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Science Fiction Is Trash

This is a reprint (with minor editorial corrections) of an article from PN#7 circa 1976. Some of the references are dated but, on the whole, it is surprisingly current.

For the past half dozen years (1970-1976) the book review column in F&SF has been consistently, surprisingly good. The reviews have been by a variety of authors. The quality has been high, regardless of who was writing the reviews. Among my favorite reviewers are Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison.

This, if you are at all familiar with their style of discourse, will tell you something about me - I have a taste for acid. I also have a taste for literacy and good writing. You may be surprised to learn that for the most part I do not care for their writing. Let me set aside Harlan for the moment and consider Joanna Russ.

Ms. Russ is quite brilliant. She is also a crank. The latter is not terribly important, directly, although it does have some bearing on why she is a bad writer of science fiction. Her crankiness has several aspects, the most prominent of which is that she is a feminist and she is into feminism as a cause. She is also "literary". She may or may not have an academic position in a literature department; she may or may not have a PhD in literature; but she writes as though she were and did.

As I say, she is brilliant. Her reviews are delightful to read. Any time I see a copy of F&SF and the book review column is by her I look forward to an extra moment of pleasure in life. Her wit is sharp and her analysis is acute. She makes many valid points and sparkles with insight. Best of all, my enjoyment of her writing is unaltered by the fact that she does not understand Science Fiction. Fundamentally she doesn't understand what Science Fiction is about and why people read it.

It may well be that I do the woman an injustice - I don't know her and I am only reporting an impression from limited reading of her writing. Nonetheless I do not believe that she understands what Science Fiction is about. I will tell you why I think that. It is a small thing. She does not believe in engineers and gadgets. I do not think that she believes that engineers are human beings - at least insofar as they are engineers.

It is easy enough to be contemptuous of engineers. They are, collectively, the modern Babbit. I take that back - Babbit was an entirely different sort of fellow. But here is a group of people who exemplify the faults of the middle class. The engineer conceives of himself as an occasion for converting himself into a salable piece of merchandise; he usually takes an overly narrow view of utility.

In the university the engineer to be evaluates each course, each topic in terms of whether it is practical. Art, literature, science, all are weighed on the scales of practicality and are found wanting. (This is not irrational. The typical engineering student has limited resources - time, money, and intellect. Before the luxury of education comes the necessity of secure employment and job skills.) But is after their graduation and their entry into the, ah, real world that engineers become the most exasperating. It is then that they attain their heights of narrowness, blindness, and mediocrity.

Consider the engineer. He does not, to begin with, have any real understanding of his field. He never wanted understanding; he wanted a bag of tricks. He commands, typically enough in these days, a large salary. He does not really understand why he commands a large salary. He cannot for he is ignorant of the sociological, political, and economic reasons that by happenstance have elevated him above the crowd. He believes his good fortune to have come about because he has worked hard and is bright, in sublime indifference to the accidents of fortune that have favored him rather than the millions of others who also were bright and worked hard and who found that fortune favored them not. He infests the suburbs. He is full of the cant of pioneer times - valid enough in itself - but he is a wage slave, bought and paid for. He is a collection box of archaic prejudices which he gets indignant about if they are questioned. Still and all, most engineers are nice people. Why, some of my best friends are engineers....

I get carried away at times. It is easy enough to poke fun at the failings of engineers as a class. But it is also well to understand that engineers are important in the work of the world. It is well to understand why they are important in the work of the world. It is well to understand what it is they do, that they enjoy doing it, and why they enjoy doing it.

I do not believe that Ms. Russ understands any of this very well. These things are not *important*. It is a fact that many people that many people spend a large chunk of their waking hours dealing with things, machines, and bureaucratic paperwork, and that they enjoy this more than they let on. If you do not understand that people do this and if you do not understand why people do these things then you really do not understand people.

One of the things that drives the engineer is the love of the gadget. By the "gadget" I mean the neat, the interesting device or artifact. It may be a squeeze play in bridge, it may be a Ringworld in Science Fiction, it may be a clever piece of computer code, or it may be a sophisticated argument in Aquinas. Whatever. There are a million gadgets. They are fun. Their social relevance is irrelevant to their status as gadgets. One of the important human motivations is the desire and satisfaction of playing with gadgets. It is, I believe, one of the failings of the literary set that it does not recognize and admit the validity of this class of motives.

Enough of that for the moment. Recently several prominent SF writers whom I reluctantly concede to be good writers have made public pronouncements that they were disillusioned with Science Fiction and that they were abandoning the field. In particular I am thinking of Robert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, and Harlan Ellison.

Surely it is somewhat curious that several of the most able and distinguished authors of Science Fiction should renounce and denounce the field in terms and in language suitable to disappointed lovers. What do these gentlemen say about the genre?

