Roundtable: SF Aesthetics

When I read that Russell was especially struck in McAuley’s novel by 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,” I immediately thought not of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels — though those are indeed excellent examples — but of Dickens. Bleak House, Great Expectations and Little Dorrit, to name only three, are about characters coming to understand their “world and its structures and processes,” however painfully, and the prospect of immersion in that world is largely what keeps Dickens’ readers coming back.

Dickens’ characters, however, do not transform their world. Individual circumstances do get transformed, however melodramatically and unconvincingly (the Cratchit family’s salvation is downright plausible compared to, say, Little Dorrit’s) — but Dickens’ tangled, grimy, glorious, awful, unfair world grinds on, indeed tends to reassert itself right over the bodies of various luckless characters (the elder Dorrit, Fagin’s Nancy). So this is one difference between Dickens and McAuley, in whose fiction, in Russell’s words, “transforming the world is what its characters aspire to do–not as metaphor or symbolic action … but in literal fact.”

Transforming the British Navy isn’t the goal of Aubrey and Maturin, either (they don’t rock the boat, pardon the pun), any more than Sharpe and Harper in Bernard Cornwell’s novels (or, God knows, Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser’s novels) seek to transform the British Army.  But here the distinction may not be between sf and non-sf, but between one-off novels and series novels. If the world really got transformed in a series novel, the series might end, and no one would be happy. Harry Harrison’s Slippery Jim DiGriz, to name the first example that comes to mind, likes his world just the way it is.  But as I type this, I remember a sf series character who is, indeed, transformative: Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon.

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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