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Is Science Fiction the Modern Art of Literature?: A Meditation

Updated on December 15, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Well, the purpose of this essay is the consideration of the question that makes up the title: Is science fiction the modern art of literature?

I am going to answer that question with a qualified 'yes.' The affirmative is qualified because I don't think all science fiction meets this equivalency.

What am I talking about?

Well, I recognize at least four kinds of science fiction.

1) Hard science fiction

This kind of science fiction is very left-brain-oriented and technical. In my judgment this particular form of the genre takes itself too seriously (not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with that) to do what I see modern art as doing.

Anyway, in this style of SF the advanced scientific/technological apparatus of the story remains intertwined with and integral to the plot from the beginning to the end of the story. That is how I conceive of "hard" SF.

2) I don't really know what to call this second type, which is, to my mind, exemplified by the work of Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury. I certainly don't want to use the word 'soft' science fiction. With work like this, the science and technology itself is not the point of the story. It is usually the case that this futuristic apparatus merely serves the purpose of propelling you, the reader, into whatever philosophical, psychological, ethical, moral, spiritual, or political examination they wish to present. The apparatus of futuristic science and technology acts as a "launching pad," if you will, but does not remain intertwined with the plot from beginning to the end of the story, as is the case with 'hard' science fiction. Let's call this semi-literary science fiction---at least on a provisional basis.

3) Steam Punk

In my opinion---that is, the way I assess this subgenre---Steam Punk is science fiction written in such a way that imagines what science fiction would have been like had it existed in the nineteenth century. Does that make sense?

The usual setting is nineteenth century America/Western Europe. Steam Punk tries to imagine what people in the nineteenth century would have imagined as an amplified reality. Steam Punk, by its very nature is not 'hard' science fiction because the latter is often ultra-futuristic by design. Both categories two and three are firmly rooted in their time. Does that make sense?

For example, if I were to write a science fiction story of the category two type, the present reality would serve as the still-recognizable skeleton of the world you, the reader, would be looking at. That is, the basic structural outline of the science fiction world would be recognizable as having a relationship of familiarity to the reality we inhabit, in truth, at this moment. Yes, you might very well see some necessary imaginary scientific/medical/technological enhancements, of course; and the political, economic, social, cultural world would be consequently bent around those futuristic enhancements, producing something unlike what anyone alive has experienced, perhaps, but not totally alien to what you're used to conceptually. Is that a little more clear? I hope so!

Steam Punk, as I see it, is exactly like that. The one, minor, extra detail is that, with Steam Punk your pretending that you are a citizen of the nineteenth century as you do what you would do in the creative process of science fiction, "as if" you lived in the late twenty-first century---as, of course, you do.

You see, the thing about hard science fiction, category one, is that it sometimes, consciously works very hard to create a sense of strangeness, alien-ness because of a commitment to hyper-futurism. It seeks to create a plausible reality that does not exist "yet," even as it often simultaneously works very hard to animate a familiar myth of one kind or another. But myth is something from the past and by definition, then, not "modern." I have talked about this before: Sometimes hard science fiction combines the archaic with the ultra-futuristic, in that it often seeks to make "plausible" some kind of myth, to show how "it" could "really" exist.

For example, in one of my book reviews we took a look at a science fiction novel by Greg Bear called The City at the End of Time. The first thing I said about the book was that it struck me that the "city" in question was a hard science fiction realization of "Heaven," except that we were dealing with a Heaven of evolutionary culmination as opposed to a realm of spiritual reward. Well, let's let this particular matter just rest here for the present, as we move on.

4) Cyberpunk Science Fiction

Wikipedia defines the subgenre like this: "a subgenre of science fiction in a near-future setting. Noted for its focus on 'high tech and low life,' it features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.

"Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorporations, and tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than the far-future settings or galactic vistas found in novels such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation or Frank Herbert's Dune. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators ('the street finds its own uses for things')."


Well, now that we've gotten the definitions of the four kinds of science fiction out of the way, we can move to the next question.

What is modern art?

You know what? I don't think we'll attack that question---not directly anyway. A more interesting question I want to consider here is: What is the relationship of modern art to reality? Incidentally, I think that if we can come to a satisfactory answer to this question, we will have our answer to the (what is it?) question.

