Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Great Piece on the "Literature of Ideas"

Here is an excellent article from World SF on "The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction". In it Athena Andreadis points out - even-handedly - that defenders of "literature of ideas" are often really just bad or lazy fiction writers. On this blog I have often defended stories of ideas from literary purists from elsewhere on the literary spectrum (in particular, in reviews of Mieville's Embassytown), but Andreadis's point is an excellent one. Stories that work based on their ideas can afford to de-emphasize other aspects of story-telling, or dispense with some of the elements altogether; but this claim is very different than saying that these elements should be inferior and added only with the ham-handedness that comes with reluctantly obeying a form. ("Well it's fiction. We need characters I guess.")

Her central argument: "...SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults." And the even-handedness: "Now before the predictable shrieks of "Elitist!" erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute."

Do read the whole thing, but the introduction alone is applause-worthy:
When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas!

No comments: