Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On the Great Science Fiction Novel

John C. Wright has an interesting post with the title, Great Book of Science Fiction---Yet to be Written? He identifies four features that such a Great Book would have to exhibit:

(1) Timeless appeal;
(2) Infinite readability;
(3) Relevance to great ideas;
(4) Speculative sense of wonder.

There already are some genuine candidates for greatness along these lines, and in two cases -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s Canticle for Leibowitz -- I think the case can be made very, very plausible. There are many other lovely works in science fiction, of course, but examples of works that speak in a fundamental way to the human condition (if you'll pardon the awful cliché) in literarily great ways are not easy to find. Part of this is simply the subculture; science fiction is dominated by a pulp past and is heavily geared simply to spinning a good yarn. The more brilliant works are usually little experiments in this or that rather than something that we can point to as something that will never get old.

But there is never just one Great Book, and we live in a time in which there seem to be many quite excellent science fiction authors. But despite the fact that this is likely to result in much good reading, I don't know that we'll see many Great Books in the genre. Wright's brilliant, but he'll never write one; he lacks the seriousness. Stephenson has the sweep but he lacks the good sense that can put that sweep in a striking and straightforward narrative. Actually, that's a problem with many of the great science fiction writers of our time; too clever for their own good. Flynn has that good sense that can meld sweep with craft, but I think putting Eifelheim next to Canticle for Leibowitz shows that there's still something of a chasm to be leapt.

But, as they say, it is the Muse that decides. We are in a time where most writing is very plodding and uninspired; perhaps in all this aridity a new spring will break forth somewhere.

6 comments:

  1. Bellomy10:08 PM

    Out of curiosity I looked up "Eifelheim" on your blog due to your comments on my post, and stumbled upon this.

    Now that Wright's "Awake in the Night Land" has come out, would you call that one of the Great Books? I think it reaches greatness at times but isn't consistent enough (which is hardly fair, I suppose, seeing as it's a collection of four novellas and not one long novel).

    But the first novella, "Awake in the Night", is one of the best things I've ever read. And my word, that final line. Wow.

    (As for "Frankenstein", I liked it, but a Great book? I don't know. "Canticle" I'm only partly through, but so far I'd concur with your sentiment.)

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  2. branemrys11:03 PM

    The first and most important test of a truly good book is that those who love reading for its own sake continue to read it for the love of reading it (or, although obviously this is much harder to argue, would continue to read it for the love of reading it, if they knew about it); and a Great Book is just the limit case of a truly good book. Thus this kind of judgment requires a certain abstraction from one's own tastes; it is the test of readers -- not people who occasionally happen to read, but readers -- that matters. Among works that would commonly be classified as science fiction, Frankenstein certainly has better claim to pass that test than pretty much anything else that could be put on the table. People keep reading it and keep writing under its influence. And, being a Romantic novel, it easily meets a 'relevance to great ideas' criterion; Romantic novelists threw themselves at great ideas like moths at a flame, sometimes to immolation, and Mary Shelley was not an exception.

    I'm not sure how much appeal Awake in the Night Land, as a tribute to a science fiction novel that is relatively obscure even to many science fiction fans, could have in the wider world, even in principle -- which makes it at least difficult to argue that it is a Great Book, even if it is a good book that has some great craft. (And there's no question that Wright is capable of rising occasionally to great craft.) I don't think unevenness, though, is necessarily a weakness in a Great Book; even good Homer nods.

    I do think Awake in the Night Land makes it much harder to argue what I did argue in the post, that despite his talent he would never write a Great Book because he isn't able to be serious enough.

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  3. Bellomy12:03 AM

    ...and a Great Book is just the limit case of a truly good book. Thus this
    kind of judgment requires a certain abstraction from one's own tastes;
    it is the test of readers -- not people who occasionally happen to read,
    but readers -- that matters


    Hmmm, I'm not sure if I'm totally convinced. Certainly that's a part of it (and "Frankenstein" does have the fascinating distinction of being the father, or at least ancestor, of two distinct genres, horror and science fiction), but "Frankenstein" has serious flaws, mostly being that at times it can be really, really boring when Shelley spends a billion pages "telling" instead of showing (to be fair, I'm going purely off of memory now). And I would argue that she never reaches the heights of a Homer or a Tolkien.

    I'm not sure how much appeal Awake in the Night Land, as a
    tribute to a science fiction novel that is relatively obscure even to
    many science fiction fans, could have in the wider world, even in
    principle -- which makes it at least difficult to argue that it is a
    Great Book, even if it is a good book that has some great craft.



    I had never heard of "The Night Land" before reading his book (and when I tried to read it, I found it awful), and yet I was still able to pretty easily understand what was what, which can sometimes be a problem with Wright (I loved "The Plural of Helen of Troy" but had almost no idea what was going on, and eventually decided to Just Go With It). Well, with the exception of "The Last of All Suns". I still don't think I get that one.


