The Literary Question

Late in 2018, I kicked off a project to dig into the history of the fantasy and science fiction genres. I returned to some of the science fiction literary criticism I had read before and picked up some new pieces as well. I decided to start my newest round of investigation with what I thought would be a simple procedure: establish what is science fiction, what is fantasy, and what is neither.

Answering this question turned out to be neither simple nor straightforward. Instead of clearly defined boundaries between science fiction and fantasy, I found instead blurry regions where those two intersected with themselves and all other genres. This should not have surprised me too much, as I regularly blend elements from many different genres in my own writing.

The other thing I discovered in reading and re-reading all that research was that the genre boundaries are heavily tied into science fiction and fantasy writers’ self-conception as a marginalized group. This idea is perhaps hard to understand in the present, particularly for anyone in their twenties or younger. We have shifted into a world where “literary merit” has been replaced by “market appeal,” and science fiction and fantasy are decidedly profitable genres. However, before roughly the turn of the millennium, when the literary establishment held more sway than market forces, there was much talk of science fiction and fantasy being relegated to the “literary ghetto.” In other words, authors attempting to write in these genres felt excluded from the systems of book reviews, and literary conferences and awards, which writers in realist genres had ready access to. Having gotten an undergraduate literature degree myself right around the turn of the millennium, I became acquainted with this “genre elitism” as a number of my professors espoused it.

What has interested me most in recent years, especially after spending three months trying to tease apart science fiction, fantasy, and realism to no avail, is just why realism got so entrenched in the literary establishment in the first place. Answering that question led me to some really interesting places.

When viewed on the other side of multiple decades, all of my conversations with individuals who believed in the superiority of realism over the fantastic came down to a relatively simple idea, whose logic goes like this:

  1. Literature exists in order to provide the reader with access to novel perspectives on the human experience.
  2. The events of fiction are, by definition, never “real;” they have never actually happened anywhere on Earth.
  3. If an author crafts a work of fiction depicting events that are not only unreal, but also impossible in reality, then such events have no power to teach the reader anything about the human condition.
I accept positions 1 and 2. I disagree with position 3.

My position aligns closely with the first science fiction literary scholar, Darko Suvin, who understood that fantastic events can teach a reader about their real world, especially when they help the reader escape doctrinaire thinking and envisage a world of vastly different social and economic relationships1.

Consistent with prominent lines of thinking in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Suvin was mostly interested in literature that would advance democratic socialism, and his definition of science fiction has been criticized for closing the walls of science fiction too narrowly around politics and for excluding fantasy entirely.

My argument is that Suvin’s thesis is easily extended to all forms of liberated thinking, not just those narrowly concerned with economics and social class. Science fiction and fantasy, if they are well enough crafted, are capable of helping a reader think about any number of aspects of the world that could be better than they are—politics, the environment, religion, art, technology, philosophy—you name it.

And so, I find myself in an interesting place. If science fiction and fantasy can be utilized to expand a reader’s worldview about absolutely any element of the human condition, how do their boundaries relate to those of “literature?” My current conception has “literary” as a superset that includes all well-written fantasy, science fiction, realism, and every other genre, all of which have porous boundaries, with numerous works occupying the hazy, indistinct zones of overlap.

Not an easy concept to grok, for sure. Perhaps one day I’ll ask Zhivko Zhelev to craft an illustration of it. Or, better yet, perhaps I’ll invent a science fiction narrative capable of eliciting the concept. How’s that for meta?

1 Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Peter Lang AG.