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10 July 2005 — The Problem With Science Fiction

Over at AskMetafilter, TiredStarling says:

SciFiLit: I don't get it. Help me. I read Stranger in a Strange Land about 30 years ago and was almost enjoying it until the second half came along with — it seemed to this callow youth — a heavy-handed Saviour/Redeemer allegory. Stanislav Lem's Return from the Stars was kinda fun in small doses. Brave New World and 1984 were good but obviously of their time. Vonnegut had his moments. The Stainless Steel Rat was just plain nuts. A few months back I tried once again to get into the genre with Red Mars. I struggled through 100 pages, but while it was interesting in a "gee whizz - a synthetic bubble to keep the atmosphere in!" kind of way, I found I just did not care about the people. The characterizations were ludicrously one-dimensional; I'll take Fleming's James Bond any day if I want one-dimensional characters. What SciFi books have the all-important trinity of rollicking story, fascinating technical detail, and characters I want to cry over?

In twenty-four hours, this question received seventy responses, but none that really answered the question. Why not?

Maybe there aren't any science fiction books that meet TiredStarling's requirements. There are science fiction books with great stories; there are science fiction books filled with fascinating details; there are science fiction books featuring great characters (generally "social scifi"); there are even many books that combine two of the three elements; but all three at once? A holy grail, indeed.

Grumblebee observed:

If you aren't a SF fan, but love good literature in general, you generally won't get very far asking the average SF fan to recommend books for you.

SF fans have different criteria for what makes a good book than general readers. As they should. They are SF fans. So their starting point is that the book must be SF. They love SF so much that, though many of them don't like bad writing, they will forgive bad writing if they have to — if bad writing is the only sort of SF writing they can find. The bottom line is, good or bad, they want to read SF.

And many SF fans pretty much only read SF, so they can't really compare it to anything else. They can only tell you what's good from within that world.

I've had similar problems when asking people to recommend graphic novels. When I say that I want to read a good graphic novel, I mean good when compared to a story by John Cheever or a movie by Martin Scorsese. I don't mean good as compared to Spiderman. I don't mean that I expect a comic book to be like a movie or a novel. I mean that regardless of the genre, I expect the same level of workmanship and quality. And I'm continually disappointed.

I can't seem to find the Jane Austen of SF. When I ask SF fans to recommend good novels, they generally take "good" to mean better than the crap with the bug-eyed monsters and the ray guns. But that's not good enough. Where is the SF equivalent to Shakespeare?

I have a need for SF, because I like other worlds, but I need it to be GREAT. I need really really good writing (style), I need expert plots, I need realistic dialogue, I need characters that I fall in love with. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the people who are best at this sort of writing aren't writing SF.

I, too, have friends who love science fiction and fantasy to such an extent that they rarely read anything else. I know this shouldn't bother me, but it does. Having tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, I can see their nakedness, and I am ashamed. Still, it does no good to proselytize; that only turns them from the Truth.

Where are the literate science fiction authors? Where are the great works? To compare Isaac Asimov with Charles Dickens is laughable. Can anyone measure up? I think there are a few science fiction and fantasy authors (and novels) that will stand the test of time, including:

  • Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings — the most literate work of the fantastic I know, and a classic in any genre.
  • The major works of Ursula LeGuin: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
  • Frank Herbert's Dune.
  • The original novel Planet of the Apes, an underrated work.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a fantastic work of magical realism. Most people would consider it straight literature rather than fantasy, though.
  • Believe it or not, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, published last year, may stand the test of time. It's not without flaws, but it's certainly literate.
Parts of Dan Simmons' Hyperion and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas are great — both books comprise shorter stories bound by a narrative whole. Some of these individual stories meet my requirements for good literature.

Whereas I find even the best science fiction novels struggle to hold its own with mainstream literature, short science fiction can be extremely powerful. Something about the short story form forces scifi authors to stay on task, forgo the extraneous stuff, build tight character-driven stories. (Obviously this isn't always the case, but it's easier to find great scifi short stories than great scifi novels.)

Anthologies of Nebula- and Hugo-award winning stories offer an excellent introduction to the genre, as do anthologies from well-respected editors. For some reason, I'm drawn to a series put out by Daw Books in the seventies called The 197_ Annual World's Best SF. My favorite volume (1979) has stories like "Come to the Party" by Frank Herbert and F.M. Busby, "Creator" by David Lake, the marvelous "The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley, and the even-more-marvelous "We Who Stole the Dream" by James Tiptree, Jr. The latter is beautiful, one of the best scifi stories I've ever read.

It is my opinion that the best authors in any genre are those who have read widely themselves and who have a thorough education. These people produce the most engaging, most deeply resonant fiction. They're able to incorporate their knowledge and experience into what they write, both directly (via allusions large and small, for example) and indirectly (via mimicked writing styles, for example). There just don't seem to be many science fiction authors who are well-read.

Perhaps I'm wrong. I don't know. I only wish there were more literate science fiction for me to enjoy.

Comments
On 11 July 2005 (09:16 AM), Dave said:

The original post that you cite laments the writers opinion that very few SF books have characters in them to which the writer can connect. That's a personal taste thing and if he doesn't connect with those books, then he's not going to connect with them. Read something else. On the other hand, he's covered a fairly wide set of styles (from Harry Harrison, who I consider to be very easy and light stylistically, to Lem, which is very different). It's possible that SF just isn't the genre for him; that the situations are just so improbable that he can't suspend his disbelief and connect to the book.

