Monday, December 24, 2012

And the Best Science Fiction Novel of the Twentieth Century Is . . .

Frank Herbert's Dune, according to a poll taken by Locus Magazine, the results of which were published Saturday, part of a larger "All-Centuries" survey of the best in both science fiction and fantasy (the short version of which you can get here).

While I recently talked about the novels that most influenced me as a reader of science fiction, I am not sure which I would single out as "the best," which I find a particularly tricky kind of classification. "Best" is not the same as "greatest," which suggests genre-defining innovation, nor "favorite," which is a matter of personal taste. Rather "best" is a judgment of quality, and the standard here is hardly self-evident, given that more than one might plausibly apply. Do we pick those works of science fiction according to their conformity with the standards applied to fiction of all sorts (characterization, prose, etc.), or rather their accomplishment as science fiction specifically - their excellence in their use of speculative science?

Of course, those voting in polls rarely make such nice distinctions, and I suspect this one is no exception. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game made the #2 position, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy #3, and so forth. Still, the selections themselves interest me less than the reactions to them. Reactions from the identity politics-minded apart, the not inconsiderable disgruntlement of some observers of the field has revolved around that tilt toward the sorts of books (Herbert, Card, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Adams, etc.) general science fiction readers are much more prone to treasure than are genre highbrows - books which are straightforward rather than experimental in form, books which are read for their exciting stories and intriguing concepts rather than their prose style, their linguistic gymnastics, their narrative technique and the like.1

This dialogue makes perfectly clear the gap between the highbrows and the rest of the readership, a divide much less often explored or even noted than that between science fiction fans and mundanes. Perhaps the latter is the more significant, but the former should not be underrated in its importance for the genre, which, in its importation of the standards of mainstream literature, has not only recreated the elite-popular divide of contemporary culture within its boundaries, but also had some inimical effects on the genre's vitality.

Consider Steven Connor's argument about the relationship of science fiction to the mainstream. Where the T.S. Eliots and James Joyces and Virginia Woolfs wrote of conventional things in unconventional ways (an upper-class woman throws a party for her friends - with the tale written in a stream-of-consciousness mode), science fiction offered an "alternative Modernism" which approached unconventional things in conventional ways (battles on faraway planets, rendered in straightforward prose). Science fiction, it might be said, offered not just a greater receptivity to divergence from the quotidian, but a higher premium on the exploration of ideas (especially those ideas regarding the material world given such short shrift by Modernists and postmodernists alike). The conventionality of form characteristic of science fiction through its early history facilitated that experimentalism with content.

Over time, however, the gravitation of science fiction toward the mainstream, and with it, to literary Modernism and postmodernism, has resulted in genre authors writing about unconventional things in unconventional ways. This made much of its output from the New Wave on decreasingly accessible, and the genre itself a smaller world, more isolated from the culture at large, a large part of its readership alienated from its more recent output. (It is telling that no science fiction work from after the '80s made the twentieth century's top fifteen on the Locus list, even Snow Crash only making #19, and, as Jonathan McCalmont noted, also that far fewer readers voted in the poll regarding the twenty-first century's best science fiction novel.) Along with the postmodernist influence of those mainstream standards to which genre highbrows are necessarily devoted, this seems to have reduced that propensity to actually engage with ideas that was one of its principal reasons for being. If that finally does go, I wonder, what is science fiction left with?

1. In fairness there appears to be some reflection of the sensibilities of "elite" readers. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness made the #5 position, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four #7, and William Gibson's thoroughly postmodern Neuromancer #8. Still, one might argue that these are all rather "obvious" selections, and that they might have been picked for "popular" reasons - Orwell's book, for instance, esteemed for its (often misunderstood) political message. At any rate, they are the exception rather than the norm with the list.

Paul Kincaid's September 2012 Review: A Round-Up
My Posts on Genre Fiction and Literature
And The Worst Movie of All Time Is . . .
My Five Most Important Science Fiction Novels
My Posts on Literature
My Posts on Postmodernism

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