Arguing with Idiots: The Dangers in Defending Science Fiction to a 'Mainstream' Audience
Unfortunately, Darwin kept reworking On the Origin of Species not so much to improve his theories as to respond to his critics, who were numerous and vociferous. In particular, these men were enamored of the nineteenth-century concept of "types" in nature; Darwin;s theory was inadequate, they said, because it did not incorporate this vital idea. Accordingly, Darwin increasingly recast his argument in terms of "types"; as result, modern readers find the later editions cluttered with irrelevant and antiquated notions and turn instead to the vigor and clarity of the original version.
The moral of the story is that it is very dangerous to argue with idiots. Not only are you unlikely to persuade them, but you are likely to lose sight of what was valuable and significant in your first argument.
Today, many advocates of science fiction are engaged in a continuing argument over the value of their genre with representatives of what can be termed the literary "mainstream"—academic critics, publishers, book reviewers, and the like. What disturbs me about these efforts is not that they are largely futile, though I believe they are, but that they will lead sincere and intelligent critics of science fiction to introduce unhealthy distortions into their treatments of the genre.
Before expostulating about the dangers I see, let me first briefly present my own view of science fiction, which is strongly influenced by the writings and works of Hugo Gernsback, the man who promulgated both the term and the idea of science fiction in the early twentieth century. To Gernsback, science fiction was a genre with a characteristic form—a narrative of romance or adventure interwoven with detailed descriptions of scientific principles and imagined ideas; a genre with characteristic purposes—to entertain all readers, explain science to the uneducated, and stimulate the thinking of scientists; a genre with a characteristic inspiration—the desire of authors to establish themselves as scientific experts and assert their control over the world their understanding of science as presented in their stories; and a genre that emerged from a characteristic context—the early twentieth century, when both the fruits of scientific knowledge and scientific ignorance were widespread, when a need arose for a literary medium to proselytize for science to the unbelievers and to unite and reaffirm the faith of scientific believers. Despite its many inadequacies, Gernsback's theory strikes me as the best approach to detecting and appreciating the true nature of science fiction: the modern tradition which was launched by the pulp magazines and supported by legions of fans and readers.
That this body of literature is significant, fascinating, and worthy of scholarly attention I see as self-evident; anyone who does not recognize this is, in my opinion, an idiot, and I have no desire to argue with idiots. Well-intentioned scholars who attempt to justify science fiction to an audience of non-readers are invariably forced, in order to speak in a language their hearers can understand, to take two dangerous approaches: first, to place science fiction in a broad literary context; and second, to censor out of the discussion the vast majority of science fiction works.
In regards to the first issue, of course it is true that science fiction did not appear out of nowhere in the early twentieth century; of course it emerged from a wide and growing awareness of scientific knowledge and its impact which had its roots in the Renaissance and can be increasingly detected in a wide variety of works; of course it can be compared and related to authors and writings far beyond the scope of its tradition. I do not dispute the basic truths in these approaches; what angers me is what others will make of them. For one thing, the very structure of these discussions implies some sense of equivalence: modern science fiction is one of many interesting reactions to the appearance of science, all of which are presumably worthy of equal attention. What is minimized in these presentations is the fact that all these other reactions to science appeared in the scattered works of authors from many traditions which never coalesced into a single, powerful movement; modern science fiction, beginning from the humblest origins imaginable, quickly grew into a recognizable and popular literary genre which came to dominate all discussions of the issue of science and literature. To explain this phenomenon, one must focus on what makes science fiction so different from these other responses; obsessive quests for links with other forms of literature then become little more than a distraction.
In addition, I question whether examinations of the broader contexts from which science fiction emerged lead to any genuine insights into the genre. I offer the radical proposition that the best way to study something is to study it; if you are doing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, then you had best focus your attention on Abraham Lincoln, instead of what his parents and grandparents did or the socio-cultural environment of the nineteenth-century American frontier. The roots of science fiction do not fully explain science fiction; if an ignorant scholar reads that science fiction is a reaction to the rapidity of industrialization and a loss of religious certitude related to what one sees in the works of Dickens and Balzac, he may respond, "Oh, I see—science fiction is like Dickens and Balzac" and miss the point entirely. Science fiction is not like Dickens and Balzac; to understand science fiction, we need to look at genuine works of science fiction instead of poking around in the literature of earlier centuries in search of works which have some vague relationship to science fiction. It is nonsense to ignore vital and fascinating writers like Murray Leinster, E. E. Smith, and A. E. van Vogt while squealing with delight to discover that someone of the "stature" of Bulwer-Lytton once produced a clumsy and inferior scientific dystopia called The Coming Race, a work that was justly ignored until someone had the notion that it represented a lost classic of "science fiction."
If this excessive concern for the "context" of science fiction instead of science fiction itself is disturbing, even more disturbing is the tendency for science fiction critics to edit and censor the genre in order to make it more presentable to the literary mainstream. I will immediately concede one point: the vast majority of works produced as science fiction fall far short of currently accepted notions of literary quality. I concede the point because I regard it as irrelevant. Like all ideas, concepts of what constitutes true literary value emerge from a particular historical context and are inevitably subject to change. In drama, for example, there used to be a great deal of concern about adhering to Aristotle's "unities" of time, place, and action, until people realized that these standards were largely unimportant to the production of effective plays; and in the late nineteenth century, prescriptions for the "well-made play" were rigorously imposed, until people realized that there were exciting possibilities in plays that were not well-made. If literature is to be judged solely by the polish of each individual line, careful attention to structure, and depth of literary and philosophical references, then most science fiction is not very good. Yet such standards must be understood as modern-day concerns, not timeless concerns. If other standards are accepted—and they eventually will be accepted—then a writer like Robert A. Heinlein might well emerge as a more important author than Ernest Hemingway, even if he is admittedly inferior to Hemingway according to the normal standards. To focus exclusively on science fiction works of "literary" merit and exclude "inferior" authors is short-sighted and deeply inimical to a true understanding of the genre.
