Calling Utopia a Utopia

Writing about the death of J.G. Ballard for the New York Times (21 April 09), Bruce Weber spoke to Ballard’s American editor at Norton, Robert Weil. Mr Weil said of Ballard: “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction. But that’s like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.”

Every time I read this sentence it suggests more parallels:

“But that’s like calling Don Quixote a novel.”
“But that’s like calling The Lord of the Rings a fantasy.”
“But that’s like calling Utopia a utopia… “

It is shocking to find that an editor at the publishing house that had the wits to publish J.G. Ballard (as well as the Norton Book of Science Fiction) can be so ignorant of what Ballard wrote, or so uninformed about the nature and history of the science-fiction genre, or so unaware of the nature of literature since the 1980’s, that he believes — now, in 2009! — that to say a writer wrote science fiction is to malign or degrade his work.

To define science fiction as a purely commercial category of fiction, inherently trashy, having nothing to do with literature, is a tall order. It involves both denying that any work of science fiction can have literary merit, and maintaining that any book of literary merit that uses the tropes of science fiction (such as Brave New World, or 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or most of the works of J.G. Ballard) is not science fiction. This definition-by-negation leads to remarkable mental gymnastics. For instance, one must insist that certain works of dubious literary merit that use familiar science-fictional devices such as alternate history, or wellworn science-fiction plots such as Men-Crossing-the-Continent-After-the Holocaust, and are in every way definable as science fiction, are not science fiction — because their authors are known to be literary authors, and literary authors are incapable by definition of committing science fiction.

Now that takes some fancy thinking.

If Mr Weil allows H.G.Wells’s stories any literary quality or standing, he’d have to declare that “The First Men in the Moon” and “The Time Machine” are not science fiction — invoking, I suppose, their “fabulistic style”.

Knowing those stories differed in certain respects from other fiction, and having a scientific mind and training, H.G.Wells himself sought a classification for them. He called them “scientific romances.” The term “science fiction” hadn’t yet been invented and adopted.

When I read such nonsense as Mr Weil’s, I could wish it never had been.

But “science fiction” is the term we’re stuck with. And in any reasonable definition, it is an accepted literary category, usefully and adequately descriptive of such works of literature as Brave New World, 1984, The Man in the High Castle, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and all J.G. Ballard’s major stories and novels.

Editors, critics, and others who use it not as a description but as a negative judgment are wrong to do so. And they do wrong. They are gravely unjust both to the science fiction of literary value that they refuse to admit is literature, and the science fiction of literary value they refuse to admit is science fiction. Mr Weil owes Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, and his own author, J.G. Ballard, an apology beyond the grave.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Visit Ursula K. Le Guin’s Bookshelf at Book View Cafe. Her comic Cat T’ai Chi is featured on Thursday, 14 May 2009.



Calling Utopia a Utopia — 5 Comments

  1. Seems we in the netherworld of SFF never get inured to being dismissed. I don’t care what category publishers choose for “The Road”, it’s SF. We claim it for our genre! lol (it and all its prizes)

    (btw, I loved “Coming of Age in Karhide”)

  2. It’s not just journalists who are dismissive of science fiction, alas. As august a body as the University of Oxford, so the story goes, required that the club formed of fans of what you and I might call science fiction be called the Speculative Fiction Group instead.

  3. There is also, within the SF field as well, a certain clinging to the ghetto. Discussing whether a book or story or movie is “real SF” does the whole field a disservice. If it meets the basic criteria, the question isn’t “Is it real science fiction,” the question is “is it good science fiction,” or “is it a good work.”

    Ballard’s work was both SF and very good. That shouldn’t be so hard for critics to fathom.

  4. Excellent point, Madeleine. Probably we’ve all seen folks in our own community trying to define individual works of SF, or even individual authors, out of the field for one weird reason or another.

    — Vonda

  5. I used to know an SF fan who insisted that when SF was good, it wasn’t really SF. It was literatchur. Yeah, right.