My problems with science fiction

I’m not sure why it is that I’ve never been attracted to science fiction. It’s not because of its element of fantasy: I am more than happy to read ghost stories, say, or Gothic horror. But science fiction films (most of which, aficionados tell me, isn’t science fiction at all) hold little attraction for me, and science fiction books I have generally given a wide berth. I really do not know why: some quirk in my personality, no doubt. This is the point when aficionados tell me that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is science fiction, as is Huxley’s Brave New World. As, indeed, is Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Trying my best not to get drawn into an argument about matters on which I know nothing, I usually nod away politely, and utter a non-committal “perhaps”, or even a “yes, I might try some out some day”, knowing full well that I won’t: with so much out there to read (and indeed to re-read), and with only one inadequate lifetime at one’s disposal, reading books I don’t for whatever reason really fancy does seem a bit pointless.

I do admit also that I often get put off by some of the claims made for the genre by its aficionados – claims that aren’t made for other genres such as, say, horror, or westerns. Some of the finest literature of the last hundred years, I’m told, has been science fiction, and the only reason this isn’t accepted by mainstream literati is snobbery. Once again, I do not know enough about science fiction writing to comment on this, but I don’t think authors such as, say, Philip K. Dick or Arthur Clarke or Ursula le Guin or Isaac Asimov have been sidelined: these are all respected writers. Their books are all widely available, widely read, and widely admired. That I, personally, am not particularly interested, says nothing.

But recently, I have indeed been reading a science fiction book, on the exhortation of a good friend – although how much longer he’ll remain a friend given my reaction to this book remains, perhaps, to be seen. But let us not anticipate.

The book is Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. How representative it is of science fiction in general, I cannot tell: I am happy to accept that science fiction is too wide-ranging for any single book to be representative of the whole. But that this book is widely admired, and considered a classic of the genre, cannot be denied. On the cover is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Probably the most powerful work of the imagination ever written.” Phew! Given the extraordinary list of towering works of the imagination written across the centuries, this one must be special indeed to be given such praise! “It is magnificent. Almost unbearable”, write Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove. Aldiss also contributes an introduction to my edition, and cites “Dante and the author of Paradise Lost” amongst writers who “helped form Stapledon’s characteristic utterance”. And praise has come from other sources as well: admirers of this book have included Virginia Woolf (“it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly”, she writes in a letter to the author); Jorge Luis Borges (“Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless” … “A prodigious novel”); and Doris Lessing. Even if no single book can represent the whole of science fiction, it seems to me not unreasonable to assume that this book is representative at least of the literary heights to which science fiction, as a literary genre, may reach.

The novel starts with the narrator somehow being whisked away from earth. The narrator is not characterised. He leaves behind his wife and family, and he tells us at one point that he misses them. But they are not characterised either. We are told of the narrator’s longing for home and for his family, but no attempt is made to communicate any of these emotions to the reader.

The narrator then travels through time and through space, through a variety of galaxies in different stages of formation, and makes contact with and observes a wide variety of life forms and of living species. At his first stop, he picks up a companion for his travels. His name is Bvalltu. He is not characterised either. No-one is characterised. When other life-forms are observed, there is never any attempt even to introduce any single individual figure: all life-forms encountered are reported on en masse. There is no room here for character, for individuality, for relationships, or, indeed, for anything that I, for one, recognise as human.

Each life-form is described dispassionately. We are given precise reasons as to why they developed the way they did; why evolution on their planet took the course that it did; and so on. Everything has a clear and rational explanation. All life forms are as they are because, given the conditions, they could not have evolved otherwise.

All this is written in the sort of prose one might expect in a textbook – clear, precise, unenlivened at any point by wit or by humour, unrelieved by lyricism or by poetry. I gather that this book has a reputation of being poetic, and of containing a vision of the universe that is wondrous and awe-inspiring. I appreciate that I still have some 50 or so pages to go, but I’d be grateful if anyone could point out to me passages that are poetic, or which inspire a sense of awe, because, so far, I have missed them. I can’t really see how any sense of mystery or awe can be evoked when every phenomenon observed is given a precise and rational reason.

William Blake famously wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, but Stapledon does it the other way round: he looks at the entire universe and finds only a grain. Far from finding any sense of awe, I find merely a somewhat disdainful look at humanity, denying it any significance at all. Here, for instance, is Stapledon’s potted view of humanity:

We saw Man on his little Earth blunder through many alternating phases of dullness and lucidity, and again abject dullness. From epoch to epoch his bodily shape changed as a cloud changes. We watched him in his desperate struggle with Martian invaders; and then, after a moment that included further ages of darkness and of light, we saw him driven, by dread of the moon’s downfall, away to inhospitable Venus. Later still, after an aeon that was a mere sigh in the lifetime of the cosmos, he fled before the exploding sun to Neptune, there to sink back into mere animality for further aeons again. But then he climbed once more and reached his finest intelligence, only to be burnt like a moth in a flame by an irresistible catastrophe.

There you go, mate – that’s yer lot.

I think I get the picture. Mankind is insignificant. We are all insignificant. There are and have been and will be many other life forms, some primitive, some equivalent to humanity, some far more advanced scientifically, spiritually, and morally, but none of that matters because they’re all insignificant and can be wiped out in a trice. Now, some may think this a profound vision, but I must admit I don’t: after trawling through 250 pages of such plodding prose (in which the poetic imagination does not rise further than such lazy clichés as comparing the extinction of mankind to the burning of a moth in the flame), I do feel entitled to a bit more than this.

I do wish, if only for the sake of friendship, that I could find something positive to say about my experience so far of this book. Maybe it’ll all turn round in the last 50 pages. Near the end, in Chapter 15, I gather, the narrator will come into contact with the great Star Maker himself (that’s God to most of us). Aldiss in the introduction writes of this chapter:

Where does one look in all English prose for a parallel with the magnificent Chapter 15?

Well, there is, of course, that passage in the Book of Job in which God speaks from the whirlwind: it reads rather impressively in the King James Version. Or there’s the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna reveals His divine power to Arjuna: there are several English translations of this which are magnificent. But if none of them can parallel what Stapledon achieves in his Chapter 15, then that Chapter 15 must be remarkable indeed. But after the 200 pages of utter tedium I have ploughed through so far, I can’t say I am holding my breath.

Well, let’s leave it there. Tempting though it is, I really should not judge the entire genre of science fiction from this single book. But for all that, the extravagant praise heaped upon this work inevitably makes me sceptical when I read similarly extravagant praise heaped on other science fiction books.

I am obviously missing something here. Maybe I want novels – or, for that matter, plays, poems, short stories – to have a human presence. Human beings are, after all, endlessly varied and fascinating, and I want writers to reveal to me something of that endlessly varied fascination. Maybe the vision of humanity as small and utterly insignificant really is a profound vision, and that it is I who am too dull to see it as such. Maybe the prose that I find merely plodding really is beautiful and poetic to the eye that can behold it as such. Maybe I come to literature with certain expectations that are unwarranted, and thus have no right to feel disappointed when these unwarranted expectations are not met. Well, yes, yes, and yes to all of that: I am happy to accept that the fault is with me, and not with the writer. But wherever the fault lies, I am no way inclined to give the genre of science fiction another go. Life is not long enough.

49 responses to this post.

  1. I went through a Sci-fi period a few years back, and now it’s something I tend to not read. That said, I intend to get into Philip Dick one day in the near future.

    Read somewhere (I wish I could remember where) the quip that in Sci fi, there are two scenarios–we go there or they come here….


  2. Posted by Erika W. on August 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    I have been reading you but not commenting as we have had family visitors taking up all our time–very happily. My sister is addicted to science fiction and science fantasy and has, for years, pressed various titles upon me of the standard well-known authors. Very few appeal to me.

