Great Books and Genre Books
Below is a reprint of several columns first printed in this space in 2007, with minor changes.
As much as it pains me to say it, my reluctant conclusion is that there is no great Science Fiction literature.
Now, before you get out your crying bags, fanboys, keep in mind that the standard for being a Great Book is extremely, absurdly high. It is the best of the best of the best. There is no Western that makes the cut for being a Great Book; no mystery novel; no horror novel (unless we stretch a point to include HAMLET, because it has a ghost scene). One might even argue that no romance novel that makes the cut, not even GONE WITH THE WIND, and that is a damn fine novel. Genre writing does not reach the stratospheric heights of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.
Still, it does not sit well. Let us look further, to see if this unpleasant conclusion can be defended, or if there is some exception or escape from it. For this let us break the question into parts.
- First, what makes a Great Book great?
- Second, what makes a Great Idea?
- Third, what makes Great Literature Great?
- Finally, what makes Good Science Fiction Good?
This final question is of most interest to me (as one might expect, being a science fiction writer) so it also needs to be broken down further:
- What is Science Fiction?
- How does Science Fiction differ from Great Literature?
- Does Science Fiction have a universal, timeless, eternal appeal?
- Is the Best SF good enough to be Great?
Let us examine each of these questions in order.
What is great?
Can we compare the best work of Heinlein, Tolkien, Asimov, Bradbury, LeGuin to Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare?
It is like comparing Alan Moore’s WATCHMAN to Milton, or the draftsmanship of Dave Gibbons to paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. Let us dwell on this example a moment.
Now, by any standard, WATCHMAN is an impressive comic book, rich with invention, a dramatically original approach to the conventional superhero genre.
Merely trying to list the clever artistic effects would be exhausting: Moore’s use of exact background details, the inclusion of snippets from imaginary books and articles from the fictional world of his invention, the cleverness of having one character telling his tale from outside of time, the sly updating of the Charleston characters (Rorschach riffs The Question, Nite Owl riffs Blue Beetle, and so on). Nothing like it had ever been done before in comic books. It is sui generis.
But is it the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Is it the Mona Lisa? Is it PARADISE LOST or THE TEMPEST? Here we are not talking about what one man’s particular taste might or might not prefer. I might prefer cotton candy to steak and potatoes: but the fact of the matter is, one is something to get one’s teeth into and chew over; the other disappears on the tongue. One is nutritious and one is not.
We are talking about the great and the shallow things of life. We live in a philistine and egalitarian age, where the passion of the world is to equalize unequal things, and beat high towers flat. As pleasing as this endeavor is to the democratic spirit, it is nonetheless, at its heart, a fraud. There are real towers whose shadow is cast over all the world. There is something to food aside from the taste: there is also the nourishment of the body. Likewise, there is something to literature aside from the taste: there is the nourishment of the mind and the exercise of the faculties. Fun books are for fun. Good books make you think. Great books make you think about the Great Ideas.
Whether your taste runs to thinking about Great Ideas, or whether a particular book agrees or disagrees without your own ideas is a different question.
There no author with whom I disagree more sharply and more deeply on all topics than Karl Marx. I loathe this man as I loathe some devil from Hell. Nonetheless, as a matter of objective fact, independent of my personal opinions and tastes, the master work of this great author, DAS KAPITAL, engages the Great Ideas.
Marx writes about history, the role of mankind, the nature of man’s labor, the nature of society and the evolution of society, the role of free will, the nature of justice, especially social justice, and so on. He happens to be wrong on each and every conclusion he comes to on these topics—this is a point a Marxist would debate with me. But what cannot be debated is that these are the topics he addresses: topics of weight and import.
A man’s conclusions on these topics will change the way he must live his life; it will influence, for good or ill, what he thinks about himself and the world and his place init; it will determine on which side of the wars and struggles of his age he will stand; it will determine to what standard he rallies.
Nietzsche is a similar diabolic author, one whose works I esteem to be poison to the soul. Nonetheless, as a matter of objective fact, independent of my personal opinions and tastes, the master work of this great author engages the Great Ideas. He is wrong about what he says about God and Man, Destiny and Will, Power and Morality and the Meaning of Life. But the fact is he is indeed talking about God and Man, Destiny and Will, Power and Morality and the Meaning of Life. He is saying something more significant than “Question Authority.”
What is Alan Moore talking about in his work? WATCHMAN has a number of themes surely possessed of more depth and weight than any other funnybook—which is the faintest praise anyone has ever penned. He is talking about godlike powers and their moral and social implications: what happens when you trust people with power to make the decisions in your life. He is talking about whether the ends justify the means (which is the philosophy of Ozymandias) or whether moral laws are strict and simple, black-and-white (which is the philosophy of Rorschach). There are themes of time and destiny and free will (Doctor Manhattan touches on this). There is a theme that power corrupts (The Comedian). The book poses the question, Who Watches the Watchmen? It asks us to Question Authority.
All good stuff. I have read many a thriller by Tom Clancey or historical novel by Alfred Duggan or detective tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Sax Rohmer that do not touch on even half these issues half so thoughtfully. For a genre work, WATCHMEN is deep indeed. In terms of influence, no comic, not even the shocking DARK KNIGHT by Frank Miller, produced a deeper or more lasting change in the comicbook genre.
Again, Moore’s “Question Authority” theme is one I find mildly distasteful: I selected this example precisely because any personal agreement or disagreement needs to be factored out of the equation. Whether I agree or not, Moore is talking about themes that might make a teenager ponder, and even become part of his permanent attitude about life; whereas Marx is talking about ideas that could and did change the world and become part of history.
But a man might live or die in the revolution trumpeted by Marx: and there are people who will conform their whole lives to the shape of his ideas, and serve them with devotion as one serves a god; or people who would sacrifice all to oppose them in word and deed. What is Alan Moore’s little cautionary tale is that compared to such gigantic significance? Moore’s work does not even have the depth or striking power of NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell. Outside the genre, its influence is nil.
