Can science fiction ever be great literature?

In the “good (?) old days”, science fiction’s literary status was that of popular detective fiction at best, or “true romance” and “true adventure” – type pulp fiction at worst. The idea of an academic study of the field was considered absurd. There had been a significant revival in science fiction’s literary fortunes since. While still very much a minority academic interest, scholarly books, starting with Kingsley Amis’ 1958 series of lectures (later published in book form) New Maps of Hell, through works such as Brian Aldiss’ A Billion Year Spree in the 1970s and numerous later works, summarized in Nicholls, Clute and Langford’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s entry about SF academic criticism  — the Encyclopedia itself being, indeed, a prodigious work of just this kind. Yet for all that, I doubt that science fiction can ever — or rather, almost never — be truly great literature.

Science fiction comes in a variety of flavors. The first is wish-fulfillment fantasy: hero fights physically repulsive bug-eyed monsters (which are, therefore, necessarily, morally evil), which for some reason feel sexually attracted to female homo sapiens; destroys the evil scientist’s menacing godless creations; becomes emperor of the galaxy through sheer determination and physical force; gets the girl; etc. This sort of potboiler work is written, or at least used to be written in the days before television, for pure low-level entertainment. It is mostly a set of cliches strung together, to enable the (usually young male) readers to vicariously identify with the hero in a well-known plot.

The second is the re-telling, in the far future, of the old adventure story of “meeting strange new worlds” — that is, strange civilizations — common since the Odyssey. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is, of course, the classic here. Very well known too is Star Trek — essentially the retelling of Captain Cook’s (Kirk’s) adventures in HMS Endeavour (Enterprise) in meeting new, strange civilizations (in the south seas vs. on other, all more or less earthlike, neighboring planets). On a lower literary level, we have Star Wars, which is in effect the re-telling of Cinderella with the sexes reversed, with Luke Skywalker in the title role, Obi Wan Kenobi as the fairy godmother, and, of course, Darth Vader as the evil stepmother (and, apparently, those incredibly annoying robots as the mice from Disney‘s version of the tale). More generally, the entire host of horror and fairy tale literature — or for that matter of Christian moralistic literature, being retold, with ghosts and demons thinly disguised as aliens and magic given a fictional advanced-science explanation. Unlike the first, these stories are by no means necessarily bad, but they are derivative.

The third — which includes some true classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Micromegas, and even some ancient Greek satirists, use science-fictional settings as a mirror, a way to satirize or criticize our own society, whether in its current form or as an awful warning of a coming dystopia (e.g., Orwell’s 1984).

Wish-fulfillment and adventure stories do not lend themselves to become great literature (although of course exceptions exist — Robinson Crusoe being one obvious example). Satire sometimes does, since it does in fact concentrate on our human condition through a mirror, but still, this is rare.

There is however a deeper issue. Satire, pulp, and adventure stories may not be conductive to great literature, but they just might be (at least the first and last). But it can be argued that these three types are not science fiction at all: the science, of whatever sort, is purely incidental, used merely as a way to tell a well-known plot in a superficially new way. Inasmuch as there are great works of literature, they are great despite, or at least not because, they have a superficially science fictional setting. 1984 is great because of Orwell’s deep understanding of his own day’s Stalinism, not because he invented the telescreen. The Baron Munchausen’s description of the moon’s denziens is great because of who they are and how they satririze us, not because they’re on the moon; they might as well be on the sun, or on some remote island, for all the scientific sense they make.

Science fiction per se — as opposed to works of the above three types, however common it is to classify them as science fiction — deals with the way potential scientific or social advances will effect the human condition. Traditionally this was done by concentrating on a single gimmick, usually from physics — faster-than-light travel, robotics, infinite sources of energy, etc.; since the 60s the changes in question have become more complex, e.g., the effects of possible radical changes in our psychology, sociology, or (increasingly) biology and environment being considered seriously.Authors have made their name both by exploring the differences between our world and a future one that arise out of a single significant change (e.g., robotics in Isaac Asimov’s robot stories) or through the creation of a series of meticulously detailed successive discoveries as humanity progresses in a detailed future history (e.g., Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Instrumentality of Mankind’ universe).

This is the literature that deserve the name “science fiction” per se, unlike Swift or Munchausen’s tales, or other works of proto-science-fiction, who satirized or evaluated human society by merely moving it to the moon — technically in outer space and thus or to an unknown Island, etc. It could not exist.efore the scientific advancements of the 18th century onward made people realize the far future might be very different than the past due to man’s scientific advancement.

But it is just this preoccupation with the future or the distant or the otherwise remote from us (e.g., tales of lost civilizations in the fictional deep past) that makes it very difficult for science fiction — even of this fourth, truly original type — to be great literature. For the story must, out of necessity, create an artificial universe based on an artificial scientific advance compared to today’s society. To illustrate something important about the human condition, and the effect this new society would have on it — or the way human nature will react to it — the author must establish ground rules about what is allowed or not allowed, reasonable or unreasonable, human reactions in that world.

These rules need not be explicitly stated; indeed, in the better works which “throws” us into a new universe and lets us find our bearing, part of the fun is figuring out the new rules humanity lives by and reacts to without this being explicitly noted. But the problem is that it is extremely difficult for us to have such rules (implicit or explicit) that would interact remotely as deeply and insightfully with “real” characters than actual societies we know about can in “regular” fiction. Consider a work that tried to imagine how war with firearms and massive armies would be, if written in, say, 1500; it is not hard to see that it would have no chance to compete with War and Peace. Nor would a man writing about the effects of mechanized transportation in 1900 writing, say, Lolita.

This is not (only) due to Tolstoy’s or Nabokov’s genius; no comparable genius could have done this, since they could not know the real intricacies of the effect the car had on American Society, or the early evolution of modern mass armies and modern war on Russia. The industrial revolution had to actually happen before Dickens could write his great works; a base on the moon, I am afraid, would have to be established for a while before the great moonbase novel could really be written.

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv