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Imprints Literary Supplement

Gold Futures

Taking Sci-Fi Seriously

Michelle Gienow
Jeff Young, in Starship Troopers gear at August's World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore, is one of the fans who keep sci-fi writers in business, but some scribes feel ghettoized by their genre's spacey image.

Imprints Literary Supplement 1998

Hot Links Inside the Brave New World of Hypertext Fiction | By Michelle Albert

Gold Futures Taking Sci-Fi Seriously | By Scott Carlson

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Book Talk Readers Are Having Their Say Thanks to New and Creative Literary Gatherings | By Eileen Murphy

By Scott Carlson | Posted 10/14/1998

Ask literature and creative-writing instructor John Flynn to name some of his favorite classic books. You'll hear a few of the usual suspects: Finnegans Wake, The Great Gatsby. You'll also hear some lesser-known titles--A Canticle for Leibowitz, Last and First Men, The Demolished Man, Childhood's End. And the authors? Sure, Arthur C. Clarke sounds familiar, but Olaf Stapledon? Alfred Bester? Walter M. Miller Jr.?

Clearly, Flynn's love of literature extends outside the Modern Library. His writing class at Towson University focuses on science fiction, and he draws his reading lists from that genre's often derided or just plain ignored writers. Despite sci-fi's pop-culture ubiquity and occasional blips of respectability among the literati, the genre has never quite shaken its blue-collar roots and pulpy origins. Mainstream-media attention tends to focus on the guy in the rubber Spock ears and the stereotypical fan's harrowing fashion sense. Much of the audience, generation after generation, is in its teens. Even the most philosophical science fiction is first and foremost escapist, and the stuff that isn't highbrow can be very lowbrow. The genre is home to many of the literary world's biggest bores, schlockmeisters, panderers, and con artists--which can make it all the tougher, while standing before your local bookstore's science-fiction wall, to discern the work of some of the least-known great authors of the 20th century.

Welcome to John Flynn's world. He's been devouring science fiction since before he was a teenager. Like most science-fiction fans, Flynn knows that most folks see his favorite subject, his hobby, his social circle, and his writing as "kids' stuff." Outsiders point to--and often sneer at--stories with spaceships, rayguns, and campy trappings. Flynn's more interested in "speculative fiction," known among fans as SF--it's science fiction's more serious face. SF includes genre classics such as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, James Blish's A Case of Conscience, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. But Flynn argues that the SF tag also belongs on many works considered to be part of the canon, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

"I see the prejudice [in academia] in terms of what is real literature and what is trash literature," Flynn says. "It took me many years to get my science-fiction course going, simply because they saw what I was offering as less than real literature--something that was less than what you would expect of a university.

"I tell all my students who take my science-fiction writing course, 'Before you come into this class, you have to be good writers first, and then you can start writing science fiction.' There's this preconceived notion that if you can't write, maybe you can write sci-fi. And so when you go into Borders, clearly H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and all of these greats belong in 'literature,' but I would argue that [science-fiction] greats like Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury belong there as well."

Flynn started his course to "pay forward" the kind of support he got from SF greats Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm when he was writing in college. Flynn tries to steer his students away from sci-fi clichés and the ubiquitous "novelizations" of movies and television programs such as Star Trek, Highlander, and Xena, Warrior Princess. In the three semesters the course has been offered, five students have published stories. For those who haven't gotten that far, Flynn has created an online anthology for students' work, Nexus (www.towson. edu/~flynn/Welcome. html).

Flynn's students are chasing SF legends like Joe Haldeman, who got his start writing science fiction in a college creative-writing class in 1967. Drafted later that year, he went to Vietnam as a combat engineer. After leaving the Army in 1970, he began work on the novellas that would become The Forever War, his allegorical SF treatment of the Vietnam conflict. The Forever War centered on a group of free-loving futuristic soldiers sent to a distant galaxy to fight an unknown and unseen enemy. When they return home hundreds of years later (thanks to relativity, several Earth years are just a day to them), they can't reconnect with their changed world.