    I discovered on my own the strange works of Cordwainer Smith (pseudonym of an American diplomat and scholar of the Chinese language) and here recommend them to you. They are extraordinary. He wrote very little unfortunately in this genre. I would start with the short stories and then go on to the one novel, although they are all connected.

    I have enjoyed Philip Dick’s “The Man in the High Tower” (Is that the correct title?) and John Christopher’s “The Death of Grass” . I enjoyed the first of Doris Lessing’s trilogy but then lost interest.The new young adults’ writer, Meg Rossoff, has produced some interesting stuff and I am following her closely.


    • Philip K Dick is a writer who has also been recommended to me. Once again, I’m sure he’s a fine writer, but it’s just teh genre that keeps putting me off. I’m not against genres as such – I enjoy a good thriller, and I love ghost stories, but it’s just science fiction (and fantasy) that I can’t get my head around. I find this world & its inhabitants interestingenough for me – I can’t say I find other worlds anywhere near as interesting asthis one. I’ll be totally honest here – I really don’t promise to seek out and read Cordwainer Smith; but I will keep the name in mind, and have a browse the next time I’m in a bookshop. 🙂


      • Don’t know if you have a Kindle, but there are several FREE Dick stories available.

      • I don’t have a Kindle, but I have just got myself an iPad, and it’s the best toy I’ve ever had! There are all sorts of books you can download free, and I’ll have a look for the Philip K Dick stories. The first thing I did was to download, free, the Complete Shakespeare and the Complete Sherlock Holmes, so I won’t need to lug the books around with me wherever I go. I’m afraid my productivity on my blog will suffer for some time while I play with my new toy!

  3. My problem with science fiction is the opposite of yours. I enjoy it a lot – too much. I enjoy reading bad science fiction, even. Thus I limit my intake severely. I could waster too much time on shiny junk. Even a lot of classics of the genre are not so far from shiny junk. as you are discovering with Stapledon (who I have not read). Borges also had a very strong taste for the fantastic that I have not found to be entirely trustworthy.

    Those Clarke and Aldiss quotes, by contrast, are insane, although you seem to be not so far away from “Almost unbearable.”


    • I am sure there’s much good stuff there: it’s not merelty that science fiction has many fans, it is also that many of these ans are quite discerning & intelligent people. But i think I am happy to say this isn’t for me, and leave it there: this is just not something i enjoy, and given how much there is out there that i do love, it does seem a bit pointless trying to get to like something that i have never felt the slightest attraction to!


  4. “Science Fiction” it seems that description is being applied to so much – Fantasy would be a better description to so much of it.
    I personally like Fantasy Fiction – with or without the Science – Space Travel Series – excellent and escapist to a degree – but the Fantasy Fiction without so much Science is the best for me, I am even worried that Science is a lable meant to impart a sort of “Dignity” to the Genre as a whole


    • Hello Patricia, I am sure I am missing the attraction of science fiction. As with any other genres, there is, i am sure, a wide variety within it; and given the number and fervour of the fans, it must have some sort of attraction. But I suppose there are times when you just have to admit defeat and say “Whatever it is, I don’t get it”, and move on to something else.


  5. Re: the poeticism of science fiction. From what I’ve read so far (which is little enough), all science fiction is written in uninteresting, functional prose (perhaps this is why they like to class Orwell as sci-fi?). It is just not going to fulfill anyone’s craving for a well-crafted sentence. – Oh, there are exceptions. Philip K Dick – who is often laughed at for his prose style by lesser mortals – can occasionally be quite interesting in this respect (he also generally writes about humanity, though it wouldn’t surprise me on the whole if you found him disappointing). My two favourite sci-fi writers so far though are foreign: Stanislaw Lem and Karel Čapek. I recommend the latter’s War with the Newts (but all the same, don’t read it if you don’t want to). Of course, Čapek isn’t really a sci-fi writer, just mistaken by the British as such – WwtN is about fascism, or something like that. (Read some of his non-sci-fi books instead if it’ll make you feel better, and if you can find them).


    • I have heard of both Lem and Čapek, of course (I believe Tarkovsky’s film Solaris is based on a novel by Lem).

