Odd that you should pick 1955, since just last week I was reading a lengthy symposium organized by Earl Kemp in 1960 which often touched on these same questions, and even then it was apparent that this was a pretty hoary set of questions. (For those interested, it’s available at http://efanzines.com/EK/eI29/, and included nearly everyone you could name in the field from that era.) One of the comments, from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who used to regularly participate in such things), was this: “Anybody who announces that he is a science fiction writer is announcing that he is in damn bad company financially and artistically.” Vonnegut later apologized for sounding so cranky, but that feeling still seems to be around a half-century later.
I promised myself before starting this that I wasn’t going to quote Keats (way before 1955), but there’s something to that Grecian urn business that can’t be ignored. What Dirac was saying about the beauty of equations sounds to me a bit Keatsian, in fact, and it raises a somewhat different angle on the debate: what if, instead of moaning about the ways in which SF often fails to reflect the beauties of traditional fiction, we asked about the ways in which traditional fiction fails to reflect the beauties available to SF?
Here’s the argument in a nutshell, and without benefit of more thought than I’m giving to it at this moment: all the literary virtues mentioned by Damien–clarity of prose, depth of character, the “internal world”–are readily available to SF (or fantasy, or horror) writers, and we could all recite a litany of such writers who take full advantage of them. But when we talk of the sort of beauty that Dirac referred to with his equations, we could readily argue that such beauties are more available to the SF writer, and some (Greg Egan comes to mind with the equations) take full advantage of those as well. There are beauties specific to SF–world-building, imaginary science, imaginary histories–that would be a real stretch for traditional novelists to even attempt, and when they do they often grind them into metaphor or divert them into the loony obsessions of troubled characters.
Istvan Csiscery-Ronay, Jr.’s recent book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, in fact, addresses directly the question of what beauties are specific to the genre, and raises some provocative points without lapsing into the usual facile defenses of SF–such as those annoying old saws that it’s the only “literature of ideas” or “literature of change.” But don’t let me get started on that. Let me just end by paraphrasing Theodore Sturgeon: it’s almost certainly true that 90% of SF is worse than Austen or Faulkner–but then so is 90% of everything else.