Updike, Science Fiction and “the Modernist position”
In the back-page editorial for the latest (March) issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, David G. Hartwell passes along some grim forecasts for the field in publishing (which I’ll discuss in a separate post).
After which he writes:
I had hoped to devote this editorial entirely to John Updike, but a condensed version will have to do. Updike was one of the principal arbiters of literary taste in the U.S., a writer of extraordinary talent, and, like Edmund Wilson, a fine book reviewer, principally for the New Yorker. Like W.H. Auden in the generation before him, he was interested in science as well as literature, and Updike was the single most influential force in establishing the literary acceptability of Ursula K. LeGuin in the mainstream in the U.S. He uttered an authoritative marginalization of science fiction as a whole in his New Yorker review of my own A World Treasury of Science Fiction–in part authoritative because it came from a selective sympathizer. He set up his discussion with what he called the crucial question: “What keeps science fiction a minor genre, for all the brilliance of its authors and apparent pertinence of its concerns?” His answer I always found unsatisfactory: “Each science fiction story is so busy inventing its environment that little energy is invested in the human subtleties.” My short version response is that this is fairly clearly a restatement of the Modernist position that good literature is solely about the inner life of characters in ordinary situations. Science fiction in general does not attempt that but excels at the behavior of characters in unusual and at best entirely plausible invented settings. I invite our readers to comment.
Now…there are a couple of things one can say about this. I would agree with DGH, first of all, if you accept his version of the Modernist position. But… I’m not sure that’s a fair version. One can, for instance, find modern novels that are about the inner life of characters in not-so-very-ordinary situations and not-so-ordinary settings–even if the environments are more familiar than those posed in SF novels. (I’m talking about hard SF, not Fantasy.)
For example, off the top of my head: Lord of the Flies. Sophie’s Choice. Anything by Elmore Leonard. Atonement by Ian McEwan.
If many mainstream novels are quite obviously about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances (the Holocaust, World at War, etc.), you can argue this undercuts SF’s claim to special consideration. If all you have to distinguish the genre now is the invented environment (however plausible)–I don’t think it’s enough. And it seems to me that Updike’s criticism –SF is long on environment, short on humanity–can still be made of many SF novels. [Obviously not all–and there are superb writers like James Morrow, Jonathan Lethem, Mike Flynn, Ken MacLeod, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, among my favorites) who write so well they transcend the genre.] Unfortunately, I think critics can still claim SF novels often sacrifice character and plot for the sake of their environments. A lot of SF novels you see on the shelves–if you can easily pick them out from the surrounding interminable series of infantile vampire novels, just don’t invite a second reading.
So, inventing a different environment can’t get SF off the hook, I think, for not producing more of what most in the mainstream of readers expect in a good story, including–especially–the human subtleties. I know a lot of SF writers and editors were unhappy when the late Stanislaw Lem unloaded on the genre in his now infamous essay from the early 1970s–but his point I think still stands: Too many hard SF stories are just not very well written–with characters that are shallow and uninteresting. Dialogue is very often mediocre at best (I just finished one, for example, about a hop-scotch trip across the galaxy through wormholes that frankly could have succeeded much better without any dialogue at all.)
Last week I linked to Will Saletan’s coverage of the young Japanese woman who underwent IVF and then aborted the child when she found out the doctor had made a mistake and implanted an older woman’s embryo–in essence the latter’s last chance to have children at all. The story is, as Saletan observes, both grotesque and agonizing. Clearly the technology and science have made for new circumstances which few people might have foreseen. The result: tragedy.
Now, if Ursula K. LeGuin had written this as a novel 40 years ago before IVF was even available, during the New Wave of SF, with all of the tragedy, pathos and poignancy it brings to the surface here as a news story, Updike might well have labeled it a triumph. It would be available in a nice edition from Farrar Straus & Giroux and not as a cheap paperback with a second-rate cover. (How SF is branded and marketed by the publishers is a whole separate topic–and in my opinion has to loom large as one of the reasons it still isn’t taken seriously.)
But in fact, no one in SF did write this story 40 years ago. Or, if they did, it was so poorly written it never rose to the surface after it appeared in Galaxy or Amazing Stories. So I think Updike’s point is still well taken.