      I get the feeling (I could be wrong) that science fiction is concerned primarily with ideas. And I suppose I am not really interested in ideas very much. Or, at least, in fiction, I am interested in ideas only insofar as they relate to people – not a generalised people en masse, but to individuals, relating and reacting each to other.

      And while I do like finely wrought prose, I am also OK with elegance and clarity. But there is a difference between prose that is elegant and clear, and prose that is merely dull and pedestrian.

      And imagery needs to be well thought out. Take the piece of imagery from the passage I quoted from Star Maker -in which humanity is “burnt like a moth in a flame by an irresistible catastrophe”. Not only is this a lazy cliché, as I said, but the image is entirely inappropriate. What, I guess, Stapledon is trying to communicate is that the destruction of humanity is of no greater significance than a moth burning in a flame. However, the moth only burns in the flame when it gets too close to it, not realising the danger. When this is used as a simile to desscribe the destruction of humanity, the implication is that humanity had unwittingly brought the destruction on itself, as the moth had done by straying too close to the flame. Yet, as is obvious from reading the entire paragraph, this is not so. In other words, the image is inappropriate, and Stapledon wasn’t thinking clearly about what he was writing.


  6. I prefer to judge a book by how much I enjoy it rather than some predisposed position based on a random pigeon-holing due to its content.

    I have read many, many outstanding (to me, anyway) books that were called “science fiction” by some. I very much enjoyed H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Conan Doyle, and even E.A. Poe; all of whom created stories with elements of what could be classified as science fiction.

    I’ve also enjoyed many books from authors who are considered the “meat and potatoes” of the science fiction meal; such as Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, P. K. Dick, Poul Anderson, etc. There is much more to science fiction than invasions from Mars.

    On the other hand, I’ve also read (or attempted to read) “classic” Literature that was so ennui and sleep inducing that I could literally use them as sleeping aids. Genre snobbery is to be avoided in civil society. 😉

    The love of books is subjective, as is the love of anything. I read for pleasure and for enlightenment; both bring joy to me. I care not what label someone has pasted above the pigeon hole where I found the book.




    • Eric,

      At last, somebody has something intelligent to say here. Thank you. There are good books, and bad books in all forms of literature. And, some forms will please some and displease others. There’s no reason to denigrate something just because it isn’t to one’s taste.


      • Hello Fred, and welcome to this blog.

        The title of this post is “My Problems With Science Fiction”. The problems, I make quite clear from the start, are with me, and not necessarily with the genre. Throughout this post (which I have just re-read), I speak of possible shortcomings on my part as a reader.

        I am happy to engage in discussion, but the first sentence of your comment (“At last, somebody has something intelligent to say here”) doesn’t seem to me very conducive to promoting discussion – especially given that many of the peopele commenting here do actually enjoy the genre. I, as it happens, don’t, and I have tried to explain why I don’t, without in any way denigrating those who do.

        All the best, Himadri

      • You are right. My first sentence was inappropriate and not conducive for a discussion. My apologies to all.

      • Thank you very much for your response. I do, I realise, often write in a jokey style, perhaps giving the impression of brashness. I am happy, though, to engage in debate and discussion both on general and on specific points.

        This particular post was written a few years ago, and in it I had tried to explain why the science fiction genre did not attract me, and, in particular, why a book recommended to me by a science fiction loving friend, for the specific purpose of converting me to the genre, failed to do so. Possibly I should have avoided so brash a writing style on this occasion.

        It does seem to me that our reading tastes and literary values, like our personalities, are products both of nature and of nurture, and sometimes it is worth trying to understand why our literary tastes and values are as they are, and in which directions one may try to develop them.

        Best wishes, Himadri

      • Himadri,

        I am a member of an SF discussion group, and it is ironic that the selection for this month is Stapledon’s _Star Maker_. It is my second time around for this book, and it isn’t easy going. It is NOT a book I would ever recommend as an introduction to the SF/F genre. In fact, it is NOT a book I would recommend for every SF reader. There are other novels far more accessible to someone unfamiliar with SF tropes and themes which would be much more appropriate as an introduction to the genre.