Now at this point, the discussion cannot continue, unless we agree on this one point: a point so self-evident that only the modern age would doubt it, and a point so clear and universal that only a modern intellectual would react in the baffled astonishment as if confronting a weird, unearthly prodigy.
The point is that it is not all about you. It is not all about your tastes. Just because you like something or don’t like something, just because you agree or disagree, has no bearing on whether a work is deep or shallow. Whether something is great or shallow is an objective judgment, determined by your reason, not a personal judgment determined by your tastes. Since the idea of an objective judgment is one the Brahmins of our age have decreed anathema, I can only invite the heterodox to continue past this point.
A work is likeable to you, if you like it. A work is agreeable to you, if you agree with it, the world its portrays fits and adorns the world as you see it.
But a work is great if it addresses the great ideas of the human condition, and this is true whether you like the work or not, or whether you agree with the author’s take on the ideas or not: and the great ideas are the ones by which and in which we live and die. They shape our notions of what life is and consists of; they give meaning to life.
What is a Great Idea?
Let me turn to the founder of my school, St. John’s College in Annapolis. Mortimer Adler used three criteria to determine inclusion in his “Great Books of the Western World” series for Encyclopedia Britannica (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books_of_the_Western_World) (or see http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/06/the-great-books-online/).
The same criteria were used to determine the curriculum of my education. If anyone ever wants to know where I got my ideas, here is the list (http://www.sjc.edu/academic-programs/undergraduate/seminar/annapolis-undergraduate-readings/)
I have here paraphrased his words:
- TIMELESS: Great Books should be works that are as much of concern to us today as at the time they were written, even if that was centuries ago. They are thus essentially timeless — always contemporary, and not confined to interests that change from time to time or from place to place.
- INFINITE: The second criterion was their infinite re-readability. Few books are worth reading more than once. A great book is inexhaustibly re-readable. It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings. One re-reads a great book with greater pleasure and more insight on each rereading.
- RELEVANT: The third criterion was the relevance of the work to a very large number of great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last twenty-five centuries. The authors of these books take part in the great conversation, reading the works of many of their predecessors, and answering them. In other words, the great books are the books in which the great conversation occurs about the great ideas. It is the set of great ideas that determines the choice of the great books.
Adler is kind enough to list the Great Ideas. There are 102 of them:
Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy and Cosmology, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Equality, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, Love, Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, World.
Also worth quoting in full is Alder’s comment on what was excluded from criteria of judgment:
We did not base our selections on an author’s nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author’s race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no “affirmative action” in the process.
In the second place, we did not consider the influence exerted by an author or a book on later developments in literature or society. That factor alone did not suffice to merit inclusion. Scholars may point out the extraordinary influence exerted by an author or a book, but if the three criteria stated above were not met, that author or book was not to be chosen. Many of the great books have exerted great influence upon later generations, but that by itself was not the reason for their inclusion. [Adler’s footnote: This negative consideration applies, in my judgment, to Voltaire and his “Candide”. It also applies to the German philosopher Leibniz and his works. Just think of the influence exerted by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin!”]
In the third place, a consideration not operative in the selection process was the truth of an author’s opinions or views, or the truth to be found in a particular work. This point is generally misunderstood; many persons think that we regard the great books as a repository of mankind’s success in its ever-continuing pursuit of the truth. “That is simply not the case”. There is much more error in the great books than there is truth. By anyone’s criteria of what is true or false, the great books will be found to contain some truths, but many more mistakes and errors.
Please keep in mind, this list is tailored both for fiction and nonfiction works, including scientific and philosophical ones. What is involved in literature qua literature adds an additional criterion.
What is Literature?
In any art, there are two considerations: the subject matter and the execution. Subject matter we have already discussed. To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak.
A poem of awkward and trite phrasing, even if touching on some great subject matter, is not Great Art: we have all heard banal hymns or patriotic songs or paeans to Motherhood, that, even though in praise of high and fine things, themselves lack genius.
In written fiction, we can point to certain standards are remarkable execution, even if we cannot exactly define them (for who can define genius?).
- GRACEFUL: Great prose delights the reader with the poetry of the language, which includes memorable passages and phrases. It is both easy to quote and worthy of being quoted. Even in translation, the metaphors and images impress. Shakespeare is the exemplar of this: his work consists not merely of ringing lines of glorious virtuosity, individual lines and phrases are so striking that they have passed into common use, indeed, form the backbone of the English language.
- NATURAL: Great fiction draws from life, and from imaginations larger than life, characters whose vivacity and verisimilitude make them seem alive. There are many dimensions and aspects to such characters: they are not mere mechanisms for advancing the plot, mouthpieces for the author, or simple stereotypes. Once this character is alive in your mind, some real people in your life (perhaps even you) will be seen in a differing light. Homer and Milton are preeminent in this respect: Even the dullest student reading the ILIAD remembers the wrath of Achilles, or PARADISE LOST, the hollow grandeur of Satan.
- WISE: Great fiction is observant into the human condition. It is the opposite of a juvenile or jejune opinion. The woes and triumphs, the simple pleasures and deep passions of mankind, men the way men actually act, are depicted. The statement the story makes about the human condition, or the questions the story poses, will be a source either of satisfaction or haunting puzzlement for years, for a lifetime. I will list Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Jonathon Swift, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain as masters of this particular aspect of the craft.
What is the best of SF?
Definitions of SF are a subject not likely to be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction. The simplest definition is to say that, where normal stories are about rescuing princesses from pirates, science fiction stories are about rescuing space-princesses from space-pirates.
