SCIENCE FICTION VERSUS MUNDANE CULTURE
When the Gresham Professors Michael Mainelli and Tim Connell did me the honour of inviting me to this Symposium, I cautioned them that I would have to attend as a sort of Idiot Savant: an idiot because I am not a scholar or even a particularly accomplished reader of SF, and a Savant because I get paid to write it. So if this were a lecture, the purpose of which is to impart erudition, I would have to decline. Instead though, it is a seminar, which feels more like a conversation, and all I suppose I need to do is to get people talking, which is almost easier for an idiot than for a Savant.
I am going to come back to this Idiot Savant theme in part three of this four-part, forty minute talk, when I speak about the distinction between vegging out and geeking out, two quintessentially modern ways of spending ones time.
1. The Standard Model
If you don't run with this crowd, you might assume that when I say 'SF', I am using an abbreviation of 'Science Fiction', but here, it means Speculative Fiction. The coinage is a way to cope with the problem that Science Fiction is mysteriously and inextricably joined with the seemingly unrelated literature of Fantasy. Many who are fond of one are fond of the other, to the point where they perceive them as the same thing, in spite of the fact that they seem quite different to non-fans.
I also use SF to denote a third thing, which I will call the new wave of historical fiction, which is heavily influenced by SF and clearly aimed at SF fans. To get a quick fix on what this means, consider the recent movie '300', and compare it to its predecessor, a 1962 film called 'The 300 Spartans' starring Richard Egan. Both take as their subject the Battle of Thermopylae, but '300' is quite obviously informed by graphic novels, video games and Asian martial arts film, and therefore, in my opinion, belongs to the SF world, even though it is technically a historical drama. I also need another term to denote things that are not SF, such as 'The 300 Spartans'. Conventionally, one would call this a mainstream, as opposed to a genre film, but the entire thrust of my talk is going to be that it no longer makes sense to speak of a mainstream and some number of genres, so I am going to borrow another term that is used in the SF world to denote all that is not SF and call it 'Mundane'.
I first happened upon this when I saw a mass mailing that was sent out to a number of SF fans who were attending a convention being held in a high-rise hotel in a major city. The document contained a polite request that attendees not brandish swords, battleaxes or other medieval weaponry in elevators and other common spaces of the hotel as some of the other guests were, after all, 'mundanes' who might not understand.
What I am going to call the standard model of our culture states that there is a mainstream and, peripheral to it and inferior in intellectual content, moral stature, production values and economic importance, are some number of genres. Here, we could get lost in the weeds, trying to enumerate and differentiate between different genres and sub-genres, such as post-cyber-punk. So, to keep things moving, I am going to restrict my comments to four - SF, Romance, Westerns and Crime/Mystery.
Now, I think that the standard model was reasonably accurate perhaps fifty years ago, but I put it to you that if an alien culture sent a xenoethnologist to Earth today with the mission 'observe their culture and submit a report', the xenoethnologist would not perceive or describe anything like the standard model.
First of all, the genre known as the Western no longer exists. Before people send me e-mails, I will happily stipulate that Western movies are still made. I saw the recent remake of '3:10 to Yuma' and enjoyed it, and Western books can still be found in bookstores, but it has been a long time since one could walk into an average, or even an extraordinarily large, bookstore and find a separate shelf labelled 'Westerns' and that is a change from how things were when I was a child. Similarly, when I was a child, many prime-time television series were Westerns; now, none are. Fifty years ago, unless you lived in a very small town indeed, you could probably go to the cinema and see a Western on any given weekend; now, when Western films are made, they are always remarkable or exceptional in some way, and not the routine produce of a genre.
Romance and Mystery most certainly do have their own sections in bookstores and probably will for a long time. So our xenoethnologist might perceive them as genres, provided that all he or she looked at was bookstores. Outside of bookstores, though, something interesting has happened, and I am going to sum it up by saying that it is something like Romance fused with the film industry and Crime fused with the television industry. Not all movies are romances of course, and so if you count the number of films produced, my assertion is very debatable, but if you weight the count by the number of tickets sold or the amount of money that financiers are willing to invest in the production, marketing and distribution of films, I think you will see that almost any prospective film project that does not contain a romance as a major, if not the major, line of its plot is unlikely to find support.
Again, before the e-mails roll in, I will stipulate that there are exceptions. I have already mentioned one: the recent remake of '3:10 to Yuma', starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. There are a couple of women in it, but romantic relationships certainly are not a major element of the plot, unless you count the strange kind of seduction that goes on between the two main male characters. What the movie does offer though are hunks riding around and looking good.
