SF is Already High Literature

What does it mean to define a Literary Genre?

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I have just finished Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction, which was a wholly useful and insightful as well as a fully frustrating book. Milner devotes many pages to expounding upon various cultural artifacts of an enormously wide range of qualities (for example, the first chapter contains a protracted analysis of “Dan Dare,” a kind of British Flash Gordon, while the sixth chapter contains an exploration of Orwell’s reaction to Huxley and Zamyatin). Milner is responding to the now-famous derision that SF generates within certain circles of the literary establishment. He even goes so far as to codify how the literary establishment treats SF (67).

This, in my opinion, is wrongheaded. I, personally, understand the frustration of being in an academic setting where the works I valued were being undervalued by the establishment. I experienced as much, and with regards to SF as well, during my own undergraduate career. Milner has responded the way I once did, by grasping at relativism, in order to undermine the legitimacy of the structures of power.

The logic goes like this. Literary scholars are wrong in their sweeping generalization of all SF being bad, therefore all SF and all literature must be equally valuable. Milner has taken this a step further with the help of postmodernism via Max Weber. All acts of “valuation” are merely acts, and there is no inherent value to anything (179).

This, to me, is going much too far. SF literature is a subset of literature generally speaking, regardless of what any particular member of the academy thinks. Also, there exists a lot of bad SF writing and a lot of bad realist writing. It does no one any good to pretend that we live in a value-free world that merely contains lots of writing, one where we set Dan Dare comic books alongside Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We for serious consideration.

Milner’s definition is, “SF is a selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continuously policed, challenged and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the SF community continuously established, preserved and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation.” (39-40) In other words, SF is whatever all the random people of the world identify it to be. Any challenge to the existing norm, no matter how blinkered or ignorant, gets fully absorbed into SF by this definition.

I do not like constructionist definitions. In my opinion, literary critics should do more than merely survey the vast conglomeration of human creative output and make value-free observations. Intelligent experts need to set boundaries, clearly delineating the good from the bad, discerning what is common to both, and engaging in analysis of works that are both critical of the work being analyzed and of the critical theory itself. (The “of the critical theory itself” part is extraordinarily difficult, which is why we have so many academics who wrongly believe that SF has no value.) This is what it means to generate a definition of a literary genre. This is what is means to do literary criticism. To accept a definition such as Milner’s is to eschew that responsibility and collapse all distinctions, and that is simply not a worldview I accept.

Form and Content

One portion of Damien Broderick’s definition of SF is, “[a] de-emphasis of ‘fine writing’ and characterisation.” (Broderick, 155) In the same vein, Milner writes that, “the binary between Literature and popular fiction is almost entirely an artifact of Literary modernism, designed to valorise form over content, and cannot be applied to SF, which, by contrast, is a genre of ideas and therefore privileges content over form.” (Milner, 14)

These claims also go too far in that they attempt to push SF aesthetically out of literature entirely. Writing of poor form cannot be literature anymore than the category ‘cat’ could be reclassified as not belonging to animalia on the logic that meowing is “un-animalistic.” Either an unnatural redefinition of SF/cat is taking place, or, the proposal is a radical redefinition of literature/animalia. In Milner’s case, I understand his proposal to be the latter. He is not just attempting to classify SF with this proposal; his is attempting to redefine the boundaries of literature entirely.

The topic of “form and content” in literature is extraordinarily complex, and I could devote hundreds of hours of research to its exploration. Suffice it to say, both are crucial to any conception of literature. To relegate one or the other to lesser- or non-importance constitutes a radical re-imagining of the boundaries of literature itself.

I personally hold my SF to high standards. I have limited time in my life to devote to art and literary research. I do not want to waste it on anything but the best. I demand rigorous attention to form and content from the authors of everything I read, SF and non-SF alike. If I, a professionally unpublished independent author and scholar can maintain such standards, I expect those supported by research institutions to do so as well.

SF and Politics

Ever since Darko Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, SF studies have been bound up with Marxist literary criticism. This is another of the critiques leveled against Suvin, that his definition turns SF into a kind of literature of utopian struggle. (Milner, 179)

In this, I would tend to agree with Milner. Suvin’s definition is too narrow in precisely this sense. The themes and motifs of a novel can reach toward the Good (in the virtue ethics sense) without forwarding the Marxist agenda, much as Marxist might like for the two concepts to be conflated. My only difference with Milner on this point is that I would exclude works that are either vulgar, or which reach elevate the Bad instead of the Good. Milner indicates that he would include the former (179), and I suspect that he would categorically reject the existence of the latter.

The History of Science Fiction

Milner devotes an entire chapter to discovering the origins of SF. Milner agrees with the conception common in SF literary studies, which is that SF begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He rejects Darko Suvin’s and Adam Roberts’s proposals, which is that SF has a much longer history. As their proposal has it, in pre-industrial times it expressed itself in the form of the fantastic voyage to faraway lands, a tradition that reaches back into antiquity.

Milner writes, “Borrowings from Shakespeare or Lucian or More can be important and interesting, but they are borrowings from outside the selective tradition of SF, nonetheless.” This is because SF, “is a ‘type,’ that is a radical distribution, redistribution and innovation of interest within the novel and short story genres. … [T]hese innovations of interest were focused above all on the practical capacity of sciences to become technologies and that they first occurred only in the early nineteenth century.” (153)

This is one of the many points at which Milner contradicts himself. He has already established a constructionist definition of SF. By his own definition, the fact that Suvin and Roberts have claimed The Tempest, A True Story, and Utopia to be part of the SF tradition, they gain some small amount of SF-ness. If Milner had set out a binary or a multivalent definition, his argument would hold some weight, but it is defeated by his own desire to be inclusive of elements of the genre which he feels have been unfairly dismissed.

Milner’s definition qualifies Suvin’s and Roberts’s proposals as “transforming the cultural identity of the SF community.” His arguments against them hold no weight under the parameters of his own methodology.

Relativism

In the end, I would call my experience with Locating Science Fiction more perplexing than anything else.

On the one hand, I find myself awash in some extraordinary insights. I will almost certainly come back to it for its segments on Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, and its exploration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the cultural field, which are among its best portions, and it contains a myriad of minor insights.

However, I cannot help but quote what I find the be the work’s most glaring self-contradiction. “… I certainly do not mean to suggest the kind of relativism that became de rigeur during high postmodernism, only that what Eagleton says of literature in general is also true of SF in particular: ‘There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself … “Value” is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations.’” (179) It may not be the relativism of high postmodernism (which, I admit, I am ill-equipped to assess), but Milner proposes relativism enough to seriously undermine any potential coherency of what he means by the term ‘SF.’

Next Steps

As mentioned previously, I’ll be collecting up reviews of Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s Seven Beauties of Science Fiction and doing an analysis of those.

References

Broderick, Damien. 1995. Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. London: Routledge.
Milner, Andrew. 2012. Locating Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press.