Thoughts on Science Fiction: Don’t Give Up the Ghetto!

When any group of intelligent readers (and writers) of science fiction get together, the conversation will inevitably turn toward the “ghettoization” of science fiction. There is nothing new here. It has happened in every decade of science fiction since its inception. One cannot be an intelligent reader or writer of science fiction without questioning its purpose and the question of the ghettoization of the genre goes to purpose. Why do we read and write science fiction?

This question came up recently among a group of intelligent science fiction readers and writers that I recently joined and I felt myself to be in the odd and unfamiliar position of “conservative”–that is, one who who doesn’t mind the status quo, nay, loves the rich history of science fiction and does not want to see it absorbed by the mainstream. It seemed best, then, to write about why, ghettoization or not, I don’t want to give up the ghetto.

First one must ask what one means by “ghetto”. In the context of this discussion (and a hundred other discussions like it going on all over the world in coffee houses and book stores) it seems to mean debasement; unacceptance; a sneering derision of the genre taken by outsiders in the world of “literary” fiction. Why do we need genre at all? some ask; it only serves to label and isolate. My response is: because we love it; it is who we are. Science fiction is my literary heritage. (In our discussions I used the word “culture”, but one of my fellow discussees said “heritage” and I like that much better.) I grew up in the ghetto of science fiction and when you grow up in the ghetto, it is not at all a ghetto, simply home.

There is the feeling that science fiction is not taken seriously as a literature and that by blurring the lines, and edging toward “literary” fiction, we can be taken more seriously. Perhaps this is true. But if you want to write “literary” fiction, why not just write it? Why bother with science fiction at all? I have done my share of reading both in and out of science fiction. I’ve read Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bester, Simak, Campbell, Del Rey, de Camp. I’ve read Bradbury, Sturgeon, Zelazny. I’ve read Ellison, Silverberg, Malzberg. I’ve read Anthony, Card, Brin, Benford. I’ve read Shunn, Burstein, Haldeman and Rusch. I have also read Borges and Barthelme and Calvino and Coover. I have read Carver and Minot. I’ve read Ellis and Salinger. I’ve read Malmud and Kinsella. And you know what, I like the science fiction stories better.

Science fiction is what you point at and say “this is science fiction”, but the same is true with “literary” fiction. There is general agreement to what something is or is not. I’ve been impressed by Borges and Barthelme (I very much enjoyed “The Library of Babel” and The Dead Father), but I have been more impressed by Malzberg and Morrow, who have done more or less the same as what Barthelme did, only better. They may not achieve the same kind of recognition as Barthelme in the vast outside world, but within the world of science fiction, they are heroes, nay, demigods.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Writers want people to read what the write, the more the better. We tend to seek appreciation and acceptance from wherever we can get it. And many science fiction writers feel hemmed in my their genre. Too little recognition from the outside world. In fact, often derision instead. We become jealous or envious of those that break through the critical barrier: Bradbury and Vonnegut, for instance. But why? We are we jealous?

If our purpose in writing is to be recognized far and wide, to make a living as a writer to earn large advances, win critical awards and acclamations, than I can see where people might want to branch out. I am yet too inexperienced with the publishing process to understand all of the nuts and bolts behind print runs and advertising and sales and returns and all of that. But I can see that it might be difficult within the context of science fiction for people to feel that they get the recognition that they deserve, or perhaps that they might not be taken seriously in the larger outside world.

I can see it, but I don’t agree with it. From a personal standpoint, I write science fiction because it is my heritage. I grew up with it. I love it and I want to be like those giants who surrounded me through my adolescence and into adulthood. I don’t want a National Book Award. I could care less about the O Henry prize. I write science fiction because it captures my imagination and maybe, just maybe, what I write will capture the imagination of someone else. I write science fiction to be able to hang out with people that burn with the same fire that I do. I write science fiction because it is the most challenging form of writing I can imagine and I love challenges. I am not looking to break out of anything; on the contrary, I am looking to break in to the world of science fiction. It took me 14 years of on-again-off-again writing to make my first sale. Fourteen years! Perhaps thirty stories and 100 submissions. I’m not a “natural” by any stretch of the imagination. Writing is hard work for me and I’m lazy enough to avoid hard work except in those cases where it is a labor of love and science fiction is my labor of love.

And besides, “literary” fiction is no different than science fiction. It has it’s totems and cliches. A good writer can learn to imitate just about anything. (We are all influenced by someone, after all, whether we admit it or not.) In the same way that “literary” writers scorn science fiction and characterize it in terms of “westerns with aliens” or “escapism”, the same scorn could be directed at literary fiction. It is nothing more than another genre. I don’t say this to deride it. I state it as fact, and I am certain that within the literary circles, within the struggling quarterlies, within the clique of writers who appear in The New Yorker, there are discussions about the ghettoization of literary fiction. (“Look at McCarthy, that sell-out. He’s bringing us down,” they whisper, “It’s time to get out of this racket, forget the quarterlies, there’s more money in the popular thriller market. Adopt a pseudonym, throw the word ‘Da Vinci’ into a title, and move on!”)

No, we are not unique in our desire to escape from the ghetto. It is a universal truth that the grass is always greener somewhere else. Anywhere but here. Every genre has its traditions. Science fiction is my heritage. I grew up on its traditions. I want to add to them, learn from them, improve them if I can. But I never want to leave them. Science fiction has been my faithful companion for nearly two decades now and I owe countless hours of enjoyment and pleasure and insight and wonder to that companionship. There is no way that I could ever return evil for good. Ghetto though it may seem to some, it’s my home, it’s where I live, and I’m here to stay.