Compare the movie stars of fifty years ago with those of today: on average, the ones we have today are better looking. Of course there are exceptions, but the bar has been set much higher than it used to be, and I think that it is all a reflection of the way romance and the romantic sensibility has become. It has stopped being confined to a particular genre and has become an intrinsic part of the modern industrial movie making business. If you would like to know, I think it all started with 'Gone with the Wind', which proved that a story that came out of the romance genre could become enormously successful with sufficiently attractive and charismatic actors. Put simply: romance and violence are two things that easily cross borders and jump language barriers. You can make a lot of money on films that consist entirely of action, but there are only so many young males in the world. Romance appeals to more people. Romance is versatile. All by itself, it is enough to make a successful movie. Added to a screenplay, it works like monosodium glutamate in food, which is to say it does not matter whether the underlying material is poor or excellent to begin with, adding some of this wonder ingredient always makes it better.
What Romance became to the film industry, Mystery/Crime became to the television industry. They are made for each other. A television series needs to tell a fresh story each episode. Romance is not a good fit. You cannot have your lead character fall in love with a different person each week. Westerns worked okay for a while, but eventually, the writers ran out of things that could possibly happen on ranches and began to mix things up with ideas like the 'Wild Wild West'. By comparison, TV shows about detectives have it easy. I will not try your patience by reciting particulars. There has never been a time during my life when there were not several different, very popular crime and mystery series on prime-time television.
Thus Westerns have become too few and far between to constitute a genre, while Romance and Crime have become too ubiquitous to be considered as genres.
2. What are we to think of SF?
Unlike Westerns, SF has grown rather than withered. Unlike Romance and Mystery, it has maintained its separateness rather than becoming a part of the mainstream. Why not then speak of SF as the genre that survived? Because genre connotes features that simply would not be perceived by our xenoethnologist, who would, presumably, gather data and go about the work scientifically.
In movies, SF dominates utterly: by my count SF films count for 57 of the top 100 movies of all time, and nine of the top ten. The only top ten film that is not SF is 'Titanic', made by a director who cut his teeth making SF films.
In television, SF is not nearly as important, though obviously there have been any number of quite successful and more or less famous SF television series.
In books, things are much more diffuse and complicated, and the statistics are difficult to process because of the maddening way in which publishers chop books up into genres. Harry Potter is obviously SF. If you want to know how the latest Harry Potter book is making out in my country, go to the New York Times website, find the page where all of the bestseller lists are listed, and follow the link to 'Children's' and there you will find separate lists for 'Picture Books', 'Chapter Books', 'Paperback' and 'Series' books. Harry Potter is on the latter, and I think he was moved there just because people got sick of seeing his name on the main bestseller list month after month and year after year. Many other books are arguably SF, but not published as such. Whatever you may think of 'The Da Vinci Code', you have to admit that its premises are somewhat fantastic and hence SF-like.
My colleague, Bruce Sterling, has defined a thriller as 'a science fiction novel that includes the President of the United States'. If you agree with Bruce's definition, the size of the SF market suddenly becomes very much larger.
Finally, in graphic novels and video games, SF is of course dominant.
So rather than trying to salvage anything from the standard model, I believe that it makes more sense to speak of a bifurcated culture. Of course the bifurcation is not absolute or perfectly clean, but it is clear that there are two distinct audience groups and that they have different characteristics: one carries swords in elevators and the other does not. That probably sounds merely flippant, but consider the following anecdote.
I was in New York City a few weeks ago and I went out for dinner with friends. Thanks to their hospitality, we dined in a highly civilised, but by no means flashy or famous, Italian restaurant just off of Midtown, where the office buildings begin to give way to townhouses. One of the pleasures of dining in such places is that you get real professional waiters, not just kids trying to make a few bucks or out-of-work actors, but middle-aged people who have done it before, who take it seriously as their life's work and who do it with dignity and grace. Our waiter was one of those, probably in his late-forties, impeccably dressed, knew how to show up when we needed something and to disappear otherwise.
I was telling my companions about a trip I had recently made to Vegas, which is not normally my idea of a place to go but the Sci-Fi Channel had flown me down there to take part in a panel discussion. One of the other panellists was Lucy Lawless. Now, if you are not an SF kind of person, then I will probably have to tell you that she is an actor best known for her title role on the television series 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and, more recently, appearing on 'Battlestar Galactica'. If you are an SF person, you will already know this and much more about her.
