April 1, 2012

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Turn From War In Space Porn, Return To A Literature Of Ideas!

io9, an online science, speculative fiction, comic book, etc. news magazine (http://io9.com/)posts a regular feature called “Space Porn” in which they bring to their readership’s attention spectacular photos of space. You can see one of the photos above.

They also update on recent publications, movies, etc. And that’s what got my ire up today.

War In Space Porn.

Mind you, I’m not picking on the WRITERS of the stuff, though they share the same blame that the people who harvest and treat the leaves of the coca plant before sending the end result into the rest of world to be turned into cocaine share. They are suppliers of the drug.

The drug is War In Space Porn.

I have dabbled in the works myself: currently reading Jack Campbell’s first LOST FLEET book; the first half of Peter Hamilton’s NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST; David Weber’s ON BASILISK STATION and OFF ARMAGEDDON REEF; all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s MILES VORKOSIGAN books; Kevin J. Anderson’s first book of the SAGA OF THE SEVEN SUNS; and of course, I’ve read HG Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS more times than I can count.

It is here that I will plant my flag and possibly irritate all kinds of people.

Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS held to the appellation of science fiction being “a literature of ideas” because he was among the very first to explore the idea of aliens invading Earth and starting a war. Everyone who came after him, with few exceptions (Jerry Pournelle’s THE FOREVER WAR) steered a course that made War In Space pornographic. In this case, I’m going to use the definition from dictionary.com: “noun…writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.”

It's my opinion that excluding Wells, Pournelle and a few others, the others are feeding a market (which I visit on occasion) in which War In Space has become pornography. I for one am ready to go back to reading the literature of ideas.

Examples of SF as a literature of IDEAS abound: Nancy Kress’ BEGGARS IN SPAIN; Frank Herbert’s DUNE (just the first book); Tobias Buckell’s CRYSTAL RAIN; Robert Sawyer’s CALCULATING GOD; Robert L. Forward’s DRAGON’S EGG; Bruce Bethke’s HEADCRASH; DOWN AND OUT IN THE MAGIC KINGDOM by Cory Doctrow; and China MiĆ©ville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION. This is a tiny slice of the work that challenges and makes us think.

STAR WARS fed the frenzy for more and more War In Space porn -- can you name a single Idea that came out of those movies? STAR TREK and BABYLON 5 (while they often serve up War In Space porn) occasionally turn out a literary idea like "Are artificial life forms property or free beings?" and "What exactly IS belief and faith?"

Yet the real Literature Of Ideas is overwhelmed by War In Space porn. I for one, am tired of it. I for one, will cut way back on my porn and start to support the literature of IDEAS that science fiction can be.

While I am certainly no fan of ATLAS SHRUGGED or ANTHEM, what Ayn Rand has to say in her essay, “What Is Romanticism?”, can easily be applied to a call to turn from War In Space porn and return to A Literature Of Ideas: “One can observe the misapprehended element of truth that gave rise to that early classification. What the Romanticists brought to art was the primacy of values, an element that had been missing in the stale, arid, third- and fourth-hand (and rate) repetitions of the Classicists' formula-copying. Values (and value-judgments) are the source of emotions; a great deal of emotional intensity was projected in the work of the Romanticists and in the reactions of their audiences, as well as a great deal of color, imagination, originality, excitement and all the other consequences of a value-oriented view of life. This emotional element was the most easily perceivable characteristic of the new movement and it was taken as its defining characteristic, without deeper inquiry.”

Anyone else want to join the crusade?


Paul said...

Joe Haldeman, right, not Jerry Pournelle?

It'd be interesting to see a comparison of the distribution of high- and lowbrow in science fiction to the same distribution in other genres: mystery, romance, horror, mainstream. Each is a literature of ideas in its own way, I think, both in the ideas they consider and in the way those ideas are used to create a literature. My guess is that they all follow Sturgeon's Law to some extent.

GuyStewart said...

I used the one that came to mind first -- JP is another, as is Larry Niven and Orson Scott Card (ONLY for the first "Ender's Game" SHORT STORY -- everything that was startling and innovative was done there. After that it was War In Space porn.)

When I talk about ideas, I mean fiction that explores something new or unique or is a different take on an old idea. Sir AC Doyle was new with Sherlock. King with horror. Danielle Steele with romance and Edwidge Danticat with mainstream.

My contention is that once the Icebreaker has gone through, others choose to splash around in the water until it freezes over again rather than breaking new ice in a new direction.

And while Sturgeon's Law applies ("90% of everything is crud."), do we nod complacently, accept it and quote Sturgeon (not even coming up with our own expression to quantify the observation)?

I am guilty as anyone else of buying what I like and eschewing what is new. So I guess I'm tired of me and I'll start reading and buying the work of icebreakers. I'm not calling for boycotts or anything. I'm just announcing it so I DO it -- 'cause my natural inclination is to "go with the gold".

Paul said...

I should have been clearer: Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War, not Jerry Pournelle. I think Haldeman's role as an icebreaker is due in no small measure to his formal writing education coming from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

By "following Sturgeon's Law to some extent," I mean that it's simply the nature of, well, everything, that the vast majority of people will be followers rather than leaders--they do "ordinary science fiction," to adapt a phrase from Thomas Kuhn. I wouldn't go so far as to say everything that followers do is crud; it's just not completely new.

Rats! Now I'm thinking about whether science fiction follows a trajectory similar to the one Kuhn charts for science, where both the ordinary and the extraordinary have (very different) purposes. If I don't stop now, this will turn into a dissertation--not a bad thing, but I should get some (paid) work done . . .