Brian Aldiss (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "On Being a Literary Pariah," in Extrapolation, Vol. 17, No. 2, May, 1976, pp. 168-71.
[In the following essay, Aldiss comments on his innovative and often controversial view that science fiction is "only a department of fantasy" fiction.]
And of course literary pariahs don't hang around the perimeter howling to be let in. They're daring everyone inside to come out . . .
Science fiction does not form the future; it is the future which forms sf.
A truism to begin with, to lull everyone into a false sense of security. All is change—an eternal truth always having to be relearned, often with tears, and re-emphasised in this present decade with the shifting power-balances of the world, such as the enormous growth of Soviet military power, the steady ascendancy of China, the Power Crisis (linked with the new-found political consciousness of the Arab World), the events in Africa, the rise of Brazil, coupled with the slow decline of Europe. None of these events was exactly predicted by sf, but they will shape its future.
Science fiction reflects the present.
It reflects the past also: a task of digestion undertaken by all literature. It is unique in that, still being in part magazine-based, it reflects its own past. The spaceships and telepathic powers which rattle around in the fiction of 1976 are no different from the same symbols rattled round decades ago. While some of the new authors write just as gracelessly as ever John Taine did.
In Extrapolation for December 1975 David Samuelson has an article, "The Spinning Galaxy: A Shift in Perspective on Magazine SF." In it he takes what is always a courageous step for a critic or anyone else and confesses that he was wrong. Well, slightly wrong. He no longer thinks that the sf magazines with their didactic 'hard core' are so central to the tradition of science fiction as once he did. It appears that Billion Year Spree helped to change his mind.
He labels this previously held opinion a geocentric view of sf, and then instances various heliocentric models, with different theories which might be substituted for the sun. Naturally, we find this interesting, but surely no model for a literature can be rigged to imitate a solar system. May I suggest that we abandon the idea of some one principle presiding over all science fiction? The solution to Dr. Samuelson's problem lies in non-conformity, not conformity. If you must think of the whole bag of tricks as a solar system, then pretend you are an astronomer and ask, "What sort of pleasure do I get from the whole starry expanse?"
In other words, it may be more valid to regard sf by its results. What pleasure do we get from sf (apart from arguing about it as if it were already respectably dead but had left no will)?
Obviously the pleasure that most readers derive from sf is an imaginative pleasure, whether what they are reading is hard-core (when the scientific detail, whether authentic or pure homespun phoney, will largely pass over their enraptured heads), or whether it is about Anne McCaffrey's telepathic dragons ridden by men of blue-blooded ancestry. There are degrees of imaginative response, varying from those who can see a world in a grain of sand to those who could hardly see a world if it were served piping hot and stuffed up their left nostril. All the big plonking Wonders of the field have, on the whole, been invented and perpetuated for the latter class of reader. In any other neck of the woods, they would be branded Sensationalism.
My emphasis in Billion Year Spree on the Gothic tradition in sf was placed in order to make it clear that sf is not some weird species which suddenly manifested itself on Earth in the Year of Our Lord Gernsback 1926, a creature without heirs and presumably unable to bequeath heirs.
It is a far more living and pervasive thing than that; equally, it is only a department of fantasy. Billion Year Spree—like much of my fiction, to which it is inevitably related—is an attempt at balance. I felt that a mechanistic view of sf had too long held sway—the view that justifies sf because an occasional one per cent becomes in some dubious way 'true,' or because chaps who read it get so brainwashed that they grow up to work in some lousy laboratory in California, or because it accustoms us all to change in our lives (a shibboleth exploded, or whatever shibboleths do when kicked with contraterrene force in the anal region, when we saw what asses established sf writers made of themselves in the 1960's, when younger ones changed by about five per cent and a dash of William Burroughs the game their elders and betters had hitherto been playing). Science fiction, I feel,...
(The entire section is 1982 words.)