Back in the dim dark past, when I was only a hooded fetus, I carved my thoughts directly on the computer screen with crude stone tools, producing material more or less at random since I had no hit count to tell me what the people wanted. Most of this stuff has just been sitting on my hard drive for years and years now — poems, short stories, essays, zines, drawings, insulting notes about comics professionals; that sort of thing.
Anyway, I thought I might as well make like Dante Rossetti and disinter some of these effusions for your viewing indifference, dear blog reader. My plan is to post something from the archives every Friday. Eventually I’ll inflict poetry on you, but Bill’s piece about his own childhood encounters with science-fiction and suspending disbelief made me think of this essay, which I wrote way back when I was in college in 1991.
Reading it over, I still like the central idea, though the earnest defense of sci-fi’s literary bona-fides made me roll my eyes. Ah well. For better or worse, here it is.
In his introduction to his anthology of science-fiction short stories The New Tomorrows, Norman Spinrad defines science-fiction as anything which is marketed with a sf label on its cover. Although this definition doesn’t seem to be very illuminating, the point which Spinrad is attempting to make is that the sf label is simply a marketing device rather than a true definition of a genre. In other words, science-fiction books have every bit as much (or as little) literary merit as any other form of literature, and that each science-fiction book should be read and judged individually rather than being forced into a single easily condemned category.
The difficulty with this is, of course, that science-fiction books do share certain characteristics which provide a large amount of fodder for the painfully (at least to those of us addicted to sci-fi) and just about uniformly nasty reviews which grace the pages of such publications as the New York Times Book Review when such journals stoop to writing about science-fiction at all. One of these characteristics is that works of science-fiction almost uniformly call for the reader to suspend disbelief to an extent which is far greater than that required in most other kinds of writing. Even in such stories as “Metamorphosis” by Kafka, which deals explicitly with fantastic elements, the suspension of disbelief is nowhere near as extreme as that required in a science-fiction book. In “Metamorphosis”, Gregor Samsa turns into a bug. In Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree, Jr., faster than light travel exists, as do several alien races, at least one of which can communicate easily with humans, and another of which produces a substance which can heal the wounds from a deadly human poison for which there is no other cure. Besides this, the book also deals with several periods of time distortion and a vast alien entity of indeterminate characteristics. I could go on for paragraphs, but the point is fairly clear. And yet, if one is willing to accept all this, the book is really wonderful: exciting, surprising, and even thought-provoking. Still, it is most definitely (despite Norman Spinrad) a science-fiction book, insofar as the suspension of disbelief is a function of the reader’s willingness to accept the tenets of science-fiction rather than on any special effort on the part of the author.
In addition to the quantity of science-fiction’s demands on one’s suspension of belief, I think that there is also a difference in the kind of belief which science-fiction demands. In “Metamorphosis”, Gregor’s family realizes that it is a little strange for their son to have been turned into a bug. In most science-fiction works, the characters accept as natural incidents and occurrences which are patently not part of the reader’s experience. In “Blue Champagne” by John Varley, the characters are real and believable, and the reader (at least this reader) is able to feel real pain at the story’s outcome. Even so, the entire premise of the story rests on the development of scientific equipment which can register emotions: if one does not accept this, then the story can’t work. And this element is not what the story is about: the piece is about relationships, the “unbelievable” facets of the story are not, as they are in “Metamorphosis”, the focus of the story’s attention. I think that science-fiction’s extensive reliance on belief can help explain why several of the field’s most respected authors often deal with matters of reality and unreality. Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress and Brian W. Aldiss’ Cryptozoic! both contain extremely long hallucination sequences which the reader believes are reality because of the standard suspension of disbelief with which he or she usually approaches a standard science-fiction novel. And Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle has his characters discover the flimsy nature of the world they inhabit, a world in which Germany won the Second World War due solely to the writer’s imagination and the reader’s acceptance.
The question, then, is not whether or not science-fiction is a genre, but whether or not the characteristics which make it a genre also somehow limit its worth as a form of literature. Ursula K. LeGuin contends that, to fulfill its true potential, science-fiction must be about people rather than about gadgets and hardware. In many cases, in the work of LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, and others, I think that this goal is achieved, and, moreover, it is achieved in writing about people who would not exist without the science-fiction worlds they inhabit: not because they are too weakly crafted to exist in the real world but because their actions and thoughts have been shaped by a different reality than that delineated in most works of fiction. Since the suspension of disbelief has allowed these characters to exist, it surely can’t be a wholly evil thing. Besides, science-fiction can be a lot of fun to read, which is, after all, a large part of what books are all about.