You take that a different direction and ask about why SF doesn't seem to be literature, or why it doesn't seem more "literary".

First, I think you're comparing apples and oranges in the Asimov to Dickens comparison. Can you compare the Illiad to Iron Maiden's version of "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner"? Of course you can. Can you do it favorably? Not to Iron Maiden's version. The two things, while both are written, both are in verse, and both are (eventually translated into) English, they're as dissimilar as two dissimilar things in a pod. Style-wise they're different, and most importantly, audience-wise they're different. They're written for different audiences at completely different times with different concerns and different standards.

Second, I disagree that Dickens, while definitely considered "literature", is terribly engaging for the majority of the population (dumb Americans, English, Canadians, Brazilians or whatever). Like Proust. Sure, it's "literature", but have as many people read Jean Santeuil as have read "I, Robot"?

Which leads me to my third point. Our definition of what consitutes "literature" seems to be antithetical to what we would consider to be entertaining. Most people who write SF probably do so to sell books and make money. Did Dickens write for filthy lucre, or did he write to make a point about the living conditions of the poor? I know which one my English teacher told me about. How about Asimov? Did he write to illustrate the plight of the poverty stricken robot? No, and although he may have been trying to make a point along the way, my best guess is that he wanted to make some bucks.

But lets take another example, Edgar Allen Poe. Poe wrote for money. Poe is considered by some to be at the beginning of the modern age of speculative fiction. His works are considered classics. Do I "connect" with the main character of "The Fall of the House of Usher" or believe that he's anything more than one-dimensional? Of course not. But it's considered "literature".

How about something like the original Sherlock Holmes books? Classics? Probably. Literature? Maybe, maybe not. They're common. Written for the comman man (and woman). They're meant to be popular and meant to be sold. Do I connect with the characters? Sometimes, although at this point with the mythology that's grown up around the Holmes stories it's sometimes hard to tell. Are there SF books that are written at least as well? Absolutely. I'd say that Harry Harrison and Roger Zelazny's books are both very similar to Doyle's books in that they're both written for a common audience and meant to be popular. Are Harrison and Zelazny's books considered literature? Not right now, but maybe in 50 years they might be.

As for me, do I pretend that SF is incredibly deep? Hardly. For me, a SF book is no different than any other popularly published work of fiction except that it's got a speculative/science wanna-be setting. Do I read things other than SF/Fantasy? Of course, but not as often and then it's mostly non-fiction of some type. It's like watching lawyer shows on TV. I don't do it. I get enough of lawyers at work, so I can skip the Grisham novels. I get enough of nutty people at work, so I can skip most of the books on the "Oprah list". I get enough poverty at work. So I can skip Dickens.

I get enough of real life during my real life. I don't need to read about it, too.


On 11 July 2005 (01:41 PM), J.D. said:

Grumblebee has expanded his thoughts into a weblog entry, too. I'll post a proper response to Dave later today.


On 11 July 2005 (02:10 PM), grumblebee said:

Thanks for linking to me J.D.

I wanted to respond to Dave. Truthfully, these discussions are so subjective, it's hard to say too much and be taken seriously. I can say novel X is bad; you can say it's good. Where do we go from there? Nowhere. We can trot our our reasons, but untimately, by my reconning, a novel is good if you enjoy it. Since we all enjoy different novels, "good" is a relative/fuzzy word.

Having said that, I think SF is a somewhat special case. There are other genre novels -- non SF novels -- that don't have the same problems. For instance, historical novels and mysteries. Of course there are plenty of bad ones, but the really good mystery writers are as-good-as the really good "literary" writers.

John Updike and P.D. James can rest much more easily on the same shelf than can John Updike and Robert Heinline. MANY people consider Patrick O'Brian, who writes sea adventures, to be both a great genre writer and just a plain old great writer.

I think if a genre writer is really great, he becomes beloved by both the genre fans and the general readers. This may be the best acid test we have. For instance, my wife doesn't like fantasy, but she enjoyed reading "Lord of the Rings." This says something about Tolkien. (I don't think Tolkien is a genius, but I think his writing is better than the norm.)

So there are many mysteries that I know I could share with non-mystery fans. And I know these non-mystery fans would enjoy them. They are good books first and good mysteries second. But I know of very few SF or fantasy novels like this.

Why? Well, most of the SF writers simply aren't good prose stylists. This must be because the publishers realize that SF fans, in general, don't care about style. So they don't look for authors who really know how to use language in an evocative way. Same goes for characterization.

This is sad, because a good writer COULD write an SF story that would satisfy both the SF fans and the general reader. I'm sure the SF fans wouldn't be turned OFF by good writing. They are just willing to tolerate bad writing in order to get their robot fix.

And with some notable exceptions, the really fine stylists -- and the really crackerjack observers of the human comedy -- are not interested in writing SF (though many do try their hands at mystery and history). They probably shy away from SF because THEY have read some and disliked it. They just assume SF is bad.