Well, they say that trash is what sells SF. They say that if one is labelled as an SF writer one is put in a box that is hard to get out of. They say that Vonnegut was right in adamantly insisting that his work not be labelled SF.

They are probably right....

I would argue that Science Fiction depends on several strands which are: (a) The sense of play - the good gadget; (b) SF as a literature of social prophecy; (c) psychological displacement; and (d) Straight adventure. I have already referred to the good gadget. When I speak of Science Fiction as a literature of social prophecy I am not referring to the sociological gadget story. Rather I am referring to the idea that it was the literary response to the perception that the future is being shaped by science and technology.

Since World War II the world has been altered rather drastically by science and technology. It is not just the gadgets and products, computers, television, atomic power, pocket calculators, digital watches, space travel, communication satellites, antibiotics, lasers, heart transplants, et cetera. It is not even that science and technology have become important issues in current affairs. It is that our current policy and politics must take into account the future development and impact of technology. The policies of today are shaped by the technology of tomorrow.

Today this is commonplace. Today we take it for granted that we plan technologies. Today we take for granted an endless stream of new gadgets, materials, problems created by technology, and problems solved by technology. This is new. It is a product of the last thirty years. (1998 - 50 years now.)

One of the driving forces of early SF (i.e., the 30's, 40's, and 50's) was this vision of the future as something radically different from the present - a difference that was conditioned by technology rather than by religion, politics, or ideology. SF was many things but I believe that it was this act of social prophecy that was the key thing about it.

In this respect Science Fiction was a body of literature that could only occur at a critical time. Before, say, 1930 it was premature - the future was too far away. Now it is obsolete - the future is already here. The function of SF as an avant-garde literature of prophecy has been destroyed by the prophecy becoming true. The future has become part of the normal business of the culture.

Science Fiction is also a literature of escapism, a function for which it is admirably suited. One might even say ominously well suited. It allows for the maximum psychological displacement from the here and now - one can literally go to the ends of space and time to get away. It is also permits the maximum displacement of status. Here and now may be acne and unpopularity at school. Sf allows you to concern yourself with the fate of the world or of the galaxy or even of the entire universe. Big potatoes.

And, of course, Science Fiction is a literature of adventure. In part this is because Science Fiction was confined for a long while to the pulps which were mostly action-adventure. Despite the fact that SF was not constrained to be action-adventure it ended up being that for the most part. After all many of the SF writers and editors worked the whole field of the pulps. SF was just another category, much as mysteries, westerns, war stories, exploration, and flying were categories.

Even with the influence of the pulps Science Fiction would be action-adventure oriented. It is only natural. With all of time and space to play with one can construct whatever gaudy background one wants for staging. If one wants to write Science Fiction one may not wish to write action-adventure. If one wants to write action-adventure Science Fiction is a natural. Bring in an alien planet with the appropriate settings and go to it.

None of these strands make for great literature. They do make for stories that people read and enjoy. Some people, that is. They do make for literature because none of these strands are about people as people. Technology is important to people and is important because it is important to people but a story about technology is nonetheless about technology and not about people. A story whose appeal rests in psychological displacement cannot be psychologically acute or profound. The appeal of such a story requires a systematic blindness. A subtle pandering to fantasies of omnipotence is inconsistent with insight.

Another factor that works against Science Fiction being literature is the overwhelming presence of jargon. There are many ideas which are well worked out, many conventions which have been adopted. This is useful if one is a professional SF writer - one does not have to keep reinventing the wheel. In fact it is necessary - after all the reader has waded through the necessary and conventional handwaving many times before and can well do without it after the fiftieth reading.

The jargon and the conventions are useful. The result, however, is that one cannot successfully write Science Fiction unless one is a specialist. Some SF is written by non-specialists. It is usually much more naive and much more alive than the stuff written by the SF pros. The outsiders are only sporadically successful at using SF but they reach a wide audience. The insiders are quite successful because they understand what the SF audience wants and they write for it. Indeed most of them are a part of the SF audience.

In short, there is a well defined SF market. What that market mostly wants is for its fantasies to be stroked....

Which is all right in its way. I'm not complaining. I like neat gadgets. And my fantasies can do with a little stroking now and then....

This is not an exotic and novel discovery of mine or of the disappointed lovers whose plaint we have been considering - it is rather obvious. SF is a specialized market with a special appeal. SF authors are labelled as such and are shunted off to the SF corner because that is where their market is.

And what of our disappointed lovers? Their problem seems fairly simple. They want to write something there isn't any real market for. They are SF writers; all of them are insiders. They are talented. They want to write about things which are not in the domain of SF. The SF audience is not really interested in what they want to do. This would not be a problem - one can write for other audiences - except that these gentlemen was to eat their cake and have it too. They are SF junkies - they are hooked on the stuff like the rest of us - who want to go mainstream but not kick the SF habit.

This page was last updated February 26, 1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter