Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Why Science Fiction Hasn’t Been Taken Seriously

For the record, in my remarks about Philip K. Dick, I did not intend to be understood as saying all science fiction is garbage. It was my error that what in my mind was the voice of the devil’s advocate came out on the page as a flat statement. This didn’t hit home to me until I saw that Quill & Quire posted a link on their site quoting me and taking what was written at face value. I would hardly take up a regular stint discussing something I have no respect or liking for, and I’m not one of those who thinks that if it’s any good, it can’t be SF.

The field is now and always has been full of good, even brilliant, writers. Unfortunately, they are crowded out by the hacks, some of whom are so admired within the field that their works come to stand for all of SF in the eyes of outsiders. Also complicating matters is the fact that some of SF’s greatest writers are at the same time its worst. This really explains how I feel about Philip K. Dick: It’s too bad such a potentially great writer performed so poorly. (I feel pretty much the same way about Dostoyevsky. I’d really like to love his stuff, but it’s unreadable.)

Part of my desire to do this column was to talk about the writers I admire and read with pleasure, something that as far as I know, no other non-SF writer has done—at least not regularly.


A graduate degree in physics is no preparation for a life in letters. Neither is a degree in languages or literature, by the way, but at least it exposes people to the history, theory and practice of an art form. An education in science encourages adherence to observable rules and constant repetition—which explains a lot of American SF. But I imagine it’s no longer true that most SF is written by scientists. Judging by what I see on the shelves these days, I’d guess it’s mostly written by the American military.

That’s not really surprising, given that perhaps the most admired and influential American SF writer is Robert A. Heinlein. Sometimes branded fascist by his critics, Heinlein’s work cleaves so closely to clichéd American ideals and prejudices I can’t help but regard it as obvious capitalist propaganda. Certainly, it’s common in his work to find Big Business and the military cozying up in an alarming fashion, often opposed by “government.” In fact, Heinlein only ever seems to like government when it follows the dictates of, or is run like, business or the military. Recall how in one loathsome, yet “classic,” Heinlein short story, “The Roads Must Roll,” labourers in the city’s transit system go about their business armed with guns—and good thing, too, because of the subversive terrorists sabotaging the system. (Naturally, the only fault in this otherwise perfect system is the ideological enemy. There’s never a question of technical, economic or social considerations. Besides, it’s handy to have a sidearm to shoot at political enemies on the say-so of an official who is effectively the transit commissioner.) I don’t know where you live, but I just can’t imagine that it would be a good idea to have the mechanics and bus drivers in Toronto armed and ready. We already have enough to worry about with the actual police.

The above is an example of the kind of stupidity (or, let’s be generous and say Error of Common Sense) that turns many people away from science fiction. Another, less politically charged—and almost charming in its way, which pretty much sums up the differences between the two authors—error occurs in one of Isaac Asimov’s stories in I, Robot. The scientists are faced with some technical problem arising in a new model robot. We’re told that the robots’ positronic brains are much better at solving problems than ours and can perform an infinite number of calculations in the time we take to blink. Effectively, then, the robot brains are computers. Yet faced with an impending deadline to solve a programming error in the new robots, the scientist actually sits down at his desk with a pencil and a slide rule, working away furiously through the night. Uh, Earth to Asimov? Come in, Asimov …

But back to writers I like, and writers who are both good and bad at the same time. Take Michael Moorcock: an enormously talented and intelligent man who’s written some wonderful books—and an enormous horde of crap. Worse, most of his good novels have fallen out of print while the poor ones remain available. Recently reprinted after a long absence is his terrific Gloriana, which owes as much to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast as it does to Spenser’s Faerie Queene. An Alien Heat is a charming far-future homage to the aesthetes and decadents of Victorian England (it’s the first in a trilogy, but the remaining volumes peter out). The Brothel in Rosenstrasse is such a good pastiche of the European symbolists it might as well be on a course list. The Jerry Cornelius novels are baffling and unique, and one of them won him a Guardian Prize.