Let me offer a personal example. I have been working for some time now on an exhaustive survey of science fiction stories concerning space stations, and, without giving it a second thought, I included a few relevant comic-book stories that I happened to be familiar with and mentioned them in the article I submitted for publication. When it was revised for printing, the editor assured me that no references to individual "works" would be omitted; yet on reading the proofs, I discovered that all mentions of comic books had been deleted. When I pointed this out, the editor responded that I had not referred to particular comic-book stories; and this was true, simply because given the continuous nature of comic-book series focusing on individual characters, any particularly adventure is apt to be related not once but several times, and I had no desire to clutter up an already overlong essays with lists of story titles. I felt I was receiving a broader message: comic-book stories are not science fiction—at least, they are not science fiction that is fit to be discussed in a scholarly context. Since I happen to know that this particular editor is not unsympathetic to the study of comic books as science fiction, his decision to remove my references to them had to reflect a desire to dignify the genre in the eyes of outsiders by carefully ignoring its "subliterature." Yet comic books are a uniquely exciting and energetic branch of science fiction; stories have been written by such authors as Edmund Hamilton, C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, and Harlan Ellison; and their stories often contain important ideas and themes. For example, the first science fiction story to correctly predict that the first moon landing would be televised was "The Last Television Broadcast on Earth," which appeared in a 1955 issue of the Mystery in Space comic book. Clearly, it is unwise to exclude science fiction comic books from consideration in order to accommodate someone else's sense of literary snobbishness.
If the example of comic books is too extreme for some, I need only point out the shameful neglect of writers like those mentioned above—Leinster, Smith, and van Vogt—and scores of others whose crude but lively works are significant and interesting parts of the tradition of science fiction. To wrench a few carefully chosen "literary" authors like Bradbury, Sturgeon, and LeGuin out of their true context to associate them with Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell is not conducive to achieving a true understanding of the nature of science fiction.
If all this sounds like a call to put science fiction "back in the gutter where it belongs," that is far from what I am advocating; I feel science fiction definitely deserves to be incorporated into scholarly examinations of literature—indeed, it is vitally in need of sophisticated and thoughtful analysis. It is a question of the terms upon which science fiction is to be admitted into the groves of academe. If we are willing to remove from discussion 98% of all works of science fiction and build a course around a handful of "superior" works amidst a number of recognized "classics" from other literary traditions, then it will be possible to secure a toehold in university departments of literature, as many have done. But we will be in danger of selling our souls —of sacrificing the true essence of science fiction to jury-rig the genre into antiquated notions of literary quality. In essence, we will be making the same mistake as Darwin: distorting the clarity and vigor of our position in order to persuade idiots. I believe that we should be willing to hold out until the academic community is willing to accept science fiction as it is—warts and all—and examine the genre in a comprehensive and insightful manner.
I might also point out, in passing, how demeaning and pointless the whole process of arguing with the academic community can be. I have observed science fiction critics eagerly solicit essays from distinguished "mainstream" critics; I have listened to boring and ridiculous papers in which such people helplessly attempt to say something significant about a subject they really know nothing about and end up offering only valueless and stereotypical analyses based on the few works they happen to be familiar with; I have watched one of these critics pick up a copy of Science-Fiction Studies and sneer at it. All of this activity is justified on the grounds of "building bridges" to the scholarly mainstream; but, to extend the analogy, it is extremely difficult to build a bridge from one side of the river. I look in vain for any evidence that these efforts have led to any increase in academic appreciation for science fiction; if anything, there seems to be less and less of it. At the 1986 MLA conference, there was exactly one panel of three papers devoted to science fiction; at the 1987 conference, there was exactly one paper about science fiction, which focusses exclusively on nineteenth century British "science fiction." As far as I can tell, these mainstream critics are coming to science fiction, taking the money, and running; why we are lavishing attention on such people instead of encouraging true critics of science fiction is beyond me.
Having begun with an analogy to biology, let me conclude with an analogy to film studies. In A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson observes,
The teacher of film to Americans, for instance—and nowhere is the lust for worth more pronounced —should be wary of choosing American cinema for his material. If he does, then be sure that the directors are such as Orson Welles, John Ford, Hitchcock, John Huston or William Wyler. If he wants to risk an academic dean reappraising his programme, or students doubting their own loyalty, begin with the roots of cinema—melodrama —and base a course on Griffith, Lon Chaney, John Stahl, Val Lewton, Frank Borzage, and Douglas Sirk (498).It is precisely by sacrificing "the roots of cinema" that film studies have won a place in the American university, and I fear that the same thing will happen to science fiction. I am determined to resist such developments; I will continue to devote myself to the study of true science fiction, confident that my abilities in other fields will enable me to retain a position in the academic community until that time when my sense of priorities is vindicated—as it inevitably will be.
In the meantime, life is too short to waste time arguing with idiots.
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