Roundtable: SF Aesthetics
I haven’t read Csiscery-Ronay’s book, so I don’t know which of his beauties this would illustrate, but one of my favorite recent examples of Gary’s “beauties specific to SF” is in Steven Moffatt’s 2006 Hugo-winning Doctor Who episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which begins with goings-on in pre-Revolutionary France, then segues to a shot of a derelict spacecraft and the pokerfaced subtitle, “3000 Years Later.” (I hope I’m quoting the number correctly; I’m several hundred miles away from my DVD collection as I type this.)
This is, granted, not as beautiful as the transition it (pardon the pun) apes, the hurled-bone-turned-spaceship near the beginning of Kubrick and Clarke’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is beautiful in its own right, and beautiful in a way utterly denied to the TV writers of, say, Mad Men.
A print example that prompts similar time-spanning vertigo is at the beginning of Cordwainer Smith’s 1961 story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (originally in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), as the narrator tells us: “I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter, after fourteen thousand years.” When I was one of John Kessel’s students at North Carolina State University, he read that sentence aloud to the class and added: “Science fiction exists in order to justify sentences like that.”
Ursula K. Le Guin must have had that sentence, and others like it, in mind when she said that first reading “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” in particular, and Cordwainer Smith overall, “was like a door opening.” It’s a door that the non-sf writer (and reader) can’t see, because it doesn’t exist; the house isn’t built that way.
11 thoughts on “Roundtable: SF Aesthetics”
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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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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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