    But anyway, that's part of my issue with the "test of readers". If you've written a serious work that addresses deep themes in a beautiful way, and is written with impeccable craftmanship, why is it not a "Great book" just because certain people may not decide to pick it up. Sure, its niche, but it's not the book's fault that people aren't going to want to give it a shot.


    (Not that "Awake in the Night Land" would necessarily make my list, anyway. I don't like just how much "The Last of all Suns" deviated from the rest of the collection.)



    Incidentally, I actually tend to like Wright's shorter work better than his novels. "The Last Guardian of Everness" did not hold up too great on a re-read, and I'm not yet an advanced enough sci-fi reader to appreciate "The Golden Age", but I loved the "City Beyond Time" collection, "The Book of Feasts and Seasons", and "Awake in the Night Land". Maybe it's just me?


    "Eifelheim" was better than any novel Wright wrote, but not as good as "Awake in the night" or "Pale Realms of Shade".

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  4. branemrys1:48 PM

    If you've written a serious work that addresses deep themes in a beautiful way, and is written with impeccable craftmanship, why is it not a "Great book" just because certain people may not decide to pick it up?

    What does it mean for a theme to be deep, or to be handled in a beautiful way, and how is its craftsmanship as a work to be read impeccable, if it is not in terms of what readers who love reading for its own sake continue to read for the love of reading it? A book is meant to be read, so its fulfillment of that intent can only be in terms of how readers, at least in principle, take it. Of course, it is certainly the case that people can write books that are not meant to be read; but, however much they may fulfill the purpose for which they are written, fulfilling that purpose is not a test of them as books.

    But, of course, in the context of the post, all of Wright's own criteria are structured as test-of-readers criteria: Wright himself acknowledges no other test, so what he is doing in writing a book is trying to write the kind of book that would meet a test of genuine, non-superficial readers continuing to read it.

    Personally, I like Wright's novels very much better than his short works; but it's certainly common enough for there to be authors (Orson Scott Card, Steven King) who are much better at their short work than their novels, so I don't know how much of that is my own taste for longform over shortform.

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  5. Bellomy10:43 PM

    (Interestingly, Wright recently re-published the original post on his blog!)

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  6. branemrys7:11 AM

    For one, you're assuming that the only reason our theoretical readers aren't reading the work is because of the work's quality,

    No such assumption is being made; I explicitly have included the hypothetical case, simply noting the obvious fact that it is considerably more difficult to argue. And, indeed, how could it not be? There's much more speculation required.

    Quality of a literary work is not a magical quality that can be identified independently of readers; it is something that exists in the objective features of the work as read.

    Were they to read it, would any of the things that make the book so great now be outdated by that point? I don't think so.

    This is precisely the right way to begin to argue. It's just not as easy an argument as you are trying to make it, since it is not a matter of subjective assessment but a matter of being able to point to precisely what in the work would give reason to think that. The peculiar status of the book simply puts it in a situation in which arguing for its status as Great Book is much more complicated than it would otherwise be; it's already working under a handicap in that regard. The same would be the case with Null-A Continuum.

    It's infinite re-readability, not just readability.

    I have no clue what it would mean to be infinitely readable only once; and I have explicitly interpreted it as re-reading all through this discussion.

    But again, people do re-read Frankenstein; I know several people for whom it is one of their favorite books. I've read it about four times in my life and it is very far from being my favorite book. But this is precisely why it is important to abstract somewhat from personal tastes: the only viable test of compelling prose writing, for instance, is whether it actually compels anyone. If we go around saying that prose is not compelling when in fact people who love reading for its own sake often are compelled by it, then our standard of compelling prose is wrong. And so on with everything else one can name. (Of course, it's not a survey, and merely appealing to anecdotes is at best a start of the argument, not the end. One needs to know why people keep reading it in order to abstract from mere personal quirks.) We have to get out of the thinking that good literary judgment belongs to people putting them forward as having good literary judgment; it belongs to people who love to read for its own sake, and literary critics of any kind are either identifying the features of the work that such people in general like or they are shams. Literary judgment is not an act of will or enthusiasm; it is an act of reading that must hold itself to the relevant benchmarks.

    (For my own part, I think the weakness in Frankenstein is not the prose, which strikes me as competent, if not spectacular, Romantic prose; and I don't think there's any doubt that it is more fast-paced than most of the Romantic prose of the day. Compare Frankenstein to, say, Vashek, and I would say Frankenstein holds up pretty well. My complaint, and the complaint of most people I know, is the character of Victor, who is so consistently a drama queen, taking all of his actions to be of world-historical significance, that he gets very wearing very quickly. It's not actually surprising that The Creature, not Victor, comes across as the most striking and memorable character, despite the fact that it's actually structured as Victor's story.)

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