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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

(Earlier posts end here in April 2010)




Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
F. Brett Cox
Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
Michael Dirda
Gardner Dozois
Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
Brian Evenson
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Theodora Goss
Elizabeth Hand
Cecelia Holland
Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
James Patrick Kelly
Mark R. Kelly
Ellen Klages
Russell Letson
Karen Lord
Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Roundtable: SF Aesthetics

4. Andy Duncan6. John Clute

If the question is whether there is a uniquely science-fictional aesthetic or mode of beauty, I’d have to say, not really, even though the fact that we think of SF as a distinct genre suggests that maybe there ought to be. After all, in “On Stories,” C.S. Lewis notes that the pleasures he sought in Cooperesque frontier adventures were quite specific (and no longer to be named in polite society)–not just any dangers, but those of “that whole world to which [they] belonged.” (Thank you, Google Books. My copy’s buried somewhere.) But I wonder if what he is describing isn’t something like taste–a preference for the piano over the harpsichord or Mozart over Bach rather than an appreciation or lack of it for music in general.

As Gary points out, the pleasure-engines of general prose fiction are available to any SF writer with sufficient chops–though I’m not so sure that SF has a lock on those particular pleasures. If there is a big binary divide, it is the one that separates the fantastic from the more or less realistic. If SF is a department of the fantastic, then it has easier access to a particular range of effects than does representational fiction. Among the most striking elements of Paul McAuley’s Quiet War/Gardens of the Sun diptych are the density with which its physical world is imagined and the way understanding this world and its structures and processes permeate the sensibilities of several of the characters and finally the novel itself. This poetry of the material world is less common in straight fiction (though I doubt that it is altogether absent). What makes it crucial to McAuley’s book is that understanding and manipulating and finally transforming the world is what its characters aspire to do–not as metaphor or symbolic action (though there is an inescapable symbolic side), but in literal fact. And that literalization makes it dead-center SF.

If I had to offer examples of non-fantastic fiction in which the operations and textures of the natural world were as foregrounded, I’d start with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels–and even there the use made of the physicality of blue-water sailing is rather different from what McAuley is doing. But the two enterprises are at least cousins.

Now, McAuley’s prose is quite polished–I can’t imagine that it would offend readers of The New Yorker. But then there’s Phil Farmer. I am re-reading some Farmer stories that I have not looked at for 30 years (in the Up the Bright River volume), and it is sometimes an uncomfortable experience, since Phil’s writing is not uniformly graceful. Yet there remains much to enjoy in it, even while I’m noticing how clunky a chunk of exposition is or how a passage might have been trimmed. I don’t see readers who value, say, Cormac McCarthy finding Farmer pleasant. (I find McCarthy unreadable. Go figure.) The pleasures of reading Farmer, even when he’s not at the top of his game, are the pleasures of following his quirky, ironic, playful mind as he fools around with the materials at hand–heroism, villainy, wanderlust, plain old lust, the contradictions in human behavior, the desire to jump the gap between the ordinary and the marvelous.

Which writer is producing “beauty”? Is “beauty” even the most useful term for the range of pleasures and satisfaction that we derive from reading fiction?

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Pingback from New Year Linkdump | Cora Buhlert
Time January 3, 2011 at 6:15 am

[…] Locus has a roundtable on truth, beauty, SF and aesthetics. […]

Pingback from Cheryl's Mewsings » Blog Archive » At Locus, We Talk
Time January 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm

[…] long. Karen has a post up on the Locus Roundtable blog in which I and various other people discuss SF Aesthetics. This is all your fault, […]

Comment from steve davidson
Time January 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm

The ‘beauty’ that Dirac referred to includes an element of ‘getting the job done’. In that respect, any story that gets the job done for the reader contains that element of ‘beauty’.
As at least a couple of the contributors mentioned, this is really nothing more than an exercise in goal post moving. Rather than discussing “what is science fiction”, we’re asking if there is “beauty” to be found in it. A question that will never be answered as we are all looking at different sections of the tapestry.
For me, personally, those elements of writing that are (erroneously) attributed to “literary merit” CAN be incorporated into works of science fiction but do not have to be present to produce a beautiful story. (Cold Equations anyone? Where’s the “depth of character” in that classic?)
Damien lost me, however, with one of his opening paragraphs:

“I strongly object to the idea that science fiction has to be about science.”

For me there is a line, however squishy or nebulous. The absence of science that informs the story, or serves as background or provides the central element removes a story from the ranks. Even stories that ‘act’ like science fiction but that do not have the practices, logical projection/speculation based on science are over that line (the case for many so-called literary works that incorporate elements of SF, but that do not derive from an SF history/community/sensibility/whatever).

I view this as yet another argument “against” science fiction, seeming to come from someone who buys in to the Vonnegut epithet.

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Time January 3, 2011 at 6:01 pm

[…] Interview: Locus Roundtable: SF Aesthetics with responses from Paul Graham Raven, Gary K. Wolfe, Andy Duncan, Russell Letson, John Clute, Cheryl Morgan, Paul Witco…. […]

Comment from Robert Atlas
Time January 4, 2011 at 4:02 am

I’m reminded of the remarks of former world chess champion Emmanuel Lasker contrasting his views of beauty in chess with those of title contender Siegbert Tarrasch.

“Dr. Tarrasch is a thinker, fond of deep and complex speculation. He will accept the efficacy and usefulness of a move if at the same time he considers it beautiful and theoretically right. But I accept that sort of beauty only if and when it happens to be useful. He admires an idea for its depth, I admire it for its efficacy. My opponent believes in beauty, I believe in strength. I think that by being strong, a move is beautiful too. – Emanuel Lasker”

In other words, I agree with the previous commenter regarding “getting the job done.” Are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch beautiful? Deep? I’d say no to both. But they get his points across. The same is true of many highly regarded works in other media.

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Time January 4, 2011 at 11:35 am

[…] You can read the full conversation here. […]

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Time January 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm

[…] Interview: Locus Roundtable: SF Aesthetics with responses from Paul Graham Raven, Gary K. Wolfe, Andy Duncan, Russell Letson, John Clute, Cheryl Morgan, Paul Witco…. […]

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Time January 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm

[…] You can now get Locus electronically, and their Roundtable blog has relaunched under the guiding hand of Karen Burnham; of note this week, a roundtable on sf aesthetics […]

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Time January 16, 2011 at 6:29 pm

[…] The Aesthetics of Science Fiction (Round Table) (Because it really is a sexy genre…) […]

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Time January 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm

[…] The Aesthetics of Science Fiction (Round Table) (Because it really is a sexy genre…) […]

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Time February 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm

[…] of people far more knowledgeable, well-read and concise than myself, covering such topics as the aesthetics of science fiction, sf’s troubled relationship with the (un)foreseeable future, and the travails of genre […]

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