It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

“I am stupid and proud of it.”


Isn’t that what they’re saying, all those people who insist that science fiction doesn’t have to be literature? They don’t understand anything more complex than the graceless idiot-prose of, say, Asimov, so they insist that’s what sf should be. Because it’s not their fault, of course; it’s everybody else that’s wrong. Other people may look down on science fiction, but they don’t care – in fact, they’re glad people look down on the genre. They take it as validation. Those other people, they claim, only sneer at sf because they don’t know anything, they think they’re better than us sf fans.

Bollocks. You’re the one practising snobbery – reverse snobbery. And it makes you look very, very foolish.

A lot of science fiction is rubbish. But that’s okay, it’s a wide genre, with room for many things in it. What you should not do is claim that the rubbish is the good stuff. You should not redefine sf so it privileges the bad over the good. And you certainly shouldn’t use that upside-down measure of quality to sneer at other genres of fiction.

That may be your science fiction, but it’s not mine.

My science fiction is the literature of ideas. It’s the one that has the widest remit of any mode of literature, the one that’s capable of so much more than any other… I don’t want it to be kept in the gutter by talentless hacks and moronic fans. I don’t want its highest ambition to be that it is “entertaining”. All fiction should have ambition; it should strive to better itself. It should struggle to document the human condition as closely as possible. It should provoke thought, discussion, commentary. It should redefine. Science fiction is no exception. I want it to change the way I think about the world, about myself, about the future. My science fiction includes people like the late Joanna Russ, who used the genre to fight for equality. It includes writers like JG Ballard who made us question the world around us. It includes writers who use science fiction as commentary, as a tool to examine life and the world.

That is science fiction.

And all those people who prefer the term “speculative fiction” – in effect, you’re saying it’s okay to limit science fiction to ham-fisted space adventure stories. That’s just as wrong. Renaming the genre is not the way to gain respectability. What you have to do is acknowledge the genre’s variety – the good and the bad – and then you have to up your game. What you’re practising is just another form of snobbery. Between the two of you, you’re doing the genre no favours, and yourselves even less.

So, please, if you’re happy in this “gutter” you’ve created, don’t call it “science fiction”. Be honest. Call it “space pulp fiction” or something, give it a name that sounds stupid so we know who you are. And if you call it “speculative fiction”, then you’re just as guilty of keeping sf in that so-called gutter. Acknowledge that real science fiction has breadth and variety. The fact that you’re only capable of paddling in the shallows doesn’t invalidate the rest of the genre pool.

Defend your own tastes, by all means; but never think to tell me or anyone else what is and what is not science fiction.


41 thoughts on ““I am stupid and proud of it.”

  1. That’s excellent. In particular, I never thought of the undermining use of ‘speculative fiction.’ I hope you don’t mind if I share it.

  2. I’m sorry Ian but don’t think I can agree with you here.

    I don’t think that SF needs to be “literary” (although that’s not to say it shouldn’t be) because SF, by it’s very nature, tries to do (some) things that literary fiction doesn’t set out to. Consequently, it can fail as a piece of literary fiction but still succeed as a piece of SF.

    I don’t think I go as far as the reverse snobery that you describe and while I can agree that to hold such views would be foolish, if you’re saying that to be good SF requires being good literary fiction too, then I must disagree.

    As for the use of the term “speculative fiction”, I think your understanding of the term is possibly out of date? I understand it to be used more as an an umbrella term for SF, fantasy and horror rather than an alternative name for SF. A usage that I find quite useful as it seperates the genres I happen to like from those I have no interest in.

    • I didn’t say it needed to be literary fiction. But if literary means well-written, with well-drawn characters, rigour, insight, well-researched and meaningful, then yes, sf should be literary. Or it should at least aspire to that. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for space adventures – but it does mean the space adventures are not the best the genre has to offer, nor do they define it.

      If you can find a one true definition of speculative fiction, then you should probably also invest in a lottery ticket – it will win you millions. Some people use the term as an alternative to science fiction, some people use it as an umbrella term. Given that science fiction, fantasy and horror are entirely separate modes of fiction, it seems daft to me to lump them together because of marketing strategies.

      • But if literary means well-written, with well-drawn characters, rigour and meaningful, then yes, sf should be literary.

        But would you really want a genre without The Iron Dream (poorly written), Star Maker (no well-drawn characters), Miracle Visitors (totally unrigorous), or Report on Probability A (meaningless)?

  3. Okay, perhaps a misunderstanding of exactly what you mean by “literary” explains at least part of our disagreement. Quite what constituites being “well written” is probably, at least to some extent, a matter of opinion.