As it turned out, our waiter that evening, contrary to appearances, was very much an SF person, and as soon as he heard me mention the name of Lucy Lawless, he spun around to face us and came over to join the conversation. Now remember that this man hears the names of the rich and famous dropped all the time, indeed, he probably serves the rich and famous all the time. It is his job to pretend he does not notice, and he does his job very well, in the mundane world, but as soon as he heard me mention Lucy Lawless, the mundane shell dropped away and he turned into a fan. Not quite the same as carrying a sword in an elevator, but very closely related.
Both this waiter and the elevator sword people are displaying a trait that is epitomised, for better or worse, by the cruel mundane stereotype of SF fans wearing rubber Vulcan ears. In a sense, all SF fans are forever carrying those rubber ears around, concealed in the pockets of our business suits, military uniforms, waiters' jackets, or doctors' smocks. No one knows they are there, but when we find ourselves around like-minded persons, even if they happen to be total strangers, we absentmindedly reach into our pockets, pull out the ears, and slap them on. We identify ourselves as geeks - we geek-out.
Lucy Lawless is one example of an actor with a bifurcated career - a topic I would like to explore for a few minutes. It might sound to you like a trivia game, but I think it works as a kind of natural experiment that gives us information about the bifurcated culture.
I first noticed this when I was watching the first 'Lord of the Rings' movie and the character of Elrond made his first appearance. He looked strangely familiar to me and I looked him up on IMDB afterwards and figured out that he was, of course, the same man who portrays Agent Smith in the 'Matrix' movies. His name is Hugo Weaving. In the mundane world, he has a perfectly respectable career going. It is difficult to make a living as an actor: one has to be very good, work very hard and also somewhat lucky to make a go of it. Hugo Weaving has done this and has appeared in various mundane plays and films. If he had never done any SF work at all, he would have a career that other actors would envy. It is likely, however, that none of us would have seen him or heard of him because, in the mundane world, he is not a huge star. In the SF world, he is one of the biggest stars of all time. Why the difference? What is it about him that accounts for this imbalance?
Once I noticed this phenomenon, other examples came to mind. I have already mentioned Lucy Lawless, and it is by no means a historical curiosity, because there are insipient bifurcated stars. 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles', a new TV series based on the 'Terminator' movies, features two: Lena Headey, who looked familiar to me because I had previously seen her in '300' as the unfortunately named Gorgo, Queen of Sparta; and Summer Glau, who played one of the characters on the SF series 'Firefly'.
Sigourney Weaver has had a bifurcated career. Again, this is not to say that she did not do perfectly well for herself in mundane films and theatrical productions. In 'Alien' and 'Aliens' though, she attained a level of fame that far exceeded her mundane work, and I do not think she would mind my saying so because she took a role in the film 'Galaxy Quest' that made light of exactly this kind of situation.
Is there any common thread linking the actresses I have mentioned? Lucy Lawless, Lena Headey, and Sigourney Weaver are all athletic, statuesque and good at doing action stuff. The cynical interpretation then is that male SF fans like to ogle Amazons. A more generous take on it is that SF is more forgiving towards strong women. I suspect that both of these are true, but they are not enough to explain the bifurcated career phenomenon.
Of course, 'Galaxy Quest' was transparently based on 'Star Trek', which brings to mind the archetypal bifurcated actor, Leonard Nimoy, who attained such perfection in his portrayal of Spock that it led to two unintended consequences: the one that everyone knows about is that he afterwards found it difficult to get non-Vulcan work; the less obvious one is that never again in the ongoing history of the franchise were the producers of any of those films or television episodes able to find an actor who could convincingly play a Vulcan.
Just as an exercise, I spent a while trying to think whether there was any actor, living or dead, who could possibly portray a Vulcan as convincingly as Leonard Nimoy. I assumed that this experiment would end in failure, but surprisingly, the answer came to me immediately: Hugo Weaving. He would make a totally convincing Vulcan, and it is not just because we have already seen him with pointy ears - it is something else. I think that it is the ability to portray intelligence. When I first saw Weaving as Elrond, I didn't think I was going to like him because he looked very different from how I had imagined this character when I read 'The Lord of the Rings', but I ended up liking his performance very much. He was able to convince me that he really was a 3,000 year old elf lord. Part of this is simply that he is a professional actor who is good at what he does, but I am convinced that it also has something to do with the ability to project intelligence.
