Under The Sun

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

In a recent issue of the (NY) Times Book Review, Sven Birkerts suggested--with appropriate self-deprecation--that science-fiction can't be Literature because it focuses on Issues rather than Character. I think he's exactly right... because that's exactly why I don't like Literature. If I want to learn about Character I'll look at real life; books should be about Issues.

It is possible, of course, for a book to be about both. But it can't be about both at the same time. Exhibit A: Brain Rose, by Nancy Kress. As science-fiction, it fails utterly, because its premise is nonsense, and therefore everything that follows from it is nonsense. As Literature, though, it has potential: its character portraits are nothing short of brilliant. And when the characters develop by interacting with each other, they grow in realistic ways. But when they develop by interacting with the Issue, everything that happens becomes fake. Existential doubt can't seem authentic when the Issue being doubted makes no sense; the resolution of that doubt can't seem justified because the reasons for it aren't reasonable. This is why science-fiction must be hard, at least where it counts. Impossible details can't be avoided, but impossible premises must be.

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