How can we possibly make any determination about the relationship of modern art to reality? Obviously 'we,' meaning 'I' am going to give it my best shot, by offering up my best analysis. To, hopefully, avoid rambling, what I am going to do is offer an example of what I would consider modern art and show how that example (the one I imagine) relates to reality.


Suppose I wanted to make some comment about children nowadays who are 'overscheduled.' You know, these parents are constantly shuttling them off to piano lessons, karate lessons, swimming lessons; even playtime is by appointment, in the form of 'play dates,' and the like. Just 'Google' the words overscheduled children and you will be able to summon up various articles about this.

If you like, here is one

Now then, suppose I was an artist and wanted to do a modern art piece about this. What could I do?

I know: I could create a scultpure of a womb with the fetus inside. The as yet unborn baby boy, let's say, is wearing an Armani suit. He has a suitcase and he is talking into a cellphone in one ear, and he's got another telecommunication device in the other ear; and manipulating either a tablet or a laptop. He's busy, busy, busy!

Now then, the image is absurd because of its physical impossibility. But note this very carefully: I did not create the original absurdity! I have simply taken the pre-existing societal absurdity and extended it to its logical conclusion, and in fact, far beyond its logical conclusion.

This is why Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup cans are (modern) art. Sure, perhaps it was absurd to exhibit Campbell Soup cans as though they were art, but Mr. Warhol did not create the original absurdity, he merely extended it. The tendency to display such things as 'art' already existed (exists) in all manner of advertising on television. If a commercial is talking about Food Lion, or some such establishment, you see all the aisles with items perfectly 'fronted' to form perfect 'walls' of Cheerios, spaghetti sauce, green beans, and Doritos, and the like. It must be perfect. It must be pristine.

If you have ever worked the overnight shift in such a place, you know that such presentation is demanded by management upon completion of your shift. You must leave whatever aisle you have worked on 'blocked' or 'fronted'---rather like a 'work of art' in itself. Why aren't shelf stockers paid an artist's fee?

And so, for our purposes, let us call Modern Art, contemporary art which seeks to maximize pre-existing societal absurdities of the time---a kind of 'social commentary,' if you like.

Now then, with that understanding of modern art in place, we can return to the question: Is science fiction the modern art of literature?

We should understand, that to answer this question we determine whether or not science fiction relates to reality in the same way as modern art: maximizing and extending pre-existing societal absurdities up to and far beyond their 'logical conclusion.' Yes? Yes.

1. Hard Science Fiction? I'm going to say, for the most part, no. This branch of the literature is mostly set in the far future and takes itself too seriously---though this is NOT a criticism, by me, of hard science fiction. Of course, like anything else, there are exceptions to this 'rule.'

2. Semi-Literary Science Fiction (especially such work by Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick)?

I'm going to say, yes, for the most part, though I'm sure there are exceptions. But, again, for the most part, I think this is precisely the branch of the literature the is best positioned to---and actually carries out this function---maximize and extend pre-existing societal absurdities up to and far beyond their 'logical conclusion.' If you want to read what I consider to be a wonderful example of this, sometime, read The Space Merchants (1952) by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. With the absurdity of the level of corporate power in the United States, which, by the way includes the legal standing corporations have as 'persons,' I'm sure this particular novel will speak to you.

3. Steam Punk Science Fiction? Of course, I could be wrong, but my answer, here again, is going to be no---certainly not as I have understood and defined modern art. Remember, Steam Punk is science fiction written as though science fiction writers existed in 19th century America and Western Europe, who 'wrote' science fiction. As far as I can tell, this branch of the literature is fairly earnest about projecting the future from a 'nineteenth century' perspective; it is not, for the most part, pulling any ironic tricks.

4. Cyberpunk Science Fiction? I'm going to say no, though, I could be wrong. This branch of the literature generally does not mock aspects of reality. This branch of the literature almost invariably takes itself quite seriously, and given its youth-oriented audience, is appropriately angst-filled as well.


Thank you for reading this. I'm not sure this is one of my stronger pieces, to be perfectly frank with you (whoever 'you' may be) but we got through it. I hope it proves to be of some use to you if you ever find yourself contemplating something like this. I'm sure I haven't gotten everything right, but I hope you find the procedure I've suggested useful. There's nothing like solid framing of the issue to get you off to a good start in trying to answer an abstract question---even if it is one you have posed to yourself.

Well, that's about it I guess. Thanks again for reading and take it easy!


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