Science fiction: a literature of ideas


19 Responses to “Science fiction: a literature of ideas”

  1. Antinous says:

    Great SF, like all great literature, speaks to the fundamental nature of humanity. SF is at an advantage because it can contrast the humanity of homo sapiens with that of aliens or robots, deepening our understanding of ourselves and our universe. The people that I know that don’t ‘get’ SF seem to be missing some basic tools of analysis and reflection. I feel sorry for people who don’t appreciate it.

  2. chakradiva says:

    “then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn”
    I read spec fic from time to time, less now than I used to. No question it does provide a useful arena for the kind of allegories that allow for the exploration of sensitive issues, but to suggest that it is the “only” place you will find “profound philosophical” issues discussed is to wilfully ignore extraordinary writers who are making significant contributions to the world of ideas, many at a much greater level of sophistication than the vast majority of spec lit. Off the top of my head, Coetzee, McEwen, houellebecq, Peter Carey, Rushdie, Easton Ellis, Will Self (spec fic element sure)Tim Winton, Don DeLillo, sorry thats a pretty wild list from my bookshelf, but nonetheless, if you start cozying yourself into a world where you only read spec lit because straight lit doesn’t deal with pihisophical issues, then you’re not being entirely honest with yourself. thanks

  3. adamnvillani says:

    Ugh. I have no problem with people enjoying science fiction, but to elevate this preference to some kind of moral absolute should be repellent to an intelligent reader. What a happy coincidence that the only literary genre that you has anything of value to give to society is the genre you write in!

    My favorite book is Moby-Dick, but I don’t believe it follows that books about whaling are the only worthwhile books.

  4. jennee says:

    Thank you for that article. It’s always nice to read things by people who can express your own ideas more coherently. I don’t think SF is *the* only worthwile genre, but I am so sick and tired of ‘good SF’ being labeled as ‘literature’ and ‘bad SF’ being labeled as ‘SF’. Personally, I prefer SF (speculative fiction – I like fantasy more than science fiction) to realistic day-to-day-life novels. It’s just personal preference. But I fail to understand how intelligent people can refuse to read a book just because ‘it’s SF’ and then rave about ‘Never Let Me Go’ (why, of course, it’s SF, because we have clones running around).

    The good thing is that things are changing. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I feel that SF is slowly beginning to be accepted as ‘real literature’ in Romania.

  5. Antinous says:

    Moby Dick (also one of my favorites) was about whaling? I thought that it was homo-erotica represented by a whaling metaphor.

  6. jphilby says:

    Lockean. Shouldn’t that be Lockeian?

  7. jphilby says:

    P.S. I know what the dictionary says, I’m just saying. Cuz the “e” is silent … until there’s an “an” after it?

    Good old English … a puzzle a day. For life.

  8. Jeff says:

    Moby Dick is –ANYONE’s– favorite book? I thought it was just something we had to read in high school. “Run Starbuck, Run! He’s got his good peg leg on, and you know what that means!”

  9. chakradiva says:

    moby dick is my favourite book as well – i think it is about both homoeroticism and whaling

  10. Iain Coleman says:

    I recently read Moby Dick, and was struck by how closely it resembled a hard SF novel.

  11. Jeff says:

    Science fiction is the only fiction of the future. It’s the genre of hope and imagination. Or it can be. And when that fiction is embraced by enough people, they can use it as a template. The future is made, and we make what we expect. I tried and experiment with an older non-sf reader: I lent her my Down and Out’, and she couldn’t deal with it. She hasn’t be programmed to understand any of it. She does not have any expectations of a fabu future. She has missed out on a great genre filled with some really great ideas.

    Doctorow, thanks for a good template. Hope, in all its forms is welcomed by many.

  12. Tom says:

    I’m having 70′s flashbacks, or maybe 50′s… the claim that SF is “the literature of ideas” is at least that old.

    That said, some of the best “literary fiction” these days is science fiction. To name a few: David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” and even moreso “Ghostwritten”, Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” (despite her protestations to the contrary) and Michel Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” are all pure SF.

    The only difference between them and the majority of genre SF is the quality of writing, and the way they are marketed. Please note that I am not saying that all work marketed as genre SF is badly written, or that everything in the “nominated for the Booker” genre is well-written! But on average, literary fiction does come in a cut above the typical SF offering.

    Far from becoming boring, there is a definite shift in literary fiction toward plots and themes and ideas that one would only have seen in genre SF until very recently.

  13. Futuratronics says:

    Dear BoingBoing,

    If you have not seen it, you may be interested in this: M. John Harrison writes in his blog aboout “worldbuilding”.

    I also deeply enjoyed his post titled “How I write”:

    wherin he states:

    “Everything goes into the computer. It spends several years inside, like a character from Nova Swing, shifting location, attempting escape, undergoing recombination, transformation, cannibalism, verdigris, duplication, interrogation, prolapse. I rake through the files most days, looking for connections. Eventually even the gnarliest and most idiolectic bits and pieces give up what they know. Light, written in 2001, begins with a barely-modified note, including verbatim quotes, scribbled down in 1994 during an academic dinner in Leicester.”

    Kind Regards,


  14. drab bard says:

    Vladimir Nabokov once said in an interview that mediocrity thrives on ideas. Who knows what he meant, but there you have it: real literature does not concern itself with “ideas”. (Or so it would seem.)

  15. ill lich says:

    When I read “The Martian Chronicles” as a teen I was struck at how UN-science-fiction it really was; sure, it’s (mostly) set on Mars, but most of the stories are really just Bradbury riffing on ideas about exploration, colonization, war, loneliness, etc.

  16. POLOMOCHE says:

    The primary problem with contemporary literary fiction plagues contemporary science fiction as well: abysmal writing!

    If you want to read a book that tackles “profound philosophical questions” relevant to our present and future, start with “Fathers and Sons” by Turgenev.

    Then work your way backwards.

  17. fltndboat says:

    Science fiction, virtual reality. artifical intellegance, human being, and frozen tundra share a common thread of redundnacy. Presenting our creative use of language as fiction is much more honest and fun than thinking that truth can be captured in words. A rich source of creative food can be found in ISBN 0-915078-00-7. Catalog # 74-18135. This posting is fictional and contains a hidden giggle.

  18. jamescoleuk says:

    I agree with Chakradiva. Clive Thompson is obviously sitting with his back to some very important writers. SF has ideas, but the sorts of writers Chakradiva lists have better ideas than much SF and certainly much better prose.

    Tom is right, the notion that SF is the literature of the future was hackneyed twenty years ago.

    Literary fiction is not a genre: it is the best of all fiction. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is detective fiction, but it is primarily literary fiction. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is science fiction, but it has great literary merit. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon has a talking dog and follows the story of two real life individuals, it is historical fiction, maybe magic realism but most importantly it is great literature.

  19. Bevatron Repairman says:

    I think it was Ursula LeGuin who noted that science fiction allows the author to make the figurative literal. And that’s a goodly part of the reason it is fun.

Leave a Reply