I've heard so many people say that they HATE Science Fiction. But when you ask them why, they can't really articualte their reasons. At best, they say that they're interested in people, not space ships and robots. But SF is full of people. And the robots are generally people-like. So that can't be the reason. And it's not because SF is about alien worlds. These same SF-haters love reading novels set in 18th-Century Venice, which is just as alien as anything in Tolkien.

They must hate SF because they've never read well-written SF. They assume the problem is with the genre. It isn't. The problem is with the writers/publishers.


On 11 July 2005 (06:06 PM), Dave said:

Well, crappy writing is just crappy writing. You can't get around that no matter what genre you're reading. The difference, however, is that with historical fiction, mystery fiction or modern fiction a context already exists for what the author is creating. That pre-existing set of assumptions and descriptions that we already carry around because of our every day experiences let many authors (including the good ones) off the hook on some things. For example, we all know what a car is, or a horse drawn carriage. If I'm writing a story and I say the main character drove a 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, many in the audience don't need that described to them, they already know what it looks like. On the other hand, saying that it was a 2065 Nipponwerks hover bike, what the hell does that look like?

The point is that trying to describe something totally foreign will be much harder than something we're already familiar with. As a result, the completely foreign description is going point out weaknesses in the author's style. It's just a harder job to do. Add into that mix that SF writers are sometimes dealing with new concepts as well and the job gets that much harder.

That said, I'm not arguing that most of the SF that's produced nowadays isn't produced by hacks. from a formula. It probably is. And good writers are good writers, period. If you're not a good writer, having a formula isn't going to help you much.

If your question is truly "Where is the Jane Austin or Shakespeare of SF?", then I'd suggest Heinlein, Clark, or Asimov. Perhaps that's not your cup of tea, but if you asked most people to read Shakespeare without telling them what it was and then asked whether it was "good writing", they'd probably say "no", but for the fact that we've been taught and told that Shakespeare is good writing. Do most people "connect" with Shakespeare? No- he's hard to read, obtuse, and filled with references that most people don't (and won't) get.

If you're looking for something more modern, I'd try David Weber's books. They're generally decently written with plenty of depth, good character development and they're examples of good stories that happen to be set in "science fiction" settings. I'm not saying that he's the best around, but just that they're enjoyable to read and if you want to look for a deeper meaning, there's enough of that to keep you busy as well.


On 12 July 2005 (10:37 AM), J.D. said:

This started as a direct point-by-point response to Dave's comments, but eventually morphed into something more freeform.

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"And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good. Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" — Plato

Dave, have you ever read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? (The link leads to a free on-line text of the "novel".) It's a prolonged philosophical discussion of the metaphysics of Quality.

Quality — you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others — but what's the "betterness"? — So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?
A lot of science fiction exists in an insular world, with no contact with reality. You say you don't want any more real life because you deal with real life all the time. I put it to you that books (and other forms of art) have the ability, through their Quality, to transform the way you interact with the real world, change your point of view, enrich your experience. If a book isn't doing that, it's wasting your time. (Sometimes it's okay to waste your time. Entertainment is fine if you truly just want to take a break, but entertainment is nothing more than treading water in life. Entertainment does not help you grow.)

Dave, you admit that "crappy writing is crappy writing" no matter the genre. This is true. However, you seem willing to grant a pass to science fiction authors because they have to create the fabric of their own worlds while writers in other genres, according to you, are able to construct their fiction around an existing framework. I think this argument lacks merit.

All writers must construct the framework for their fictional universe from whole cloth. It is true that writers are able to borrow elements from reality to serve as props, but even science fiction writers do that. And the source of this framework, and its believability, has little to do with the Quality of the writing. Ursula LeGuin writes beautiful prose, prose that would be considered wonderful no matter in which genre it appeared. LeGuin happens to write science fiction, and I would argue she's one of the few in the genre who have ever produced work of literary merit. (And when I say "literary merit", I mean Quality.)

You suggest that Heinlein, Clarke, or Asimov might be considered the Shakespeare of science fiction. I disagree. Asimov and Heinlein wrote prolificly but poorly. (I haven't read enough Clarke to pass judgment.) Sure, these authors have produced some fine stories, but good writing is more than just an engaging story. Good writing requires believable characters with which the reader can identify. (And contrary to your contention, this is not entirely subjective.) Good writing requires technical proficiency. Good writing requires the ability to draw meaning from complex threads of plot. Asimov certainly doesn't possess these attributes. Nor does Heinlein. It's my contention that few authors of fantasy and science fiction have demonstrated these abilities, probably fewer authors than in most other genres. (Again I'll note that, for whatever reason, nautical fiction is an example of the opposite: these authors seem almost universally to be able to produce Quality writing.)

You're right that evaluating art involves a substantial subjective element. If that's all that evaluating art entailed, there would be no canon of literature. There would be no Great Masters of art. There would be no highly revered composers of classical music. How could there be? If evaluating the fruits of the creative process are purely a subjective matter, then any attempt to ascribe merit to one piece and not another is merely arbitrary. Do you think that the literary canon was constructed arbitrarily?

The truth is, there are objective measures to art, too. There are defined and accepted methods used to construct a piece. (The standard introduction, rising action, climax, denouement, resolution structure of most literature, for example.) There are recognized elements of beauty. (The golden ratio is used in the visual arts, for example.) Certain sculptors display a deft touch, producing masterpieces that take ones breath away. Yet, if art is only subjective, the work of these masters cannot be said to be any better than the feeble stuff I could produce.

