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Beyond the lurid book covers

In defense of science fiction

This text contains profanity that may be offensive to some readers.

By John Clute

May 26, 1999
Web posted at: 12:05 p.m. EDT (1605 GMT)

(SALON) -- Once upon a time -- about a century ago -- something happened in the world of books that, for a while, boded no ill. H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse and Edgar Rice Burroughs consciously invented (along with a lot of other writers like Robert Louis Stevenson or Bram Stoker who didn't have a clue) the kind of story we now think of when we think of popular genres: detective stories, science fiction, horror, superman adventures, etc. These writers, responding to insatiable demands for copy from the sharp editors who ran up-and-coming new magazines, created stories that could be repeated: Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan are nothing if they don't happen again and again. They created markets, and they created, only half unwittingly, the monster of the Demand for the Same.
Is sci-fi a legitimate genre?

In doing so, Wells and Doyle and their colleagues laid the foundations for the world of literature we live in now. In 1999, most of what most of us read is genre. Sometimes this is obvious -- science fiction, which is what I'm most concerned about, has for many decades now been stigmatized as a genre literature that adults needn't bother with. Sometimes the formula is not so obvious. Novels written by university professors and set in the groves of academe are far more rigidly predictable than anything but the most routine science fiction novel, but they have escaped the stigma of being labeled as genre. They can be read in public by adults, not because they are particularly worth being read in public by adults, but because they carry no mark of Cain.

Other genres include the bestseller genre, the disaster genre, the roman clef that fails to conceal the identity of a very recent American president genre, the shopping and fucking genre, the sexually obsessed Christian male in New England midlife crisis genre, the Hollywood satire genre, the European experimental novel with unusual sex on Page 74 genre, and so on.

Next page | Gore Vidal and P.D. James: When science fiction dare not speak its name

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