Category Archives: genre fiction

Science Fiction as the Conscience of Science

My review of Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction ran on Slate’s Future Tense channel today! Here’s a teaser:
Science fiction’s reputation for appealing to the nerdy and anti-social has long suggested that it has more to do with escapism than the real world.

Yet as Ridley Scott’s new Discovery Science show, Prophets of Science Fiction, chronicles, the genre deserves to be taken seriously for its ability to tease out the ethical and moral issues that accompany technological progress. Upon first hearing about Prophets, I expected the director of Alien and Blade Runner to get completely lost in space while discussing Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick and how their work “foreshadowed” current technologies. Despite the name (we’ll get to that later), I am happy to report that Scott delivered this concept just as efficiently as he delivered that alien baby to the screen: The show successfully brings science fiction and fact into conversation with one another. 

Franzen on Oprah

As a follow-up to my last post I was planning to talk a little more about the images I posted there. But before I get to that, I need to digest the latest wrinkle in this canon conflict–Franzen’s Freedom has been named the latest Oprah’s Book Club pick! (Of course I learned of this from a Barnes and Noble email.) This is a bit shocking because of the awkward kerfuffle that happened last time Oprah picked a Franzen novel, when the author said some disparaging things about the whole idea and got himself uninvited.

According to Reuters: “This time, Winfrey said she sent Franzen a note asking for his permission to feature his latest novel ‘because we have a little history.'” I wonder if that means Franzen will appear on the show? If so, it’s interesting to speculate what’s changed in the literary world since 2001. My off-the-cuff guess would be that we’re seeing a kind of flattening of the literary universe as professional critics thin their ranks and the publishing industry struggles to adapt to new realities. But on the other hand, it’s entirely possible that Franzen won’t go on the show, and that Oprah’s taking the high road (as in both moral and -brow) on her own.

All of this circles back to the ‘Franzenfreude’ debate. The same things that presumably attracted Oprah to the book: its themes of American families, love and the struggle for a new domesticity (or so I hear, not having read it yet) are the same things that make the novel appealing to more than just the ‘male readers’ Franzen was so worried about losing during his previous Oprah spat. And of course these themes would (so critics argue) condemn Franzen to chick-lit middlebrow status if he happened to be a woman.

What we can glean from the images I posted previously is that Franzen really is successful at breaking out of the ‘challenging young novelist’ box. Unlike, say, David Foster Wallace (whom I’m working on right now), Franzen’s books are avenues of exchange for readers of Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, and a host of other writers of both sexes (though, it must be said, more men than women). Oprah’s latest pick proves what we see in the images below: Franzen has managed to snag the ring of elite literary prestige while still appealing to diverse audiences. His books lead readers to varied literary clusters, not just to more Franzen. And his links to the canon-spanning roster of previous Oprah selections will only proliferate in the coming months.

Genre Fiction & The Relentless Undead

One of the interesting questions at play in my dissertation is the way treat genre writers differently from “real” writers. Authors like Michael Chabon, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy straddle the boundaries between “literary” fiction and different genre styles in interesting ways. There’s a great article in this weeks Sunday Times Magazine discussing Jack Vance, an apparently seminal genre writer whom I never read in all my years as a genre bookworm. According to the article Vance (and many other genre writers, I think) approached fiction as a job and a career as much as an art form. Vance and his wife would travel to exotic places, find a cheap hotel, and draft a new novel together. Nice life! That kind of commercial focus is much less acceptable among “serious” novelists.

While we’re on the subject, I will now publicly admit that I recently read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, probably the most violent fictional assault to date on the barriers dividing highbrow and pulp. My wife quite accurately calls it an “abomination.” I think she’s serious, but when I repeat it, I mean it in a good way. I would like to share my favorite paragraph here. See if you can tell what was changed from the original Austen:

But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than of choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. Mr. Darcy certainly looked at her friend a great deal, but the expression of that look was disputable. It was an earnest, steadfast gaze, but she often doubted whether there were much admiration in it, and sometimes it seemed nothing but absence of mind. And upon imagining Mr. Darcy’s mind, her thoughts would again turn to the subject of chewing on his salty, cauliflower-like brain.