Red-Headed Stepchild

Science Fiction is one of the despised genres of literature, loved by the masses and derided by intellectuals. Perhaps I am being oversensitive, but it seems that the critics consider genre fiction to be less important than ‘literary’ fiction. Yet as Samuel R. Delaney once observed, science fiction is one of the least respected forms of writing, about on par with comic books and pornography.

Admittedly, ones perception of sci-fi as despised depends on the definition of the category. One I recall from a writers’ workshop I attended long ago (sorry I don’t recall which one) is that it is fiction in which technology is a crucial element. My own concept is broader, more akin to that of speculative fiction: something about the story, plot, or characters is outside the normal realm of experience. Fantasy is also speculative, therefore science fiction is that portion that is plausible according to the known or extrapolated laws of the universe (that is, it excludes magic and the supernatural.)

Even the first, narrower definition encompasses a number of classics that are not normally considered science fiction. For example, works like 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange are often considered dystopian fiction, but all are technology dependent, as wel as speculative. Likewise, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is seen as a political novel and Crichton’s Andromeda Strain as a thriller. Third-world novels with speculative or fantasy elements are classed as “magical realism.” Thus, sci-fi’s most outstanding works are re-classified as something else.

Part of the problem wit sci-fi is, I believe, political. Many famous science fiction writers (such as Robert Heinlein) would be considered right of center or libertarian in inclination, as opposed to left-leaning academics and intellectuals. In the Golden Age of the mid to late 20th Century, there was a theme of American triumphalism running through a lot of old-school science fiction, which has since become politically incorrect.

Perhaps science fiction is despised because, like its close relative fantasy, it’s escapist. It’s too much fun. Literary fiction is supposed to portray the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people, and well within the boundaries of acceptable thought – in other words, boring. It reminds me of a politically correct critic who attacked Lord of the Rings as “racist.” Indeed, it must be very offensive to the orc and troll lobbies.

All of this is no big deal to those of us who love science fiction, fantasy, and the other speculative realms. From Star Trek and Star Wars to the numerous movies adaptations of Phillip K Dick’s stories, sci-fi is loved by the masses, who vote with their dollars in far greater numbers than for some critically-acclaimed snooze-fest. Thus are the low-down exalted. Glory to the nerds!