What sets the work of great artists apart is Quality.

You also argue that literature is not entertaining, that Shakespeare and Dickens are vestiges of the past. Here is where I most strongly disagree with you. You said:

Most people who write SF probably do so to sell books and make money. Did Dickens write for filthy lucre, or did he write to make a point about the living conditions of the poor?
Dickens wrote for money, and he was damned successful at it. Dickens was immensely popular (from the Wikipedia: "The popularity of his novels and short stories during his lifetime and to the present is demonstrated by the fact that none of his novels has ever gone out of print."), the David Sedaris of his day. Just as Conan Doyle, just as Michael Crichton, Charles Dickens wrote for the common man. People loved his work, and many still do.

In fact, the literature that survives was largely (though not always) written for mass consumption. Even the literature that does well today is written for mass consumption. (The literature that is not written for mass consumption, generally written by English professors and serious writers, mostly does poorly, and will be even more forgotten than Asimov and Heinlein in a hundred years. It may be well-written, but it's dense and inaccessible.)

In our discussion of War of the Worlds, you said:

You don't find the "stereotypical prosaic Victorian language" in Dickens and Thackery because you've been inculcated into the Victorian book lovers cult. Dickens and Thackery are loaded with stereotypical prosaic Victorian language and unreservedly dedicated to putting the reader into a mildly catatonic state in which you are lulled into thinking that there must be some merit to the writing because no one wants to admit that they haven't ever made it all the way through the books without falling asleep. After all, they're "the classics"; everyone says so. Ergo, they must be good.

I don't know to what degree you're being facetious in that statement, which I've heard you make many times over the past year. When you argue this, and proceed with your mocking of Vanity Fair (for example), I just clam up because there's no point in arguing. (Leaving aside the fact that I lack your confidence and skill at debate!) Your parody of Thackeray's style misses the mark (though perhaps you just mean it as a general parody of Victorian prose).

I don't know when you last read Dickens. Or Thackeray. Or Austen. Trust me: those of us who love this writing have not been inculcated, we are not catatonic, we have not been lulled into anything. We do not believe these books are great simply because we think they should be. These books are great. They're Quality. Vanity Fair for example, possesses one of the best narrative voices I've ever encountered, witty and urbane, self-deprecating and insightful. The book is hilarious. Other people must love it, too; it's been made into nine films during the past century, including last year's unsuccessful version. (Why was it unsuccessful? It lacked the Quality of the original.)

These works of classic fiction are entertaining, engaging, and enlightening in a way that science fiction is not. What I'm asking for is science fiction that matches the quality of the classics. It is possible; Tolkien achieved it, LeGuin comes close, and many of the various scifi short stories are equal to their literary counterparts.

Maybe a better way for us to approach the subject is to ask, "Why isn't other speculative fiction as good as Tolkien?" or "Why aren't science fiction novels of the same Quality as science fiction short stories?"

For me, a SF book is no different than any other popularly published work of fiction except that it's got a speculative/science wanna-be setting.

I agree with this in principle, but my argument is that the Quality of science fiction tends to below that of other genres, and especially below that of literary fiction. I approach each new scifi book with the same expectations as I approach any other book. The difference is, science fiction is more likely to disappoint me with lame sentences like: "There were a few other persons taking advantage of the park all wearing light hats, some quite small."

When I read science fiction, I want to experience the same sense of awe and wonder that I experience when reading Willa Cather or Wallace Stegner or Jane Austen, and especially Marcel Proust. (I use Proust as a sort of running joke in this weblog, but really: I love his work. He may be my favorite author. His prose is dense, but it's rich and rewarding, filled with lovely turns of phrase and keen insight into the human condition. Unlike, say, Stranger in a Strange Land.)

I want science fiction of Quality.

(I should note that I'm pleased that two of my favorite books from the past year are works of speculative fiction: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Cloud Atlas are both works of Quality, and at least the former will likely be read even a century from now. The latter may be, as well.)

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I'm sort of burned out on this by now, but I'll make some quick notes regarding grumblebee's comments:

I think if a genre writer is really great, he becomes beloved by both the genre fans and the general readers. This may be the best acid test we have.
I think this is absolutely correct. Again, I'll use Ursula LeGuin as an example. Her The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness both won the two major science fiction writing awards, both are well-loved by science fiction fans, and both are met with enthusiasm by regular folks who read them. They're well-written novels dense with ideas, populated by characters the reader can care about. (I think of Shevek often. The relationship between Genly Ai and Estraven is poignant.)

Grumblebee also writes:

Most of the SF writers simply aren't good prose stylists. This must be because the publishers realize that SF fans, in general, don't care about style. So they don't look for authors who really know how to use language in an evocative way. Same goes for characterization.
Again, I agree with this. I recently had a conversation with a fellow I consider to be a typical science fiction fan: geeky, moderately intelligent, slavishly devoted to the genre. We were discussing various movies and books. Time and again, he raved about how "cool" something looked or how "awesome" a particular villain was. He never once commented about the Quality of writing (or filmmaking), or about the themes and ideas expressed in the various works in question. What was important to him was how neat the gadgets were, the atmosphere the story created, how powerful the heroes and villains were. Because he doesn't care about Quality science fiction, he doesn't get Quality science fiction. And neither do I.

