My dash into yesterday’s Minnesota cold to retrieve the mail brought me the new edition of Wired magazine. I read almost the entire thing between yesterday and this morning, except for much of the Play section, which is a damned mess from a graphics point of view.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I’d like to focus on Clive Thompson’s essay “Take the Red Book: Why sci-fi is the last bastion of philosophical writing.” In the essay, Clive argues that only science fiction as a writing genre has continued to explore the deeper philosophical issues faced by society and that “traditional “literary fiction” has dropped the ball.” He says that literary fiction concentrates on the real world and that there “are only so many ways to describe reality.” (His italics) Once you’ve run through all the typical real-world scenarios, you’ve covered it all and there’s nothing else to learn or get excited about. Sci-fi, however, produces new realities and shows how people can work through them. Clive gives us examples of how sci-fi changes reality by asking questions such as “How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?”
Perhaps Clive is right. Maybe literary fiction writers have gotten lazy. Maybe we’ve taken the advice to write what we know too seriously. But then again, maybe this is a pigeon-holing problem caused by the publishing industry, which likes to categorize similar books together and if something smacks of unreality, it’s shuffled into sci-fi or fantasy, rather than being labeled literary fiction.
When I was a kid, I was given a series of Alfred Hitchcock books that contained compilations of short stories, many of which I would have classified as sci-fi. One story in particular continues to stick with me. It was the tale of a girl who was originally from earth, but had moved to another planet with her family. This planet experienced constant rain, except for a brief moment of sunshine every so many years. The day the sun was due to shine, her classmates locked the girl in a closet so that she missed the event. That’s where the story ended, but not in my mind. I still want to know what happened to the girl. Did she snap?
Because this story appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock series, it wasn’t classified as sci-fi. Hitchcock was his own classification. I would also put Edgar Allan Poe into his own category because his stories, while mired in horror, also deal with the philosophies of the unreal and unthinkable.
All of this hearkens back to advice I read in one of Carol Bly‘s writing books, in which she indicates that writing should work to serve the larger society. We shouldn’t be satisfied with telling the usual stories, but to insert issues of justice, humanity and ethics within the framework of those stories. It’s all about going deeper.
Toward the end of Clive’s essay, he says, “But the worm is turning,” and states that more “literary writers are trying their hand at speculative fiction.” He lists Margaret Atwood (one of my favorites), Michael Chabon, Susanna Clarke, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jonathan Lethem in this category. While the categories may be useful shorthand in the publishing industry, I think they also get in the way. We have long had good, deep, philosophical stories which transcend classification.
Btw, Carol Bly passed away December 21, 2007, at the age of 77. I had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with her concerning her books. She was a literary writer who managed to work the philosophical into her work. I recommend her books “My Lord Bag of Rice,” “Beyond the Writers’ Workshop,” and “The Passionate, Accurate Short Story.”