“No wife who finds her husband addicting himself to science fiction need fear that he is in search of an erotic outlet, anyway not an overt one.”
In "New Maps of Hell" by Kingsley Amis
To put it in another context, imagine I'd be teaching F. Scott Fitzgerald to undergraduates, some of whom would be of African descent. Do we look at the casual racism found in the books and say "that's wrong?" No, we assume that everyone "gets" that it's wrong. But we look at the fact that this was considered normal/acceptable in F. Scott's day. He's still a magnificent writer, but he reflects his own era. Scott’s similar to Amis. His attitude to women is a reflection of the times. We can't shy away from that and pretend it isn't so, and we can't negate him as a writer, because of it.
Imagine yourself living in Lisbon as a young woman; wouldn’t you dread the endless comments, abuse, physical assaults that were part of your everyday experience. Maybe this young woman dreamt of buying an electric cattle prod and zapping those who threatened her. But it was the times in which they lived back then. Women had no rights in the 60s. The literature of the times, reflected that. Shall we zap Amis with a cattle prod for being a man of his time? No. First of all, I believe that all good books, whether niche or mainstream or somewhere in-between, must have an implicit message they are trying to put across, which should stick out almost like a sore thumb. That said, I in no way think this should make books programmatic. Writing a novel with the sole purpose of creating a text more politically correct than anything that has ever been written might take away, all at once, all the drama and conflict that all good novels - needless to say, I am merely expressing my own point of view here - play with to a certain extent. Secondly, SF (fantasy and science-fiction), possibly more so than any other genre, and even at their most mechanically chlichéd, are written and read not simply for "idle entertainment", but as a platform for escapism. And "entertainment" and "escapism" are definitely not the same thing. Sure, escapism includes enjoyment, but there are many other elements to it as well. (Such as creating a world that is only lineally similar to the one you attempting to escape from. Thirdly, if one raises the issue that "creators of fantasy stories [should] have the self-awareness to properly represent gender and race in their work". Whilst I agree that misrepresentation of elements such as race and gender should carefully be avoided in all forms of mass-media, I also believe that what we should tread carefully here. How, for instance, would you propose said careful representation of gender and race in fantasy texts? Would that not constrain the genre further, rather than pushing it to evolve? Also, I can easily think of dystopias (Margaret Atwood's included) where gender and race and misrepresented on purpose, and all for a good cause. (Take a world populated and ruled by physically perfect males, for instance, where restricted numbers of females are carefully kept under lock and key solely for reproductive purposes. Would a book describing such a world be encouraging development of an extremist patriarchal society, then?)
All in all, I think one tends to push the "balanced representation" argument a bit too far. What is a fantasy writer supposed to write? A book about a universe where there is a balanced percentage of elves and orcs, with a 50%-50% number of males and females in each population? And this just for the sake of keeping it all politically correct?
I think it is useful to develop a classification for relatively new genres, I just think some critics have an overemphasis on it - for me pigeonholing a book into a sub-genre is useful shorthand but also the least interesting thing you can say about it.
Thinking about gender, for example I am currently reading a fantasy novel; it is set in a grimy slum city and I have read less than a quarter of it. So far there have been about fifteen named male characters and three female (one of whom is a murder victim who never appeared in the book while she was alive. One of them is the main character's best friend's wife - she is tiny and quiet and has had about one line of dialogue. Meanwhile a squad of soldiers who all die in the same chapter; they are introduced and they're given histories and personalities and distinguishing features because obviously, the author found them cooler/more interesting to think about than a bar man's wife. I'm sure we can all think of genre books where the only female characters are the love interest and a few hookers.
I understand that sometimes books can be tedious because they fail to represent, say, women realistically and they reduce them to whimpering "angels in the house" or worse. That is, indeed, unfortunate and inadvisable. However, correctness, in this sense, would be "representing life as it actually is". Well, my point is precisely that the purpose of many, many SF works are representing the world as it actually isn't, i.e. envisioning forced situations which, as an effect, make the reader think. I am not saying authors should be careless and misogynistic (or, conversely, misandrist) in their approach. But by the same token, a forced political correctness, just for the sake of being politically correct is, I believe, misguided.
To make myself clear - yes, I believe characters should be represented realistically and convincingly. But I also think that authors should be free to represent unrealistic situations realistically and convincingly. Sometimes such situations may include gender and racial imbalance, but that is meant to be part of the story they are trying to tell.
Coming again to Amis’ take on SF’s classifications, it's more helpful to think about genres as a group of families than a series of classifications. Using that metaphor, you do away with the need to draw dividing lines, and grey areas become less problematic as you can think on them as cases of interbreeding.
As to the “genre fiction and comfort” catch phrase, there's a case to be made for candy floss vs. more fibrous fare in every genre. SF stories are challenging to precisely the extent they challenge, subvert and change the worldview encoded in the genre's DNA. That's every bit as true in SF as it is Mundane Fiction, sitcoms, period drama, epic poetry or the pop song.
This is of course a very old debate. Tolkien and CS Lewis and others powerfully made the case for fantasy as a serious literary genre back in the 1930s. Tolkien wrote a brilliant essay called "Beowulf: the monsters and the critics" which is still relevant and interesting - the link is here: http://scr.bi/GTjcoo.
I also think no discussion on the literary importance of SF is complete without referencing the important contributions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Le Guin's books are a sustained examination of patriarchy and injustice and their imaginative and literary power is inseparable from their genre status as science fiction. For her, the language of fantasy is a key tool for critical understanding of the present world. I have this quote from her above my desk: "Those who refuse to listen to dragons will probably spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night." Well said.
