Follow the World or Change It?

Amy Sturgis’s essay pushed several buttons for me, and David Brin’s post “Do Sci Fi Attitudes Reflect Our Times?” dovetails neatly with the conclusion of her essay: science fiction certainly does reflect the world it is created in. In fact you can make a strong argument that science fiction has always gained its relevance from the fact that it addresses its world of experience through the lens of Otherness — if it weren’t addressing the world we all experience, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining at all.

But it is noteworthy that, like the real world it is embedded in, science fiction is also going through an Endarkment, so I hesitate to draw the same degree of comfort from it. I enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s books as much as the next skiffy reader, but they are the mainstream of what is essentially a dead genre that has been defined by her (and lest this be taken as a criticism of Bujold in particular, I have to say that the best recent example of skiffy endarkment is John Scalzi’s extraordinarily dumbed-down reboot of H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy series).

Because of the market conditions that surround genre publishing of all kinds, all genres that have a bit more than pure “stroking” to them — which certainly goes for the mystery as well as science fiction genres — struggle with the two uses to which art can be put: to soothe and lull, gratify and affirm the reader’s values — or else to challenge and energize. Note that I did not say “two kinds of genre fiction”: this is what can be done with art, not the essential nature of the art itself; art that is complex, multi-layered and so forth — in short, art that has the same kind of values we associate with “literature” — helps the reader along more than the simpler kind. But even quite minor art, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, can have its edifying uses, if that sort of thing is of interest.

Science fiction in its revolutionary mode creates models of change-aspects of the real world. Theorists of science fiction prattle about how sf rises out of the birth of modern science, and I politely snort in that general direction. Modern science had been around for more than 150 years before science fiction came about. Heck, even future–scene setting didn’t come about as a literary invention until 1750 or so. What did take place just before modern science fiction came about (conventionally 1818) was the American and then French Revolution, the most tumultuous and shocking and fearful social upheaval of all known history. (OK, I’ll give you the invasion of the Golden Horde if you wish). That mad excess of rationality, in which social institutions were turned upside down and overnight, and the map of Europe deregled within less than a decade, was the incitement for science fiction: a new tool was needed to think about that particular unthinkable.

And that is what science fiction does.

Art that is not revolutionary is deadening.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.