Behind this facetious definition there is a thought worth examining:
All stories are falsehoods used to reveal some truth. The falsehood is one the storyteller and the audience tacitly agree shall be treated as true for the purposes of telling the tale. In this respect, the storyteller is a magician who enchants his audience; they are willing to believe the unbelievable, to suspend their disbelief. But if he makes too great a demand on their willing suspension of disbelief, the spell is broken, and his illusion stands open to their contempt as a cheap trick.
Different audiences will place this ‘point of disbelief’ at different heights.
For example, in a comedy, the audience is willing to accept the most unlikely and unrealistic coincidences in plot or stunts in action, merely because it is funny. The tolerance is high. In a gritty action thriller, however, any unrealistic detail, such as shooting seven bullets from a six-shooter, will break the spell for a serious audience.
Every reader will recognize when it has happened once or twice that his point of disbelief has been notched upward. Let me use a war picture as an example. When the hero runs through a hail of machinegun bullets fired by Nazis unscathed (or, in Science Fiction, when he runs through a lightningstorm of blaster fire from Imperial Stormtroopers) something clicks in our brains, and we smile, and settle back in the theater seat, and we don’t take the movie was seriously as we did the moment before. We might still like it: but now it is a ‘popcorn’ movie, light entertainment. Our tolerance for unreality for light movies is more generous than for gravid ones. Compare that, on the other hand, with the opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where the whistling storm of machinegun-fire was realistic and horrifying. No one was running around protected by an invisible aura of ‘main character glow’. The point of disbelief was low.
When we have put our tolerance at the high point, either because it is a genre we like or an author we like, we react grumpily to any evidence that the scenes are unrealistic. Complaints seen like nit-picking, small-mindedness. The complainer cannot get in the spirit of things. He is trying to break the spell.
What makes the calculation of where to put the point of disbelief complex is two factors:
First, unbelievable things actually do happen in real life: there are moments of high heroism and deep horror, eerie coincidences and true love. There really are men like Napoleon and George Washington, who change history. Stories are supposed to be about the unusual: anyone who works on a newspaper can tell you that.
Second, the craft of the artist consist of certain tricks and devices he uses to make the unbelievable seem real. This is called verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the illusion of reality: a thing that is not real, but which seems realistic.
Stephen King writes with masterful craft by using settings and people as one might find in any small town in America; only after the reader is habituated into trusting these descriptions, do odd, and then unearthly elements begin to intrude on the picture. He is correctly regarded as a fine horror writer, perhaps the finest, because of his mastery of this device of verisimilitude.
There is a famous scene in Homer, when Andromache brings her baby out to say farewell to Hector before that warrior prince issues forth to battle. Astyonax is startled by the plumes on his helm of his father and begins to cry. This is the type of realistic detail suddenly makes the unearthly elements in the epic seem more realistic. When Hector batters down the gate of the Achaian palisade, he hoists a rock so large that “two men, such as men are now, could not have lifted it.” The fact that the baby was startled by his gleaming armor makes Hector seem like a real person; even when he does feats no one now-a-days can do, the feeling of reality is maintained. Instead of shaking their heads, and saying no one could lift up so large a rock, the listeners nod and listen.
Now, along the spectrum of realistic to unrealistic fiction, Speculative Fiction (by which I mean Science Fiction and Fantasy together) occupies the more unrealistic side. Indeed, Speculative readers not only tolerate but demand that a high demand be placed on their imaginations: they want to see life or Mars, or Barsoom, or Middle Earth, or in the Year 2000 or in the Hyperborean Age. We place the point of disbelief very high.
The separation of fantasy from science fiction is merely the difference in the craft of verisimilitude used. Fantasy impersonates the tone and style, the tropes and details of medieval and ancient songs, epics and folktales. Unearthly and unbelievable things can happen in Middle-Earth, provided they seem to happen in the same mood and atmosphere as ORLANDO FURIOSO or LE MORTE D’ARTHUR. If the mood is not broken, the audience will accept the illusion as real.
Science Fiction impersonates science. The science does not need to be real, but it needs to produce a realistic illusion. Time Travel, or Faster-Than-Light drive, are both as fantastical as Santa’s Elves: but, in the communal imagination of SF, they are assumed to be the product of scientific investigation, built in a workshop or lab, produced by the same ingenuity as Robert Fulton or the Wright Brothers.
This point is worth dwelling on. In order to create verisimilitude in THE TIME TRAVELER, the author H.G. Wells has a frame in the first chapter. The scene opens with an unnamed first-person narrator describing a conversation at a dinner party: the idea that time is a dimension that can be crossed like length, breadth, and height are introduced, and a machine for crossing time, similar to a flying machine, comes on stage as a prop. Now the reader is ready to accept the idea of a man who crosses time in a time machine the way a sea-traveler crosses the sea in a steamship. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be might bring Scrooge into the future to view a prophecy, but this is a supernatural visitation. The Time Traveler’s vehicle is natural, a product of his workshop, no more supernatural than a steam engine. But without the frame of the dinner party, where we meet the Time Traveler, without the initial theoretical discussion, the stress on the readers willing suspension of disbelief would be greater.
This is the unique property of Science Fiction. The readers of Science Fiction are expected to know something about modern science, and they expect that whatever fantastic adventure about to be told them will be framed in terms of some explanation that is plausibly scientific. Whether the science fiction is hard or soft depends on how implausible the scientific explanation is, and how central the story it is.
Science fiction readers expect to be convinced by having a discussion or lecture take place in the text, which has enough real science to make the fake science seem real. These lectures are unknown in other genres.
Tales where the props and settings from science fiction are merely thrown in for flavor, or to produce a background of wonder, are rightly called Space Opera: adventure stories that take place in space, no different, really, than similar tales taking place in remote jungles, pirate-infested seas, golden palaces, or the mountains of Tibet. STAR WARS, for example, is space opera, since the science is there merely for flavor. The same tale could have taken place, almost unchanged, in the fairytale Japan of legend.