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I'm not sure why I haven't remembered it until now, but the course materials for the study of science fiction is an excellent starting point in the quest for Quality science fiction.


On 12 July 2005 (12:58 PM), Joel said:

I'd add Margaret Atwood to the list of Quality- scifi-genre-cross-over artists. She doesn't write exclusively scifi, but I think her scifi work (The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake) is her most successful work.

I would submit that the big problem with scifi is the subordination of good storytelling to good ideas. The best part of so many scifi novels, especially the old masters like Asimov and Clarke is the central idea that they discover and explore. Their characters, their prose, and their plots serve merely to keep the exploration humping along. If you like the idea enough, you don't care if the writing is execrable.

Then again, a lot (but not all) of good literature is thesis-driven. Which is to say that the characters, prose, and plots serve mainly to explore some Theme. How is this different than scifi's slavishness to the Gee-Whiz Idea? I'm not sure, maybe they're the same and I'm playing a semantic game, but to me they do seem different.


On 12 July 2005 (01:38 PM), Dave said:

Let's deal with the Victorians first. I do think that there's a cult-like following for many of the Victorian authors. In our past conversations you've given the example of those who eat sushi and those who do not. Those who do are constantly trying to convince those who do not that eating sushi is a great thing. "Everyone should try eating sushi, you don't know what you're missing." is the common refrain. There's also a slightly effete snobbery that goes with eating sushi. You're either in the group or your not. It's trendy to eat sushi, so many people do regardless of whether they want to or not. Those of us who love sushi have not been inculcated, however, we are not catatonic, we have not been lulled into anything. We do not believe these little bits of fish and rice are great simply because we think they should be. It's great food because it's great food.

Many folks, however, won't eat sushi. Maybe its a texture thing. Maybe its the thought of eating something that's raw. But the cult of the sushi lovers won't give up on you, they'll keep trying. The same thing is true of the Victorian lovers. We've been told for years that Victorian writing is good writing. Some people no doubt truly love the stuff. Not me. If nothing else the sheer volume of redundant and pointless prose is needlessly tiring.

About six months ago I started reading Vanity Fair. Yes, it has it's witty bits, yes that Becky is a fiendishly clever witch and after the first chapter or two I wondered why we hadn't made it out of the damn school. Yes, yes, we've established that Becky is self serving, jealous, blah, blah, blah. I really don't need to be told that 27 different ways. Move it along, sister!

Maybe it's a texture thing for me. Maybe I don't like the fact that the sheer volume of the prose gets in the way of the point of the prose. I might be able to connect with the material, but why bother? Answer: Everone says that it's so good, you don't know what you're missing. My point, however, is that, much like the sushi cult, the Victorian cult continues to press and press and press. But is it good?

That depends on what you mean by "good". For most people, garlic is good. For me, it's toxic. For most people, green beans are good. For JD, they're an abomination. To me sushi is good. To JD, it's gross. Point being what is "good" depends on your point of view. There's also a standard within each genre, however. Take wine, for example. I've had $250 bottle of wine that were really good. Was it better than a $25 bottle? By some standards, perhaps. Which would I rather drink consistently? Sometimes its the $250 bottle, other times it's the $25 bottle. But the fact that one costs $250 says that it's a better bottle of wine than the $25 bottle. There's some standard out there by which it's judged. The real question that we're talking about, however, is whether the $250 bottle of wine is better than an $80 bottle of scotch. The answer to that depends on whether you prefer wine or scotch.

JD, you say

I put it to you that books (and other forms of art) have the ability, through their Quality, to transform the way you interact with the real world, change your point of view, enrich your experience. If a book isn't doing that, it's wasting your time.

Although I don't disagree that books can have the ability to transform your real world interactions, etc., I do disagree that if if you're not doing that you're wasting your time. This is somewhat akin to arguing that the purpose of sex is to procreate and if you're having sex for another reason you're wasting your time. But it also ignores an important point. If the medium interferes with the message, then the message is worthless. If Thackery had a point to get to later in Vanity Fair, then he killed any chance of my getting to it. Not because I couldn't get to it, but because I didn't care enough to bother getting to it because the sheer drudgery of the task put me off. If I wanted turgid and slow but earth shaking in it's possibilities, I'd read Newton's Principia.

Nor am I giving SF writers a pass regarding the creating a world v. getting one pre-made. My point is that because there are fewer "givens" (in some instances they're simply making up entirely new laws of physics, for example) in many SF books, the flaws in that author's writing and style are going to be more apparent. If they're poor writers then SF has the propensity to accentuate that.

As you point out, there is subjectivity to the measurement of "greatness", whether it's in art, literature, music, etc. I disagree with your assertion, however, that there is an objectivity to it. Simply because a majority of people agree that something is "good" and have set that thing as the standard doesn't necessarily mean that there's an objectivity to it, it simply means that a normative value, relative to other things, has been labelled. It's like the $250 bottle of wine. It may well be vinegar in the bottle, but because it's $250, then it must be better. Everything else bends around that. Please note that this means that George Bush would be considered "great" because a majority of people voted for him.