      • Hello Fred,

        While one does try, as best one can, to extend one’s imaginative sympathies as far as they can go, there are times when, it must be confessed, some things cannot help but be beyond one’s grasp. For instance, I love creepy ghost stories, but my wife hates them. For me, someone like M. R. James is an indispensable writer; my wife can’t stand his stories. Not that she finds them frightening: she merely finds them silly and pointless. There is no point trying to rationalise these things. Up to a great extent, we may will the direction in which our tastes develop, but that’s only up to an extent: beyond that extent, certain things are, it seems to me, hard-coded in us. There is no other reason I can think of why science fiction, which so many people feel so passionately about, does absolutely nothing for me.

        I think you’re right in that my friend – who is a huge aficionado of science fiction – had picked the wrong book in trying to convert me: I am sure there are many others that would have been more in harmony with my sensibilities.

        I generally do not blog about what I do not personally like – if only because one tends to be less perceptive about works one dislikes. In that sense, this post is not very characteristic of this blog. I was, however, unhappy with merely saying “I don’t like it” and leaving it there: I wanted to say something of why I didn’t like it. I suspect though, as I say, that it’s something hard-wired within me.

        All the best, Himadri

      • M.R. James is a favorite of mine, as are Algernon Blackwood and Oliver Onions.

        “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “The Willows,” and “The Beckoning Fair One” are the three greatest ghost stories ever written. Or, of the ones I’ve read so far.

      • Yes, yes, and yes to all three titles.
        I have a little bookcase next to my bed full of what I like to think of as ideal bedtime reading – in particular, Sherlock Holmes stories, and creepy old-fashioned ghost stories. In the latter genre, writers such as MR James, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, WF Harvey, EF Benson, etc. are all well-represented. But as I say, i can’t convince my wife of their merit. Strange how our perceptions can differ!

      • I’ve read some Benson, I don’t remember anything by Harvey. It’s possible I did read some of his works but didn’t note his name.

        Another writer in that field whom I enjoy reading is William Hope Hodgson. His _The Night Land_ is one of my favorites, with _The House on the Borderland_ also on the list.

      • Mr. Runk,

        My apologies for the inordinate amount of time it took me to respond to you here. I’ve been terribly remiss in my blogging and blog-watching lately.

        Anyway, thank you for you comment. I hope to bump into you again sometime.



  7. Say that you read 10, or 20, books in a row from the science fiction section at the library, and that you did not enjoy them. Or say they were from the religious fiction section (my library has such a section).

    At what point do you concede that the label actually conveys some useful information about the content, about your potential enjoyment? It’s like a statistical problem.


    • “Say that you read 10, or 20, books in a row from the science fiction section at the library, and that you did enjoy them. Or say they were from the religious fiction section (my library has such a section).”

      At what point do you concede that the label actually conveys some useful information about the content, about your potential enjoyment? It’s like a statistical problem.”

      Why not ask a positive question? Or do you feel that wouldn’t be possible?


      • The question asked seemed to me entirely valid and reasonable. If you find yourself not enjoying the examples you have so far encountered of a certain genre, then how many examples must you sample to determine that it’s the genre itself that is not to your taste? I don’t really understand what your objection can be to this question.

      • It was a hypothetical question, and I was just wondering why it couldn’t been expressed as a positive question. Putting it negatively simply begs for a negative response. Now, if the question had read, “I had read 10, or 20, SF books in a row and didn’t like them…..”

        That’s a different question, based on a real situation.