    As for the appropriateness of using the term “speculative fiction” as an umbrella term for SF, fantasy and horror, I do think that these genres have something that justifies a common categorisation. Not merely because there is often a lot of overlap, but because all three genres, unlike other genres, concern themselves with bending and stretching reality. They all speculate about what is not. Of course, the approach they take to this speculation is quite different but I think there is a common thread there.

  4. That’s an awesome rant, but surely the people who say that science fiction doesn’t have to be literature (in the sense of “literary”, character- and prose-driven fiction) are quite right? It’s a big world, and there’s room for more than one kind of science fiction.

    Denying the value of literary sf is bone-headed, but so is denying the value of non-literary sf? There are some kinds of genre writing that don’t tick any of the literary boxes, but without them the genre would be the poorer. I’m thinking, as a particular example, of Greg Egan. His novel Incandescence got a right royal pasting from Adam Roberts, but much as I respect Roberts, I think that indiscriminately applying aesthetic standards from literary fiction led him astray, because it’s not a novel about character, but a novel about physics. If Egan were persuaded to try to live up to Roberts’ literary standards, then his novels would be mediocre—his talents don’t lie in that direction—and the genre as whole would have lost something distinctive and valuable. (Obviously, it would also be very bad if everyone tried to write like Egan!)

    Anyway, you know who else didn’t like the term “speculative fiction”? Isaac Asimov! His 1980 essay “Science or Speculative Fiction” excoriated (the television version of) Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven for its lack of rigour.

    • I’m not denying the value of non-literary sf, just attacking those people who use it as an argument in their reverse snobbery. Shit writing is still shit writng; and to claim that as defining the genre is dumb.

      I also think sf is a bit too quick to play Get out of jail free cards. “It doesn’t do this because, well, it’s sf and you have to treat it differently”. Er, no. Bad writing is bad writing is bad writing. No special dispensations here. Move along.

      (Didn’t know Ike disliked the term “speculative fiction” – almost makes me warm to him a teeny weeny bit.)

      • I don’t disagree with any of the above. I think I just disagree on “SF should aspire to greatness” thing. I think I can can sum it up instead as “fiction should aspire to quality”. Slightly different, but it takes into account the occasions when readers don’t necessarily want to read something that is clear striving for greatness. 😀

        Out of interest – what’s sparked this rant?

      • I am trying to push back against the idea that there is a single set of aesthetic standards that should be applied to all works of literature.

        It’s probably easiest to see this in fine art: if you had been the kind of critic who insists that painters should use realistic depiction, elevated subject matter, classical proportions, and so on, then you would have missed out on the whole of modern art, from Impressionism onwards. I mean, you can say “bad art is bad art” until you’re blue in the face, but Manet was not trying to be a neoclassical painter and the critics who tried to judge him that way are now largely forgotten.

        One of the techniques that makes 19th century novels like Emma and Middlemarch so great is the rhetorical structure: the omniscient narrator allows the author to make finely tuned moral judgements. But if you elevate this to an aesthetic principle then you would miss out on the modern novel, from Virginia Woolf.

        You say, “Bad writing is bad writing is bad writing” which is very Gertrude Stein, but it strikes me that you might find “Sacred Emily” fails more than one of your literary tests.

        Which is not to say that there is not a lot of bad sf. But in criticizing I think it you need to be careful not to draw your aesthetic principles so broadly as to throw out good novels with the bad. After all, Asimov was quite right that The Lathe of Heaven is not a rigorously extrapolated work of science fiction. So the fork of the dilemma is: agree with Asimov that Le Guin’s novel is bad sf, or drop the idea of rigour being necessary for good sf. (And similarly for my other examples listed above.)

        • Given that in a recent post I raved about Coelestis, a sf novel which has almost no rigour, it’s clear that while I value it I don’t consider it 100% essential. However… sometimes a little flexibility gets turned into a special dispensation, and that I think is wrong. I also think it’s wrong to apply a different set of aesthetic standards when what you really have is a lack of talent, skill or craft.

          • Lack of talent and craft at what exactly? No-one can be good at everything, so the question is whether the talents that they do have suit the work they have undertaken.

            Take Coelestis (which I liked very much): Park’s world-building is often maddeningly vague, but in Coelestis he found a story that completely suited his writing style, where the vagueness of the description contributes to the theme of an alien world that’s unknowable to the human colonists.

            I suppose you could say that this is making excuses for his lack of talent in this area—but you could also say that he had the skill to find a theme that suited him. You certainly wouldn’t want to insist on more precision and rigour from him—that would have destroyed much of the effectiveness of Coelestis.