If there is an objective standard to a great piece of literature, then what is it? How can I know when I sit down to write something, whether it will be judged as a great piece of literature or a hack piece suitable for publication nowhere? Hmmm. Complete sentences? Probably. Oh, wait, then there's James Joyce. So maybe not complete sentences. How about spelling? Oh, wait, Shakespeare spelled things differently than we do. So maybe not proper spelling. What about the length of the piece? Does it have to be a certain length to be "great"? Maximum length? Whether it "stands the test of time"? How long would that be? 50 years, 100 years, 250 years or more? Well, if that's the case then maybe Vanity Fair isn't good literature. Or maybe we haven't had enough time to adequately judge Heinlein or Asimov. What does it mean to "stand" the test of time? What is the test of time?

And yes, I think the literary canon was constructed arbitrarily. Can you point to a single objective criterion that was used to construct the canon? Those things are in the canon because enough people with the right connections/accredations/shouting power said they should be there. Most of these folks were probably academics (not that there's anything wrong with that) whose livelihood depends on having a canon to teach. But admitting that there's no objective criteria would be like admitting that the emperor has no clothes. They system depends on the assertion and assumption that there are objective criteria.

These works of classic fiction are entertaining, engaging, and enlightening in a way that science fiction is not. What I'm asking for is science fiction that matches the quality of the classics. It is possible; Tolkien achieved it, LeGuin comes close, and many of the various scifi short stories are equal to their literary counterparts.

I find Thackery to be boring, drudgery, and unenlightening. I find Michel Foucault to be engaging and enlightening, sometimes entertaining. Ditto Derrida. I find Patricia Cornwell to be entertaining and engaging, but not enlightening. I find A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher and The World of Null-A to be entertaining, engaging and enlightening. You may well disagree with all of those. I would suggest that what you are enamoured with is actually a style of writing, not the substance of the writing. What you consider "good", what the majority may consider "good" and what I may consider "good" are potentially very different things. What you consider entertaining will differ from my opinion. What you consider engaging and enlightening will certainly vary from my opinion. That's just it- it's opinion. As a result, if that's your criteria you simply cannot assert that an objective standard exists.


On 12 July 2005 (10:39 PM), J.D. said:

Dave, I wrote a rather long reply, but I've discarded it, primarily because I cannot hope to out-argue you; I simply haven't the skill. You make some good points (I like your wine/scotch example), though I think that you: confuse Preference with Quality, make some odd arguments ("...because there are fewer 'givens' in many SF books, the flaws in that author's writing and style are going to be more apparent..." seems like a strange non-sequitur to me), make the mistake of "flattening" all of literature (expecting all literature to have the same spelling, storytelling, and grammar conventions as that of today), and, most of all, come dangerously close to arguing for Absolute Relativism. (Like that? I just invented it. I think I'm clever.)

This last point perplexes me most. I do think there are objective measures to Quality. What's more, I believe that you think there are objective measures to Quality. I conceded that nearly all of Preference is based on relative tastes, but I maintain that Quality can be determined objectively. You yourself stated that "crap writing is crap writing" no matter what the genre. This implies that you believe the inverse, that Quality writing is Quality writing no matter what the genre. If you can measure crap, you can measure Quality.

I admit to once again being guilty of my standard hyperbolic statements when I argue about literatures only being of merit if it entertains, educates, and enlightens, but I stand by the core idea.

As for the Canon: it's true that there is some measure of subjectivity (and politics) involved in its ever-fluid nature. Authors are advocated, and others fall out of favor. As an example, Jane Austen, who has always been present in the Canon, has seen her prominence among her peers rise during the past ten years for a number of reasons. In a generation, her star will fade and somebody else will rise to take her place. I think it was Clifton Fadiman, though, who likened the Canon to a "Great Conversation", which was a wonderfully apt description. Works generally do not enter the Canon arbitrarily, but because of their Quality, Quality as measured by how much they affect the "Great Conversation". Vanity Fair, for example, is a book that has been referred to by other authors for over a century. Other authors draw from and respond to it. A better example, of course, would be Shakespeare, he who is the core of the canon. Shakespeare will never leave the Canon; he is its foundation. Why? Because of the sheer number of neologisms present in his work (think how much our modern language owes to him), because of his influence on theater, and, most of all, because of what he contributed to storytelling. The plots he used (and the characters) may not have been original to him, but it is to him we attribute most of them, and they continue to influence modern storytelling in all its forms even today.


On 13 July 2005 (07:54 AM), Dave said:

Of course I'm arguing something close to absolute relativism. Primarily because I have yet to see any "objectivism." Again I say: If there are objective standards, show me the standard. What is it? How do I know whether a work meets the standard or not? What criterion should I use to measure the work? "I know it when I see it" doesn't work, because I may well see it differently than you do. In fact, that statement is a tip of the hat to relativism all by it's lonesome.

My point about the "givens" in non-SF fiction is that there are fewer crutches in SF writing because everything must be constructed and you can't make assumptions about your fictional environment. Setting a scene in New York City already comes with it's own imagery. Setting it in New London on Antares V has no pre-programmed imagery. I think that it takes more skill to adequately describe New London to a reader than to describe New York City because you can't rely upon the reader's preconceptions of New London because they can't have any. As a result if a person didn't have that skill, writing about New York City may help cover that lack. Writing about New London simply illustrates the author's shortcomings.