There is, by the way, a similar division in fantasy between hard and soft, or high and low. Fantasy that accurately follows the ancient models of the world, now lost, which our ancestors knew, is realistic fantasy (if we can use that term). The language is elevated, the action is mannered. Sword and Sorcery stories follow the themes of ancient epics and folktales. Oriental fantasy follows the model of Arabian Night’s Tales, with their strange vistas, Jinn-haunted palaces, and cruel bejeweled splendors. The ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Jack Vance are a superb example of this opulent oriental flavor, even though they take place in the Far Future rather than the Far East.
Fantasy where the characters talk and act like middle-class gamers from Southern California, except that they swing swords and shoot lightning from their fingertips, is a tale where the fantasy settings and props are merely thrown in for flavor. We should call such unrealistic fantasy Elf Opera.
But the point, the main point, of speculative fiction, both fantasy and science fiction, is that they are both ultramundane. Fantasy is unearthly, and science fiction is extraterrestrial. They deal with things that do not happen in the here-and-now. Either the setting is in another world Beyond the Fields We Know, or something from the Other World or Outer Space has intruded into our comfortable little reality. When something from Beyond intrudes into our little world, the reaction is either terror or awe. All the old SF magazines had titles reflecting this: Thrilling, Wonder, Amazing, and so on. Any definition of Science Fiction or Fantasy that does not point to this central characteristic of unearthliness is defective.
How does Science Fiction differ from Great Literature?
Many a fan of Science Fiction would like to include any classical work containing an unearthly or supernatural element in the work t be Science Fiction, including the Odyssey, Aenead, Fourth Eclogue, Divine Comedy, Tempest and Faust, not to mention the Ring Cycle of Wagner.
So, with all due respect, while we have the liberty to define SF broadly enough to include anything and everything we want (indeed, a liberty I take here), we run the risk of sounding puffed and presumptuous. I have never been at an SF Con were a fan said his three favorite science fiction authors were Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil. I have never found a copy of Shakespeare’s TEMPEST in the Dungeon and Dragon’s aisle at the bookstore, even though Prospero is clearly a Twelfth Level mage, able to cast a seventh level control weather spell with an area-effect modifier.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that the bookstores are not worshiping Sauron the Great in secret, and have not entered into a conspiracy against our beloved rayguns-and-rocketships genre. Why is it that a reader looking for a classic does not first come to the SF aisle? When he is in the mood to read a Great Book, something that will contemplate the eternal questions of life, why does he go to where Tolstoy is shelved next to Ibsen and Dante, but walks right by GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. “Doc” Smith? When we can identify what the property or set of properties that differentiate that reader choice (and all genre boundaries are defined by reader choices) then we will be justified saying where and if SF overlaps Great Literature.
Does Science Fiction Speak to All Time?
Here we run into the crux of the argument. Science fiction stares into the future with wonder. Fantasy looks back on the past with longing, or into fairytale worlds that might have been. But the first of our three criteria for a great book is that it be timeless. Great books deal with reality, the human condition, as it was, as it is now, and as it ever shall be. Science Fiction concentrates primarily on the changes to human society that future technology or future evolution might one day produce. A great book tells a tale that would be as worthy of deep study by readers in ancient Athens, medieval Rome, or modern New York. Science fiction, on the other hand, is the unique product of the industrial and scientific revolution, and its emphasis is on the exploration of the human condition only insofar as it will be changed by continued scientific revolutions.
What is life that we are mortal, and do not live forever? Is it better to live a short and glorious life, or a long and obscure one? The Homer uses Achilles in the ODYSSEY to asks this question. Is there a life beyond this life? So Dante ponders. Why is man mortal? Milton offers an answer.
What would life be like (so a science fiction story might ask) if we could live forever, or had a medicine that revived the dead? A poor science fiction story (PHANTOM EMPIRE starring Gene Autry) might have a resurrection machine merely as a gimmick, to get a hero out of a scrape. A good science fiction story (TITAN by John Varley) would carefully extrapolate the impact on everyday life of the resurrection machinery. Would it be acceptable to kill your cat every night so his yowling did not wake you, provided you resurrected the beloved pet every morning? That is the kind of speculative questions sciencefiction writers extrapolate. The idea seems shocking at first, but granting the premise, maybe it could be.
There is clearly a tension between the two approaches. When you write about the eternal things, it is hard to concentrate on the wonder or terror of the future; pondering the verities of the human condition is at odds with drawing out speculations on the ramification of a counterfactual. Asking what is the meaning of life antithetical to asking what would life be like if pigs could fly?
Has anyone overcome these barriers? Now we move from the abstract to the particular. Let us take a more or less random sample of the better books in SF, and see if they meet the three criteria of being a great book (Timeless, Infinite, Relevant to the 102 Great Ideas) or the three criteria of being great literature (Graceful, Natural, Deep).
The List of the Best.
Both because I think it a very good list and because I have it at hand, let us look at Jim Baen’s Top Ten list. The reader is invited to do the same exercise with Hugo or Nebula Award winners, bestsellers, critically acclaimed works, or your own top ten list.
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague deCamp
- Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
- Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Let us look first at Asimov’s masterwork:
The Foundation Trilogy
The conceit is that history can be predicted mathematically in the aggregate. Human individual free will is like the random motions of molecule; but the Gas Laws can still predict the behavior of such molecules as a whole, in sufficiently large numbers. The novel consists of vignettes describing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in Space, and the revival of the Second Empire through the use of predictive history.
- Timeless? The basic idea is an interesting speculation about the nature of mathematics and free will, and it has interest for us, because we live in a time when everyone from economists to pollsters to Madison Avenue is trying to predict the motions of masses of men with statistical methods. Karl Marx imagined he had fathomed the plan of history as scientifically as Hari Seldon. Myself, I cannot imagine persons three hundred years from now or three hundred years ago contemplating this book, as pertinent to their time then as it is to our time now. The idea of “planning history through science” is parochial to our day and age.
