Friday, May 14, 2004

Thoughts on Science Fiction by a literature professor

Kurt Vonnegut once called the designation "Science-Fiction writer" a sort of "file-folder label or pigeonhole" and complained that all too often literary critics mistook the file for "for a urinal." Apparently "the way a person gets stuck into this file," Vonnegut went on to say, "is to notice technology." He was referring to the fact that at one time SF was considered a vulgar form of pop entertainment--a robots-and-flying-saucers pulp genre just a notch above (or below) the comic book. What the National Enquirer is to high-gloss journalism, SF was to serious literature.

Fortunately, for Vonnegut and other wearers of the sci-fi label, that is no longer the case. In the past three decades, not only has SF stayed enormously popular (in terms of new titles and overall readership, it's second only to mystery and detective fiction), it has also achieved a remarkable level of artistic respectability and intellectual cachet. (It's currently the favorite genre of philosphers, scientists, and techies themselves.) Furthermore, with the startling array of high-powered inventions and world-transforming technical developments of the past half-century (from rockets and A-weapons to computers and cloning), it is hardly possible for any modern writer not "to notice technology." Consequently, to be placed in the SF "pigeonhole" today is no longer to suffer second-class literary status (or serve as a public convenience facility), but to be recognized as a writer who is interested in imaginative adventure and ideas.

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