Roundtable: SF Aesthetics

This is the first discussion of the resurrected Locus Roundtable group. I tossed out the following prompt to the participants. Click here to see the entire discussion.

Damien G. Walter posted the following on

In science fiction [the] argument sometimes arises as a belief that SF does not need to function as art. It does not need to be beautiful, as other kinds of fiction might. Its characters do not require depth. Its prose can lack precision or clarity. It can tell hackneyed stories in the service of new scientific ideas perhaps. Its an argument that fewer people accept today than might have a decade ago, and yet much interesting SF still falls short as fiction.

The physicist Paul Dirac suggested that for an equation to be true, it must be beautiful. In Dirac’s thinking beauty was a way of discerning the truth, as much a part of the scientific process as observation. If science fiction is a way of reaching for the truth, then shouldn’t it also be beautiful? Can a work of science fiction really have anything true to say, if it fails by the standards of fiction?

But what makes fiction beautiful? For me, the great strength of prose fiction is its ability to step inside the human experience. To explore the internal world that exists inside us all. When science fiction is beautiful it is most often because, however strange the external world it explores, its first concern is with the internal experience of that world.

Here’s the whole article:

Is there anything worth saying on this topic, or has it all been said before (and probably all been said before in 1955)? Can we ever grant SF a pass on literary merit because it’s the Literature of Ideas? Is the beauty=truth premise actually valid?

I got responses from Paul Graham Raven, Gary K. Wolfe, Andy Duncan, Russell Letson, John Clute, Cheryl Morgan, Paul Witcover and Terry Bisson, who all easily rose above the limitations of my initial prompt. Click through to the full post to see the discussion play out. If you prefer to see all the responses on a single page, the pull-down menu at the top of the stand-alone page should have a ‘View All’ option.

11 thoughts on “Roundtable: SF Aesthetics

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  • January 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    The ‘beauty’ that Dirac referred to includes an element of ‘getting the job done’. In that respect, any story that gets the job done for the reader contains that element of ‘beauty’.
    As at least a couple of the contributors mentioned, this is really nothing more than an exercise in goal post moving. Rather than discussing “what is science fiction”, we’re asking if there is “beauty” to be found in it. A question that will never be answered as we are all looking at different sections of the tapestry.
    For me, personally, those elements of writing that are (erroneously) attributed to “literary merit” CAN be incorporated into works of science fiction but do not have to be present to produce a beautiful story. (Cold Equations anyone? Where’s the “depth of character” in that classic?)
    Damien lost me, however, with one of his opening paragraphs:

    “I strongly object to the idea that science fiction has to be about science.”

    For me there is a line, however squishy or nebulous. The absence of science that informs the story, or serves as background or provides the central element removes a story from the ranks. Even stories that ‘act’ like science fiction but that do not have the practices, logical projection/speculation based on science are over that line (the case for many so-called literary works that incorporate elements of SF, but that do not derive from an SF history/community/sensibility/whatever).

    I view this as yet another argument “against” science fiction, seeming to come from someone who buys in to the Vonnegut epithet.

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  • January 4, 2011 at 4:02 am

    I’m reminded of the remarks of former world chess champion Emmanuel Lasker contrasting his views of beauty in chess with those of title contender Siegbert Tarrasch.

    “Dr. Tarrasch is a thinker, fond of deep and complex speculation. He will accept the efficacy and usefulness of a move if at the same time he considers it beautiful and theoretically right. But I accept that sort of beauty only if and when it happens to be useful. He admires an idea for its depth, I admire it for its efficacy. My opponent believes in beauty, I believe in strength. I think that by being strong, a move is beautiful too. – Emanuel Lasker”

    In other words, I agree with the previous commenter regarding “getting the job done.” Are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch beautiful? Deep? I’d say no to both. But they get his points across. The same is true of many highly regarded works in other media.

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