- Infinitely Re-Readable? Even over the course of the first trilogy, not to mention the second, the ramifications of the premise were exhausted. The idea that men’s actions can be predicted in the aggregate is belied by the main premise of the book, that the mathematician Hari Seldon is able to shape and change history. Later books added a psionic Mule in order to endanger the Seldon Plan, which again belied the premise. The series is best understood as an engineering tale: Seldon builds a machine (his Plan) that from time to time malfunctions, or seems to malfunction, and (1) either the seeming malfunction was already noted and corrected according to the forethought of Seldon, because human nature would not allow for the deviation. This theme is used to brilliant effect during the attacks by General Bell Rose, really the best short story in the whole sequence; (2) or, in later stories, the malfunction is real and is set right again by the deux ex machina of the Second Foundation. It took the genius of another author, Donald Kingsbury, in his homage to Foundation, PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS, to ask whether the psychohistorians themselves were subject to these laws of history, and what would happen if the Seldon mathematics became well known to the public they are being used to control. Kingsbury points out the tension between the safety of the planned future and the human need for liberty, and this is a philosophical notion of some interest, which Asimov never raises or notices. Neither Kingsbury nor Asimov explore the notion of two opposing camps attempting to plan history, or how the laws of history would control their attempts. There is not a single anti-Imperialist in his galactic Empire, not even one member of the Foundation with doubts about the Plan. It is just a gadget story, and the Seldon Plan is the gadget.
- Relevant to the Great Conversation? One idea about the nature of fate and free will is the gimmick of this story, but nothing is really said about it, aside from the premise that human behavior can be predicted mathematically in the aggregate.The moral ramifications are nowhere addressed: would you kill the baby the mathematics proved would grow up to be Hitler? No? What would you be willing to do to bring about the Second Empire? Why are you loyal to an Imperium you will never see? What if the Plan called for a depression, or, worse, a war to sweep away your beloved home world–is the sacrifice worth it? Do Seldon’s ends justify his means? Asimov’s tale never raises such questions.
Let us turn to our next three criteria:
- Graceful? No. Asimov, like most SF writers of the Golden Age, wrote in the journalistic style. The only lines I can quote from memory out from all of Asimov’s work are His Three Laws Of Robotics.
- Natural? The Mule is a somewhat memorable character as a lonely superhuman, and Bayta Darell is charming, perhaps the only Asimov character in his whole oeuvre who is sketched in and seems a real person. But compare them to Yago or Anna Karenina.
- Wise? The only statement made about the human condition is the one almost all Golden Age science fiction makes: Better Living Through Science! The message is that we would all be better off, if an elite of experts (perhaps with psionic powers!) guided mankind through the turmoil of history into a safe and stable society ruled by an Emperor. In terms of a political theory, this is not Locke or Hobbes or even Machiavelli. It’s the kind of thing college boys might have a late-night conversation about over beer and pizza.
Is it a good Science Fiction book? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Is it a great novel, worthy to last as long as Western Civilization endures, and to be studied with pleasure by each new generation? Is it equal to Tolstoy or Mark Twain? No.
There is almost no point in comparing even the best Science Fiction books to the timeless classics of the Western cannon of literature. The standards are just too high. But we can still use the same six criteria, recalibrated to a lower level, to judge the worth in literary terms of some of the best SF.
Let us look at the second of the Ten Best list compiled by Jim Baen. By and large I agree with this list. The criteria I am proposing for assessing literary quality (independent of personal feelings) are the three given by Mortimer Alder (the book must be timeless, of as must interest centuries ago as to the present day; it must be able to be reread with greater pleasure and insight previous readings; it must be relevant to the Great Conversation that takes place among the Great Books of the Western Cannon. However, if we recalibrate our standards, it needs only be ‘timeless’ between the time it was written and now (a must smaller span) and relevant to the other works in the genre.
With this in mind, let us look at item #2.
Stranger in a Strange Land
The conceit of this satire is that a Man from Mars views our earthly customs with innocent eyes, and sees their absurdity. A human baby orphaned on Mars and raised by highly-civilized but utterly inhuman Martians: as an adult he is brought back to Earth. Escaping from the intrigues of an unscrupulous government, and finding himself possessed of vast wealth, he wanders the world. When he finally understands the human condition, he starts a Church, trains Disciples, and is eventually martyred.
The theology is what we might call solipsistic libertarian pantheism: all self-aware creatures are God, and enjoy the privilege God has of disregarding the laws and customs of mankind. The Man from Mars preaches a doctrine remarkably like that of the Adamites and similar movements preaching nudism, communalism, pacifism, free love: the Adamites held themselves to be immune to Original Sin. One may do whatever one wishes, because the only law is that there is no law.
In case you don’t recognize it yet, what is being presented here as a profound new Martian religion is no more than the counter-cultural bromides of the Flower Generation.
As Gods, the members of the Martian Church are responsible to no higher power for their evil actions, but fortunately are so enlightened that they commit no evils they consider evil. The author merely has it be the case that Mike’s followers do not suffer from lust, or greed, or pride, or envy, and therefore they can share all goods in common, share concubines without any ill-will, and, for all I know, share each other’s toothbrushes without any risk of spreading bad breath. The Church suffers no schisms and no disputes or debates, because everyone is perfect. There is no St. Peter who denies his Lord. There is no Judas.
There is also no healing of the sick and no forgiveness of sins. Instead, Mike the Martian kills various people, such as hypocritical preachers or men guilty of no capital felonies found behind bars. But it is explained that since Martians believe in reincarnation, killing a scofflaw without benefit of trial is no crime; and keeping a man behind bars is an offense to human dignity, unlike, say, sharing a concubine, which is perfectly dignified.
