1984 and the Label “Science Fiction”


Google alerts brought to my attention this short, interesting, and annoyingly snobbish post about why 1984 shouldn’t be stuck in the science fiction category and, being the science fiction nut that I am, I couldn’t leave it well enough alone.  The author certainly despises science fiction as a genre and I can’t help thinking that his problem isn’t with science fiction itself, but with what Harlan Ellison considers to be the difference between “science fiction” and “scifi,” which are, for better or for worst, pretty distinguishable variations of the same thing. Still, I feel it necessary to tear into this argument, because it’s just so wrong.

Let’s start with this:

It most certainly does not deserve to be degraded to the point of being a sub-genre of science fiction. Science fiction is just that, fictional. It carries no meaning, no message and usually, no words with more than five letters

All fiction is fictional, even literary fiction. There’s no such thing as fiction that is non-fictional. It’s not a possibility. Once something becomes true–to a certain degree–it ceases to be fiction. Historical fiction only gets away with it because it has to make up things during an even that actually happened, thus providing fictional dialogue and sometimes nonexistent characters to real scenery.

Furthermore, why exactly is it degrading to be placed in a sub-genre of science fiction? All science fiction is not devoid of meaning or message; some science fiction is even highly “literary,” whatever that means. In fact, most science fiction has some sort of meaning or message. Some of the best science fiction novels ask us to question our humanity, or consider the “what if” of a certain scenario. It’s a genre that speculates on what could be. True, there are entire sections of science fiction devoted entirely to adventures in space, with no discernible message beyond a simplistic “the hero wins” one. But what about the work of Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, etc.? Their work does not fit into the author’s lesser form of science fiction. They fit into a different category of SF that is still SF, no matter what you do or say.

But this continues with the author claiming that:

Science fiction has never produced a single thing that the ordinary person would not consider offensive, senseless drivel. And yet there are those who waste their time reading this nonsensical garbage

What exactly is an “ordinary person?” Ordinary implies discernible as part of the average, so, is the author ordinary? Am I? I don’t think either of us are particularly ordinary. In fact, if we want to be realistic, the ordinary person doesn’t even read (much). They’re the vast majority who rarely, if ever, reads a book or newspaper, or anything according to polls. They may still read, but they aren’t the ones who will have an opinion on literature that will matter in this context; the ordinary person watches more television than they do read a newspaper article or magazine.

So, in all fairness, I don’t think the ordinary person finds anything offensive or senseless in science fiction literature, because they don’t read much anyway.

The piece concludes with the following:

Nineteen Eighty Four achieved something few science fiction novels ever have, publication. Besides this, Nineteen Eighty Four was well written, meaningful and above a third grade level, all of which distinguishes it from science fiction. Call Nineteen Eighty Four what you will, dystopic, a cautionary tale, anything but a sub-genre of science fiction.

What exactly does the first sentence mean? A lot of science fiction novels have been published. That statement is absurd, because it applies to any genre. Pick a novel, any novel, and you can say that it achieved the same goal while most others in that genre did not. It’s not something that applies to only one genre. It’s universal. The same can be said of literary fiction.

I’m also not sure where this assumption came from that science fiction cannot be well written. Why not? Every genre has its weak spots, even literary fiction. Science fiction happens to be a popular form of literature, and therefore much of it is written in that more popular vein. But that doesn’t mean that all of it is, and it’s not always necessary for a piece to be written like it was meant to be analyzed for word use. Sometimes a piece can be about the ideas, about the characters and what is going on. Science fiction can be on the literary side, it’s just not nearly as common as the more popular side. Either side can have value though, and neither should be discounted or removed from the genre for the sake of personal dislike of one or the other.

This whole post seems like an attempt to make science fiction something it isn’t. If we remove all the examples to the contrary, then it becomes so. How many novels would this person suck out of the genre in order to make his vision of science fiction a reality? Is Fahrenheit 451 not science fiction because it happens to be really good? Seems absurd.

The point is, 1984 is a science fiction novel. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it. It’s set, at the time of its publication, in a theoretical future dystopia. As much as you might consider quality to be a judgment on the genre of a particular work, quality has absolutely nothing to do with it. A really good book can also be a romance, or a western, or whatever. That’s just the way it is. Get over it.

What do you all think?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

8 thoughts on “1984 and the Label “Science Fiction”

  1. I agree. =)
    Ender’s Game is science fiction, yet it is fairly popular and is written well. It’s not as good as 1984, in my opinion, but it’s an accomplished novel all the same. ^^;

  2. The ordinary person finds SF … offensive? Is this guy for real? O_o He seems to be confusing it with, say, Hitler, who was offensive and upset many people.

    Good grief. If it was actually “offensive”, wouldn’t it have been made illegal by now, like sexual and racial discrimination, and other things that are actually offensive?

    I don’t know why you bother arguing with these people. They obviously don’t have any brain cells, and I mean that pretty literally. It’s not just snobbishness, or poor word-choice, it’s plain stupidity.

  3. Wow, you are definitely going on my blogroll next time I get around to updating it. I have been thinking about posting something about this very topic: people whose definition of science fiction seems to be “If I like it, it’s not science fiction.”

    The example you found is one of the more bizarre ones I’ve seen. “no words with more than five letters”? The more common complaint is that “science fiction authors show off by using lots of big words.”

  4. Oh, by the way, if you want to see one of these anti sci-fi snobs go into convulsions just tell them that some great classic (The Odyssey for example) is actually an example of very early science fiction.

  5. Elia: I think Ender’s Game is well written, but still very much “mainstream” in style. That’s a problem a lot of literary folks tend to have with genre fiction, that it is stylistically straightforward. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think Ender’s Game is a good example of great SF, just that the snobbish folks wouldn’t likely consider that to be a particularly good novel in general due to its style. Not that I care, because I may be one of those writers who writes the great American novel and then, in Chabon fashion, tells everyone “it’s science fiction…eat it.”

    Ellira: I think he’s confused about a lot of things.
    And I argue with these folks primarily because I find it entertaining that there are people who think this and yet are so wrong, and because it’s something to do…

    Lynn: Thanks! Glad to know you’re enjoying my blog :).
    And yeah, it certainly points to some sort of arbitrary tendency in literary snobs to selectively accept certain works of genre fiction, and not others. It unfortunately doesn’t work that way. A science fiction novel is a science fiction novel, even if you say it’s not.
    And I agree, SF does tend to get criticism for its invention of tech-language, so that criticism seems quite bizarre.

    If you really really want to get the snobs convulsing, tell them that The Odyssey is an epic fantasy novel a la *insert great fantasy writer who all literary snobs happen to hate here*. Cause in the the bid for unfairness and discrimination in the literary world, fantasy sure got the big stick. SF gets a lot more respect than fantasy, even though the latter is a far larger genre. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that it’s much harder to separate fantasy from the negative connotations forced onto the term “escapism” by literary critics and snobs alike. It’s unfair, because I think fantasy has a lot to offer, even if what it is offering is something far different than SF or literary fic…

  6. Visual artists deal with the same snobbishness. Try going to art school with the goal of becoming an SF illustrator. Unless you’re in a programmed strongly geared to illustration you’re in for constant ridicule.

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