Hard SF : About The Genre : Is SF "Good Literature"?

Is SF "Good Literature"?

First of all, I think it's reasonable to say that any genre or group of books (other than groups explicitly based on literary quality) will have various cases with diverse qualities. Certainly, not every book that might be accurately described as SF is ipso facto good even from the point of view of an SF reader.

However, the point of this article is something closer to "Is all SF bad literature?" Presumably, an SF site, such as this one, will not tell you all SF is bad. On the other hand, there are literary critics who consider any work in "genre fiction" to be suspect or incapable of reaching the ranks to "good literature".

There may be a thread of logic here. Especially to the extent a reader or writer restricts himself to a particular genre (SF, historical fiction, mystery, war, romance, etc.), he excludes great works outside that genre. Perhaps, for some writers the effort of writing within the boundaries of a particular genre tends to decrease the effort put into other aspects of creating superior literature. And so on.

There are a couple of objections I have to general dismissal of SF and genre fiction. First, what does it mean to be in a particular genre? If one defines SF as being those works that solely focus on those elements specific to SF and ignores those elements relevant to quality literature, then those works that fit that definition will tend to be bad literature. If you define SF as, for instance, stories situated in the future, then it should be possible to take a great work of literature and make a minimum number of changes to it to convince readers it takes place in the future. This revision of the great work will now meet that definition of SF. I don't see any reason why this change of setting must make the book inferior.

I'm not entirely happy with a definition that says a genre is a setting that can simply be changed like a costume. Still, there has to be some grain of truth in it. A successful story is about sufficiently familiar people, places, things and ideas. For instance, imagine an SF story that was entirely about alien beings, places, things and ideas that human readers could not identify with or find a way to fit into his world view. It might actually indicate the author's ability to conceive what aliens might really be like, but nobody would want to read it or appreciate any literary value it might otherwise have. A successful story, whether or not it has literary merit, will tend to have those human / familiar elements that would permit it to be presented in different settings. It could be set in 17th century France (appealing to readers of historical fiction), in 1800's Texas ("Western"), in 22nd century Mars ("SF"), etc.

It may not be quite that simple, but it does raise the question of just exactly what aspect does a "genre fiction" work have that could not be incorporated into a great work of literature? And what aspect does a great work have that can't be incorporated into a work of SF? And if one says, "a great work has the quality of greatness", then what precisely prevents an SF work from having "the quality of greatness"?

Another objection has to do with what is great literature. I was once in a discussion about the term "speculative fiction", which is sometimes used to group together SF, alternative history, fantasy, horror, and such genres. One person did not like the term, saying it was redundant and meaningless - he said that all fiction was speculative. There's a grain of truth in that. Fiction is a writer's creation of something not entirely real. But not just anything which did not literally happen. You could write a book describing a humdrum life of a person with no noteworthy characteristics and no interesting events. The story might be plausible as resembling the lives millions of people have. But because it is not a factual telling of a specific real person and his actual experiences, it is "fiction". It's not something many people would want to read. Assuming an extraordinary author could make a work of "good literature" out of that, I fail to see why the same author could not make "good literature" from an SF theme.

Good fiction seems to require a "speculative" view of people, preferably with individuals, places, events and ideas that are not overly mundane. It seems to me that SF has an advantage (thematically, at least) in this regard. It's hard to have a work be SF if it doesn't have significant elements that are out of the ordinary. You could write a book about the future in which the people were indistinguishable from people today, who had jobs indistinguishable from jobs today, who had hobbies that are common today, etc. But putting the story in the future gives you opportunities for other kinds of people, jobs and hobbies. The more you try to portray the story as being convincingly in the future, the more the internal logic tries to present some differences in the people, jobs, hobbies or other aspects.

