own - actually, I'm not sure that a straight alternative-history novel, such as P.K.Dick's 'The Man in the High Tower', set in the 60s after the Germans and Japanese won WW2, count as Sci-fi, unless there's some science or technology in them that doesn't actually exist yet (or didn't when the book was written - and that raises a whole other interesting issue: sci-fi from many decades ago, imagining what was then future technology but isn't now: Arthur C. Clarke, I think it was, 'invented' communications satellites in a story written in the early 50s, but he failed to predict transistors and micro-chips, and his satellite was a permanently-manned space station, with a staff who had to maitain it, since the valves used in the 50s for radio and computer technology were high-maintenance).
Would H.G.Wells's famous early sci-fi books count as Literature? Wells generally is not perhaps in the first rank of fiction writers, but he was certainly better than the average pulp-novelist - at least, that is the general consensus: I've only read his sci-fi, and that 40 or more years ago. Ditto Doyle's 'Professor Challenger' books, or at any rate 'The Lost World': the later Challenger books are spoiled by Doyle letting his obsession, late in life, with spiritualism increasingly intrude into his fiction.
On the other side, would Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels', which I re-read recently, count as early sci-fi? The third part, the voyage to Laputa etc., is the most sci-fi-like part, Laputa being a flying island, kept aloft and steered by means of giant magnets: highly improbable, but he does make some sort of attempt to describe a techological means by which the island flies.
In short: yes, sci-fi can be great literature - why not? There are perhaps not many actual examples which would count yet, though. (C.S.Lewis's sci-fi trilogy, maybe? - certainly literary, but the science and technology is a bit rubbish, as CSL frankly admitted.)

Whmisical P.S.: on 'QI' last night, one question was "which two highly distinguished writers died on the same day as President Kennedy?" None of the panellists knew. Both wrote what could be considered sci-fi, but neither were primarily sci-fi writers. Anyone? No googling!
Last edited by Sprocket on November 1st, 2012, 11:12 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby GregB » October 28th, 2012, 2:15 pm

Excellent post, Steve, as comprehensive as it gets in the confines of a forum. I'll get back to some of your points later but I just want to respond now to the challenge in your PS. I know that C.S. Lewis died on the same day as Kennedy, November 22nd. 1963, but I don't know who the other writer was - I was only ever aware of the Lewis coincidence. Let's see if anyone else has the answer.

In a similar vein, a famous Russian composer died on the same day as Stalin in 1953, bad luck as the tyrant's death completely overshadowed the composer's. Anyone know who that was?
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- T.S.Eliot 'Four Quartets'.
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby Sprocket » October 28th, 2012, 2:27 pm

'Fraid not. There was a composer of about that era whose name I can't for the life of me remember, but I think it began with S.
Incidentally, the point of the QI question was that Lewis and the other one's deaths were not accorded nearly as much attention in the papers as might otherwise have been the case. They'd just dealt with the woman, whose name I can't remember, who was the first woman to fly across the English Channel, but who had the terrific bad luck, in news terms, to land in France on the day that the news of the Titanic tragedy broke, so she was more or less completely ignored by the papers.
Brendan Behan once went on a lecture tour of Canada. On his arrival, a reporter asked him why he'd come to Canada. Behan replied "I saw an advert that said 'Drink Canada Dry', and I thought 'I'll try anything once!'"
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby Serenjen » October 28th, 2012, 3:17 pm

Aldous Huxley (not sure the spelling is right).
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby Sprocket » October 28th, 2012, 3:42 pm

Correct!
Brendan Behan once went on a lecture tour of Canada. On his arrival, a reporter asked him why he'd come to Canada. Behan replied "I saw an advert that said 'Drink Canada Dry', and I thought 'I'll try anything once!'"
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby Serenjen » October 28th, 2012, 3:43 pm

I also watch QI but I tend to score around the same as Alan Davies :roll:
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby GregB » October 30th, 2012, 2:11 pm

The Russian composer in question was Prokofiev. Steve thought of a name beginning with 's' ; he may have been thinking of Shostakovich, but he lived on until 1975 (he was younger than Prokofiev anyway.)
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
- T.S.Eliot 'Four Quartets'.
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby Sprocket » November 1st, 2012, 11:09 am

Sprocket wrote:It can be great literature, but most of it isn't. The same could be said for Westerns and love stories, two other sub-genres commonly associated with pulp fiction. I remember once reading Kingsley Amis writing that 'Nineteen Eighty-four' was sci-fi, but because it was also manifestly great literature, people didn't think of it as such. I'm not sure about that - there are sci-fi elements - the speak-write machines, for example - but they are fairly peripheral, and its main sub-genre is dystopian fiction. Exactly the same could be said of 'Brave New World'. [etc.]

Come on then, you lot! Let's have some responses!
[Edit] Aargh! I wrote "it's" in the above, when I meant "belonging to it"! :oops: :oops: :oops:
Now corrected.
Brendan Behan once went on a lecture tour of Canada. On his arrival, a reporter asked him why he'd come to Canada. Behan replied "I saw an advert that said 'Drink Canada Dry', and I thought 'I'll try anything once!'"
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Re: Is Science Fiction literature?

Postby different glory » November 1st, 2012, 11:15 am

Well, I've only just seen Greg's opening question, and I'm still gasping! Of course science-fiction is literature! As for "most of it isn't" -- well, most of anything published isn't!
That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works. - Psalm 26
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