David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Science Fiction Writers and Toynbee Convectors

Ray Bradbury once wrote a fantastic story called “The Toynbee Convector.” The story’s protagonist claims to have returned from the future with tapes and films of a miraculous technological paradise in which humanity has solved all its pressing problems. Humanity, imbued with confidence that its dreams will come to fruition, proceeds to build that future — not realizing that said tapes and films were nothing but a hoax.

Has anyone ever summed up the job of a science fiction writer better than Ray Bradbury in “The Toynbee Convector”?

Picture a wondrous future. Describe in tantalizing detail. Give hints as to what we did to get there, and leave it to the scientists, the economists and the politicians to connect the dots. (The same works in reverse for so-called dystopian futures. Picture a miserable future. Describe in horrifying detail…)

This is, of course, a tremendous oversimplification of a very rich and complex genre of literature, and we could all sit around thinking up examples that break the mold. (Is the world of Dune something to strive towards or avoid? Discuss.) But I’m convinced that it’s as good a model as any for describing the field.

So why has science fiction become ghettoized in the minds of modern readers? Why don’t the serious literary critics take it seriously? Why hasn’t a single novel of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson or Ursula le Guin been nominated for the National Book Award?

I would suggest that the answer lies as close as your nearest Barnes & Noble. In almost every chain bookstore in the U.S., science fiction is placed side by side with fantasy. Publishers (and as a result, readers) no longer distinguish between science fiction and fantasy.

Although this certainly makes sense from a sales perspective — after all, the two genres frequently share the same audience — I think this has done harm to the credibility of science fiction. Going back to Bradbury’s “Toynbee Convector,” people have been conditioned to think of the marvelous/horrendous futures that science fiction authors dream up as simple fantasies. Puffs of smoke, castles of sand, unattainable dreams. People think of science fiction as mere escapism.

Probably nothing has blurred the distinctions so much as George Lucas’ “Star Wars” films. While they’re billed as science fiction, they’re really nothing of the sort. There’s very little effort at scientific realism involved. They’re really adventure films that could be transplanted into an epic fantasy or Wild West setting with a handful of script tweaks.

Not to denigrate the field of fantasy (I myself am a big fan of Tolkien and, more recently, George R.R. Martin), but well-written science fiction does more than provide adventures or dream scenarios. Whether you’re talking about the corporate-technology-run-amok setting for Gibson’s Neuromancer or the physics-bending Zones of Thought in Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep or the lethal nanotechnological scourges of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, you’re not talking about escapism — you’re talking about serious novels that are informed by science and politics and economics. You’re talking about literature that our leaders should be reading and discussing.

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  1. David Price on December 14, 2005 at 9:25 am  Chain link

    Very interesting, Dave. As I suspect you’d agree, the issue probably goes beyond the shelving and I think there are many sub-questions to be tackled here.

    For instance, how much of the “ghetto-izing” (as you put it) of science fiction is just an outgrowth of the “serious fiction” vs. “genre fiction” distinction embraced by book review editors, prize committees, and others?

    Hasn’t science fiction always been “ghetto-ized” (if the metric is book reviews and book awards)?

    To what extent might science fiction be making demands on readers — e.g., in terms of scientific literacy or interest — that literary-minded readers today can’t or don’t want to meet?

  2. David Louis Edelman on December 15, 2005 at 12:20 pm  Chain link

    Good points all, enough to fuel another blog post or seven. Other factors for the ghettoization of SF I would add to the mix:

    (1) The compartmentalization/specialization of everything in our culture, brought about by the Internet’s ability to target much narrower niches than television or traditional publishing ever could.

    (2) The influence of Hollywood, which has its own dismal view of SF that rarely extends beyond “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.”

    (3) The fact that much of the most visible SF is targeted at adolescent and teenage boys. (Witness the covers with the big-breasted chicks in tight leotards waving big guns while leaping out of ultra-cool spaceships.)

  3. David Louis Edelman on December 19, 2005 at 2:00 pm  Chain link

    Unbeknownst to me, apparently everyone in creation has already been discussing this topic ad nauseum. See Gregory Benford‘s take, John Scalzi‘s take and my editor Lou Anders‘ take.

  4. Lou Anders on December 25, 2005 at 11:02 pm  Chain link

    Don’t leave out the good Hal Duncan’s most edifying response: http://notesfromthegeekshow.blogspot.com/2005/12/ghetto-within-ghetto.html

    Hal’s blog is well worth reading, and even better if you can picture it being read in the voice of Begbie from Trainspotting.

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