Literary Fiction Is For People Who Can’t Handle Sci-Fi

By Neal Comment

I’d bookmarked Clive Thompson‘s Wired article on “why [science fiction] is the last bastion of philosophical writing” a couple weeks ago and then just never got around to sitting down with it. I like how Thompson encapsulates his problem with contemporary mainstream fiction, even if I don’t necessarily agree with him:

“After I’d read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, ‘OK. Cool. I see how today’s world works.’ I also started to feel like I’d been reading the same book over and over again.”

For Thompson, “big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.” So why doesn’t the establishment take science fiction more seriously? Because, he observes, “the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists.” (Like the literary establishment doesn’t?) From there, he reiterates a common argument—I’ve invoked it myself—that authors like Cormac McCarthy are bringing science fiction into the mainstream. I was expecting a somewhat more solid argument—citing Cory Doctorow as evidence of sci-fi’s willingness to grapple with the big issues of contemporary society is fine, but why not mention Ken McLeod or Kim Stanley Robinson (among several candidates) while you’re at it? But the basic core of the article is worth taking to heart: Science fiction deserves more than the barely competent lip service it gets from certain mainstream lit-crit circles.