“Thus, traditional criticism’s charge that science fiction isn’t, in general, ‘literary’ because science fiction writers don’t focus on or have the artistry to deeply delve into character misses the point that science fiction isn’t about character, it’s about ideas. And therefore, science fiction should be judged by a different set of criteria than mundane mainstream fiction is evaluated.”
In “Saving the World Through Science Fiction - James Gunn, Writer, Teacher and Scholar” by Michael R. Page
Don't critics ignore SF because there's far too much of it, and the vast majority of it - like any sector of genre fiction - is a bit safe, geared more to selling to a niche of fans than the mass market? Certainly SF fandom is obsessed with genre distinctions (steampunk, space opera, mundane, whatever) that have absolutely no currency in the mainstream world - just like crime fandom (maybe to a lesser extent) worries about distinctions between golden age, hard-boiled, procedural and so on.
In both cases the really good stuff, the stuff that transcends the formulae and has something worthwhile to say - Atwood, or Houllebecq, or Alan Moore, Ballard, or Gunn - it "does" get noticed, it's just that people don't call it SF anymore. That's not to suggest that some really good books don't get unfairly overlooked because they're trapped in the sci-fi ghetto, but I'd argue that the vast majority of them don't get noticed because they're written and published based on what will sell to a very specialised, conservative audience (which is fine, it's how some people relax and some other people get paid), rather than on ambition or actually having something to say. Similarly, it's not to say that I wouldn't like to see some more fiction that deals with, y'know, "actual" science and scientists - precious little fiction of any stripe does, and there's a hugged untapped wealth of stories and themes out there.
(My 4 volumes of Gunn’s road to SF; the first 2 volumes lent to someone and never returned…I must find out who the prick was…)
So yeah, in most cases critics are probably right to overlook SF because the best stuff tends to rise to prominence, but when they spend some time picking out the best overlooked stuff (which is undoubtedly part of the process of your James E. Gunn's getting noticed), that's all to the good. And that's where Michael Page's book comes in. And what a breath of fresh air it was. SF has a focus on story-telling that is almost entirely absent from wanky stream-of-consciousness "literary" fiction. I've read SF that has fantastic prose, but because you actually know what's going on (most of the time), it isn't literary enough. This is true of all forms of genre storytelling - there are fantastic suspense and romance stories out there as well, in terms of plot, characterisation, research and language.
I do agree with SF sometimes being off-putting with the infodump syndrome, even the supposedly good stuff. I read Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and back in the day, James E. Gunn, for that reason, because there’s an art to it. A bit of background and world-building is good, but wanking on about what you happen to know (or can imagine) in the most minute detail gets very boring. Gunn belongs to this category. It is true that the best SF writers can slip in the relevant information in a completely painless manner - it's a real skill, but sometimes a good old fashioned infodump does wonders to the novel at hand.
Finally, when I get numpties telling off others for using the term "Sci-Fi", it's not surprising that SF fans can get a reputation for being earnest anoraks. Let's see, I've been calling it "sci-fi" since I started reading it - the mid-80s. It's a familiar term to most, and is more precise than saying SF, which can also mean "speculative fiction". I agree that crappy TV sci-fi is about 20 years behind the written form - which is why I call it "crappy TV_sci-fi". The only problem with most SF is that it's crap. Actually, Kingsley Amis (I think) put it well, when someone asked him if it was true that 95% of science fiction was crap, and he said yes, it was true, but then 95% of everything is also crap.
Reading this encompassing analysis of all the stuff Gunn ever wrote was a one hell of an eye-opener. It made me want to re-read some of the novels: “The Listeners”, “The Immortals”, which I remember loving when I still had pimples. I didn't read Gunn for the prose. I read his books for the ideas and the humour. His books are never less than interesting but sometimes the characters are a bit two dimensional as is the dialogue. Who reads Harry Potter for the prose style? You could also argue that Gunn is not only a SF writer. He’s also accessible because there is always a core of humanity and wit at the centre of his books and a search for meaning. Hard SF was not his forte. I cannot think of anyone comparable to Ray Bradbury (Fantasy/Horror) in the SF field as far as prose stylists go but does that matter? I thought Frank Herbert's Dune was a great book and very well written. Solaris was a very interesting book as are some of A.E. Van Vogt's books such as “Voyage of the Space Beagle”. I don't think SF is inferior to other genres as there is good and bad writing everywhere. Gunn belongs to the former. Kudos to Page for bringing out this gem and making me want to re-read Gunn.
SF = Speculative Fiction.
SF = Speculative Fiction.