On 13 July 2005 (11:22 AM), Joel said:

I think Dave is right, in the sense that this Quality factor you speak of JD, real though it may be, will never be entirely satisfactory because of its elusiveness. You can't measure it, nor can you get everyone to agree absolutely on it, and our standards change with time.

The canon is a fine example of this. Using the conversation metaphor, 70-100 years ago Anthony Trollope's novels were mentioned just as often in the conversation as Dickens. These days very few people talk about Trollope. I read and enjoyed some of them, but I have to agree that they're not world-beaters. Why? Because our understanding of Quality changed. Another example (one I've used in JD's presence in the past) is Animal Farm. I predict that eventually Animal Farm will fall away due to its high degree of historical specificity. Enough people will not know or care
who Trotsky was to not care about that book.

Which isn't to say that Quality is entirely subjective, because, by and large, there is a negative test. I'll bet you a zillion dollars that the works of Franklin Dixon, R.L. Stine, and the various writers of Harlequin Romance will never bubble up into the ranks of the canon. We may study them, because Pomo has made everything of interest, but I don't think I'm merely being a fashionable elitist when I say that these books are of low Quality.


On 13 July 2005 (11:37 AM), J.D. said:

I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around the implications of the argument you two seem to be making, which is, ultimately, "There is no such thing as Quality." Or, stated another way, "Everything is relative."

I'm all for relativism. I've been a long-time advocate for perceiving "shades of grey" in relationships and intentions and behaviors and events. But it seems to me that if one argues that there are no objective measures for Quality in art (which is akin to arguing that there is no such thing as Beauty), then it's only a small step to argue that there are no objective measures in Science, say, or in Law. Do you really believe that objective measures of anything are impossible?

This has gone from being a discussion about the relative merits of literature to something more deeply philosophical. (This may be due to the fact that I'm reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again, a book that always puts me in a contemplative state of mind.)

(And, Dave, I think that you're contention that it's more difficult to write good science fiction, or that bad writing in science fiction is more obvious, simply because it doesn't have an existing framework to draw upon, is an argument does not bear scrutiny. It's interesting, but ultimately incorrect.)


On 13 July 2005 (12:16 PM), Donald McLean said:

There's a very real issue underlying this whole discussion: bias.

As we grow and experience life, we become biased for or against various things and the sum of all of these biases shapes our opinions of every work of art that we experience.

Some are subtle, like hair color. Many men have a general preference for either blondes, brunettes or red-heads. The same actress, appearing in different movies with different hair coloring will affect how a biased man reacts to the movie. There is no objective standard here.

Some of this bias will be cultural. If many people in your society drink beer (such as Germany) then you will be more likely to enjoy beer. I'm not from Germany, though I did live there for two years, and I can't stand beer. Can I tell the difference between good beer and bad beer? No, they all taste awful to me.

A given person may or may not understand the nature or source of one of their biases. I am totally against the use of any kind of fruit in the preparation of any kind of meat (pineapple on ham for example). To me, this practice is an abomination and, if I ever become a supreme deity, my worshipers will be required to stone anyone who engages in this practice.

I not only am aware of the nature and severity of this bias of mine, I know its source. I became violently ill as a child from eating some sweet and sour chinese food.

How can an objective standard be created with all of these pesky biases running around rearing their ugly heads? Only with extreme difficulty.

J.D. is clearly biased in favor of a certain styles of writing that Dave is equally clearly biased against. It may not be possible for these two to EVER agree on an SF book that they both like - their biases appear to be a disjoint set.

I must confess that I read almost nothing except science fiction and fantasy. That doesn't mean that I don't see J.D.'s point that there is a considerable amount of dreck - even among stuff that is nominated for or wins the major awards. I belong to an SF book discussion group and I've read quite a few well-thought-of books that just didn't do anything for me.

One example, our book for last month was by Connie Willis and titled "To Say Nothing of the Dog". This book was, to a large extent, set in Victorian England and, I am guessing, even written in a Victorian-esque style. I found it to be very tough slogging. I don't know whether it was good Victorian-esque writing or bad but I would be inclined to suspect that I am now biased against that style of writing.

A classic work is one that connects with a large number of readers year after year. Younger generations of readers find value in it, revalidating it's standing. That doesn't mean that everyone will like a particular story. I love Shakespear but I almost universally despise Hemmingway. Does that make me an infidel, a peasant or a half-wit? No, I'm just a guy who doesn't like what he wrote.

So how do biases apply to science fiction?

I think, to a large extent, that the whole issue is cultural. Science fiction authors write science fiction the way that they do because that's what science fiction readers read. J.D. didn't grow up drinking science fiction, so he just doesn't like the taste that much. It doesn't make him a bad person, it just makes him unable to appreciate the things that science fiction drinkers like about science fiction and that allow us to differentiate between what we think is good science fiction and what we think is bad science fiction.


On 13 July 2005 (02:06 PM), Joel said:

JD,
Dave may be saying it (I don't think he is), but I am not saying that Quality is an illusion, just that it's not measurable. There are lots of things that are not objectively measurable that most people agree exist: happiness, the absolute position of an electron, the amount of wood a woodchuck can chuck.... One I run into at work all the time is pain. Lots of health providers ask their patients to rate their level of pain on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most pain you've ever felt. It's a baffling and meaningless exercise that, as far as I can tell, was invented to make patients feel like we're paying attention to the issue of pain. Pain absolutely exists, but there is currently no objective way to measure it. Just like two people reading the same book, two people with exactly the same injury will not necessarily agree as to their level of pain.