  8. Of course, the label is a guide. However, one shouldn’t let the label determine one’s choice of what to read or not to read 100% of the time. Although, I will concede that I probably would walk on by that religious fiction section. 😉


    • I think that is true in an ideal world: instead of judging by teh label, one should judge each work on its own terms. In reality, however, that is not possible. There are literally many millions of titles, and it is not reasonable to read them all: one has to choose what one wants to read next, and what one would prefer to skip. There are many ways of choosing, of course – e.g. recommendations from people whose judgement one trusts; past experience with books one has reason to believe might be similar; or, sometimes, just instinct, or impulse. And unavoidably, the label is not negligible. Someone who does not enjoy “whodunits” is unlikely to enjoy Agatha Christie novels. My wife hates ghost stories, and it’s a fair bet, I think, that she won’t enjoy MR James or LP Lovecraft.

      I do, however, take your point about keeping an open mind. I have no doubt that there is much of quality that is labelled “science fiction”; it may even be that I might enjoy some of it. But at the moment, I have started reading a John le Carré spy thriller, and, given my personal taste, I think the odds are very much in favour of my enjoying this far more than perhaps even the finest of science fiction novels!


  9. Here’s a recommendation for you… if you like Le Carré, try some Robt. Littell. 🙂


    • I’ve never actually read a John le Carré before, but I do like a good thriller. And any writer who has been praised by graham greene must be worth reading! The one I’m reading is A Perfect Spy, reckoned to be one of his best, and it runs to over 600 pages. So it should keep me going for a while! After this, I might return to Dante. I have a few other reading plans as well, including revisting Fielding, having a go at Chaucer in the original medieval English, and reading through a four-volume set I have of Chekhov’s short stories (I have read most of them before, but I thought it might me interesting to read the stories chronologically). And on top of this, I am still reading through the King James Bible (you know, that ookI always keep saying is one of the main pillars of Western civilisation, butwhich I haven’t actually bothered reading… 🙂 )

      Anyway – I’ll see what i feel like after this one. Thanks for the recommendation – if I like what I’m reading now, I’ll certainly keep it in mind!


  10. Reading Chaucer in the Old Mediaeval English is really the only way to read him – truly – I was asked to read some – and I remembered how some of my friends in Birmingham / Kidderminster sounded when they put on their regional accents – I am told that I sounded very well and that everyone present – (about 8 – 10) understood.

    I grant that I am an expressive reader, and I can “do voices” because I have had so much practice, years ago reading to little children – I used to baby-sit for friends and children are a critical audience “Pig don’t sound the same as a Wooluff” – so there !!


    • Yes, I agree that Chaucer really should be read in the original. I just wrote a post in which I quoted Ezra Pound on the subject: “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.” A bit extreme, perhaps, but the reprimand is worth taking seriously!

      As for reading aloud I think I can read clearly, but I certainly can’t do the voices, I’m afraid! Fortunately, neither of our children were too severe as critics…


  11. This all started from going into Amateur Dramatics – only for the “Cook’s” part but she was supposed to be Welsh – and plumptious !! and I was able to say I fit the bill.
    During my time at college – this was recent – I am a mature person – at Uni. and finishing a delayed education (college was 2008-9) I read some “Of Mice and Men” and made one of the girls cry – she said I was too good with the accents and of course I chose where Lenny died – and one of the girls clipped the table with a plastic ruler to mimic the gun shot. Incidentally I have had to cut some of my studies – ill-health demands it, and a new course is planned – Advanced English and Writing, either Articles or Fiction are what I envision – I may even make myself a new career.


    • I’d love to be able to do some course on literature (I actually studied physics and mathematics in my younger days as a student), but that sort of thing will have to wait till I retire, I think. Sorry to hear about your health. The courses you are contemplating sound like just the sort of thing I’d love to do. As for acting talent – alas! it’s yet another gift I happen to lack! 🙂