This doesn't mean that today's SF is generally superior literature. There are other factors. Those aspects of personality that make a person into a "literary author" are not necessarily the same that incline someone to be an "SF writer". SF may also be an area that does not sell as many copies of a book as some other areas. Authors who want a wider audience, or simply a different audience, may choose to present their stories in a way that will not have them put in with other SF works.

Greatness Vs. Technical Skill

What constitutes great literature is not an objective fact such as which of two objects has a greater mass. As far as I am concerned, there is more to great art than technical expertise of the artist. The world's greatest pianist may play "Chopsticks" with incredible execution, but I don't think the entire experience deserves to be considered a work of "great art". In the same sense, the following comments are not intended to question the technical expertise, time and effort or similar attributes of any famous authors.

Perhaps, it's crude of me to express it this way, but I think this gets to the point of what books strike me as the best. There's a saying that small minds talk about people, average minds talk about events and great minds talk about ideas. I don't mean to argue that the saying is exactly true in all possible interpretations of the words. And while intelligence plays a part, there are other factors such as a person's emotional make-up influencing our preferences. However, I think there's some validity that more intelligent readers will be more likely to want books incorporating more ideas and events, and they will tend to be less attracted to books that are mostly gossiping about people. Regardless of whether a book focuses on people, events or ideas, it can be written by an author with extraordinary technical skill, and that will make it better than other books in the people or event or idea category.

There may be no objective criteria that says books about ideas or books for more intelligent people are inherently better books. But I can hardly see that they should be inherently inferior books. Not all SF is "idea fiction", but it is a genre that is positioned to consider ideas in a way that non-SF fiction is not to the same degree. This is especially true regarding ideas about the future. Although there is no reason why a particular work of fiction should be about the future, the future is an essential concern of all humans. Consideration of the future is why we are human - why we possess intelligence. It strikes me as foolish that fiction which deals with the future should be treated as less deserving fiction for humans.


The greatest literature would presumably excel in a number of areas, such as plot, characterization, description, setting and dialogue. Perfection may be a good goal, but there isn't a whole lot of it around. Some people seem to emphasize characterization. That's fine if that meets your tastes. Personally, I can't see that the main purpose of literature is to portray fictional characters that one cannot meet.

If the purpose of literature is to entertain, to distract us from other matters or take us all the way to escapism, then if SF serves that purpose for you, I don't see why you shouldn't consider it good literature. If someone else gets no enjoyment from SF, maybe it's "bad literature" for them. Looked at that way it's a purely subjective matter on which a literary critic can only say what appeals to him personally and what does not.

I would tend to think the same applies to things like dialogue and description. Those add quality to a book, but don't constitute a work of literature.

If you write a book without much characterization or description, I think you can have a "book" - not just in the physical sense of pages of paper between cover, but something a person might want to read. With virtually no characterization and description, it may not be a very good book, but still a book. What is it that is indispensable in a book? There are exceptions to every rule, but aside from a few of those, I think we can say a plot is needed. If there are no events or no significant chain connecting the events, what will you have? You could have a biography of a fictional character that had no series of events in their life. You could have the equivalent of watching you neighbors through the window - assuming those neighbors' activities did not amount to a plot.

The plot might simply be a device to move a character from one interesting setting with elaborate description to another, or a device to put someone in situations which facilitate his characterization. But even as a device, the plot is needed.

Should the plot play a supporting role or a central role? Perhaps in the ideal literature which is strong in all categories, there should not be one element with "the central role". Beyond that, I'm not sure we should think of literature as a single indivisible entity. What I like about SF and some other kinds of fiction are the thought-provoking "what if" scenarios. I think this is a valuable kind of literature, but not that all literature needs to be of that kind.

Elements such as setting and description can provoke thought. However, to make the most of it, I believe demands that plot be developed to some extent. This allows a fuller presentation of the "what if" scenario - not just showing what (with implications of what happens and the processes), but showing in detail the happenings and dynamics. It's the difference between a series of snapshots and a movie. The snapshots can convey much, but the movie can do more.