Literary Science Fiction

Science fiction is often viewed as an inferior form of literature; despite the prolific, intriguing and insightful works of such authors as Frank Herbert (of Dune (1965) fame) and, of course, Isaac Asimov, the genre has taken a back seat to the more respected genre of literary fiction. For instance, in an interview with Anthony Burgess for the LA Review of Books (interviewed by Jonathan Lethem), Burgess stated emphatically: “I don’t read science fiction”, prompting the notion that many authors are hesitant to align themselves with the genre (despite the author’s arguable engagement with science fiction in his work The Wanting Seed (1962)). Science fiction is so often associated with ostensibly low-brow cultures that many avid readers dismiss the genre as too commercial, clunky, juvenile or lacking in the literary prowess of more literary novelists. But many science fiction authors, if indeed they ought to be called such, have attempted to shut down this assumption. In his introduction to Ender’s Game (1985), Orson Scott Card writes: ‘a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel […] If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability.’

The science fiction genre is split into various sub-genres, including cyber-punk, sci-fi noir, space opera and sci-fi westerns, but also includes more literary works by authors more often associated with literary fiction. Often it is forgotten that such illustrious authors as Mark Twain and Jack London also penned works considered to belong to the science fiction oeuvre (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and The Iron Heel (1908) respectively). J.G Ballard, whose semi-autobiographical work Empire of the Sun (1984) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, penned some of the more intriguing works of sci-fi including his The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966). His short story collection Vermilion Sands (1971) also provides generous insight into the mysteriousness surrounding the darker side of sci-fi, though most would know Ballard for his salacious and controversial novel Crash (1973). Ballard is perhaps one of the few authors who has successfully managed to negotiate between the psychological explorations of humans known to high-brow literature, with the speculative imagination of science fiction.


The science fiction genre is often split into two groups: hard and soft sci-fi, the former featuring meticulous scientific detail of astrophysics and chemistry, while the latter involves more elements of the social sciences, including psychology. The latter, moreover, is much more character-oriented, making it a more palatable version of sci-fi for those reticent to engage in the genre. Although George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are perhaps the most notable of this stream of sci-fi, others, including Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo and many others have dabbled in the experimental process of literary science fiction. One of the more obscure, psychological works of literary science fiction is Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975), a incredibly complex work that rivals the lyrical complexity of James Joyce. The criticisms of this infinitely complex work have apparently come from within the science fiction community, though the work has been praised as a revolutionary work of literature, as well as an unsolvable riddle. Its influence can be seen in later novels including Jonathan Lethem’s science fiction work Amnesia Moon (1995), with comparisons often made between the work and Thomas Pynchon’s equally complex Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), written two years before Delany’s work.


The master of lyrical prose and a frequent individual on this blog, Vladimir Nabokov, possesses the rare chameleonic quality of adopting different literary styles. In his work Ada or Ardor (1969), Nabokov turns again to the theme of incest that proved so integral in his seminal Lolita (1955), and the book provides an alternative universe and history of the earth, where the United States (including Central and South America) have been colonised by the Russians, featuring provinces such as Estoty and Canady. Nabokov provides the same meticulous detail that he devotes to his earlier works, and explores his characters with the same intimacy. Similarly, channeling the imaginative Borges, Italo Calvino, most known for his metafictional If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) and the speculative Invisible Cities (1972), dabbles in the sci-fi genre with his collection Cosmicomics (1965). Featuring cover art by MC Escher, the collection features a narrator, Qfwfq, who narrates all except two stories, one of which is the romantic ‘The Distance of the Moon’, based on romantic relationships between people who jumped from the earth to the moon and vice versa. Similarly to Nabokov, Calvino provides alternate and elaborate histories of the earth, featuring time before the universe, and discusses notions of civilisation, geographic development, guilt, fear and love. Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics (2009) features both the stories from the aforementioned edition as well as the short stories from his postmodern sci-fi short story collection t zero (1967). The interplay between science fiction and literature seemed to reach its artistic pinnacle in the era of postmodernism, with Kurt’s Vonnegut’s phenomenal Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) revolutinising the relationship between the two, featuring an historical account of the bombings of Dresden amidst an intergalactic zoo that mates humans and animals. It seems the heyday of literary science fiction was the 60s and 70s.

The assumption that a genre containing the rigid and systematic element of science cannot exist alongside the flexible and imaginative world of literature is therefore somewhat of an erroneous notion; older examples include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and anything by H.G. Wells, as well as the ever-popular works of Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury’s colourful works (including his consequential Fahrenheit 451 (1953) undermine this notion, and yet the prominence of science fiction as a literary endeavour remains problematic. In 1998, Lethem wrote of the death of science fiction in society, arguing that the passing over of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in favour of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama: ‘stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream.’ But perhaps science fiction’s inclusion in the mainstream of Hollywood itself has actually dampened its reputation in a literary context. The poor adaptations of such illustrious works of science fiction including Asimov’s I, Robot series is a testament to the inability, or unwillingness, of the mainstream to remain faithful to the originality of the genre’s genius. By elaborating certain plot points of characters, the science fiction adaptation rarely does justice to the actually intricate psychological elements of the novel’s world. But simply the assumption that science fiction and literary fiction are incompatible is erroneous; the term ‘literary writer’ almost ought to be obsolete, since so-called ‘literary writers’ have continuously engaged in science fiction, such as Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1975), part of the 70s pinnacle of literary science fiction, and, of course, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), despite the fact that he chose not to read that particular genre…


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