Consider some of the other characters in the Star Trek franchise. Out of the entire cast of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', I would say that the two most beloved, successful characters, at least to fans in the SF world, are Commander Data, portrayed by Brent Spiner, and Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart. These are very different characters, but what they have in common is that they are intelligent people portrayed convincingly by actors who are either very intelligent or else good at seeming that way. Some other characters in this series did not ring true for SF fans in the same way.
Going back to the female actors I was talking about earlier, I believe that the same is true. It certainly helps that they are statuesque, beautiful and athletic, but there is more to it than that. It is conspicuous in the first two 'Alien' films, Sigourney Weaver's character is the smartest person in the room at any given time. The only possible exception is Bishop, the android in the second film, played by Lance Henriksen, in another fine example of an intelligence-projecting performance. One believes in this character in the same way that one believes in Nimoy as Spock or that I at least believe in Weaving's Elrond. All of these actors can somehow convey that there is complexity behind the eyes. The intelligence of these characters is not just a slapped on trait. These are not token nerds thrown into an ensemble piece to solve technical problems. Their intelligence is an intrinsic reason why you are supposed to find them interesting, to identify with them. It is what makes them human, even, especially when they are not actually humans. If the actor cannot portray that intelligence, the character fails altogether. This is why I have devoted a bit of time to what might strike some as a fairly low-brow, pop culture analysis, because I think that the bifurcated career phenomenon can tell us something about what differentiates SF from mundane culture.
3. Vegging out and geeking out
The cheap and, since I am an SF person, self-congratulatory answer is that SF is for intelligent people. However, saying that, even supposing it were true, does not actually get us very far, since there are so many different kinds and different definitions of intelligence. And so here is where this talk has to pick its way along the spine of a narrow ridge, if you will, with fatal drop-offs to either side. If I stray in one direction, I end up talking endlessly about intelligence or intelligences and what they mean, and end up defining it out of existence. If I go the other way, I run afoul of invidious class distinctions, since intelligence is still linked in many people's minds with expensive educations and high status jobs. Neither explains SF very well. If the first were true, everyone would be an SF fan. Clearly, that is not the case. If the second were true, the only people who liked SF would be those with PhDs, and though that is slightly closer to the truth, it is still not very close. No doubt there is a sort of vague correlation between having higher education and being an SF fan, but there are so many exceptions, so many PhDs who cannot abide SF, and so many waiters and welders who live for it, that it does not serve well as a model.
The correct way to think about intelligence in this case is as a human quality shared by just about everyone, at least until it gets beaten out of us, not a special gift that is bestowed only on a few; and secondly, that it is a functional trait that most people find some way of using in their careers or whatever it is that they spend their days doing. Sometimes this trait is put to use doing theoretical physics, but much more often, it is used in raising children or building houses or operating farm machinery.
Counter-examples are legion. We have all suffered through movies that were ruined by characters doing stupid things. The classic example is in suspense movies when someone, usually a pretty girl, is running away from a monster or a serial killer when she happens to trip and fall down, whereupon, instead of simply getting back to her feet and running some more, she sits on the ground whimpering until the threat catches up with her. We have all seen bad horror movies in which the protagonists blunder into situations that no one who has ever actually watched a bad horror movie would ever get into. The satisfaction and the solace offered by good SF is that its characters do not behave that way.
Consider how Ripley, the character played by Sigourney Weaver, responds to the threat posed by the aliens. In the second film, once she and the marine she is with have made first contact with the aliens and had a chance to catch their breath, they very quickly agree that they should simply go back to the orbiting ship and nuke the place. It is a brilliant move on the part of the film makers, precisely because it is the obvious and intelligent thing to do. It is exactly what we in the audience are all thinking to ourselves, but because it is a kind of horror movie and we have been conditioned to expect stupid behaviour from characters in horror movies, it is the last thing we are expecting. When the idea is raised and agreed on, we wake up, sit a little straighter in our chairs, and say, 'Oh, this is a movie about real people,' which is to say people who behave intelligently, and for the rest of the film, that promise is largely borne out as Ripley goes on to do a number of more or less intelligent things, such as using a cigarette lighter to set off a fire alarm when she needs to draw the other's attention and so on.
So in SF, intelligence is just how people behave and it is what you expect in a well-wrought piece, but by this definition, intelligence is something that has undergone some changes during the last fifty years or so. The Heinleinian Hero, who knows everything and who can do everything is gone. The world is complicated. No one can be good at everything. I bought a new car a couple of weeks ago, and I still haven't read more than a few pages of the 1.5 inch thick pile of instruction books that came with it. It, like everything else in our lives, has too many features, too many details for our minds to hold. The best we can do is to be good at some one thing or a few things. We come home tired, and we feel the need to 'veg out' - a recent coinage meaning to drop voluntarily into a kind of vegetative coma, typically in front of the TV.
