Flight of the Vajra: Sign O' The Times Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-02-20 17:33:41 No comments

A discussion of how SF "reflects the period", with some interesting notes about how it seems more to contrast the popular or highbrow literature of the period.

Reflecting the Times? : Uncertain Principles

The problem for the reflecting-the-times thesis is that the really optimistic tales of yesteryear were being written in the 1930's. And if you think the world looks depressing now, think about what it looked like in 1930.

The piece goes on to note:

SF has been struggling to become a Serious Genre, one that respectable literary types can engage with. And if you're going to be respectably literary, you need to put a greater emphasis on darker topics than on technological cheerleading. Which is why modern SF is so depressing, relatively speaking.

I think that also says more about the way literature is approved of or rejected by the reigning tastemakers and cultural guardians of the day.

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Last night I gave B.R. Meyers's A Readers's Manifesto a re-read — a full review is on the way at some point — and he makes something of the same points. The reason so much "serious" fiction today is so overwritten, underplotted and flat-out uninteresting is because this is the kind of fiction that the critics — and authors — of the day have persuaded themselves is really worth writing and reading. Dale Peck made much the same point in Hatchet Jobs, where he saw a whole procession of naked emperors. When you're surrounded by people you take for granted as smarter or at least have better taste than you, you find excuses for liking what they like, and you question yourself for thinking otherwise.

A paraphrase of Tolstoy comes to mind. Good writing is all alike; bad writing is all bad in its own way. Most of the stuff that has been waved under my nose in the past ten years as Serious Fiction has been such joyless, convoluted junk that I can't kid myself into wanting to read it. And most of what passes for SF or fantasy lately has been as bad in its own proprietary fashion, either because it can't get out of the shadow of its predecessors (Tolkien) or because it's stuck in some easy rut (rewriting public domain classics with zombies and robots). The latter suffers from a lack of real vision and spontaneity; the former, a lack of ... well, the same things in different forms.

Put it this way: I don't want SF and fantasy to be given Seals of Approval by the same people who think Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace are the best that literature has given us in the past however many years. SF and fantasy do not need such approbation, and frankly I think any such thing would be bad for them. And I don't want literary fiction (or what calls itself that) to take on SF's trappings in a bid to be more hip and with-it. The two could teach each other a lot if you could ever get the two of them to do more than just ape each other's plot skeletons or subject matter.

A "literary" novel about zombies is not literary because its language is that much more Booker Prize-worthy, nor is it SF merely because zombies infest it. I want SF and literary fiction to learn something real from each other, not just share wardrobe and makeup hints.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra science science fiction writing