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  1. #1
    GemQuest Moderator Gary Wassner's Avatar
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    Last bastion of philosophical writing

    I just read an article in Details or Wired, can't remember now, by Clive Thompson subtitled 'Why sci-fi is the last bastion of philosophical writing.' And he asks "So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers?" The intellectual tradition he's referring to is that of thought experiments a la Socrates, Hobbes and Beauvoir. He claims that there are "only so many ways to describe reality" and that contemporary literature is getting boring. So, if you want to "read books that tackle profound philosohical questions, then the best -and perhaps only-place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas."

    Any thoughts?

  2. #2
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    First, since he's mentioning Narnia and Pullman's stories, etc. he's got a very broad definition of SF, which I think is worth pointing out on a SFF forum, where terms are usually more fine tuned.

    Second, the impression I got was "holiday effect". Wherever you go for a holiday people are living mundane lives. The point is: I'm not sure if SF would still be the great literature of ideas, if you've grown up on genre tropes, as I have. (I read SF before I got into literary fiction.)

    That said, I do agree that SF (or "speculative fiction", which is what most around here would call what he's really talking about) can contain ideas to ponder. And I wouldn't want to turn anyone off the genre.

  3. #3
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Well, my first problem with these things is that they call them "serious adult readers." Exactly how does one get to be a "serious" adult reader? Is it the number of books you read or which ones you read? Is there some monitoring board that tells you that you're serious or not? Well, they read the serious fiction. Unfortunately, no one agrees what that is.

    I was having a discussion the other day with a pal, a university professor, about how Philip Roth kept coming up recently in television shows I was watching as the writer intellectual people read and know, and my friend said, in agreement with several prominent spokespeople of the intellectual whom she cited, that Roth was pureile and not intellectual at all. So is Roth an over-rated, pseudo-intellectual, self-absorbed male navel-gazing writer or is he a serious fiction writer? Is Stephen King, who was awarded a prize for literary achievement by one group of "serious" folk and derided for it by others?

    And then there's the idea that serious fiction is philosophical and that this is what serious adult readers are most concerned with. Mostly, they're not. What "serious" readers tend to extol is poetic use of language -- the "literary" style -- more so than theme or character focus. Secondary to that is political commentary, which can be said to be philosophical somewhat, but could just as well be argued to be a separate aspect. We see this also happen in SFF, where any story that is focused on the political is considered by some to have more heft than those that do not.

    But what is really meant by "serious adult readers" in these things is people who don't like us, especially those who may have academic or journalistic credentials, but also just the rank and file folk who say, "I am a serious adult reader and I think SF is piffle." To continually concentrate on these people and to give them credence is to rudely ignore the thousands of "serious" folk, many of whom have academic or journalistic credentials, who do like SF and advocate it as literature, teach it in universities, etc. Yet, like politicians chasing after extremists to win their votes, we fixate on the malcontents, who have numerous different reasons to dislike SF, ranging from the fact that its titles are in mass market paperback to a belief that non-realistic elements in fiction lead to moral decay. And given that the Mundane SF fans and advocates feel that writing about inter-stellar space travel will cause people to give up trying to save the Earth's environment, we can hardly call that a strange view.

    Contemporary fiction has not gotten rid of the philosophical or of studying the human condition. Contemporary fiction hasn't gotten boring. We don't have to trash one area of fiction to advance another. Rather than calling SFF the last bastion -- when in fantasy's case, it was really the first bastion -- we just need to continue to stress that SFF deserves and in fact has a seat at the table. And for many serious adult readers, it does.

    Now that I've had my rant, I'll say that any article that advocates SFF as literature certainly helps, in category or out, so I don't have an objection to it. But I do snort at it a bit.

  4. #4
    Where's Tonto zorobnice's Avatar
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    Serious Adult Readers, now there's a concept. For many years my wife has believed that thee stuff I read is, well actually, trash. It goes above her organised realistic mind to believe anything else. One day I mentioned to her that Gary was coming to Cape Town, and then we got to discussing his books, followed by Bakker, Erikson and a few others. It was only at that stage that she realised what we read were not fairy tales, but clever stories, written by clever people. People who had ideas, beliefs and convictions. She is still not totally convinced, but I have to say that I have found more food for thought in our genre then in the stuff she reads, Grisham, Balducci, and others. I deal with real life every day, this is the way it is in my line of work, coming home to read about far off places and ideas keeps me out of thhat rut of living and thinking run of the mill ideas. There is more to life, we need to expand our horizons, who better than fantasy authors to question the hereafter, to make us think of other possibilities. They are not constrained by the rules of reality.

  5. #5
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Ouch. Don't tell your wife, Zorobrice, but Grisham and Balducci are considered trash, hack writers by many. There are a lot of people who are very invested in creating two divisions -- commercial writing, which sells well and is purely for entertainment, and literary writing, which sells poorly and is about art and thought. SFF is placed in commercial for two reasons -- it's mostly paperback, and its connections to children's market, comics, and films. These divisions don't work, especially as literary writing sells very well and commercial writing is studied in universities, but people still like to make the distinction, usually based on their personal preferences. As the two forms of unrealistic story-telling, SFF and SFF horror are easily separated from the pack and so can go in the one division whole hog.

  6. #6
    Where's Tonto zorobnice's Avatar
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    KatG I agree with you wholeheartedly on the Grisham, Baldacci issue. We have on some threads discussed why people read what they read, and well in this case we cannot understand each other's reading taste. The only thing we both like reading are home magazines (which I don't really think counts). But on the topic, I do believe that with the licence that Fantasy authors have they do breach moral and philosophical issues, which in turn makes you think about them. I do not read almost any books not in this genre, so I don't think I am qualified to comment too loudly on other fiction.

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