            • I think we’re arguing the same point here. Coelestis is my favourite sf novel, and one I admire a great deal. As you point out, it’s lack of rigour works for it; and likely wouldn’t do for another novel, such as Red Mars.

              And not being good at something doesn’t mean you can rest on your meagre laurels. You must always try harder. Each new story I write I want to better than the last one – if I fail, it’s not for want of trying.

  5. Ian, I’m going to agree largely with Mr Egg, here. On two points:

    1/ The speculative fiction thing. I have to be honest and say I’ve never heard “speculative fiction” used to try and make “science fiction” sound more appealing to literary types. The definition of speculative fiction that I know, the one that I use frequently, and the on that we used in “Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction” is as a general umbrella term for all the fantastical genres (you will note that that particular book contained them all – so it was the only sensible thing to call it). It’s not snobbery and it’s not undermining our genres, it’s simply coming up with a subtitle that isn’t unwieldy.

    2/ The “what SF should be” argument. You said: “All fiction should have ambition; it should strive to better itself. It should struggle to document the human condition as closely as possible. It should provoke thought, discussion, commentary. It should redefine.”

    I totally disagree. I think that fiction can do all those things, and that some fiction most certainly should. But ALL?

    To my mind, the only demands on a piece of fiction is that it fulfils the author’s intent. If the author wants create and innovate, to make the reader think, to open them to brand new ideas or reexamine familiar ones, they should do so. As a reader, I love it when they do. If they want to push the boundaries of the craft of story telling they should do that too. As a reader (and a writer) I love those kind of innovations.

    But if the writer sets out to entertain – and lets not stick to one genre here – if they want to write a space adventure that is no more than a space adventure, a detective mystery that is just a detective mystery, or a romance that is simply a romance, then they should be allowed to do that. As long as the execution of their intent is as good as they can make it is along as use of vocabulary is exactly right, the characterisation is strong, the plot consistent and coherent and the telling totally immersive, by my book they will have succeeded.

    Because to do otherwise ignores a really important factor – that there are a large proportion of readers who want to read exactly that: a gripping space adventure, a taut mystery. Sometimes, I’m one of them.

    Of course, if a book sucks because it is badly written, then it sucks – irrespective of its ambition. But if it’s well executed, there should be more than enough room at the table for it.

    • Which is a bit missing the point: if someone wants to write space adventures, fine. But to then say sf is all space adventures and you’re just too stupid to realise that space adventures is teh better than your teh stupid classics… Well, that’s a moronic argument.

      And all I said was that fiction should have aspirations. I happen to think it should aspire to greatness, but I recognise that’s only my view.

      • Why is it missing the point? Space adventures can – and should – have the same demands on technique and quality as any other kind of fiction. It’s in knowing how to craft a gripping space adventure that the skill lies.

        >to then say sf is all space adventures and you’re just too stupid to realise that space adventures is teh better than your teh stupid classics… Well, that’s a moronic argument.

        Agreed. 100%. Moronic to the nth degree. But if there’s a market of space adventures, and their readers won’t read anything else, then why not make them quality space adventures?

        >And all I said was that fiction should have aspirations. I happen to think it should aspire to greatness, but I recognise that’s only my view.

        I disagree… I think entertainment is something worth striving for as long as there is a market for it and as long as the entertainment is executed as well as possible.

        • Perhaps my use of the phrase “space adventures” was wrong. I was looking for a phrase that wasn’t “science fiction” and which, as a general rule, produces bad writing. Call it “space pulp fiction” instead. You know what I mean – the schlocky hackwork that jus happens to be sf.

          It annoys me when people say the bad writing in such stories isn’t bad writing because it’s sf, because sf is not about good writing. And I find annoying people who wallow in such shit and insist they’re happy to do so because it’s sf and sf is better so there.

        • Oh, and “entertaining” is an emergent property of good writing, not an objective for any quality of writing.

    • Oh, and how often do you get to say, “I’m going to agree with Mr Egg”, without being taken for a nutter?

  6. Oh, and on the definition of “literature” I’m with Hal Duncan: if it’s written, it is literary. All fiction is literature.

  7. I have over the last couple of weeks witnessed a miracle… someone who doesn’t like science fiction was (for reasons I won’t go into) obliged to read Philip K Dick’s: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. He found that once started he couldn’t put the book down!

    Does this not show that the hype surrounding the ghettoing of science fiction is putting people off reading it? Should we not be trying to get rid of this mislead rather than arguing about the definition or purview of science fiction?

