Despite all the progress made in yadda yadda, Science Fiction is still a ghetto. Sure the occasional Philip K. Dick will be plucked out into the spotlight, but despite the aggressive trashing of the genre by the New Wave, Science Fiction stays in the ghetto.
Sure it may at times be better written, smarter and deeper than the Art Lit (and in keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, an equal amount of it is crap), but it’s just not serious enough. Greg Bear, David Brin, Vernon Vinge, etc are never going to show up in the New Yorker. They’re just not serious enough. (Stephen King is, but that’s a whole other club subject.)
But when Art Lits like science fiction (small caps), it’s usually some very badly written Science Fiction from their own ranks. The kind of thing that almost no SF magazine (except the maybe Asimov’s under Gardner “If It’s Bad Art Lit Posing as Science Fiction, I Love It” Dozois) would accept. It’s bound to be so hackneyed and such a string of lame cliches that it would get tossed into the trash after a page.
The big writer now that we’re supposed to be paying attention to is George Saunders, who is “the writer” of the age. No really. He’s “the writer for our time.” Until maybe next week. There’s a bunch of his books in the window of every Art Lit book store, which almost makes me feel good about the triumph of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Saunders lifted into a whole new stratosphere with a story that appeared in The New Yorker a few months ago. It’s one of the standouts in his new book. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is an example of writing that combines both devastating realism and a stunning detour into surrealism.
It pretty much floored me. Many others had a similar reaction. It was circulated and commented on the way a trend piece on Slate might be passed around. The eighty-six-year-old mother of a friend of mine was so excited she called up her son right after she finished it to say she thought it was the best story she’d ever read. Again, the publication of this story felt like an event, a beautiful moment when emotion, meaning, and experimentation with form dovetailed perfectly.
What is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”? It’s bad Science Fiction.
Semplica Girl Diaries is bad for three reasons.
1. It’s badly written. This is a function of Art Lit which has a fetish for awkwardly written narration in a way that no human thinks or talks as a signpost that this is artsy important writing that gets down into the consciousness stream of all life on earth. Maybe the narration is supposed to clue you in that the story is set in the “NOT SO DISTANT FUTURE” (another staple of Art Lit and its Mudane SF cousin), but other characters speak a coherent modern English, so that’s not so.
“Hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night, no matter how tired. (If discouraged, just think how much will have been recorded for posterity after one mere year!)”
This is a sample. It gets annoying after one sentence. By ten pages it’s unnecessary nails on a chalk board. It’s supposed to project sincerity, working class realism and that kind of stuff. It doesn’t.
2. It doesn’t make any sense. This is another function of Art Lit, which we’ll get back to. When Art Lit does SF, it tries to make no sense, that way it’s surrealistic, rather than a plot. The French sighed when Edgar Allan Poe insisted on laying out and researching exactly how to fly a balloon to the moon for his satirical short story. He was so imaginative, yet so prosaically Americans, they said. Science Fiction is still Edgar Allan Poe. Lit Fic is still French.
3. And this is the really relevant one… it’s a string of cliches with political relevance.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” has been done 400,000 times before in Science Fiction. It’s a concept that has been explored since the early days of the genre. Even the politically relevant aspects of it have been done to death. Cheap labor and the middle class? Done. There is nothing new to say about it and Semplica Girl Diaries has nothing new to say.
It cloaks its non-newness in style and in the equally unoriginal YOU THINK THIS IS A CURRENT STORY BECAUSE I MENTION LOTTERY TICKETS AND JOBS, BUT SURPRISE IT’S TAKING PLACE IN THE FUTURE, EVEN THOUGH EVERYTHING IS THE SAME EXCEPT FOR A SINGLE PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY AND LEGALIZING SLAVERY. It cloaks it in the sneering at the Middle Class that makes Art Lit go round.
Strip away the style and you have a bland story about how the middle class oppresses the lower class to climb into the upper class using a Science Fiction cliche that is handled as ineptly and implausibly as is humanly possible.
If you have never read anything except The New Yorker before, then yes it’s new to you. If you have read Science Fiction before then it’s like seeing a white guy do a lame Chuck Berry and watching the New York Times critic praise him as a defining moment in music history.
Science Fiction is still in the ghetto. And Art Lit is its own ghetto. The two don’t often meet and that makes it possible for crap like The Semplica Girl Diaries to be treated as a great story, instead of a lame watered down, shoddily written, badly plotted retread.