2.18.2004

Joe Public and Barry N. Malzberg

Why is speculative fiction an important, necessary component of our culture? What makes it worth Joe Public's time read an SFF novel?

Jeff Vandermeer and Matt Peckham have already discussed that one success of SFF is that is it shares certain similarities to other fiction. I agree, but more importantly so does T.S. Eliot:

"[N]ot only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors assert their immortality most vigorously."

But as Eliot points out, there are also dissimilarities or we'd have mimicry, which would fall short of art.

A second aspect that Joe Public should already be aware of, if he didn't already know from our popular climate or from McSweeney's Mammoth anthology, is that one of the genre's priorities has always been entertainment.

But this still doesn't make the genre unique as other genres could easily accomodate this attitude.

One of my favorite genre aspects is that it has invented or changed-up more reliable modes of storytelling than others. I gave Fredric Brown's "Letter to a Phoenix" as an example that may be disappearing ("The Weapon" would also qualify as one whose effect requires displacing the character change into the reader, but while less common than it once was, this is probably not in danger of extinction).

Another example would be the discursive-discourse style of Barry N. Malzberg. I'm not sure if a Malzberg-type could be published today--not that his style was always effective but it was almost always pertinent which few writers can claim. Moreover, when his discourse-fiction mode was spot-on mixed as in "Understanding Entropy," we encounter both powerful thought and emotion.

The genre used to pride itself on its variety, but I wonder sometimes if we've become a codified commodity. Perhaps the genre's too big to notice all the new invention in its corner pockets. If so, why are they in the corner pockets?

Noam Chomsky had an interesting theory of evolutionary/natural-selection education that went something like: those who do as they're told become worldly successes, those who go against the grain become taxi drivers.

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