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Tuesday, 21 July 2009


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Every genre has to have it's quality v. popularity debate every couple of years. They start with a screed decrying the popularity of low-quality work; the rabid amateur base (in history, we call them "buffs"; in speculative fiction and comics, you say "fanboys"; in knitting and hunting, it's "hobbyists"; etc.) screams back with the anti-elitist gambit; some people go off on practitioner v. consumer tangents while others try to bridge the gap with mollifying words about quality and popularity not being mutually exclusive. There's always a bunch of definitional arguments: what is or is not within the genre; does the genre have boundaries and do they change (and the traditionalist v. modernist argument always has its own ring in this circus); what is quality, anyway; what is popularity when comparing different media; etc.

It doesn't end: it just peters out with everyone's pre-existing prejudices about each other and the genre confirmed, and two years later someone will put out another rant and the whole thing starts over again.

Enjoy yourselves, fellas.

Vance Maverick

I believe my first contribution to rec.arts.books, in 1990 or thereabouts (I'm afraid to look), was an attempt to explain why I'm not interested in science fiction. I'm sure you can imagine the futility that ensued (though given the norms of the group at the time, it was genial futility, if punctured with ferocious drive-bys).


I think this is an excellent example of the multivocality of texts. SEK reads for transcendence, while his antagonists read the very same texts for something entirely different--SEK might call it affirmation, they might call it entertainment, who knows?--but the point is that these audiences and more all find what they are looking for. They then try to have conversations about the elephant, but they talk past each other because the unique parts of the elephant that they beheld are not commensurable.

Mark Wise

A lengthly "hell yes" follows.

The best novel Hugos have always been a popularity contest. You don't even have to prove that you've read the books. "Oh yeah, I know him," has more to do with it than it ought to. Hominids won, fer chrissakes, and it's just a decently crafted locked-room mystery. Sawyer is a bon vivant and good salesman, though.

Have you been to a Worldcon recently? The median age of attendees has been creeping up steadily for a couple decades now. It's no surprise that their choices are getting stodgier. And, of course, there's never been an intellectual means test for buying a Worldcon membership.

For younger, edgier wisdom-of-the-crowd, poll the attendees at Dragoncon.

I want to replicate the wonder my nine-year-old self experienced when he first read Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. I had never considered the possibility that the universe might be littered with the archeological remains of civilizations snuffed out before the proto-pre-dawn of human history. The thought of it was so sublime that, a decade later, I watched five seasons of Babylon 5 trying to recapture it.
I don't know if you're into video games at all (I don't think I recall it being a thing I've seen you write about, at least) but Mass Effect might be right up your alley.
Sharon Dreyer

Gateway is great; but A Canticle to Leibowitz is also a thought-provoking novel. As a science fiction fan and author, I prefer novels that make you ponder the characters and their situations. In addition, I like to make people wonder what they would do if they found themselves in the same situation. Science fiction is also entertainment and as such should contain a certain amount of drama, comedy, and tragedy.

Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.



I've got quiet a lot of 'fanboy' friends who consider me a snob because I'm picky about which SF novels I read. But as much as I look down on the fan-base of trashy franchise novels, and all the hacks cranking out interminable military SF series, and the execrable Dune rip-offs (you know who!), I can only stand in awe at the exalted levels of condescension, superiority and arrogance expressed in this post.

Nice going, genius.


The Necromancer

Distinctions between high and low culture (or elite and popular, alternately) are increasingly strained. Sci-fi, really all genre, sometimes suffers from the phenomenon of the serialized and repetitive. But that doesn't mean it can't be mind-bending in its originality or have the capacity to induce a sense of the sublime. Whatever works, man. Not to be totalistic, but all this anxiety and snobbery seems to be about status -- something people like to hold onto in uncertain times.

Alas, as sci-fi teaches us, all ages are uncertain.

Besides, good sci-fi is not only fun, it's full of philosophy, depth and inspiration. Especially if you're a historian of science and not some lame poetry professor...

Mikey in Plano

The thought of it was so sublime that...

So, when I saw that you read sci-fi to experience the sublime, my first thought was "Ouch, how's that working out for you?" And sure enough, the answer appears to be "Not very well." Such a search seems so inherently ridiculous that I'm not surprised to note a hint of disappointment, so I'm also not surprised you would conclude regarding the genre as a whole: the only avenue to awe is through the quality of execution.

So, is that really true? Kant, who you mentioned above, actually considered>four kinds of aesthetic judgment, and I'm not entirely sure which the "quality of execution" would fall under (maybe the agreeable, maybe you've found a 5th). You haven't really explained how the other judgments are unworthy of consideration.

Mind you, I'm not saying that Kant is right. However, since you haven't really explained how he's wrong, allow me to note that it seems clear to me, that if you're looking for books that capture the sublime, and someone else is looking for books that capture the beautiful, and so on, y'all would come up with considerably different short lists, though there would almost certainly be overlap with someone looking for all 4 qualities.

Now, I'm not sure that the Hugo voters are using any of Kant's criteria, and if someone did agree with Kant I imagine that would be a valid criticism. Still, I'm not sure that you or anyone else is claiming such, so much as solely using a work's sublimity as a measure of its worth.

To sum, I have 2 questions: 1) Do you think that sublimity is the only valid aesthetic judgment and why? 2) What invalid criteria are the Hugo voters using?

Mikey in Plano

I should probably note that with regards to my first question (which on re-reading I discover is technically 2 questions), I realize the scope of what I'm asking, and don't expect more than a basic outline. It does, however, seem fairly important to the argument. As has been noted in this thread and elsewhere, there are alternative aesthetic criteria, and I thought it relevant to point out that they, or rather, some of them, actually do have theoretical backing. You seem to be dismissing them out of hand, and that offends the elitist in me. ;)


"Because if, as I described above, science fiction is about exploring but failing to encompass that which can’t be known, people like this commenter aren’t ever really experiencing science fiction. They’re reading books they bought from the ghetto labeled as such, but they’re not reading them in the spirit in which, ideally, they were written"

I take the point here (really I do), but there's no such thing as Platonic ideal football. It seems to me the "spirit" of sci-fi, if there is one, has just as much to do with wish-fulfillment as it does with sublimity -- the feeling of "wouldn't it be cool if...?" That's probably why Seven of Nine had big jugs; but one would A) hesitate to call them sublime and B) hope they are fully encompassed in the "spirit" of sci-fi, whatever it is. Wish-fulfillment and sublimity are basically antithetical -- especially problematic since most of the time what one (read: the slobbering masses, myself included) is after has little to do with subjective destitution. Or, to bring it back to Zizek -- the objet petit a is what you want (the object of the (sci-fi-)fantasy), and finding out it's empty is both the source of tremendous existential discomfort and something like personal transcendence. You can't blame most people for enjoying their symptoms. One might also argue that fetishizing a certain aspect of sci-fi, and ghettoizing every type that doesn't evince this aspect, could easily be seen as a kind of pernicious ideological ressentiment. I'm not making that argument, but I'm not completely without sympathy for it.


(Come to think of it, the fact that you're continually chasing this elusive, impossible-to-preserve sense of whatever-you-call-it could be said to put it pretty firmly in the objet petit a category, making you a self-deceiving wish-fulfiller hot on the trail of God's lapels -- sorta like Richard Kimble if the one-armed man also didn't have the rest of a body. All this, of course, is speculative.) /slapdash Lacanian diagnosis.

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