I have to ask, JD, why it's so important to be able to measure artistic Quality? If we had some reliable means of doing so, what would we do with liberal arts majors? They can't all go to medical and law school.


On 13 July 2005 (02:11 PM), Joel said:

Also, Donald, I agree with you that Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog" was of low Quality. So there you go, we have a consensus, let us spread the word and convert all heathens!


On 13 July 2005 (02:22 PM), J.D. said:

I thought it would be fun to take this question back to AskMetafilter, where it began. So I did.

Joel: I have to ask, JD, why it's so important to be able to measure artistic Quality?

I'm not certain that it's important for anything outside this discussion. Dave seems to be saying that there is no such thing as Quality, or that Quality is purely subjective (which, to me, amounts to the same thing). If Quality were quantifiable, it would be easier to do things like compare Proust to Asimov. Personally, I believe the two can still be compared, qualitatively, even without a set of discrete measures.

I'm tapped out on the discussion for today. I'm going to read more Pirsig and see if he sparks further flights of fancy. (Because, ultimately, that is what this is.)


On 13 July 2005 (05:13 PM), Dave said:

Curiously enough, JD and I probably would be mostly in agreement as to what good SF looks like, at least in many cases. On the other hand, we do vehemently disagree as to Victorian literature. And, as noted, I suspect we will forever be separated on that issue.

My alleged point as to "SF being harder to write", is, I think, mischaracterized by you, JD. I'm not saying that at all. I'm simply saying that it's more likely to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. As I said before, I believe that the burden of creating an entirely new reality, complete with foreign concepts, physics, iconography, and charcteristics, will accentuate the flaws in the author's style. That's one reason why I believe Tolkien works so wonderfully. He developed an entire universe, understood that universe, developed it's mythology, THEN wrote a series of wonderful stories with appealing prose. That's also a lot of really hard work and it took him decades to do it.

As for relativism, I think it's a huge leap to say that EVERYTHING, including science, lacks measurable standards. On the other hand, part of science is immutably arbitrary. Yes, you can measure length, width, depth, and time. But the units of measure are arbitrary. An inch is one inch because we've officially defined that as the standard. But I can clearly see that one inch has a set and specific length. Every time. It's either an inch, or it isn't. In that sense it's very digital. Evaluating the "greatness" of a book isn't the same thing. It's inherently analog and analog from the point of view of the reader. You can't quite measure it. You could say that "greatness" is 5" inches, but that would be a typically male response, wouldn't it?

Consider music for a moment. Take the greatest piece ever written by Mozart. Compare it to the greatest piece ever written by a Zimbabwean for the mbira. Which one do you like more? Are you likely to say that the mbira piece is as great as Mozart? Probably not. On the other hand, someone raised in a culture in which the mbira is a beautiful sound may well have the opposite opinion. That's relative.


On 13 July 2005 (05:18 PM), Dave said:

Whoops, I didn't finish my point about Tolkien.

His hard work paid off. His attention to detail paid off. As a result, I think that most people would conceed that Tolkien's works are amoung the the "great works" of speculative fiction. But the framework that he was working within demanded that he put that that level of detail and attention into his work. Had he tried to rely upon other people's conception of fairies or dwarves, the work would've fallen flat. Instead, it feels fully fleshed out and alive when you read it.


On 14 July 2005 (06:49 AM), Joel said:

Dave said: "You could say that "greatness" is 5" inches, but that would be a typically male response, wouldn't it?"
snort


On 14 July 2005 (09:34 AM), Mooncrest the Mad said:


> Where are the literate science fiction authors?
> Where are the great works? To compare Isaac Asimov > with Charles Dickens is laughable.

I wholeheartedly agree Asimov is so much more readable that Dickens.

Dickens is okay in small amounts. But after three pages of description of an endtable, I give up.


On 14 July 2005 (09:44 AM), Mooncrest the Mad said:

I agree with a lot of what Dave said (On 11 July 2005 (09:16 AM), Dave said:). Most of what has passed onto us as litereature was originally written for the "common" man. The reason it is popular today is because so many people liked it that there was enough of this to survive. does that mean that it is all good? Not nessecarily.

To add to the examples that Dave listed (Dickens, Poe and Doyle), there's Shakespear. He wrote for the common man (and I'm tell this to a lot of people) if you sit and watch a good (K Brannaugh) performance you soon forget the outmoded english and get caught up in the story. These are not meant to be high art or very deep stories. They are the soap operas of the day. Granted they are the BEST of the day and are extremely well written and still as entertaining today as 500 years ago.


On 15 July 2005 (06:17 AM), chris hall said:

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

I have thought for years that Wolfe might become the first SF author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I wonder if folks would then someday view his work as straight literature.


On this day at foldedspace.org

2006Family Reunion   In which Kris and I host a Roth family reunion. In which my cousins tell stories. In which I play with a medium-format camera.

2004Insulated   In which our insulation contractors really botch the job. Again. And again. And again. (The repurcussions of this ineptitude will still be felt TWO years later.)

2003On the Naming of Things   In which reading Proust causes me to meditate on the things for which I have no names.