  12. Posted by alan on September 2, 2011 at 4:39 am

    I suppose I like Science Fiction because it is the least reactionary of all the forms of literature that I have read. Although I suppose it is difficult not to be a reactionary these days – but that could be age speaking. Having said that, I’m not sure what Stapledon is, he doesn’t believe in progress but I can’t see that he’s a reactionary either. Perhaps he’s just saying that the ideological battles that the human race are fighting are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, not that human beings or their feelings for each other are insignificant.
    My concern is different, I worry that we might be significant – courtesy of that old science fiction staple: the Fermi Paradox.
    It’s a depressing thought to me that we might be unique, special, and screwing things up so badly.
    You’ve certainly picked a lengthy Le Carré to start with, and I’m not sure I would describe it as a thriller.His earlier stuff is shorter and tighter. At one point he has the characters meet Thomas Mann, and I’m not sure if he’s laughing at himself, his readers, or just laying it on a bit thick. One of his literary allusions had me buying a copy of Grimmelshausen’s ‘Simplicissimus’ just so that I could figure out what he was on about.
    Le Carré is definitely a reactionary and makes Joseph Conrad, who I suspect he was influenced by, look like an optimist.
    I hope that you post on it.


    • Isn’t science fiction as radical or as reactionary as the author makes it? I don’t really understand why it should be “the least reactionary of all forms of literature”.

      Other than to say that the genre holds no attraction for me on a personal level, I have been trying so far not to make any general comments about science fiction as a genre, since I have hardly read any of it. But I do get the impression (which may or may not be mistaken) that in exploring – as, I believe, the better science fiction books do – the different means whereby human societies may be organised, or the metaphysical mysteries of our existence, or the very nature of the universe itself, the genre seems to by-pass the elements that interest me most – i.e. what goes on in the minds of individual humans, how individual humans react to one another, how individual human minds grow with experience, and so on. In short, I get the impression that science fiction takes a bird’s eye view of matters, but in taking such a view, the individual human gets lost; and, personally, I long for the close-ups.

      Also, I don’t think I am so interested in ideas as such. Ideas are fine for essays and tracts and other works of non-fiction, but, while they may be important aspects of fiction (as in, say, Dostoyevsky’s novels), they mean little to me unless the author depicts how these ideas impinge on the individual human consciousness. Once again, given my ignorance of the science fiction genre I could be very wrong, but I do get the impression that, in science fiction, ideas, in themselves, are of greater importance than anything else. That certainly is the case in Stapledon’s book: his speculative ideas of the nature of the universe (and let us be clear that they no more than speculative) override all other aspects of what I recognise as fiction. He may not be saying explicitly that human feelings are insignificant, but by refusing to depict any (even when such depictions might be called for), that is precisely the impression he conveys.

      But even that I might have been able to take if Stapledon’s prose had been interesting. But he writes like an accountant, and the book reads like an auditor’s report. If it was his intention to convey a sense of wonder and of awe – as I believe it was – he really needed a far finer ear for the sonorities and the cadences of language, and a far finer poetic sensibility. Throughout the book – and, especially, in its final chapters – he tells us that he feels awe, but that he is unable to convey in mere words a sense of an awe so great. Well, that is not good enough. If you’re a writer, it’s your job to use words (which are, after all, the basic bricks and mortar of the craft of writing) to convey such things. If you can’t, you’ve failed.

      So far, I am greatly enjoying the le Carré novel – and he is a writer who can write arresting prose. Thematically, too, he seems to be addressing major themes. I’ll write about it in more detail once I have finished.


  13. I have been scrolling through the thread – looking for the person who has just acquired a kindle and believes it may limit his postings – right – I should have done this last night – but left it til this morning – where has he gone?
    I acquired a kindle recently and I think highly of them I find my studies benefit from it I have to admit the translations are good but I am also brushing up my French and German by reading some of Anne McCaffrey in those two languages, also in Latin some of Julius Caesar’s journals “De Bello Gallico” – Have had some very dear friends pull my leg that it begins “Dear Diary, I am worried about the Gauls – especially that Asterix and his Fat Friend” – that was free – be very assured that Amazon have a very good number of free and very cheap fiction **rubs hands together chuckling gleefully” I must by now also have everything that David Eddings wrote – slightly more expensive certainly, but well worth looking for.


