Don’t like science fiction?

The poet Lesley Wheeler has a growing career as a poet and academic. She wrote a book of speculative fiction, in terza rima (let’s all bow our heads in respect) and, in spite of all that, she is afraid of what the Serious Poets will say.

The other risk has to do with genre. I’ve been making progress as a Serious Poet. Plenty of Serious Novelists and Critics look down their noses at genre fiction; they might admit to the guilty pleasure of mystery-reading but fantasy and science fiction are just too stinky. Serious Poets have even longer, more sensitive schnozzes.

I have no patience for writers who look down on an entire genre. How many people who claim to hate country music bought the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” a few years back? Sure, a lot of sci fi (and country) is total schlock. A lot of your fancy award-winning books suck too.

But what about the masters? There’s Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, and Mary Doria Russell, who are big names. But Margaret Ronald, Emma Bull, Lynn Flewelling, Patricia McKillip, and Stephen Brust also know their way around a well-constructed sentence and character development as well. And those are only the books I can see from my desk right now.

Hating science fiction/fantasy is often a series of knee-jerk reactions and intellectual snobbery. The reactions go something like this.

1. There are dragons in this book.

2. Last time I heard the word “dragon” was in high school, when my lab partner went on and on about Dungeons and Dragons.

3. He wasn’t cool.

4. I don’t like books with dragons in them.

5. I’m cool now, right?

Good sci fi engages us with the big ideas. How do we negotiate cultures radically different than our own? What makes us human? How do we do the right thing? How do we write about and imagine things that are out of our range of experience?

Maybe spaceships aren’t your thing, you just don’t enjoy them. That’s fine. Just try not to regard it as a moral and intellectual failing if some of the rest of us do.

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6 responses to “Don’t like science fiction?

  1. As you’ve pointed out, one of the reasons science fiction is so good is because it removes us a step or two and allows a societal overview that is hard to accomplish when we’re looking at it from the inside. There’s plenty of meat on that bone.

    Also, alien men are sexy. But maybe that’s just me.

  2. The whole idea of Serious is daunting. Serious Poet, Serious Scholar, Serious Reader… I am not sure I aspire to be serious. To be read, yes. Serious, not so much.

    My favorite scifi comes from my childhood : “A Wrinkle in Time.” It did, as you so adroitly say, forced (helped?) me to engage with love, threat, otherness, oppression and junior high school. Seriously good!

    But let’s take this further. There are a few other genres with Serious impact, and Serious stigma. Maeve Binchy (can an author be a genre?) – great characters and struggles within inflexible (yet redeeming) social structures. And crime-thrillers: talk about plot! But I wouldn’t mention the former if you knew my name, and the latter, well I thought it was OK, but I got this look when I went to a new used book store last night and asked where the thrillers were.

  3. One of my favorite writers is Kurt Vonnegut. I find it infuriating when he gets relegated to a sci-fi writer as a dismissal. As with any great writer, if you can get over yourself long enough to suspend disbelief, the pay-off is yours. And in the scheme of things, who among us writes that well? Genre dismissal is just another lens on the dismisser rather than the dismissed.
    (It is daunting for me to comment here…I can barely form a thought without obsessing with my hyphens and fragments picturing you reading and cringing as your internal editor shrieks in migrainic (it’s a word now) pain, blinded by typos and punctuation gaffes. My apologies.)

    • Lyra, Lyra. Go look up “Why I won’t correct your grammar in e-mails” in my archives. The short answer is because it’s rude. I save my editorial ire for formal writing. This is informal writing and so I might not even notice. I call it my work–life balance.

      Ha! “Getting over yourself to suspend disbelief” is quite true/hilarious.

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