Haldeman is a good example of what SF is and isn't about. It's not so much about questions such as, "What gadgets would we need to live on Mars?," although SF does address such issues. For writers such as Haldeman, SF is more about addressing human issues--in The Forever War, for example, the effects of sex and violence on the psyche. Most SF classics address weighty topics: Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) had ecological themes; Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) examined sexuality and gender in its treatment of a race of hermaphrodites; Thomas M. Disch's 334 (1972) looked at the not-so-distant future of urban life--crowded, grimy, and hopeless.

When it comes to technological advances, Haldeman says, "we're not good at predicting the future. I don't think that's what our job is. We're basically here to explain the present." For The Forever War, he says, "I sort of put a new spin on The Red Badge of Courage and set it in outer space."

The Forever War won the Hugo and Nebula awards, science fiction's literary crowns. In his recent SF analysis The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Disch contends that The Forever War "deserved a Pulitzer, for it is to the Vietnam War what Catch-22 was to World War II, the definitive, bleakly comic satire."

Yet Haldeman remains virtually unknown outside SF circles. "All of the people who set the standards for literature generally think of science fiction as a harmless type of entertainment," he says. "And once it becomes serious enough to be regarded as academically accessible--like [Kurt Vonnegut's] Slaughterhouse-Five or anything that's remotely feminist or politically acceptable--they're not science-fiction writers anymore. They're feminist writers or homosexual writers or Hispanic writers who happen to use the tropes of science fiction. If they're smart, they'll take advantage of that, 'cause their advances will go up, they'll stay in print. Whereas if they stay as science-fiction writers they'll suffer the slings and arrows that the rest of us put up with."

Still, science fiction has treated Haldeman well. He says he hasn't had to worry about money since he started writing. Although many SF writers struggle to get published and earn a living through their writing, Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden agrees Haldeman's security isn't unusual. What's known as "category SF" might be smaller and less respected than mainstream literature, but the genre has a dedicated core of readers.

"On the one hand, being sold as category SF offers a level of reliability that just isn't there for an ambitious but otherwise unknown mainstream writer," Nielsen Hayden says. "On the other, if you're published in fantasy and science fiction, it's unlikely that you're ever going to get the top levels of literary respect--you're unlikely to be short-listed for a Pulitzer."

Of course, the respectability of category SF's ingenuity and foresight doesn't mean the larger genre doesn't encompass its share of dreck: adolescent books with busty female warriors on the cover; clunky, preachy novels about nuclear holocausts; and, in the corresponding fantasy genre, "yet another unreadable trilogy about elves," as SF writer and academic Samuel R. Delany recently put it.

The junk food includes the multimedia tie-ins, upon which the science-fiction industry is growing more reliant. While pop sci-fi is more popular than ever--just look at the budgets and revenues of Independence Day and anything in the Star Trek universe--serious science-fiction book sales are stagnant. Publishers are increasingly turning to serial novelizations of movies, comic books, and television shows. About half of science fiction's 1,000 titles last year were serial- or media-related.

Flynn, Haldeman, and many SF fans worry that the glut of tie-ins will clutter the science-fiction shelves or dumb down the audience, which would edge out more original work. Others argue that the tie-ins bring in money, support new writers (who often write tie-ins for a large advance and low return), and support the costs of publishing original work. It was the topic of a heated panel discussion at the World Science Fiction Convention held in Baltimore last August, and the controversy came up in many other panels.

Still, Nielsen Hayden says, even in its golden age science fiction always had an eye on the bottom line and a fan base for the bottom of the field. "The people who were buying excellent science fiction by Theodore Sturgeon and Robert A. Heinlein were also buying Captain Future [pulp] magazines and comic books," he says. What's encouraging is that science fiction's style and language is increasingly appropriated by mainstream literary lions such as Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, and David Foster Wallace. That doesn't necessarily mean science fiction is finally going to get the respect the fans might think it deserves, Nielsen Hayden notes. "That simply means that a popular, intelligent audience for serious fiction will have the furniture and tropes of science fiction kicking around in their heads, and you can use them to tell stories," he says.

And that means science fiction is creating a future for itself outside of its ghetto. "When I was reading it back in the '60s, I was the odd man out," Flynn says. "Now it's the cool thing to do. It has permeated the culture in so many ways.

"I think the reason why it has conquered is because it is the literature of ideas, and it's ideas that shape our tomorrows. Science fiction has always been about looking forward. The world has caught up to science fiction, not the other way around."

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