Mike the Martian, raised by sexless creatures, has the attitude toward copulation one might expect from a totally ignorant and innocent nonhuman: he regards it as a pleasant recreation, or as a religious ecstasy. But for all his orgies, he never actually manages to father a family, or vow faithfulness to one woman. Neither he, nor anyone in the book, mentions any connection between the use of the reproductive organs and reproduction.
But Mike is a Nietzsche-style Superman, and therefore beyond good and evil: whatever he does, fornication or murder, is right and good by definition. You see, because he does not come from earth, and therefore has no experience or understanding of human things, his conclusions about how we should conduct ourselves is automatically right; the wisdom painfully gained over generations by our forefathers is worthy of nothing but scorn.
Mike is stoned to death by an angry mob at the end of the book, and he flies to heaven wearing a halo. I am not making this up: he has wings and a halo. This event has no set up in the plot: unlike a similar story in the Book of Matthew, there is no foreshadowing of the martyrdom, no metaphysical or theological purpose, and nothing in Mike’s previous preaching gives any indication that passive submission to violence is meritorious in his philosophy. It sort of just happens, and we are supposed to feel sad and angry at the stupid yokels in the mob. (Please note the mob is white Christian Americans, probably from the Deep South. They are not outraged Muslims, or even irate Sikhs or Hindus. It was not even a crowd of unruly Irishmen. This would not have served the author’s purpose.) Whether or not the mob contained any persons whose relatives were killed, or daughters seduced, by the Man from Mars is not stated.
We are assured (in his last bit of dialog with Jubal Hershaw, his mentor) that Mike’s followers will carry on spreading the Gospel of Free Love, and will come to rule everyone else: the stupid people will all die out.
Even objecting to the eating of human flesh is regarded with righteous indignation. Not the cannibalism: that is merely a custom worthy of respect. The objection is what is objectionable, so much so that the Righteous are morally obligated to discharge loyal employees from the work whereby they earn their bread, and throw them out into the street with scorn, if they voice any queasy reservations. Does someone have even the most minimal standards of human conduct, such as even the most remote ages of history learned at the dawn of time? He is a sinner! Virtue consists only of having no virtues at all!
The moral of the story: religion is a scam, marriage is a trap, people are stupid, do as you please when you please to whomever you please. Such is the message carried from a superior civilization to the poor backward dolts on Earth. Oh, brother.
- Timeless? Being a satire is no disqualification here. Jonathon Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS is just as critical of human laws and customs, and it is timeless. A story about a lone iconoclast, a Diogenes-style cynic mocking the Pharisees will always have an appeal. If the author had stuck to mockery, and not gone out of his way to advertise the Adamite heresy, I might call this timeless. The whole philosophy of irresponsibility popular since 1968 has had a sufficiently obvious effect in increasing the sum of human misery that I doubt it can maintain its appeal. Whatever preaches disregard for the long term, either in marriage or in war, has nothing to say once the long term arrives.
- Infinitely Re-Readable? My personal experience has met no book that wore out its welcome more quickly and more completely. I found it a delight to read when I was a child and thought as a child, for I was eager to hear that my childish impulses and little teen lusts were a sign of my great mental and moral superiority over The Stupid People (by which I meant my elders to whom I owed obedience). Flattering the innocent wears thin on a second rereading, when they are not so innocent. The unserious copulations with unmarried women seemed, on rereading, as unrealistic as the amours of James Bond: mere sexual fantasy. When I read the book again as a grown-up, the book was a chore to read. Far from being re-readable, this is a shallow book that gets shallower on every return visit.The ideas presented are so comical, and so comically naive, one wonders if the author intended an irony: the Martian-raised man is ignorant of human nature, so that when he attempts to put into practice ideas that could never work on Earth, he is justly killed for his inability to adapt to reality.I seem to recall a similar scene in GLORY ROAD, where Oscar the hero is upbraided as a fool by his fiancee, Star the Sexy Space-Empress, because he refuses to have an orgy with the attractive wife and three attractive daughters (one underage) of his generous wife-sharing host. It is explicitly stated there that those who do not adapt to the customs of their hosts are fools deserving death. I do not recall any scene in any Heinlein book where the hero is traveling among Puritans or pious Muslims and adopts the chastity and reserve in fashion among his hosts. For that matter, I don’t recall a scene where the hero has to sleep with the ugly wife of a generous Eskimo to avoid offending his host. Apparently the rule of doing as the Romans do when in Rome is restricted to the times when Romans are having an orgy, and, at that, only when pretty people are invited.
- Relevant? There is talk in here about the nature of justice and the family and God and art. So at least some deeper points are addressed. But the work is certainly relevant, if not to the Great Conversation among the Great Books, then at least to the Good Conversation among Good SF.STRANGER broke new ground by breaking conventions, and is among the first SF to attract a wider attention outside the genre. A book meets this criterion if the books that come after it, in this case, later SF books, have to take into account what the author has done here, and take a stance for or against, lest they risk being dismissed as irrelevant. For better or worse (I think it very much for the worse) the notion of moral and cultural relativism, once raised in this book, eliminates the possibility of an alien planet or alien culture being portrayed as having our values and our philosophy: if such a planet is portrayed, the author must give a convincing explanation to account for the similarity.A clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia landing on Mars and rescuing a princess from a four-armed Green Martian cannot now simply marry the girl, without the reader wondering about their marriage customs.
Let us turn to our next three criteria:
- Is the language graceful? This is not a fair criterion for a satire: one must ask a satire if it is biting or witty or funny, with that peculiar acrid humor natural to satire. I would say at least in part this book matches that criteria: there are quotable lines. The word “Grok” has entered at least partly into the popular vocabulary.
