WickedEye's Quotient

3/15/2007 at 17:34

Now we play for all the marbles. -Commander William Adama

Disclaimer: This piece doesn't really belong here (though it doesn't really belong on my other blog, either); but since I’ve already done one entry on books and book-reading- in truth, far more than one- I’ll classify this as a purely intellectual endeavor. Hey, presto- legitimacy. (What? It works for the White House.) And I can’t bloody well start a different kind of blog for every essay I write. (Or can I? Hmmm…)

Endnotes are located below the essay; the SFBC list is at the bottom of the entry.


I saw a list of the top 50 SF&F (science fiction and fantasy) (1) books of the last 50 years on SFBC (Science Fiction Book Club) and was instantly fascinated. Out of curiosity, I copied the list, bolded the books I've read, and italicized the authors for whom I've read more than 3 pieces of work.

I’ve always claimed to be an SF&F fan, but the results were startling. Taken together, the bolded and italicized items constitute more than 3/5 of the list.

And I wasn’t even trying to “cover” the genre (2).

It shouldn’t surprise me so much. My passionate love of science was bound to spill over into my love of literature, as it’s spilled into almost everything else. And this realization got me to thinking about the many, many times I’ve defended SF&F from those who sneer at it as a distinct genre (and sadly, some of those on the list are actually SF authors) (3).

The basic argument I’ve encountered in most such conversations always struck me as one based on a lack of ability to make a crucial distinction: that between things that might be (not-real) and things that are (real).

The claim still startles me, because it seems that this distinction is necessary, to some degree, to read any fiction at all. It was only after several years of conversations on this topic- with people from and on several different states, countries, and continents- that I finally was able to puzzle out why those I know who fail to draw this distinction are capable of reading fiction at all.

The reason for the contradiction is simple. For the people to whom I’ve spoken (and, I’ve no doubt, many others), it’s precisely they because can draw the distinction so clearly that they are incapable of seeing its further shadings. A single, bright-line distinction is made- real and not-real- and there the matter rests.

That there might be further shadings of not-real, that the difference between a not-real that contains the world as we see it now and a not-real that does not is a continuum which extends for a long way in both directions, is a fact which escapes them. It seems to be a perspective of which they seem to be genuinely incapable.

From this point of view, I admit, it’s true that a separate genre for science fiction is meaningless. But it’s also true that from that point of view, every other genre distinction in fiction is meaningless as well.

Oddly, though, not one of the people with whom I’ve had this discussion seems to hew to that conclusion.

It’s true, as a friend of mine recently stated, that the value of fiction is that it places its characters in situations which reveal them. That’s true of all fiction (well, of all well-written fiction). But failing to draw a distinction between, say, Ringbearer Frodo Baggins’ (4) quest to rid Middle-Earth of the One Ring, and Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta’s (5) quest to find a brutal killer misses the point of genre entirely.

The question in drawing a genre distinction is not whether or not your reveal your characters- that is, once again, the aim of all fiction. The question of genre is, simply, one of how you do it.

SF&F uses science and fantasy, and it usually uses things that don’t or can’t exist according to what we know now. It has presaged not only several inventions (Jules Verne and Murray Leinster are gobsmacking examples of this), but also mindsets derived from but alien to societies in which the authors then lived (William Gibson and Margaret Atwood are amazing examples of this).

And I love SF&F, love it passionately, because in its use of the possible and impossible it gives far greater scope for the exploration of basic human capacities in the face of the universe and its perils than most other works- and, I would argue, any other genres as a whole- ever attempt or achieve.

The short story “The Cold Equations” (6), by Tom Godwin, is the one of the best possible examples of the kind of clarity SF&F imparts. Without giving away the ending, I can say that it illustrates far better than any other story I have ever read the utter indifference to us of the laws which govern our existence. There are other stories in other genres which come close- Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (7) is the closest approximation I can name- but not a single other tale I’ve read delineates so clearly and mercilessly that the numbers which surround and define us, which are the fabric of the universe in which we live, limit us without pardon or pity.

There is a profound value to knowing this. And it has been nowhere else as well illustrated as it has in the stark and unforgiving blackness of space.

Arguing that Tom Godwin may simply have been a better author than Jack London is missing the point. (In terms of any literary standard of which I am aware, he was not.) But the argument is pointless because, from my point of view, he wrote a better story. It is the job of a writer to select character and setting, to build them both to a conclusion of some kind. Godwin did so- and in this case, this conclusion, he did it better than London did. (8)

The larger issue that these stories illustrate, though, is that SF&F is a genre worthy of its own name and consideration because, even barring its techniques- which do shade into other genres and can confuse the issue- its results are often spectacular: it is able to impart a force and clarity to fundamental questions that few other types of fiction can.

We all know that Frodo fought Evil. So, too, does Kay Scarpetta- in a way. But the definition in Scarpetta’s case is not so clearly drawn, not so easily distinguishable. Frodo fought Evil; Scarpetta fights particular instances of The Evil That Men Do.

And that distinction is worth making, the difference worth illustrating, because the battle against Evil requires something different than that against The Evil That Men Do. Frodo is fighting an unconquerable enemy; Frodo is fighting parts of himself in order to reach his goal. We see the limits of the character and of the humanity which he represents- the bounds not just of Frodo’s intelligence and ability, but of his capacity for goodness and for being corrupted.

We see the ultimate limits, in fact, of Frodo himself. The flames of Mordor illumine his edges even as they consume parts of him.

I digress. (Though unapologetically; I could quite probably devote my life to writing literary criticism, with an emphasis on Tolkien and Twain, with no problem at all- save my conscience. But, yet again, I digress.) The point I am striving to make is that Tolkien uses his narrative to illuminate far more clearly than Cornwell can what price the battle against Evil- of men or otherwise- will extract.

Scarpetta’s quest is, in fact, a subset of Frodo’s. The essential difference is one of scope- and that is a significant difference.

Fiction illustrates pieces of who we are. SF&F illustrates the outward limits, the uttermost boundary of who we are and that of which we are capable.

And again, that is a distinction worth making.



(1) There is no way to draw a meaningful distinction between the two fields now; they are inextricably, sometimes befuddlingly, intertwined. More on this at some later date.
(2) Genre: noun, adjective- 2. a category of artistic work marked by a particular specified form, technique, or content (Wordsmyth @ http://www.wordsmyth.net ).
(3) I absolutely LOVE Terry Pratchett’s suggestion that we institute “a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it's science fiction 'because it's not about robots and spaceships'.”
(4) Frodo Baggins is the main hero and protagonist (there are several) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary Lord of the Rings. (Everyone knows this by now, but it still must be noted.)
(5) Kay Scarpetta is the detective/forensic pathologist protagonist of Dr. Patricia Cornwell’s bestselling mystery novels.
(6) Published in 1954, it is a short story which tells the story of a space pilot who finds a stowaway. There has, incidentally, been much criticism of the story, brought on no doubt by its fame; most of it is rubbish and I’ll probably do a detailed rebuttal at some point, though, obviously, not now.
Published in its full form in 1908, it is a short story which details the attempt of a man traveling in the Yukon wilderness to, well, build a fire.
(8) It should be noted, in all fairness, that even had London wished to set his story elsewhere for more effect, his writing was based on different premises, a different lifestyle, and a different time. This nonetheless serves to illustrate the effectiveness of genre choices in illumining specific issues.

The SF&F Novel List (from SFBC):

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

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