A Cleano and Shitstool: On Science-Fiction and Literature

23Jun13

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.”

This is from The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, the best science-fiction novel I’ve read in quite some time. Most people probably don’t blink at a mention of science-fiction as separate from literature, but I think it’s only fair to say science-fiction can be literature, and can be as contemplative and expressive. dispossessedMuch like poetry, the best science-fiction finds way to balance accessibility and expressiveness without tipping over into heavy-handedness. Books like 1984 and Brave New World combine imaginative leaps with enough restraint to craft a coherent vision.

Creating another reality that’s somehow reflective of our own is a remarkable tool, but at the same time what hurts a lot of science-fiction is the need to rename things, frequently somewhat awkwardly. Philip K. Dick uses “laser-tube” instead of simply saying gun in the otherwise remarkable Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And I find many science-fiction books stumble over this, or the need to lecture is fairly obvious. Stranger in a Strange Land begins wonderfully, with a description of the most alien character I’ve ever read (and his inability to comprehend us) but by the end of the book it feels the story has been contrived to set up a series of points, and Heinlein almost may as well have written an essay, were it not for the fact that novels likely reach more people.

While I found much to appreciate in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, the ongoing comparison between an ideal world and ours began to feel like an extended lecture, and the novel is peppered with renamed items, such as “cleano” for bathroom.

Le Guin deftly avoids many of these tropes of science-fiction in The Dispossessed, which describes assorted alien cultures but doesn’t trouble with physical descriptions a great deal. Characters are assumed to be more or less human, even though the story is set on another planet and its moon. When Le Guin mentions a one-eyed woman, it’s left to the reader to determine if that means some kind of other alien, or simply a one-eyed woman. Likely, it’s the second of the two, but she isn’t going to spell it out. And while Le Guin can’t resist “shitstool” for toilet, she keeps this kind of thing to a minimum, and excuses any plain philosophical statements with the fact that the central character is an academic. A few lines I found striking, and worthy:

“His gentleness was uncompromising; because he would not compete for dominance, he was indomitable.”

“Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall.”

And let’s be fair, awkwardness can be found in standard literary novels, even away from the world of science-fiction. I’ve just finished The Watch That Ends the Night (Hugh MacLennan), and it’s a sad, beautiful novel with interesting ideas and memorable characters. MacLennan has moments like this: “Some people have within themselves a room so small that only a miniscule amount of the mysterious thing we call the spirit can find a home in them.” It’s unabashedly Canadian, and addresses not just the development of the country but the way particular “frontiers” in time pass away.

At the same time, and while I think it’s a great novel, it isn’t without awkwardness. Firstly, our narrator remembers particular events in remarkable detail for a character who wasn’t there. At other times, themes and ideas are quite plainly stated, with our narrator asking why we bother living just to risk suffering (as one example), and while moments of description are brilliant, others are simply the fairly obvious, almost lazy way to describe something.

Perhaps it’s ultimately time for readers to stop giving a free pass to literature while rolling their eyes at the very idea of science-fiction, as I know some readers do. As far as I can tell there are science-fiction awards and literature awards, without any crossover  between them, but my recent reading (The Dispossessed and The Watch That Ends the Night, particularly) has reminded me, a very thoughtful book is a very thoughtful book. Genre is important for marketing, and there are only so many novels a Giller prize judge can look at, but it strikes me as unfortunate we all need to be on so many different playgrounds, all the time.

Note: I’ve written out science-fiction in full all the way through this post because I tend to agree with Harlan Ellison when he says using “sci-fi” is roughly equivalent to calling a woman a broad. Is a term like speculative fiction an improvement? I suppose, but it’s so many  syllables it simply cannot roll off the tongue. Perhaps we need another word altogether.

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