    • Hello Patricia, I believe it was I who said that I may not be posting quite so prolifically here for the next few days now that I have a new toy – an iPad – to play with. So far, i am delighted with what I have. Amongst other things, I have downloaded some audio performances of Shakespeare’s plays, and also the Complete Works as an e-book, and last night, I listened to Gielgud playing Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” on my earphones while following the text on the screen.

      And Caesar had every right to be worried by Asterix and Obelix – especially after what that pair didi in the Colosseum in “Asterix and the Gladiator”! (Since you appear to be an Asterix fan – one of my favourite gags is in “Asterix and the Soothsayer”, where the soothsayer cuts open a fish to read the entrails, with the villages looking on: the figures in this scene are in exactly the same position as are the figures in Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy lesson of Dr Tulp”.)


  14. Old Getafix was one of my favouite characters – now I can never look at the Rembrandt painting without seeing their faces. I am somewhat of an animal lover, and because I like these cartoons I was always looking out for Dogmatix, and Tintin’s little dog my Grandmere called Boule de Neige. I found it difficult to adjust to the English pronunciation – and calling the wee dog Snowy,
    My Grandmothers and my Mother too were always at war and I was the unwilling subject, so when the noise started I went next door, to the Goldonis and their kids or to the St. Claire’s down the road to brush up on my French, and to snivvel to Aimée’s Mother – nobody at the St. Claire’s ever seemed to quarrel, it was Nirvana


  15. I totally agree with you! I was just having this discussion at the museum yesterday. I read SF voraciously as a boy, but even then, I felt that it was pretty low-grade as literature. The writing is usually quite flat, without originality, and everything depends on a gimmick, or a basic idea that may be more or less intriguing. It’s downhill from there. (Unlike gothic novels, which I sometimes enjoy, although a lot of those old ones are pretty much crap too, and for similar reasons.)

    Once in a while, I revisit it to see if I am being a snob, but so far, no change in my opinion. I read some stories by P.K. Dick recently because I thought The Adjustment Bureau was a fun movie, but they struck me as no different than the hundreds I had read as a boy. Maybe his novels, outside of the confines of the 1950-60s pulp magazine format allowed his art to flourish..? I’ll wait until a trusted friend gives me a pointer.

    As for Arthur C. Clark, don’t get me started. I am so tired of hearing his silly pronouncements repeated as oracular wisdom. (See my posts and links on the film, 2001, for my ranting.) Like you, I tend to keep mum because I know I’ll sound like a raging snob, but I think that people who say Dune is ‘great literature have never read any of what I would give that name. The only sci-fi writer of literary merit that I can think of is H.G. Wells. That’s why people still enjoy reading The Time Machine, and probably will for generations to come.


    • Good to know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I think what puts me off more than anything else are the claims aficionados make for the genre. I may try out a Philip K Dick some time, but I can’t honestly say I’m in any rush to do so. When there’s so much of the kind of books that I love still unread, what sense does it make to read the kind of book I don’t merely to prove a point?


  16. I’m not a hardcore sci-fi fan myself, but I think you will find that “human presence” that you speak of at the end of your post in Ursula LeGuin’s “The Left hand of darkness”. Great blog, by the way! 🙂


    • The firend who had recemmended me to read Stapledon is also a fan of Ursula le Guin. Someday, I may surprise him by actually reading The Left Hand of Darkness. Whether the book will surprise me .. well, i guess I’ll just have to find out!


      • Also, if you’re interested in something really weird, you could read A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay… that was one trippy book…

      • When someone asks me for a book as an introduction to SF, I always recommend LeGuin’s _Left Hand of Darkness_. It is a permanent fixture in my list of top 5 SF novels.

        _A Voyage to Arcturus_ a “trippy” book indeed. And far more readable than Stapledon.

        And if you are looking for something really unique in its treatment of language–take a look at Russell Hoban’s _Riddley Walker_. I have posts on my blog about this one.

      • I think with all this urging that I may have to take another plunge into the genre! Problem is – I barely find the time or the energy these days to read all the stuff I want to read! But Ursula le Guin is possibly a good starting point, from what I gather.

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