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Thread: Can Science-Fiction be "great" literature?

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    Abstract gsingle33's Avatar
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    Can Science-Fiction be "great" literature?

    I know, I know...all of you Neil Gaiman and JK Rowling fans have come here to vent your anger at my supposition that writers in a particular genre are incapable of producing great literature. Well, slow down a minute and hear me out.

    First of all, I acknowledge that there are great writers who have written great science fiction. Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Herbert, and Tolkien are some of the ones I would put in that group. BUT, my question really boils down to whether you can classify contemporary storytellers who limit their material to space, swords, sorcery, and the like as writers of great literature.

    I see it similarly to this: let's say a song writer only wanted to write songs about birthday cakes. He writes a few albums and people love them (hey, everybody likes birthdays, and the cakes are the best part). Has he really exhibited the skill to be considered a great song writer?

    I'm posing this question under the assumption that "great" writers are considered such because a) their work offers itself to expansive interpretation and critical examination, and b) their work is more than just storytelling.

    So tell me, who are these fantastic writers? But give me more than just names, anybody can do that. Tell me why they are so fantastic. Back up your statements if you really believe in them. (extra credit for quotes )
    The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. -Hunter S. Thompson

  2. #2
    Kindly plush cthulhu beer good's Avatar
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    Don't most writers limit their material to a certain time, place and technology, regardless of genre?
    But the time ain't tall, yet on time you depend
    And no word is possessed by no special friend
    And though the line is cut it ain't quite the end,
    I'll just bid farewell till we meet again.
    - Bob Dylan

  3. #3
    There is a lot of unfair prejudice against genre fiction. It is too often seen as throwaway, pulp writing. This may have been true to an extent in the 40s & 50s, when there was a production line attitude, churning out quantity rather than quality. But even then, there were great writers sneaking in under the wire.

    Kurt Vonnegut should definitely be listed among the top echelon of contemporary writers. The majority of his writing had an SF element to it (there are exceptions, Mother Night for example). Slaughterhouse 5 is right up there in my opinion. A very human tale at heart, showing the horrors of war in such a matter of fact way that the reader only realises the true enormity of what they have read on reflection. The description of 'blood-gutters' on knives & bayonettes was particularly memorable and chilling. Vonnegut uses the fantastic in his stories to highlight the absurdity and contradictions that we all live by. So it goes...

    I will leave it at that for now, but I will add more later. I was going to add a similar thread myself before I was beaten to it.

    Great minds think alike and fools rarely differ.

  4. #4
    There are two excellent sci-fi writers that come to mind: Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. I don't know if I need to say much about Vonnegut because most people in this forum seem to think he's great. And though I've only read one of Dick's books, I've seen enough of the movies to know that it's not your typical science fiction. He may not deal with language in the intricate ways that most regular fiction writers do, but the ideas are what make it valid literature. He transends sci-fi in the way he explores the human condition. It's most apparent in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"--made into "Blade Runner"--where robots becoming self-aware examines the meaning of human consciousness, the existence of a soul, and the meaning of life all together. It's the universality of the ideas beyond the futuristic fantasy that make it good literature.

  5. #5
    Just another nerd RobinHood3000's Avatar
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    Depends on your definition of "great," I think. The same thing applies to movies. Some movies are "great" on a grand scale because they completely revolutionize the industry with originality and flair. Other movies are "great" on a personal level because they keep you entertained in spite of (or because of) their flaws.

