Oh, I see. Popular is bad. Common feeling among self-defined elites.
Oh, I see, you’re saying that anyone who likes SF is stupid.
Those words were written in response to a post that argues:
[T]he very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of science fiction if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?
I would frame that argument differently: when I read science fiction, 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. Not that I’ve stopped, mind you, but when you consider the sheer volume of science fiction I’ve consumed in the twenty years since I read Gateway, I think you can see why that experience is increasingly illusive: more often than not, what I read contains ideas I’ve already encountered, so the only avenue to awe is through the quality of execution. There are exceptions—Perdido Street Station being the one example, Adam’s conceptually audacious novels being another—but they merely apply meat to Adam’s claim that the nominees for the 2009 Hugo Awards fail to engender what proper science fiction should; namely, Schopenhauer’s sublime:
[I]f the beholder [of a work of art] does not direct his attention to this eminently hostile relation to his will, but, although perceiving and recognizing it, turns consciously away from it, forcibly detaches himself from his will and its relations, and, giving himself up entirely to knowledge, quietly contemplates those very objects that are so terrible to the will, comprehends only their Idea, which is foreign to all relation, so that he lingers gladly over its contemplation, and is thereby raised above himself, his person, his will, and all will—in that case he is filled with the sense of the sublime, he is in the state of spiritual exaltation, and therefore the object producing such a state is called sublime.
If Schopenhauer’s baroque prose doesn’t do it for you,, even though he attributes to Kant an elaboration that properly belongs to Schopenhauer, Žižek’s nice and pithy:
The Sublime is therefore the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable.
I don’t think I’m being pedantic when I point out that a conversation that’s been going on almost 2,000 years and concerns how literature works in/on people’s heads is relevant. But I would say that, as would Adam:
I’m so sick and tired of these elitist blowhards with doctorates in whatever looking down from their ivy league towers and scoffing at the lowly undergrads working the fields. Dude, so what! You spent three years studying the works of Robert Browning . . . writing a hundred-thousand-word dissertation on his blah, blah, blah. Just what the hell does Robert Browning have to do with twenty-first century science fiction anyway? Do you really, really think that your PhD in poetry makes you the resident genius in the science fiction community? I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from a reputable university. I published three science fiction short stories with the undergraduate review, acquired a brick of rejection slips from Asimov et al, won an academic prize in Religion, and have written a science fiction novel, which I’m now shopping around to the trade publishers. Now, in your world, does this mean that my opinion matters more than some “uneducated” science fiction fan mucking it out in the real world, but less than yours? Because let’s face it, Roberts. Academia is not the real world. It’s where over-opinionated literary daydreamers like you end up, grinding it out with the nineteen year olds year after year, feeling superior because of the Latin on your wall. Well, I got lots of Latin on my wall too, Bard.
Where do you even begin with a blanket dismissal like this? By pointing to the fact that having dedicated years to the study of a particular subject might be a good thing? By noting that Adam’s post contained none of the classist rhetoric this commenter attributes to him? Or by pointing out that his idea of what Adam thinks and does reminds me of nothing so much as a Cambridge police officer stuffing a certain prominent academic into a hilariously inappropriate box? You are, this commenter insists, what I say you are, and should you disagree with his mischaracterization, he’ll repeat himself:
McAuley’s The Quiet War? That’s my point with ego-flexing academics like Adam Roberts. They always go with obscure writings. It makes them look more smarty-pants than the lowly serfs tilling the fields (most of whom couldn’t even fathom what a pair of pants were; burlap sacks they’d know, of course). Trust me, Adam Roberts spends hours a week researching obscure quotes and references to out of print book titles for the sole purpose of milking his own Bovine somatotropin-injected udders and ceremonially serving it to the lactose intolerant masses like a sacred Hindu cow.
I quote this commenter’s vitriol at length not because it’s typical of aggreived fanboys whose mettle is daily tested by the slings and arrows of imaginary persecutors with outrageous fortunes (although it is), nor because I think such screeds against the expertise of experts is so atypical as to warrant an extra ration of sunlight (because it ain’t); no, I reprint them at such length because they are made at such length, and as such, are indicative not of a reasonable quibble with a particular institution so much as the complete devaluation of the Umgangssprache that fans of science fiction who happen to be academics could use to communicate with the community at large. I realize that Umgangssprache is a loaded term, but I don’t mean to say that academics speak the standard form while fans speak the dialect, merely that when the very fact of belonging to one group or the other precludes the development of a common tongue, that’s a situation in which the imaginative paucity of the bigoted party becomes meaningful.
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; and if there are awards designed to reflect the tastes of such readers, they shouldn’t purport to be representing science fiction, because that’s a category error. They’re pablum that happens to take place in space, in the distant future, on a platform orbiting near a black hole and peopled by characters flattened into convention by authors who assume too much.
Not that any of the current nominees have produced such pablum, mind you. Nor should any of the other participants in this debate should see themselves reflected in my response to those comments, as there are some eminently reasonable, yet openly critical, responses to Adam’s initial post. But it’s the direction the genre’s headed if its most passionate fans angrily insist on rewarding works antithetical to genre’s motivating spirit.