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LITERATURES OF MILIEUX / Algis Budrys For most practical purposes, a literature can be described by saying its name and pointing to several examples. Its appreciators recognize it "instinctively" soon after their first exposure to it, and have a similarly bone-deep feeling for spurious examples. They are able to say definitely, for example, that something is not science fiction, although they may be unable to explain their criteria and may face vehement disagreement from persons of equal standing in the community of science fiction appreciators. Within that community, which is quite large and proliferated, many would agree with outside observers that science fiction is a genre—that is, a literature with inherent limitations. This may be an error. A limit is definable, or it has no credibility as a limit. Science fiction might be so widely extended as to enclose a field co-equal in size and capability to "nongeneric" literature, whatever that is. Despite many efforts over the fifty-seven years since Hugo Gernsback put Amazing Stories on the newsstands, no one has produced a science fiction definition with wide acceptance. There is room to propose, as some do, that there may be no limits, nothing that is organically and irreducibly science fiction. "Science fiction" might perhaps be an artifact, solid enough at some core of general agreement but losing the qualities of a real thing as one moves out toward what might be its boundaries. Even within the "science fiction" community, there is little functional difference between science fiction and fantasy. The two supposedly discrete things are lumped together not only by booksellers and most librarians but in most private collections and conversations. And the two supposedly discrete things are often written by the same people, who appear only rarely in any other "genre." Strikingly enough, no one within the community or out of it has called for a definition of fantasy. Rather, there has been an ongoing preoccupation with the often incandescent question of whether science fiction is or is not an aspect of fantasy. Such a question, of course, makes the unexamined assumption that everyone knows what fantasy is. There have been any number of confusions and frank errors attendant on these matters, and it may be useful to reexamine the assumptions on which such errors are founded. Perhaps we can at least come closer to grasping what it is we're dealing with, and what legitimate human need it fills sufficiently well to persist as an art form. To that end, we can begin with some well known attempted definitions and some history. Copyright ° 1984, Algis Budrys. AU Rights Reserved. The Missouri Review · 49 It's typical for definitions to demand a science content in any fiction proposed as science fiction. But, as many have noticed, the "science" in most of the stories is actually technology; often, mere salesmanly consumer technology. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that science fiction readers, and their supposedly hardline technophilic editors, enthusiastically accept scientific illiteracy when it nevertheless yields what they call "a good story." While rigorously founded work is of course much prized, it is not the science content that makes science fiction. The presence of such purely literary enabling devices as "hyperspace" and "time travel," for which there is no evidence in the mundane world but which make it possible to move characters swiftly among exotic locales, has long been noted, sometimes shamefacedly. What is very rarely owned up to is a significant content of outright false statement flatly contradicting known science, but such a content does exist, at the very core of science fiction,1 and most members of the community are well aware that it is an ongoing feature of the field. The first prominent science fiction writer to publicly address this sort of anomaly was Robert A. Heinlein. In his essay, "Science Fiction, Its Nature, Faults and Virtues," done for an Advent:Publishers symposium volume (The Science Fiction Novel, Chicago, 1959), he declared that he found it more useful to call it "speculative fiction." He saw no hope, however, of effecting a practical change away from the entrenched term. Heinlein went on to survey pre-1959 definitions of science fiction, citing various prominent commentators...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 49-63
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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