    Discussing science fiction, though, I surprised that Asimov hasn't entered the discussion yet.
    Por una cabeza
    Si ella me olvida
    Qué importa perderme
    Mil veces la vida
    Para qué vivir

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    thinker? jessezzel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by beer good
    Don't most writers limit their material to a certain time, place and technology, regardless of genre?
    I totally agree with this because just about every genre is limited because it is catagorized into a genre. Like would a murder novel be a murder novel without a murder in it?
    "It is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force." - Dorothy Parker

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    SF... Well long long time ago Jules Verne was considered as Science Fiction writer but some things that he mention in his book we are using in every day life. I like to call SF authors a visionars. One great visionar is also I. Asimov. SF is not only robots, strange weapons and various flying machines; these writers are writnig also about emotions (R. Zelazny) and it's classic batlle between good and bad. Of course, there are good and not so good books, interesting and boring books but aren't we all depending of writers imagination? I'm great fan od SF and fantasy literature but I really like to read everything. The most important thing is that is interesting and good written.

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    Abstract gsingle33's Avatar
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    Sure, I agree that there are many examples of writers using a science fiction setting to express larger ideas (Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" comes to mind). Often, they use a science fiction universe as a background so that their message is foreign enough to us as a reader and we will not immediately disregard it. (an example would be the old star trek episode with the guys who were half-white and half-black fighting the guys whose color scheme was the opposite in order to tackle race relations)

    Unfortunately, I think there are far too many writers who simply rely on the cliches of the genre (good vs. evil, young nothing that rises to station of great power, etc.). Or, they try to take a new "twist" and incorporate many of these cliches into one story
    (go here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/074...lance&n=283155 for an example)

    If I'm missing something as I glance over people like McCaffrey, Williams, Salvatore, the above mentioned PN Elrod, and others, please clue me into it. I am just having a hard time seeing it.
    Last edited by gsingle33; 02-01-2006 at 10:13 AM.
    The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. -Hunter S. Thompson

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    Serious business Taliesin's Avatar
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    Well, you are right in some things - there is quite a number of cliches.
    We wrote a speculative fiction short story and a local (that means, one of Estonia's best editors and speculative fiction knowers) speculative fiction guru gave us advice if we wanted to make a career in that area. One of the things he said: if you have any dreams or thoughts of publishing in an angloamerican or russian spec-fic world, throw them away right away. Angloamerican fantasy is a very conservative genre with a conservative audience - they are typically okay with the cliches and angloamerican countries can produce on it's own. And writers in smaller countries must be more innovative and cliche-breaking to be anything (when you imagine an angloamerican reader choosing between a nonangloamerican cliche and angloamerican cliche, he will choose the angloamerican one) Nonangloamerican writers have no space in the market - they can be published or even win some minor awards, but they won't make it big. Russian speculative fiction is even more closed.

    So you are right that the market is flooded with cliche fantasy. But there are some who write good stuff too.
    If you believe even a half of this post, you are severely mistaken.

  10. #10
    rhetorical question- An author make an amazing storyabout the growing up of two people, thier lives loves and angers...another makes one about the same thing, but creates a new world, one were theyalso envision where our world is going, whatthings maybe like. which one is the great author?? just becuase one of them uses conventinal places and things, are not the two prettymuch the same??

    Also I think that books like "Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin, the afore mentioned "Brave New World", "1984", and countless others tell a story that can only be told through this genre. They create worlds were the reader can live and they open the mind to countless other possibilites that would not normally be brought up.

    Even the "bad" fantasy is just as "good" as the "bad" mysteries or the "bad" romances
    (in my opinion better than some, lol)

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    I would consider Ray Bradbury a good writer. Most of his cataloge comes in the Sci-Fi section, but he has written various other genres. Something Wicked This Way Comes is horror, Dandelion Wine is just a feel-good coming of age book. He has even written some historical-fiction (Drummerboy of Shiloh). All of his writing is worthy of a read because he is a master of the human soul. Even his sci-fi books often deal with emotion and the human heart.

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    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    I don't quite follow an argument that claims an entire genre of writing is inferior because it is popular and there are a fair number of cliche books associated with that genre. Of course there are badly written books in any genre, and science fiction is no exception. There are also a number of very well written books in the genre, as several people have pointed out, and I don't see why these should be discounted because of their inferior bretheren.

