If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.
In this short article in Wired magazine Clive Thompson expounds on thoughts sparked by the novella After the Siege by Cory Doctorow. According to Thompson, literary fiction has dropped the ball in terms of dealing with great ideas because “there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality.” Eventually, he says, he found himself reading essentially the same book over and over again.
This conclusion comes from a certain assumption about the nature of fiction. Thompson says that writing literary fiction is like running a simulation such as The Sims a number of times: “eventually you’re going to explore almost every outcome.” This is, of course, a notion that most serious readers and writers cannot take seriously. From writers’ perspective, a novel presents the author’s particular view of reality. From readers’ perspective, even those who do not consciously think of reading as a transactional process know that something special happens when a particular reader encounters a particular text.
Thompson says that thought experiments–works in which authors ask “What if. . . ” questions–have been the foundation of Western thought since ancient times. His contention is that science fiction is now the main branch of literature dealing meaningfully with such questions.
So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers? Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi’s most famous authors — like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick — have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.
But, Thompson says, many mainstream authors are producing “genre-bending” novels that incorporate traditional science fiction elements. Among these authors are Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Margaret Atwood, whom Thompson calls “a sci-fi novelist trapped inside a literary author.”
Read Thompson’s article, and be sure to read the comments posted underneath it. So far, the comments cover a wide range of responses, both for and against, Thompson’s claim.