Waggish

Thoughts on Genre: Exceptional Science Fiction

When I think of the average case of genre product, I think of golden-age American science-fiction novels and short stories, from roughly the 1940s to the mid-60s). There were tons of these things written, and the content is of them so unvarying that a handful of people (Heinlein, Gernsback, Bradbury, Clarke, Clement, etc.) could be said to have invented nearly all the tropes of the genre. The content was often so unvarying, or at least so insular, that external influences did not make their way into the genre for several decades, and more outspoken dissidents (Bernard Wolfe, Walter Murphy) struggled to differentiate themselves from the mainstream of the genre. It’s striking how autonomous the genre is: very little that is recognizable from Verne or Olaf Stapledon makes its way into these works, while there are constant references to other members of the genre.

Moreover, the authors that broke with this tradition did so in a violent manner. The new wave Britishers like Moorcock, Ballard, and Aldiss, and their American counterparts like Disch, Delany, Sladek, and Malzberg, were outspoken in separating themselves from the tradition as it stood. The continuity is actually stronger than they would have you believe, since they were writing in the shadow of a monopolistic genre, and so much of the past still made its way into their work, if only to be rejected.

But I will stick with the golden age itself. A good example of the back and forth around the ideas of this genre is in Richard Harter’s analysis of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” I think the story and its theme–nature’s uncaring hand–is trite, and could be easily used to condemn the impoverishment of ideas in the genre. But what interests me here is the fact that the story is defined in relation to its variation from the norm. Unlike most genre sf stories, the heroine dies. Unlike most stories, there is no hope. Unlike most of the stories, morality doesn’t determine the outcome. The prestige of the story is defined in terms of its variation from the norm, which is implicitly condemned.

The implicit conclusion is that golden age sf produced an undiscerning fanbase whose predominant tastes were not especially sophisticated, and that great work like “The Cold Equations” sprung out of chaotic deviations. I’m not here to argue for or against that point. I had a tough time with lots of work from the era; it all blended together and seemed awfully repetitive. But looking at today’s sf readers, it seems like my opinion isn’t so different from many fans; I just didn’t enjoy the mediocre stuff.

Early Hollywood comedies are different. Movies like “The Palm Beach Story” or “It Happened One Night” or “Easy Living” succeed or fail to the degree which they become an apotheosis of the genre’s tropes. There is very little subversion; light social satire was as much a staple of the genre as any other feature. Consequently, personal preference nearly trumps critical distance, as isolating good from bad, as I did in the lists, boils down to ineffable taste.

In contrast, consider some of the most exceptional (in several senses) writers of sf in the 50s and 60s: Algis Budrys, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, Richard McKenna, James Blish. All of these authors hold some vaunted place in the sf pantheon of the era. And all of them are remembered more for their personal quirks and flourishes than for the degree to which they represented their chosen genre. (The one possible exception is Bester, because he was more a stylist than a distinctive thinker, but I’d argue that his fluid style is why he is remembered.) Some of these authors were noticed at the time; others were discovered in retrospect, often by those who had sifted through so many bad DAW Doubles that the good ones lit up the night. But I never had that patience. I have to wait for others to find whatever remaining gems there are buried in the shelves.

So then we have a comedic genre whose best work exemplifies the genre itself, and a science fiction genre whose best work is based on exceptionality from the genre. What caused the difference?

To be continued…

[Warning: question will not be answered satisfactorily.]

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