    Also, science fiction and fantasy are hardly new genres. Yes, writing about going into outer space is largely an innovation of the 20th century, but it is only a replacement for the uncharted territories on this planet that captured the imaginations of people in past centuries. For example, a work such as Homer's Odyssey--widely recognized as classic "literature" in the western tradition--is really the ancient version of the modern sci-fi story. It imagines a journey into uncharted territories and encounters with strange and magical people and creatures. It used to be enchanted swords; now it's light sabers. It used to be whatever was on the other side of the ocean, now it's whatever is on the other side of Mars. Sci-fi, like many other genres, produces its fair share of ho-hum reads, but it also fits in to a long standing literary tradition of mapping human stories onto unknown territories where people encounter strange new beings and fanciful technologies. Looking to something alien often helps us to define ourselves.

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    Thumbs up

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love
    I For example, a work such as Homer's Odyssey--widely recognized as classic "literature" in the western tradition--is really the ancient version of the modern sci-fi story. It imagines a journey into uncharted territories and encounters with strange and magical people and creatures. It used to be enchanted swords; now it's light sabers. It used to be whatever was on the other side of the ocean, now it's whatever is on the other side of Mars. Sci-fi, like many other genres, produces its fair share of ho-hum reads, but it also fits in to a long standing literary tradition of mapping human stories onto unknown territories where people encounter strange new beings and fanciful technologies. Looking to something alien often helps us to define ourselves.
    Well, Petrarch's Love you've read my mind. Because English is not my frist language I have a problem with expresing myself. But that's exactly what I ment in my previous post.

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    Abstract gsingle33's Avatar
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    I acknowledge that there is horrible writing in any field. Capitalism thrives on choices and since everyone wants to be the Horatio Alger of the publishing world, they toss anything and everything to the publishers, and therefore the publishers then toss anything and everything to the consumer so that maybe we'll buy it.

    Sci-fi / Fantasy, as a genre, seems to be more vulnerable to this syndrome than some others (although Romance and Mystery are close behind, with Chick-lit quickly gaining ground). It has largely deteriorated into a lowest common denominator of cliche-ridden storytelling that serves little or no literary purpose or goal.

    Believe me, I understand that fiction, in general, is doing the same thing, but I wanted to be more focused in my question and hopefully gain more insight into the general problem. One other thing I want to point out is that many of the books we're mentioning (1984, A Clockwork Orange, and Brave New World come to mind) aren't classified by the powers that be as scifi/fantasy.

    So am I overlooking a contribution by the genre? Is there a larger prejudice at work here? I think if the latter is true, then much of the fiction in the genre works to perpetuate that prejudice and must be included in the blame. Is there any way to weed through the fan-boys and really get to the heart of this argument?
    The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. -Hunter S. Thompson

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    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    Quote Originally Posted by gsingle33
    I'm posing this question under the assumption that "great" writers are considered such because a) their work offers itself to expansive interpretation and critical examination, and b) their work is more than just storytelling.

    So tell me, who are these fantastic writers? But give me more than just names, anybody can do that. Tell me why they are so fantastic. Back up your statements if you really believe in them.
    Easily done. Poul Anderson's The Boat of a Million Years is an epic that spans millennia and shows a wide range of human activity, behavior, and thought. Do people ever change? Is it possible for humanity to change?

    L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall questions the nature of reality and the position of the individual in the world. Whether one reads it as a story or as a philosophical work it has material for meditation. I won't go into details, so that you can have the pleasure of reading one of the best novels of the 20th century.

    You might also find Roger Zelazny's The Lord of Light interesting. Are people archetypes,or are archetypes human? Are the Gods and Goddesses human or do they become something greater?

    No credit unless you read and understand.

    Science Fiction is simply a type of setting. Any theme that has been dealt with by any writer can become Science Fiction, if the setting is off Earth or in the future. Science is supposed to have to be of substantial importance in SF, but simply moving the setting off Earth fulfills that requirement.

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