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“Only an artificial cosmos can compete with beer.”

March 5, 2013

Who wrote the following?  (no peeking!)

“Some 500 authors who share membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) annually publish some 100,000 pages of fantasy in books and magazines. They can count on some 200,000 steady readers, scattered across the globe from New Zealand to Europe and Canada. These sci-fi fans—known as “fandom”—are not only great book buyers; they also publish specialty magazines known as “fanzines” which are published in limited editions of fifty to 500 copies. The pages of these periodicals warrant the attention of sociologists, for they carry a high proportion of letters to the editor which suggest that fandom is largely made up of frustrated individuals estranged from society.

Together with the authors, they constitute a kind of Anti-Establishment challenging the hegemony of “normal” literature, derisively or enviously referred to as the “mainstream.” They have, however, taken on some of the trappings of the mainstream literature, including science fiction prizes—the Nebula, awarded by authors, and the Hugo, voted by readers. The books so honored can count on sharply increased sales.

torchygirlJust as the “normal” literary world has its congresses and PEN Club conferences, sci-fi also has its conventions. Since the prize-winning books are very bad, the conventions are largely devoted to costume dances, parties, and mutual flattery. The whole phenomenon would not be worth further discussion were it not that sci-fi appears to have been elevated to a level of both kitsch and mystification that make it a force to be reckoned with. By kitsch I mean a literary form that claims to be a mythology of technological civilization while in fact it is simply bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue.

seewhatimean“Most science fiction is to authentic scientific, philosophical, or theological knowledge as pornography is to love.”

Kitsch is promise without delivery, drivel in the form of an intimate, self-satisfied ego trip. And while kitsch is the artistic ballast of sci-fi, mystification is the stuff of its intellectual pretensions. Science fiction tackles sociological, anthropological, and philosophical problems, insofar as it does not avoid them entirely, on an elementary level, in the form of adventure.

For years I suffered from the optimistic delusion that I had now plowed through enough of the bad books to get at the truly great ones. I wrote “critiques” in the “fanzines,” on the naive assumption that I could alert readers to how awful the writing was, how hackneyed were its stereotypes, and how many opportunities are missed by the authors of this art form. As a result, judging by the fans’ irate responses in letters columns, I have become something of a pariah.

Actually, my efforts were wasted since the readers are fans of science fiction and not literature; the very things they cherish are the ones most likely to make me ill. My actions were hopeless because the value judgments I was rendering were based on the worth of literary achievement unknown to the fans. Someone who had not read War and Peace might presume that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is the definitive work on war and peace. Hence it would be impossible to make clear to him in theoretical terms that this was not the case. Similarly someone who has never loved might assume that the acme of this experience is in genital contact. The analogy is reasonable since most science fiction is to authentic scientific, philosophical, or theological knowledge as pornography is to love.

To me pornography is not evocative of erotic stimulation but of gynecology and anatomy, which I once studied. Similarly science fiction does not convey to me the fate of man trapped in his own devices but rather removes itself from human concerns through deceptive ballyhoo. I have nothing against entertainment, even if it is nonsense. But idiocy that passes itself off as Faustian mythology is a cultural cancer.

“Think of Heinlein’s warning—we are competing for our readers’ beer money.”

A year ago I was voted an honorary membership in SFWA. I accepted the honor because I had not given up on working toward reform from within. Now I wonder why I ever bothered trying. Possibly because to this day the phenomenon of science fiction fascinates me. After all, the Americans are not stupid, nor could the market affect all of them with opportunism. That said, I am amazed at a situation for which no word but “terrible” will do.

Today science fiction is even taught in American universities, virtually without criticism. I can sympathize with irrational yearnings in the lap of an all-too-rational civilization. I can justify the anti-scientific attitude of both the culture and the counter culture that make possible a sort of escapism. I can even see the need for fantasy in a world that has lost much of its faith. But I simply cannot understand why scientific fantasy should be anti-scientific—why it should spawn the most patent foolishness and find the greatest response among those who understand it least.

In search of answers to these questions I read the SFWA bulletins. Poul Anderson, a noted sci-fi author, gives his colleagues some advice in the latest issue: “Think of Heinlein’s warning—we are competing for our readers’ beer money.” He goes on to write that unless we clear away every barrier that would block the reader’s understanding and pleasure he’ll say “to hell with it” and head for the corner bar. Robert Heinlein, an author of the older generation, is a legendary figure, a classical sci-fi writer who lives on in “fandom” through anecdotes about him and dedications to him of bibliographies and monographs.

We Europeans shouldn’t smile too smugly at this. We had better admit that in a sense Heinlein and Anderson are right, especially when we consider that the corner bar now also has a television set that shows, among other things, football games. Which of us literati, Shakespeare included, could hold a candle to a championship game? In this light the question is no longer to choose this book or that, but books vs. bar. And if that is the choice then we are all beaten.

Of course one could justify Anderson’s thesis in sociological terms; put simply, sci-fi readers are neither snobs, experts, intellectuals, bookworms, nor sophisticates. They are part of the mass culture market, a portion of which is captured by sci-fi along with beer and championship games. Put this way, one can either accept or reject the thesis. How can space, the silent, endless void that Pascal so feared, survive as a literary theme and prevail victorious in a contest with beer? It can’t unless it is painted over and propped up as some sort of ludicrous imitation. Only an artificial cosmos can compete with beer.

If in the past all authors had accepted the suggestions of the two Americans, we would have no literature worth mentioning. We would have none of the literary heritage of which we are so proud if every author worried about publishers, critics, censors, readers, public opinion, sales potential, and the like. My rebuttal to Anderson’s thesis, then, is that marketing prospects or official approval or similar concerns have no business intruding in that narrow gap between the author’s eyes and the blank piece of paper. That the muse cannot be pursued over a bottle of beer goes without saying. In short, honest literature can never conform to external pressures or exigencies. To do so would be its death.

Finally, the history of literature shows that authors rarely had an easy time of it. There is nothing in the equation of literary worth that permits us to discount an author’s creation—so much for trash, so much for lies, so much for nonsense—simply because he has a wife and children. Of course it is embarrassing to learn that publishers still pay 2 cents a word—the same as in 1946—while books have doubled in price during the same period, along with the salaries of editors, printers, and all others on the production end with the exception of the authors. These data I gathered from the SFWA Bulletins. Unfortunately a bad standard of living is no excuse for bad literature.”

Stanislaw Lem

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