literature · science fiction · writing

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.


6 thoughts on “

  1. I have often said the same thing, but differently. It was my contention that to be the equivalent of a mainstream short story, and SF story would have to be a novelette. The reason is the same: the SF writer =must= as a matter of course spend some of his word-count describing the world in which the story occurs. Unless the writer is =very= good, in which case descriptions of the “Umwelt” do double duty in exposing the character as well.

    Of course, a story need not be =about= “the inner life of characters” in whatever situation. But the character ought to have an inner life: he ought to be “stuffed” if he is not to be an empty shell. So even if the story was not about the person, the reader should receive the impression that there was a person in the story.

  2. Yes. And if Eifelheim’s protagonist isn’t a good example (stuffed to the gills, IMHO) –I don’t know what is.


    In a good story or novel, I think, the events of the story are what prod that inner life into the outside, at least for the audience if not for the other characters surrounding the main one….

  3. The usual advice is that the story begins when some event “outside the character” introduces a change into that character’s life. Lord of the Rings begins [as a story] when Gandalf gives Frodo the task of bearing the One Ring to the Council of Elrond. Everything up to then has been prelude: introducing Frodo, in effect, so that we can see the effect of the intervention. Similarly, the Dust Bowl puts the Joad family in conflict with their environment by changing it to one they want to escape. Defoe has Robinson shipwrecked on a deserted island. And so on. The coming of the alien Krenken puts Dietrich in conflict with his environment.

    All this works more smoothly when the environment (the Umwelt) or “milieu” of the story is one familiar to readers. Tolkien had to spend some effort in establishing Middle Earth and the Shire — though he cheated: the Shire is rural England — but Lawrence Block needn’t spend too much effort establishing New York City.

  4. I think it’s pretty clear, pace Hartwell, that most science fiction does not excel at “the behavior of characters in unusual and at best entirely plausible invented settings”; it’s one of the reasons why, despite having a heavily science-fictional taste in fiction, I don’t like most science fiction that’s published — I love it, but I also find myself very, very picky about it. It’s true of some of the Greats that they excel at depicting the behavior of characters in unusual settings, people like Mary Shelley (but she does inner life flawlessly anyway), or Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells; but it’s not the classics that are stuck in the science fiction ghetto. Most science fiction just doesn’t come close to excelling at the presentation of people acting in unusual settings.

    But it’s hard to speak of science fiction in general, I think; I often think we should consider it to be a large and diverse family of genres that mutually adapt each other’s tropes rather than a genre itself. Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker is not really the same genre as Walter J. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Jules Verne, with his adventure stories about engineers creating more ambitious versions of things that Verne found mentioned in the papers, is doing something radically different from H.G. Wells, with his romances and parables loosely based on scientific ideas.

  5. But it’s hard to speak of science fiction in general, I think; I often think we should consider it to be a large and diverse family of genres that mutually adapt each other’s tropes rather than a genre itself.

    I agree. And it isn’t helped by the exigencies of modern book selling which insist on putting Allen Steele and Greg Bear side by side with peddlers of vampire detectives and other kitsch.

  6. Hmm. I’m not terribly convinced by his main premise, to tell you the truth. I wouldn’t say SF was a particularly small and underread genre, it is just a certian type of genre though, that certain people will want to read and others won’t.

    Like murder mystries, some people read them, others can’t stand them (I find them a bit frustrating myself). Or westerns, same idea. Some people like the world (or worlds) that SF provides, others don’t.

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