Moorcock seems to me like the genre equivalent of Angela Carter (I gather they were friends; from blurbs and dedications you can see they were mutual admirers), by which I mean no disrespect. I mean they seem to have read and loved the same sources, and in the odd way that two completely individual artists can echo one another, I think they do. But like Philip K. Dick, Moorcock has been known to churn out novels in record time. Even some of the good ones, I believe. His output is enormous and ongoing, but its uneven quality ensures that somewhere, a reader could pick up a lesser opus and conclude the author is a waste of time. Definitely not the case. I’m positive at least some of Moorcock’s work will endure. The danger is, it might be his Elric series.

This is a little like the situation with television. So much of it is such trash that it’s easier just not to watch. Too bad. The Sopranos, South Park, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the early years of This Hour Has 22 Minutes … there’s often gold in there.

Part of my desire to do this column was to talk about the writers I admire and read with pleasure, something that as far as I know, no other non-SF writer has done—at least not regularly.
We’ve seen Jonathan Lethem praising Philip K. Dick (although Lethem, like Kurt Vonnegut, began his career in the genre), Borges and Joyce Carol Oates talking about H. P. Lovecraft, Umberto Eco blurbing Samuel R. Delany and perhaps a few other instances. But by and large literary writers don’t read much SF. Or they read only what’s supposed to be the best, according to fans, and are put off. Or maybe they are keeping their “unsavoury” reading habits to themselves.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of commercialization of literature in general, especially in a society (ours) that abandons everything to the roulette wheel of the marketplace. But we must recognize that volume of consumption does not equate with value. Otherwise, we would agree that McDonald’s is the pinnacle of cuisine. And we would revere pornography.


Here my editor wants me to insert a few remarks about the difference between sci-fi and SF. But instead of getting bogged down in terminology, let me just say the real problem is there’s so little willingness within the genre to distinguish between serious work and crap. Hugo winners churn out Star Trek novels. Critical histories and encyclopedias insist on completeness in their listings instead of importance, to the point of wasting time on television shows and comic books. Their justification? Popularity. Imagine if the Oxford Companion to English Literature, for instance, included entries on Jeffrey Archer and Harold Robbins, or on daytime soap operas. Who would take it seriously? In SF, these types of handbooks—and now the annual best-of-the-year anthologies too—have degenerated into simple lists, not guides or introductions. Everyone is blurbed as being a brilliant new voice even while the cover art depicts humanoid cats with machine guns.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of commercialization of literature in general, especially in a society (ours) that abandons everything to the roulette wheel of the marketplace. But we must recognize that volume of consumption does not equate with value. Otherwise, we would agree that McDonald’s is the pinnacle of cuisine. And we would revere pornography.

It’s long been common for the mainstream to admire certain mystery writers, even favourably comparing them to literary giants. An early example of this is Dashiell Hammett. The latest is Elmore Leonard, and both deserve all the recognition they get. Now it feels like SF is poised to deliver up some canonical figures. In Britain, it’s hard to find a more respected writer than J. G. Ballard, judging by the glowing reviews he gets and the writers who’ve taken time to speak favourably of him: Angela Carter, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, among others. It baffles me why Ballard’s books get so little attention in North America. Yes, he’s still writing. And William Gibson’s following has long since outstripped hard-core genre fans. In both cases, their writing so far outshines the mealy pap of commercial SF, as did Vonnegut’s years earlier, that it seems natural they should garner real critical attention. Now that so many of us have grown up on the genre, shouldn’t it lose some of its dubious reputation? Indeed, early SF novels are now starting to appear as classic titles in the Modern Library (and they are doing a wonderful job on the covers for H. G. Wells; see War of the Worlds, for instance).

But no one’s reputation is served by indiscriminate praise, whether from a literary novelist or from an adolescent geek. We must be as hard on the genre writers as we are on anyone else. If they are to be considered of literary value, they must meet literary standards.

Michel Basilières, a novelist and new father based in Toronto, is the author of Black Bird. Basilières' column on alternative literature, The Outer Edge, appears monthly.