Often a good indicator of "gratification" versus more challenging entertainment is the attitude towards change. I like genre fiction that embraces the inevitability of transformation - not suggesting that all change should be enthusiastically welcomed for its own sake, but recognising that change will happen, and can be managed to some extent. What I don't like is fiction about restoring an "old order" or a "natural order", as seems to be the case with a lot of fantasy (and, to be fair, probably a fair amount of space opera too). In reality there are no golden ages, there is no natural order; there is only power and negotiation and moral debate - and the future is not going to resemble the past.
And then this pearl of wisdom from Amis concerning Fred Pohl showed up: “We have now reached the point of departure for the consideration, on some detail, of the work of Frederik Pohl, the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced.” What? Say again? Even by 60s standards this is a rather bold statement. There's a broad range of critical approaches taken even in the relatively small pool of SF critics and academics. This kind of rhetoric when it comes to SF is a formalist approach. It's a mistake to think that the development of, for instance, a structuralist approach, invalidates prior thinking. They are different lenses for looking at a text, and they show different things. “New Maps of Hell” specifically seeks to be a kind of Structuralist approach, though it's a pretty shoddy one, because I'm not convinced, I must say, that Amis understood much of the theory he tried to use. As with so many of the most acclaimed SF novels and stories, they must stay within the small and, frankly, ignorant little realm where self-referential people just read all this and think it must be the greatest stuff ever. (And it may be, individually, for them. There's nothing wrong with that. But to make all sorts of claims about literature and theory when they don't have a wide and thorough understanding of all the multiplicities is, to say the least, silly.) One can forgive the mediocrity of academics like Amis; the rush to get published so one doesn't perish is not conducive to great thought. But for the mediocre to be celebrated as gobsmackingly insightful by onlookers suggests that the intellectual culture of the onlookers is rather shallow and self-congratulating
The narrowness of Amis’s readings and conceptions is what limits him. Different lenses are useful for different things, but no lens deserves to be celebrated if it is covered with scratches, cracks and mud. There is a distinct lack of 'literary' merit (or, at least, what today is the current vogue for literary merit) in most SF because of the scale involved. SF seems to have to be about grand scale wars or space operas, clashes of good vs evil, and enormous journeys of revelation, whereas a lot of the literary fiction today is focused on the minutiae of daily life, beauty in microcosm, the power of a single word or action or seemingly minor deed. Surely it's not too much to ask for someone to bridge this gap - for the benefit of both genres...
For many of the reasons which I have already provided in some of my other posts concerning SF (and which I will try not to repeat, since repeating myself would be tedious). At the same time I believe that SF encompasses some of the few genres where "fairness" is not always entirely relevant based on the fact that:
a. I find that often, in fantasy, the one who is guiltier of misrepresentation is the reader rather than the writer. That is because he or she may be reading racial stereotypes where the writer didn't intend them to be, out of too zealous a sense of political correctness;
b. Again, science-fiction is often based on issues of unfairness for obvious reasons.
Moreover, some writers put a lot of effort into creating well-rounded characters and balancing out race and gender representations, they still use stereotypes and tropes from time to time. And yet, all of those are used in order to advance the story and push points that are morally valid and politically correct. China Miéville plays nicely with the "white trash" guy who is actually pretty much sentimental and turns out to be the saviour of the world as we know it trope (in "King Rat"). Catherynne Valente serves a succulent array of female prostitutes (we may easily call them that) who give up their bodies in exchange for just one night of bliss (read that as you will) in "Palimpsest". And yet these tropes do what they are meant to do. They push the story forwards and they make a point.
I guess what I am saying is that there is a fine line between "do" and "don't", especially in art/literature. And it might not be such a good idea to completely try to erase the "don't".
As a provision, I would also suggest that the expectation that writers must "treat characters as statements or representatives and not as individuals" is also a presumption and taste of our own particular time, place, and culture. Why "must" this be so? Are allegorical and symbolic modes always somehow less rewarding? I think that the whole palette should be available to the writer and the reader. I also think that imperatives about making fantasy "representative" reveal the degree to which contemporary notions of Realism have saturated aesthetic discussions. Representative values and individuation are certainly not as necessary (or necessary at all) for the success of works such as Dunsany's “The Gods of Pegana”, Cabell's “Jurgen”, Eddison's “The Worm Ouroboros”, or Lindsay's “The Voyage to Arcturus”. And I would maintain that -- viewed retrospectively -- two works that I greatly admire, “A Wizard of Earthsea” and “Perdido Street Station”, now seem as much about "types" as anything else. This is not meant to mark down Le Guin or Mieville. Far from it. Rather, I think that “A Wizard of Earthsea” and “Perdido Street Station” will endure despite their politics or ideology -- which will increasingly date over time -- by virtue of their style, tone, and aesthetic achievement are given accolades within the SF community because few people there care anything about literary criticism after about 1960 (Amis book came out in the 60s). And they're proud of their derriere-garde status. It's easier for them. They can keep arguing about whether dwarves and elves are fantasy or fantastika or whatever other classification neologism they come up with to feel clever. Such criticism will never grow up until it can give up on all the categorizing and move on to something meaningful. But while the writers yearn to be back in the good ol' golden age of their youth, so do the critics, whose understanding of what literature can be hasn't advanced much beyond secondary school.
SF = Speculative Fiction.
SF = Speculative Fiction.