    • Unfortunately, the problem lies outside the genre as much as it lies inside. Some people won’t read sf because they imagine it is all badly-written space adventures. A situation which is not helped by people championing badly-written space adventures as the best the genre has to offer, and turning their backs on anything that might upset the comfortable nest they’ve built of the genre. Sf is broad and deep, with enough in it for pretty much all tastes. And that is what we should be telling people.

      • Agree about the ghettoing of science fiction lying outside as well as inside the SF community. And also agree that science fiction is broad and deep – after all it is the fiction of ideas and so has to be that way.

        How about suggesting that the genre spectrum needs revitalising? We could have for instance, ideas, psychological, semi-factual etc instead of historical, romance, crime, etc.

  8. Hi Ian, a few folks pointed me to this post as a (possible?) reaction to the column I wrote for SF Signal yesterday. I actually think we mostly agree. The point of my column, whether or not it was clear, was twofold:

    1. At its most basic, science fiction should be entertaining.

    2. I think the term “speculative fiction” is often used to make seem science fiction important–as if the literature can’t stand on its own merit.

    I cited Foundation because it happens to be my favorite, graceless prose and all. I can’t help that. I just have fond memories of reading those stories. Of course, not everyone likes Foundation and for some it might be rubbish. I don’t happen to hold this opinion.

    I think we both agree that “science fiction is the literature of ideas. It’s the one that has the widest remit of any mode of literature, the one that’s capable of so much more than any other”. Where I disagree is with your comment, “I don’t want it to be kept in the gutter by talentless hacks and moronic fans. I don’t want its highest ambition to be that it is ‘entertaining'”. It can certainly be and often is much more than merely entertaining. But for me, it doesn’t have to be. I read it and write it because I enjoy it, because it is fun, and also because it makes me think. If it happens to provide some kind of insight into the human condition, that’s great, I just don’t think it has to do that. There are certainly works that I admire that do this that are among my favorites in the genre: Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo and Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside are two that come to mind. But I also found these books to be highly entertaining, and I think that the entertainment factor is what allows people to get into the story in the first place.

    I certainly didn’t attend to come across as snobbish. I just feel that terms like “speculative fiction” are so much hand-waving; that we are screaming, “Hey notice us! We are important too!” But in truth I think that science fiction speaks for itself and we can find better ways to attract people to the wonderful store of fiction we have than by calling it another name.

    • I’m not entirely sure how to respond to your comment, because that’s certainly not how I read your original post – hence my somewhat intemperate response.

      I also dislike the term “speculative fiction”, but I also think it’s wrong to turn your back on other genres. Claiming that you don’t want respectability just makes you sound like a bad sport. If you have a 3-legged greyhound, you don’t only race it against other 3-legged greyhounds and claim that 3-legged greyhound racing is the One True Sport of Kings. You train your 3-legged greyhound so it can outrun 4-legged greyhounds.

      And, as I said above, “entertainment” is not an objective or ambition, it’s an emergent property. Someone can sit down and write what they think is the most entertaining story on the planet… and some people are going to think it’s boring. No matter what they do. Best just focus on writing the best story you can write.

      • Ian, it wasn’t my intention to eschew respectability, I suspect that the example that I started with (my college professor) made it seem like it was, however. My point, poorly made though it might have been, was that terms like “speculative fiction” provide what seem to me to be an unnecessary semaphore–a hand-waving to critics says, look at us, we’re respectable, too. Science fiction is respectable whether or not it is labeled as speculative and the term feels like desperation.

        I think you hit the nail on the head when you say we should focus on writing the best stories we can. There is a lot of junk in science fiction (I’ve been going back and reading the “Golden Age” era stuff in Astounding, cover-to-cover, and so I know there is a lot of junk.) But that is true of any form of literature. However–and this is an important point–what got me into science fiction, and what was a roadblock to me in more traditional fiction–was the fact that I found science fiction to be so entertaining. Without the entertainment factor, I would never have gotten into it and that would have been a terrible thing. I suspect this is true for others as well.

        I’d agree that the term “science fiction” comes with some stereotypes but much of what I read today makes many of those stereotypes irrelevant. Perhaps we need a better way of showing that to readers, but re-branding the genre will work about as well as Comcasts’s attempt to re-brand themselves as Xfinity. The history of the term “speculative fiction” (originally used in the 1960s) was an attempt to do this very thing.

        In any event, your “intemperate” response was probably deserved because when I become rankled by something I tend to lose clarity. Sorry about that.

        • I think we’re on the same page (so to speak). Which is good.

