Roundtable: SF Aesthetics

If the question is whether there is a uniquely science-fictional aesthetic or mode of beauty, I’d have to say, not really, even though the fact that we think of SF as a distinct genre suggests that maybe there ought to be. After all, in “On Stories,” C.S. Lewis notes that the pleasures he sought in Cooperesque frontier adventures were quite specific (and no longer to be named in polite society)–not just any dangers, but those of “that whole world to which [they] belonged.” (Thank you, Google Books. My copy’s buried somewhere.) But I wonder if what he is describing isn’t something like taste–a preference for the piano over the harpsichord or Mozart over Bach rather than an appreciation or lack of it for music in general.

As Gary points out, the pleasure-engines of general prose fiction are available to any SF writer with sufficient chops–though I’m not so sure that SF has a lock on those particular pleasures. If there is a big binary divide, it is the one that separates the fantastic from the more or less realistic. If SF is a department of the fantastic, then it has easier access to a particular range of effects than does representational fiction. Among the most striking elements of Paul McAuley’s Quiet War/Gardens of the Sun diptych are the density with which its physical world is imagined and the way understanding this world and its structures and processes permeate the sensibilities of several of the characters and finally the novel itself. This poetry of the material world is less common in straight fiction (though I doubt that it is altogether absent). What makes it crucial to McAuley’s book is that understanding and manipulating and finally transforming the world is what its characters aspire to do–not as metaphor or symbolic action (though there is an inescapable symbolic side), but in literal fact. And that literalization makes it dead-center SF.

If I had to offer examples of non-fantastic fiction in which the operations and textures of the natural world were as foregrounded, I’d start with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels–and even there the use made of the physicality of blue-water sailing is rather different from what McAuley is doing. But the two enterprises are at least cousins.

Now, McAuley’s prose is quite polished–I can’t imagine that it would offend readers of The New Yorker. But then there’s Phil Farmer. I am re-reading some Farmer stories that I have not looked at for 30 years (in the Up the Bright River volume), and it is sometimes an uncomfortable experience, since Phil’s writing is not uniformly graceful. Yet there remains much to enjoy in it, even while I’m noticing how clunky a chunk of exposition is or how a passage might have been trimmed. I don’t see readers who value, say, Cormac McCarthy finding Farmer pleasant. (I find McCarthy unreadable. Go figure.) The pleasures of reading Farmer, even when he’s not at the top of his game, are the pleasures of following his quirky, ironic, playful mind as he fools around with the materials at hand–heroism, villainy, wanderlust, plain old lust, the contradictions in human behavior, the desire to jump the gap between the ordinary and the marvelous.

Which writer is producing “beauty”? Is “beauty” even the most useful term for the range of pleasures and satisfaction that we derive from reading fiction?

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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