Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen recently wrote a retort to the Crotchedy Old Fan’s blog post about why traditional science fiction is better than the “literary” vein. I’ve not read the Crotchedy Old Fan’s post, and briefly scanned Larry’s, but having seen the question, I have to wonder: can such a determination actually be made?
I’ve always assumed that science fiction is a genre of many faces, spanning from the humorous to the serious, complex to the simplistic, adventuresome to socially aware. While such things may not be unique to the genre, they are powerful features that make this genre worthy of study on the academic level. But I’m not talking about academics here; I’m talking about whether traditional science fiction is better than its “literary” cousin.
Before I can properly discuss this subject, I think it’s important to define the terms I’m working with. I don’t know if the Crotchedy Old Fan gave any proper definition for what he meant by “traditional” or “literary,” but it seems ridiculous to attempt any discussion on this subject without having a firm grasp on what we’re actually talking about.
I consider “traditional” science fiction to be those works of fiction that intentionally evoke awe or comprise the fiction styles of such authors as Poul Anderson and Robert A. Heinlein on the classics end, and Tobias S. Buckell and John Scalzi on the more recent end. “Literary” science fiction is more difficult to define, and it is a genre that, regardless of any arguments to the contrary, overlaps with the “traditional” vein. “Literary” SF deals directly and obviously with social or technological issues, with less focus on the adventurous side of SF and more focus on characters and emotional issues. There are probably other features worth considering, but for now, I’ll get to the point.
Any attempt to say “this kind of SF is better than that kind” is, to be honest, arbitrary at best. We can argue until we are blue in the face, but in the end it will always come down to personal preference. Some people like the traditional stuff, and others prefer the “literary” goodies. That’s the way it is and the way it always will be. Neither is necessarily better than the other; both contain good and bad books, great and lesser writers.
And one cannot forget the overlap, because so much of what is considered “traditional” by many SF purists also cross into the “literary” world. SF has made its home in every style of literature we know precisely because literature itself constantly changes. Years ago people would have laughed at the idea of a science fiction class; now, they are becoming more and more common. The pulps are being treated with the same focus and care as Charles Dickens, thus inserting such works into the world of the “literary,” wherever that may be. Strangely, this is how literature in academia works. There is always a fight, a push to keep the current hated literature out, to keep it shoved into a dark corner with all the other “trash” and “garbage” of the day. Strange how as centuries pass, things change. You’d be surprised to find out exactly how literature has adjusted over the years, and we’re now seeing that change in academic circles in regards to SF.
My point is, I think, that even the term “literary” is a pointless term. As much as I might want to define it, it’s meaningless when put against the backdrop of literature. Literature’s persistence to change makes any sort of logical determination of quality impossible. And if the term “literary” is pointless, so too is “traditional.” Neither is necessarily better than the other, because both change with time. Traditional SF doesn’t technically exist, because I doubt even those of us who claim to like it have any idea what it actually is. My definition will likely be contested by some and accepted by others. The same is true of “literary” SF, because, no matter how hard we want to argue for a category that can be defined as “literary,” it will never become true.
And that means asking which one is better is also a stupid thing to do. Neither can be better. Personal preference rules the day, and always will. Besides, SF has had a hard enough time trying to argue its way out of the place the Academics placed it in all those years ago. Acknowledging that we all simply have different tastes (traditional and literary) might save the time already being wasted on arguing over the subjects of purity and superiority in a genre that has and always will be a vast spectrum of styles and ideas.
But don’t take my word for it. My opinion is not, by any means, the only one worth considering. Let’s hear what you have to say about this subject.