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Literary Science Fiction

  1. Apr 20, 2015 #1


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    An coworker's loves Charles Dickens and reads all sorts of other books with "high literary content". Most science fiction doesn't qualify as great literature. Lots of shallow character development, generally simplistic moral conflicts, etc. Mostly we have good stories in interesting environments and mind twisting realities. As a prime example, Asimov is the master of the good story. Easy to read with decent characters and non-trivial values. But your English teacher wouldn't be impressed. Philip Dick can twist reality but his books hardly qualify as great literature.

    Gene Wolf gets a lot of high-literary-value scores, but I haven't read any of his stuff (which is strange because I consume so much science fiction). I'll be correcting that soon.

    So, if you like Dickens, comment on science fiction that moves you like Dickens does, if such a thing exists. If you don't like Dickens or haven't read any, please refrain.
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  3. Apr 20, 2015 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    I find Dickens over-wordy (see Bleak House) ... but then, he was paid by the word. Part of the skill of the author is in the ability to maintain the reader's interest despite the lengthy prose and slow development. It helps to read in short bursts. To be clear, I like Dickens.

    What is literature - one person's work of literary genius is another mans overbload borefest for academics, so we need to agree on a definition to talk about it sensibly:
    Google definition
    "written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit."

    "writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features"

    Wikipedia has a whole section:
    ... including a citation-rich discussion of the difficulty of coming up with a definition.

    You can do all the other searches I did too if you like - but people turning their nose up at something as "not literature" are usually just being snobby.
    SF is a case in point - you'll find SF as a valid subject in college English Lit depts. Does that make it literature?

    The upshot?... basically it is literature if it is generally recognized as such.
    Otherwise it is difficult to quantify the literary merit of a work in anything like a scientific way.

    Some "high" fantasy tends to get high literary values - The Lord of the Rings being a classic example. Same with "Gormenghast".
    So we are looking for SF that works like that yes?

    There's lots of them ...
    The works of H G Wells (Time Machine, War of the Worlds) spring to mind, or Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) stuff like that.
    Once you go down that path you find that there are lots. Philip K Dick ferinstance - Ursula K LeGuin... there's tons.

    More obscure I'd nominate the works of Brian Aldiss (Barefoot in the Head, Supertoys) and Roger Zelazney (Lord of Light, 1st Amber Series, Eye of Cat), Howard Lovecraft and Edgar Poe in a pinch.

    But also see the many many online lists like:

    The comparative example approach may be best considering the difficulty of defining lit. To answer your questions properly we'd have to explain what it is about Dickens that moves us and then come up with SF that moves us in the same way. Did you think you'd asked a simple question?
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2015
  4. Apr 20, 2015 #3


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    Orwell, Huxley, Verne, Wells, Atwood, LeGuin, Hesse, Ishiguro? None of these count as literary? Which I understand to mean fiction that tackles big questions rathet than "just" being entertaining. I'd also argue that there's a tonne of contemporary authors that do the same thing but if your coworker doesn't know anything about the current state of the genre might as well start with the classics.
  5. Apr 20, 2015 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    ... I'd like to see this statement supported by references. Perhaps then we will better understand what is wanted here.
  6. Apr 21, 2015 #5


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    Yeah, I can understand the confusion (if that's what you want to call it). Literary is pretty hard to pin down. (and I should have specified MODERN SCIENCE FICTION)

    Philip Dick has been called the antithesis of literary. (don't get me wrong, I love his books). His characters are 1 dimensional and his "moral dilemmas " are simplistic. Especially in UBIK (Which I read again this weekend), which is the first book on the "17 most" list you quoted. His appeal to me is his warped realities which generate paradoxical situations you have to resolve in your own mind. But he does not write prose.

    Don't get me wrong, I love pulp science fiction (like BV Larson's 11 book star force series).

    The literary values I attribute to Dicken's works (not that I like Dickens) is his depth of character development and the moral situations they are presented with. Also his skillfully descriptive wordiness. So, how about taking literary as "higher quality writing and weightier themes than the majority of Sci-Fi genre fiction". It's not just about the good story, but also the beauty with which it is expressed.

    To me, Dan Simmons is also too wordy, so maybe he is a good candidate.

    Here is a section from a reddit thread that gives one perspective.

    It's worth recognizing that we are really talking about two different categories here.

    The first category is literature with major science fiction elements. In this category we would find Kurt Vonnegut, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Lot 49, DFW's Infinite Jest, McCarthy's The Road, etc. There is also lots of dystopian lit that is technically sci-fi: 1984, Brave New World, Zamyatin's We, and probably Mieville's The City & The City (which otherwise defies genre classification.) And of course there is the early sci-fi that is now considered literature: Poe's shorts, Frankenstein, Jules Verne's masterpieces. It's worth noting that a lot of earlier classic lit, including The Iliad and Odyssey, several of Shakespeare's plays, Cervantes, the original author of Beowulf, and so on share narrative elements with sci-fi, even if they don't share sci-fi's treatment of science and technology--but if those writers were alive today, they'd probably be writing science fiction. I would argue that sci-fi is the genre of mythos, more so than any other fiction being written, and especially now, it is the genre of the myth of science and technology (and the dialectic of science as myth, (think Prometheus, which is a myth sci-fi continues to retell.))

    The other category is straight genre sci-fi with literary elements.

    In this category you would have Dune, probably Zelazny's Amber, Delaney's Dhalgren, Gibson's Neuromancer, Dan Simmons -both the Hyperion books and the Illium bid, perhaps Asimov (though he isn't much of writer.)