- Are the characters multifaceted and natural? Well, Jubal Hershaw is a character that is memorable. I remember him in all the other Heinlein books also, include A TRAMP ROYALE, which was autobiographical. You sort of know the kind of things he’ll do and say: he has a Mark Twain sense of humor and a Nietzsche contempt for the common man. He is a hedonist, selfish and ornery, a self-made man. He is a soapbox for his author’s voice. The other characters in the book are either two-word descriptions (the ornery newshound, the phony preacher, the crooked politician) or one-word descriptions (the girl). I seem to recall that there are four characters fitting that description “the girl”, and they are as alike as the sexbots from AUSTIN POWERS. Mike had to memorize their pores and freckles to tell them apart, but the author does not give us even that. No character ever steps out of character: the crooked politician never shows a moment of honesty, the phony preacher does not have a wife and family, the ornery newshound does not have a hobby or a past or a pet peeve.3. Is the book wise? This may well be the shallowest book I have ever read, bar none. Something like GALACTIC PATROL, or CHESSMEN OF MARS, pure heedless adventure, is actually deeper and wiser than this dressed-up preachy-book praising adultery, anarchy and atheism: it is shallower than a shallow book because it pretends to be deep. In real life one might be called upon to act as boldly and thoughtfully as the Gray Lensman or with the unselfconscious chivalry and hardihood as the Warlord of Mars. A simple paragon of honesty and bravery is actually a more profound moral philosophy than a simple disregard of moral philosophy.
Is it a good Science Fiction book? Yes indeed! I dislike this book intensely, even loathe it, for it deceived me in my youth, and lying to a child is a vile crime. But judging the innate worth of a book is not about whether one like or hates it. This book does the thing that Science Fiction is meant to do: it looks at the Earth through alien eyes, it evokes a sense of wonder, it paints a future different from our present, yet close enough to our present to make cutting comments about it.
As philosophy, the book is trite, and the message is the message of the serpent of Eden: break the laws that have been placed on you, and you shall be like unto a god! This is heady stuff, and it is easy to get intoxicated, and very easy, horribly easy, to ruin your life and the lives of innocent people around you following self-centered and idiotic ideas like the ones painted to seem so attractive here.
But as art for art’s sake, it is a perfectly workmanlike product, even a superior product. Despite certain lopsidedness in the plot pacing, STRANGER is indeed classic SF from the Good Old Days. It has earned its place on the Baen Top Ten list. If this book had a soul that could be sent to hell, I would say it has also earned its place in the Eighth Circle of Dante’s Inferno: for it is a malignant fraud.
The Planetary Trilogy
Let us asks the question how C.S. Lewis, specifically his “Planetary Trilogy” (indefensibly absent from the Baen list) meets the six criteria for judging the literary value of the work.
The conceit of these books is that only Earth is a fallen world: it is a Christian world-view portrayed using the tropes of science fiction.
In OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, we discover Mars (Malacandra) still exists in its pristine perfection, and still converse with angels ( here portrayed as outer-space beings who look like threads of energy). In the first book, Ransom, a linguist, is kidnapped by Weston, and flown in a sphere made of cavorite (not really, but it might as well be) to Mars. He escapes his captors, and wanders among the natives, who terrify him until he realizes that they are without guile and without sin. The planetary intelligence of Mars, the archangel Malacandra, interviews Weston, who utters the imperialistic and colonial ambitions that are portrayed with such favor, for example, in THINGS TO COME. The folly of Weston’s pose is made clear.
In the sequel, PERELANDRA Ransom is transported to Venus by angels, and discovers an Edenic world of unearthly beauty, and meets the Eve of this world, the Green Lady. The author excels at his descriptive powers here. Both the planet and the queen of the planet are among the most memorable in science fiction. She is tempted of the devil, the scientist Weston possessed by the Thuclandra the Eldil of Earth, and after some futile debate, Ransom murders him. The theology and legality of this homicide are dubious, but the irony is that a man from an unfallen world, one not corrupted by Thulcandra, would not have been able to accomplish it.
The final book, and the best one, in my opinion, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH recounts the corruption of postwar England by the National Institute of Controlled Experiment, the N.I.C.E. Here the author puts in fictional form the criticism he voice in his essay ABOLITION OF MAN, namely, that the scientific conquest of nature, at its last step, when it conquers man and the mind of mind, is a defeat, not a triumph. The author portrays the destruction of two modern thinkers, Frost and Wither, a materialist and an existentialist, by a means whose justice I would wish could operate in the real world: they are simply both forced into a reality where their theories about human nature are carried out. The events (I cannot call it a plot) concern a search for Merlin the Magician, the corruption of a young envious man by the black hats, the enlightenment of his wife by the white hats, the imposition of tyranny on a small town, and a miracle that imposes on the villains the curse of Babel.
Here is my assessment of the literary merits of OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.
1. Timeless: The first book SILENT PLANET is one I take to be more a critique of H.G. Wellsian science fiction than of anything touching a more timeless theme. The Prime Directive of STAR TREK, and the gentle non-colonialism of the Ekumen of Ursula K. LeGuin’s LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS (and other novels) have sufficiently dethroned the Kipling-like conceit of Manifest Destiny To The Stars which once figured so prominently in the genre. Indeed, if anything, we may have swung too far in the feminine direction on this point, and so a few stories of colonization and conquest may be just what the current generation needs. There is an argument to be made in favor of spreading civilization.
The middle book, PERELANDRA is about the general nature of selfishness and corruption. As an essay on theology, it will remain an interesting and instructive parable for so long as Christendom endures.
The final book, HIDEOUS STRENGTH, like Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR, will be pertinent to the reader for so long as the risk of a tyranny that uses science as an excuse for its enormities shall last, and this shall be for so long as science retains a luster of respectful deference in the minds of the public. I myself have seen, in my lifetime, so sharp a drop in the respect offered experts, and so sharp a rise in the skepticism that great politics disguised as science, that this warning might one day pass away. It has not yet: the theme strikes frighteningly close to home, even decades after it was written.