          I’ve read sf for as long as I can remember. But I remember reading Jane Austen for the first time during the 1990s, and being surprised at how much I enjoyed them. No one had ever told me they were funny. So the entertainment value you get out of a book, that’s something you find it in it, not something the writer puts there. It’s everything else that they do.

  9. As mentioned upthread, “speculative fiction” is used most commonly as an umbrella term, not as an effort to make SF et al respectable outside its self-imposed ghetto.

    Most of SF is neither S nor F. People who think it’s the sole type of literature that explores ideas obviously haven’t read very widely.

  10. I, too, have no problem with the term ‘speculative fiction’ for the reasons cited above. Nor do I have a problem with ‘science fiction’.

    However, I would like to see the term ‘literary fiction’ replaced with ‘naturalist fiction’. For lots of reasons.

  11. I see that there are people on this blog posting intemperate responses. This makes me feel left out, so I too have crafted an intemperate response for your enjoyment!

    I’m with you on Asimov, I’m not with you on literature. SF doesn’t have to be literature, in fact *nothing* has to be literature.

    What is literature? Was Shakespeare literature? Do you think that when he wrote plays full of ghosts and murders, he thought he was doing literature? No, Shakespeare was pulp. He was writing to entertain, so there was lots of sex and violence. When did he become literature?

    Literature is a parasite genre. It steals the best from honest genres and rebrands it to be ‘literature’. The followers of this cult then sneer at anything that isn’t part of the canon (don’t tell me they don’t, ’cause I’ve met them, lots of them).

    I’ve met people who say that 1984 and Frankenstein aren’t science fiction, they’re literature. These people will never accept science-fiction, no matter if we rebrand it ‘speculative’ or whatever the latest name is, they will only accept those works that have been inducted into the literary canon by university professors.

    One day, in the distant future, I wouldn’t be surprised if Twilight is considered literature. By then it will have been extensively analyzed, and all kinds of interpretations will have been read into it, and thus the readership will have made it into an ever richer cultural artifact. However, until that day the ‘high brow’ crowd will sneer at it. You may or may not have reasons for thinking they are right/wrong, but I don’t feel it’s useful to create a ‘genre class system’, which is what ‘literature’ does.

    The claim that writing good characters and works with a depth of possible meaning and interpretation means you are writing ‘literature’, or ‘literary-‘ is itself part of a world-view put about by our literary overlords. The truth is if you are writing crime fiction, then you are writing crime fiction, if you are writing science fiction, then you are writing science fiction, if you are writing romance, then you are writing romance. If you happen to be writing any of these things and doing it so well that it has well defined characters, settings and psychology then you are writing GOOD science, crime, or romance fiction. You’re not writing some other transcendental genre called ‘literature’.

    With regard to the whole question of character, this is becoming something of a fetish in the SF community. Good characters are hugely important, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all. You can write a novel that is mostly character driven, and another one that’s ideas driven, and another that’s plot driven, etc, etc, and they can all be good novels. Of course, you should be trying to write something that’s equally good in all departments, but that can be a tall order for the merely mortal writer.

    Finally I’ll say this. The biggest problem for modern SF is not its lack of ‘literary respectability’, it’s the lack of young people reading the genre. SF is getting old. If we want to attract young readers, then we’re not going to do it by writing to please literature professors, we’re going to do it by presenting shocking and novel worlds, characters and ideas. We’re going to do it by upsetting the applecart and giving ’em something that their parents never had. We’re going to do it by being less literary, or pulp, and more punk.

    So ‘literature’, don’t do it. Just write the best you can, try to make it engaging and exciting, and don’t worry about what literary pundits think. And you know, if you do that, sometime after you’re dead someone might decide that you were actually doing literature.

    At which point you should come back and haunt them.

  12. When the comment was first coined about “getting sf back into the gutter where it belongs”, I think many people took that as an indication that over-intellectualising the genre meant that some of its adventurousness and invention went out of the window. The new generation of sf writers, especially the new space opera writers such as Banks and Reynolds, have probably sunk that argument, and rightly so.

    I was at the exhibition at the British Library yesterday, and was struck by the large number of visitors and their enthusiasm for the genre. I think there is a case now for saying that sf is the new mainstream. And if what I saw was anything to go by, Colum Paget’s comments above about getting younger people reading sf are too pessimistic. In his BBC piece promoting the BL exhibitiion, China Miéville commented that it’s non-sf readers who leave the genre, because 6 and 7-year-olds are fully signed up to the agenda of fantastic story-telling. I think it’s more a matter of getting that age group to carry on reading; then they will read more sf. The thing is that they must be presented with the best sf we can find, so they carry on with the genre.

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