    Gene Wolfe was mentioned above. I think he us not only the greatest sci-fi writer, but probably the greatest writer living. If you read his bibliography beyond the Solar Cycle (Latro, Wizard/Knight, Peace) you start to get a sense that the Solar Cycle is not sci-fi at all - it's Wolfe wrestling with some profound ideas and the genre that best suits that exploration just happened to be sci-fi. Above any other writer, he seems particularly interested in the nature of myth, and the link between narrative and myth, and with the exception of Pynchon or Wallace or perhaps Vonnegut, no other writer had such heavy meta-fictional elements in their novels. Indeed Wolfe has more in common with Proust and Borges than he has with genre writers. As such, regardless of whether his books are sold by Tor and marketed as sci-fi, I think he really brings in the first category - he is literature first and sci-fi is just the costumes and props he gives his actors.


    Also, in that thread, is this excerpt from Asimov's essay "The Mosaic and the Plate Glass"

    It seems there are two ways of writing fiction.

    In one way, you pay more attention to the language itself than to the events you are describing. You are anxious to write colorfully, to paint a picture of the setting or the background of the events. [...]

    If you succeed, you have written poetically. You have written with style. Everyone admires you - at least everyone with pretensions to literary taste. [...]

    And yet, though the phrases may be memorable, though the swing of the sentences may be grand, though the moods and emotions may be effectively evoked - the story may be just a little hard bit hard to understand.

    Such writing is like a glorious mosaic built up out of pieces of colored glass. It may be a gorgeous spectacle and wonderful to look at, but if you're interested in seeing what's going on in the street, you're going to have a little trouble seeing through the mosaic. [...]

    There's another kind of writing, too.

    In this other kind, words and phrases are chosen not for their freshness and novelty, or for their unexpected ability to evoke a mood, but simply for their ability to describe what is going on without themselves getting in the way. Everything is subordinated to clarity. It is the kind of writing in which the direct sentence is preferred to the involved subordinate clause; the familiar word to the unfamiliar word; and the short word to the long word. [...]

    [...] All things being equal, you plump for the direct, the familiar, the short.

    Such writing might be compared to plate glass in a window. You can see exactly what's going on in the street and you're not aware of the glass.


    I know one writer (his initials are I.A. and I'm very close to him) who's been told on numerous occasions: "I don't know that you're exactly a writer, but you're a good storyteller."


    Writing in such a fashion that the writing is unnoticeable, that the events described pass directly into your brain as though you were experiencing them yourself, is a difficult and necessary art.


    [...] suppose we have two stories: a mosaic and a plate glass. They are not directly comparable, to be sure, but suppose that they (each in its own way) were equally good. In that case, which should one choose? If it were I making the choice, I would plump for the plate glass every time. It's what I like to write and what I like to read.

    So, I just started reading Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun" series (my first Wolfe). He certainly is literary. I have not made a judgement as to whether he (in my mind) overwrites. Or whether that series even qualifies as Science Fiction (doubtful). But he is definitely a phenomena (see http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Articles.Novice )

    I suppose all that will raise more issues than it resolves.

    I guess I should not expect to find many Dicken's fans in a Physics Forum Science Fiction Forum. LOL
  7. Apr 21, 2015 #6

    Simon Bridge

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    And there you see how being careful about the terms you use leads you to the answers you seek :)
    There must be something to this science malarky after all...
  8. Apr 23, 2015 #7
    Well, the only Dickens I have read is Great Expectations. I'm not sure if that should exclude me from this thread.

    On the topic of literary sci-fi, I would heartily recommend Aniara, an epic science fiction poem written by Harry Martinson. It is thought to have won him the 1974 nobel prize in literature. It is a moving read to say the least. The main attractions are space-orgies, tickle cults, soul crushing despair, and a near omniscient machine that half invented itself.
  9. Apr 24, 2015 #8


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    Ooh, that sounds amazing! Let me check the price on Amazon... $170
    Nope. Maybe some other time.
  10. Apr 24, 2015 #9


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    You can reply if you actually liked Great Expectations and for some strange reason never read more Dickens :)

    I had never heard of Aniara. Looks .... well .... EPIC. Not so sure about trying to read translations of epic poems. I'll try it if I can get it through my library (inter-library loans usually work for out of print manuscripts)
  11. May 10, 2015 #10


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    Tried Gene Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon, and retried Dan Simmons. Not for me. Maybe too "oblique". I'll take Asimov, Dick, etc. any time. I guess I'm not "Literary" enough.
    Just give me some BV Larson Star Force.

    And I'm not a pure science fiction snob. I tend away from fantasy, but I really enjoyed reading "Name of the wind" by Patrick Rothfuss (even though it didn't end)

    So, maybe, for me, science fiction is about a good story and fantastic(al) environment with a good pace. I should just point my friend to Asimov and Dick for two extremes and tell him to get over Dickens-esque prose.
  12. May 21, 2015 #11
    Dickens writings combined many important meta-ideas. (hardly an exhaustive list)

    a) His writing was a criticism of an immoral political/economic system run by people who considered themselves God's chosen on moral grounds.
    b) His language selection was colorful and evoked scene.
    c) He presented moral quandaries and resolved them dramatically.

    Heinlein presented some scathing criticisms of U.S. culture. But his characters were somewhat flat and his language was too clear to be colorful.

    Pratchett used the language well, but as comedy. He criticises a lot, but it's hard to take such seriously in a comedy.

    Card did very well with moral quandaries. His dealing with these is, IMO, more mature than Dickens leading to a more nuanced cultural criticism. But his writing isn't as poetical.

    I am likely biased against Dickensonian language though. While I liked many of his books, I wasn't thrilled with his language choice. I only got halfway through Bleak House. So perhaps I avoid SciFi that follows that tradition? (I'm not big on Pratchett either.)

    I've never read any SciFi that matches Dickens, though much of it is, IMO, better literature.
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