Roundtable: SF Aesthetics

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, 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.

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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