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Science Fiction Creates Some Literary Friction : Genre Does Battle With the East Coast Establishment

February 19, 1986|BOB SIPCHEN | Sipchen lives in Costa Mesa. and

Earthlings beware! At this very moment, in a parallel dimension known as the world of letters, a battle of intergalactic proportions rages.

On one side of this cosmic battlefield, occupying what most would consider the high ground of prestige, the "East Coast literary Establishment" attacks with bursts of acerbic bons mots. On the other side, boasting greater numbers and clear technological superiority, the creators and defenders of science fiction make their stand. If we are to believe some of the combatants, at stake is nothing less than the nature of the universe as we know it.

Most Recent Skirmish

The most recent skirmish in this running conflict erupted last October when Harper's magazine published "The Temple of Boredom," an essay by New York writer Luc Sante. Subtitled "Science Fiction, no future," the piece derides the genre for its "hubris," "woozy universalism" and "contrivance."

Calling it "detritus," and "the domain of hobbyists and hacks," Sante argued that "Science fiction has become a dead zone useful for dumping space travel, extraterrestrials, weird inventions, time warps, extrasensory perception, biological mutations, the morals of intelligent machines, and anything else that would be of genuine scientific interest were it not fictional."

The retaliatory strike came swiftly. Angry missives from the forces of science fiction occupied the entire letters section of the January edition of Harper's, where the letters are reportedly still coming in.

'Outraged Hysteria'

"What I think is most interesting about the Harper's piece is not the intellectual argument, which any undergraduate could shred, but the vehemence of the attack, and the sense of outraged hysteria," explained Gregory Benford, a UC Irvine professor of physics who wrote to Harper's and was praised in other letters for his science-fiction novels, which have won two Nebula awards (an honor voted to the best novel of a given year by the Science Fiction Writers of America).

According to Benford and other stellar representatives of science-fiction writing and criticism--many of whom dropped by Benford's Laguna Beach home on a recent Sunday to celebrate Voyager II's Uranus flyby--there is a concerted effort being made to suppress science fiction. As evidence of that, they point rather vaguely to attacks that have appeared in literary journals, and to the fact that less than four years earlier Harper's ran another less-than-diplomatic article on the subject.

In that essay, author Arnold Klein stated that "Sci-fi is a hormonal activity, not a literary one," and that "Sci-fi writers are the most pretentious idea-mongers going, but their ideas are stupid ." The author went on to add, "Enthusiasts, of course, do tend to differ with this view of sci-fi."

That, of course, does tend to understate the matter.

Calling the first Harper's article "the exact same piece" as the October essay--which he denounced as an "intellectually dishonest hatchet job"--Norman Spinrad, a Los Angeles-based author of 10 science-fiction novels and past president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, described the reaction of his colleagues and their fans: "People were very irate. They sought out the guy who wrote it and grilled him on the phone. He got lots of bad mail, lots of bad phone calls, even a few death threats." Science-fiction writers and scholars (who call their genre "S-F" but never "sci-fi") offer several explanations for why their literature is, as they claim, being oppressed. For one thing, devotees are convinced that the "Establishment" is rattled by science fiction's commercial success.

"I think all this activity means that someone's plainly worried, and this is damage minimization," said Benford, whose writing Sante characterized as "stylistic murk." "S-F is performing so well in the marketplace, and making so many advances in terms of both prestige and intellectual value, that some people think it has to be stopped now, or else it will gobble up the holy ground of realistic narrative."

"Last year was the biggest year yet for science fiction," explained Charles Brown, editor of the Oakland-based science-fiction trade journal Locus. Brown said that nobody breaks book sales figures down according to genre, but he estimated that science fiction accounted for about 20% of all sales in 1985.

A lot of science-fiction aficionados also believe that the battle lines can be defined geographically--the "genteel East" versus the "barbarian West."

"I would tend to think of science fiction as a frontier literature, a literature that's part of the westward spirit," explained George Slusser, adjunct professor in comparative literature at UC Riverside and curator of that school's 45,000-volume Eaton collection--the largest institutional collection of science fiction and fantasy.

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