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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.




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
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Stefan Dziemianowicz
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Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
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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
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Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Literary Evolution

In the 90th (!) episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Gary Wolfe mentioned that he didn’t like to say that literature ‘evolved,’ that he felt it demeaned/diminished early work. As an example, he pointed out that little dystopian literature ever topped Brave New World, so feels a bit wrong to say that dystopian literature ‘evolved’ from that early starting point. I agree with Gary’s main point: that we shouldn’t assume that work that comes later is automatically ‘better’ than what comes before, but I don’t think that ‘evolution’ has to mean that.

That view of evolution is based on an understanding that biologists have been trying to shake from years. It’s epitomized by the classic image below, which depicts evolution as a linear process. (BTW, as a measure of its cultural prevalence, if you do a Google Image search just on the word ‘evolution,’ that image is what pops up.)

Linear Evolution

Victorians also liked to picture the natural world as a sort of tree with humanity on top. However, evolution doesn’t work that way. Instead, organisms grow into new niches and optimize their presence in those niches so as to ensure survival.

I bring this up because I think that’s a perfectly good metaphor for literature, and doesn’t have the problem that Gary identified. Over time science fiction has colonized various niches, some more successfully than others, and its optimal survival strategies have changed over time. The New Wave filled a different spot than Cyberpunk, but each were appropriate to the cultural moment. When the culture moves on (much the same way as a pool drying up or a valley flooding) the literature evolves into a new niche and does its best there. I think that’s part of what’s happening with our proliferation of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, and I’ll take it as a sign of a healthy ecosystem!

So it makes no more sense to say that a dystopia like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is ‘better than’ Brave New World (at least simply because it comes later) than it does to say that a lion is ‘better than’ a shark because it ‘evolved’ later. I’m not sure the language will ever evolve to accept the more rigorous biological view of evolution as a commonplace metaphor but I think it works tolerably well–probably better than the more popular model.






Comment from Gregory Benford
Time March 12, 2012 at 1:34 am

Well done.
But the Huxley is better than the Atwood, for literary reasons alone. Indeed, we have yet to face Huxley’s world, but may have to, as we once faced the possibility of Orwell’s. All hail the fall of the Soviets! (Though we still have N. Korea and Cuba, where Orwell is still banned.)

Pingback from SF Tidbits for 3/12/12 – SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
Time March 12, 2012 at 6:06 am

[...] Locus (Karen Burnham) on Literary Evolution. [...]

Comment from Jeff Ford
Time March 12, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Excellent point, Karen! Evolution as an expression of moral or intellectual hierarchy is also where the religious tend to get it wrong as well. Evolution is beyond good and evil, or, good and bad. Still, Gary raises an interesting point — what is the phenomenon he is describing and what does it say about how readers view literature?

Pingback from Literary Evolution on Locus blog « Mythotopes
Time March 12, 2012 at 3:03 pm

[...] on the Locus Roundtable blog, Karen Burnham makes an excellent point about literary evolution and how evolution as a metaphor [...]

Comment from Russell Letson
Time March 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm

The biggest problem with art “evolving” is the teleological vision that gets smuggled in with that comparison, and Karen’s corrective–to apply a properly informed notion of evolution–is fine, except for the rest of the baggage that comes with it. If the question is “What accounts for change in artistic traditions and practices?” biological metaphors are tempting, but they don’t address the some of the crucial mechanisms by which artists come up with new material or new ways of presenting old material.

The model of variation and improvisation in music seems to me to be more apt. I keep returning to Phil Klass’s jazz metaphor–writers in an intensely interactive field like SF can be seen to be “trading riffs.” The materials for this process are both inside and outside the artists–and the results are not necessarily evolutionary in either the teleological or adaptive senses. Instead, they are produced when artists recognize or invent various possibilities within the materials and/or generating procedures (extensions of rules and conventions, unexploited options, combinations, reversals, inversions, subversions, perversions. . .). I suppose one could map the rhetorical, linguistic, musical, etc. aspects of these complex processes onto the genetic/physiological/environmental system that enables evolution, but it seems simpler to use the language we already have to describe general artistic production and the sociology and economics of art.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time March 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Jeff – I think it’s just one expression of our human desire to believe that ‘newer’ equals better no matter what. Of course, that drive is usually somewhow present at the same time as our Golden Age drive, our nostalgic belief that everything used to be better in the good old days!

Russell – I like the point, and certainly comparisons to riffing and improv in Jazz are well taken. But I’m not sure that any ‘pure’ progression of riffs would take us from Space Opera to Steampunk; I think that you need the new niches opening up in the wider culture for that to happen.

Comment from Guy Gavriel Kay
Time March 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I agree with the main point, though not the reply to Jeff. The idea that ‘newer equals better’ is human nature is ‘off’ I think. No one, for example, living inside hovels within the ruins of the arena in Arles in the medieval period could possible entertain the view that newer was better, or that the passage of time represented improvements over the past. There’s a timeline (and cultural limits) to the emergence of the view you offer here. Same for the Golden Age Drive … individuals can think of the ‘horrors’ of their youth as easily as the glories. Depends on the youth, to some degree, no?

Though this does open up a discussion as to the degree to which group psychology and dynamics (within a generation, say) shape how literature (among other things) is judged. ‘Make it new!’ Pound said – when young.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time March 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Very good points, Guy. I’d say that here and now “newer is better” and “things were better in the old days” exist in tension almost all the time. However you must be right that the historical moment and individual preference can swing that balance pretty far one way or the other.

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