Thoughts on Sci-Fi vs the Literati

Posted by Edwin H Rydberg

At any science fiction writers convention one of the subjects that invariably arises is the lack of respect for science fiction with the ‘Literati’ – that quasi-mysterious elite that seem to govern what makes acceptable, quality writing. The same people that judge such prestigious awards as The Man Booker Prize. Sci-fi writers can often be heard suggesting that the Literati just don’t ‘get’ science fiction or perhaps they don’t have the scientific background to understand it. The Literati respond with comments such as: science fictions writers can’t do characterization.

 So, as someone very interested in science fiction, both as reader and writer I’ve tried to understand what could cause this apparent clash of opinions and recently, I’ve may have had some insights.

First, it is my belief that science fiction is one of the hardest genres to write well. This may sound like a self-serving statement but, after reading a respectable amount of amateur sci-fi short stories for anthologies, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. The reason, I believe, is that good sci-fi requires all the standard abilities that any writer must possess: a command of the language and good characterization, plotting and storytelling. But they have the added challenge of creating an interesting, complete world that doesn’t exist. Or, at the very least, a near future of our world that may exist, but won’t necessarily. And, they have to do this with originality or their work will be quickly rejected as cliché.

In my own editorial experience, I’ve found this separation between skilled crafting and original imagination to be very obvious with amateur works. A great many stories Utility Fog Press has received are either well-written but unimaginative or very imaginative but poorly constructed. It can be hair-pullingly frustrating.

In addition to this insight, I’ve also I’ve started reading some classic sci-fi…

Now don’t get me wrong, there is some great classic science fiction. But, after being immersed in modern British sci-fi, which I consider to be generally well-written, I must confess to some disappointment in the quality of writing of some of the classics–to the extent that I’ve been unable to read more than a few chapters. The concepts and insights presented are, as you’d expect, important and well thought out, but the actual technical writing is more variable.

Here, then, is why I believe the Literati persist with their poor view of science fiction.
Literature, as a genre, tends to be backward facing. It generally looks to the past, writing copious stories of what has happened before, who we were, or who we are now and how we got here. All ideas that look to the past. That mentality also leads to a focus on classic literature, i.e. old, past writings. It’s often a genre that strives to recreate styles that are held up (and rightly so) as admirable works of the craft. So the Literati judge science fiction largely by the sci-fi classics.

And herein lies the problem.

Science fiction is almost always looking to the future (perhaps more precisely, discussing the present through extrapolation into the future). Science fiction is ‘forward oriented’. And that’s very much manifested in the way the genre is constantly changing. While one could argue that classic literature reached it’s pinnacle decades ago, science fiction, in my opinion, is just coming into its own now.

So, what does this mean for the current conflict between sci-fi and mainstream/literature regarding recognition? Well, probably not much. It will likely take a sustained onslaught of seriously well-written breakthrough novels to cross the border, so to speak, before well-entrenched attitudes will begin to change–and the courage of such authors to admit that their works are science fiction (I’m looking at you Margaret Atwood: The Handmaiden’s Tale, and Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveller’s Wife). Until then, sci-fi will have to be content with honouring our own.