2. Re-readable: Here I can only speak for myself. I have reread these books with increasing pleasure over the years. Certain events and images live permanently in my memory, so that when I see something in the real world that promotes sterility, I think, “Ah! Here are the practices of Sulva.” When I was a reader who disagreed with the message, I rereading them for their artistic merit alone. One need not be a Christian to appreciate these books. On the other hand, while there may be subtleties in the message that bear repeated pondering, it is not as complex and artful as Dante, whose very structure merits endless contemplation. The books themselves are not subtle or intricate, but are written on a popular level for popular taste.
3. Pertinent to the Conversation of Science Fiction: On this third requirement, once we scale it down to the SF level, rather than the Great Books of all western civilization, this trilogy emerges as a classic. No one can really call himself well read in science fiction unless he has read C.S. Lewis rebut H.G. Wells. I doubt you will really understand the writings of James Marrow or Philip Pullman, unless you understand the writings of Lewis, whom these gentlemen have taken up their pens to refute.
On the artistic scale:
1. Lyrical: C.S. Lewis has an ear for turns of phrase that, when he does it right, it is really done right. His language is not as fine as that of J.R.R. Tolkien, but even that I should be making the comparison at all is a compliment to Mr. Lewis. He is far above the average for science fiction, which is written usually in a curt, journalistic style. The books are not worth being read merely for their language alone: but the language is superior to many, even most, genre writing.
2. Natural: The Green Lady of Venus and Merlin the Magician emerge as extremely memorable, realistic, and striking characters, a feat particularly impressive considering the alien nature of the subjects: a man from the past and a lady from another world. Aside from these two triumphs of character-drawing, I’d have to say Characterization is serviceable, if a little weak, for Lewis. Weston, Frost, and Wither, are merely sock-puppets meant to utter the position of the Bad Guys. Mark Studdock has only one descriptive quality: he is tempted by the lure of joining the In Crowd. Jane is also a one-note character: the childless feminist. Ransom is a cipher: his character changes in the last book from our mild mannered linguist to the august Pendragon. Had he stopped to talk about linguistics, or any personal interest of his own, or had some other side to his personality, it would have been more natural. The rest of the people, good guys or bad, have less personality than the bear, Mr. Bultitude.
3. Wise: C.S. Lewis has insight into the human condition a great deal deeper than other writers, almost embarrassingly so. I confess that there are novels, even ones I enjoy perfectly well, where the human-shaped puppets move through forced and unrealistic situations, uttering the most banal and childish of observations, I feel bad for the author, even if he is successful, because I fear he is unwise a as man. That fear does not afflict me when I read Lewis. While ranking below G.K. Chesterton, I would place Lewis at least equal to Evelyn Waugh in his human insight.
I could also address a Science Fictional Scale, mentioned directly below, but I will not. These books are only by courtesy called science fiction: they are an experiment at retelling the matter of fantasy and legend by means of science fictional props and settings.
To my surprise, I originally intended to give these books an average rating, but, having looked at each of the six criteria in isolation with the others, I am surprised to see the various strengths of the books.
None of them are anywhere near being rating with the Great Books of Western Literature, but they are at least the equal in merit to GONE WITH THE WIND or BRIDESHEAD REVISITED.
The Science Fictional Scale
This leads us to a final question: Can Bad Literature be Good SF?
I must emphasize that the science fiction value of the work proceeds, in my opinion, from different standards. Whether a science fiction book is good as science fiction depends on several things, of which I will here list the top three:
- Scientific—are the ideas extrapolations from real (or fairly realistic) science? SF gets points form me when it is based on something legitimately scientific, even if my personal taste runs more toward the softer end of the spectrum. Larry Nivens “Neutron Star” captures this criterion: despite the magic technology of hyperspace or invulnerable hulls, the problem and the solution in the tale is all legitimate, basic Newtonian physics.
- Wonder—does the work awe, terrify, or inspire the reader with the contemplation of the scientific view of the universe. A book that delivers this might be written in an unpalatable style with stiff and lifeless characters, but still win on sheer strength of its sense of wonder. GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith, and THE NIGHT LANDS by William Hope Hodgson fit into this category; so does NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by Geo. Orwell.
- Imagination—A good SF story is speculative in small things as well as in great. That is to say, given the counterfactual premise of the story, what details in the lives of the characters logically must also differ? If the author imagines the ramifications in greater detail than the reader, it is a better SF novel than one where he falls short.The Golden Age writers of John W. Campbell Jr.’s stable, for all their merits, were not good at this: some imagined future society would have remarkable technological changes, but the characters would still have to go downtown to make a long-distance phone call or send a telegram, the wife would be in the kitchen, and the porter on the train would be a black. When an author does it badly, the reader’s reaction is to slap his head and ask “Why not?” If these people can raise the dead, why not kill the sick and resurrect them in new bodies? If those people have teleportation, why not have your ‘house’ have a room on every continent? A whole book could be written on what Star Fleet in real life would do, if they had transporter technology, which they do not do on STAR TREK.
When an author does this well, the reader’s reaction is to slap his head and say “Of course!”— of course if people had technology such-and-so they would every day do such-and-such.
NEUROMANCER by Gibson started its own sub-genre just on the strength of its detailed extrapolation of ramification other authors had overlooked. Given workable biotechnology, of course enforcers for mobs would have extra muscle tissue added, or punk teens horrify their parents with shark-skin-grafts replace the flesh of their faces. Gene Wolfe is a master of this particular aspect of the craft, as well as many others. In SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, both the uses and the abuses of a drug that absorbs the memories of others is explored, and the author also puts on stage the extraterrestrial monster, the Alzebo, from whom the extract is made.
To sum up, these criteria are unrelated to the criteria for good literature. A books can have crummy characters, a weak plot full of wholes, or no plot at all, tin-eared dialog and cardboard characters, but if it is hard, wonderful, and imaginative, science fiction readers will rightly count it as a first class science fiction book for decades.