Underground Reading: The Stand by Stephen King (Part 1)
Underground Reading: The Stand by Stephen King (Part 2)

The Literature of Ideas; or, please stop laughing at me

Idea! One of the many revelations that came out of the SFX Weekender was the ubiquity of science fiction being defined as the "literature of ideas". 

I can understand the temptation - and seeing how widely used the phrase has become, clearly I'm not the only one. Being "the literature of ideas" gives science fiction the authority of science. Or broadening it out - it gives speculative fiction permission to speculate. Yours is the fiction of the kitchen sink, ours is the literature of the future. Your fiction cares only about petty, worldly things - Booker Prizes and the New York Times Book Review. Our fiction is concerned with more lofty matters - the future of the human race, or the farthest reaches of the imagination.

There is a triumphant poetry in its very use: "The Literature of Ideas."

This is, of course, complete bullshit.

Science fiction (and by this, I mean science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, whatever... dragons seem just as keen to jump on this bandwagon as the starships) is no more or less about "ideas" than any other type of fiction. This isn't staking a claim, it is chucking fence posts into the ocean. I might be bored shitless reading Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, but I'm not going to argue they didn't have ideas in them. 

Clearly, those two make for a hyperbolic extreme, but flipping through the titles that clog up the top 50, they aren't suffering fora lack of ideas. If a non-sf author chooses to ruminate about the minutae of a courtroom, the machinations of family life or the shenanigans of Cold War hardmen, that may not be our particular choice of in-flight reading, but their books still have ideas. There's speculation involved. Imagination. An author making things up. The "literature of ideas"? That's just fiction. (Honestly, you could extend it to non-fiction, too, but that's another post on another blog.)

Like everyone else, I went through a period of hiding my sf books, or wrapping them in something else, or just running the daily risk of carrying them around and having folks laugh at me. But I also played tennis, not soccer, and I resisted the urge to refer to myself as the "master of balls". A lot of the world just doesn't get sf. But those dicks that laughed at me aren't going to laugh any less when I defend David Eddings as the "literature of ideas". The phrase is made more pathetically self-congratulatory by its grandiosity.

"The literature of ideas" is also an inherently poisonous aspiration. When I hear Peter Hamilton and Clive Thompson praise the "literature of ideas", it puts world-building on a pedestal. It is wonderful that we have a genre that can hypothesize about AIDS on the Moon or explore identity problems in a world without eyes, but the roadsides of sf are littered with great ideas. Having a compelling idea is just one part of the puzzle, no more important than any of the other pieces (and often, much less so) . Setting a book on Venus doesn't give it permission to have paper-thin characters. And the mere existence of dragons doesn't preclude the presence of plot.

Our literature has enough ideas, it is time to work on how they're expressed. If there is something unique and magical about sf, it may be that no other genre seems to be as consistently forgiving of poor characterisation and predictable plotting. Like comics, sf has consistently maintained a desperate relevance by feverishly plinking the same, narrow, adolescent band over and over and over again. "The literature of escapism" is a more accurate, if back-handed, definition of sf's current state. For the genre that has given us timeless characters, brilliant stories and great ideas, that's simply not good enough.