I should know. In my family, I am infamous for my low-brow tastes in entertainment, my sluggishness to attend art films and theatrical productions. It is actually a miracle that Gresham College was able to get me over here right in the middle of the NBA playoffs.
But many people, after they have vegged out long enough to recharge their batteries, derive fun and profound satisfaction from geeking out on whatever topic is of particular interest to them. Choose any person in the world at random, no matter how non-geeky they might seem, talk to them long enough and in most cases you will eventually hit on some topic about which they are exorbitantly knowledgeable, and, if you express interest, on which they are willing to talk enthusiastically for hours. You have found their inner geek. Sometimes the inner geek may be hidden very deeply indeed. The gristled, taciturn machinist who normally speaks in sentences of one or two words will light up and deliver an extemporaneous dissertation about his favourite alloys of steel and how they are made. The forklift operator at Wal-Mart will turn out to be a Civil War re-enactor, who can recite the full history of the Battle of Shiloh, down to the level of individual squads and soldiers. This is how knowledge works today, and it is how it is going to work in the future: no more Heinleinian polymaths; instead, a web of geeks, each of whom knows a lot about something. Twenty years ago, we called them nerds and we despised them. We didn't like the power that they seemed to have over the rest of us, and we identified them as something different from normal society. Now we call them geeks and we like them just fine because they are us. Nerds were limited to math and science and computers. Geeks also do those kinds of things, which is not saying much because everyone works with computers all the time now, but geeks can also be experts on welding or Civil War battles or fine cabinet making. Everyone gets now that this is how society is going to work, and as long as geeks bathe frequently enough and don't commit the faux pas of geeking out at the wrong time, in the wrong company, it's okay. It is better than okay; it is desirable. We are all geeks now.
But we are all geeks in different subject areas, and so the only thing that links us all together is what we watch on the Tube when our geek energies have been spent and we feel the need to veg out - the lowest common denominator stuff. Almost everyone knows and agrees that this material is idiotic. It does not reflect the way the world actually works because it does not contain as many geeks as the real world that we all inhabit. In that sense, it is more unrealistic and fantastical than the material that actually gets tagged as 'fantasy'. It is when we turn on a movie or a television show and observe people behaving intelligently that we sit up a little straighter in our seats and get interested. It is here that we begin to take the story and its characters a little more seriously.
It would be a little too simplistic and, again, self-congratulatory to say flat-out that the first category of entertainment, the veg-out stuff, is mundane, and the latter type, the geek-out stuff, is SF. It would be like saying that people from the United States drink coffee and people from the UK drink tea. But there is a more than faint trend that bears thinking about, and that I believe helps to explain the bifurcated career phenomenon that I mentioned in part two of this talk.
In this, the last and shortest part of this talk, I am going to revisit the genre question. Despite the fact that this seminar is supposed to be about literature, I have devoted most of my time so far to speaking about movies and television. That is because I believe that certain movies and TV programmes that almost everyone has seen can provide insights into SF culture that translate directly into the literary side.
In part one, I mentioned that, in the standard model, some of the traditional markers of genre-hood were its low intellectual content and depraved moral stature. In the literary world, as it existed back in the days when the standard model was still operative, this would presumably mean that real literature was written by respected authors with credentials, while pulp genre novels were churned out by semi-anonymous hacks in cheap hotel rooms. All of this is just a set of stereotypes of course, and I do not mean to suggest that we should take them too seriously. Let's instead look at how things are today.
As I mentioned, the bestseller lists have been exquisitely tweaked so as to ensure that the books that show up on the main lists are... what exactly? It is easier to say what they are not. Most so-called genre fiction is in paperback, so it does not taint the hardcover list. Young adult books get shunted to a different list so we do not have to know how many copies Harry Potter is selling. Other special categories such as Business Books, or Series Books, or Media-Related Books, further winnow the field. I gather that the people who make these lists have got an idea in their heads as to what constitutes a proper book: a hardcover work of fiction, written recently, not too genre-esque, and so on. Literary fiction is the closest thing this has to a name.
Now, people who aspire to write literature often study it first. It is logical: if you want to build bridges, you study engineering, so, if you want to write literary fiction, you study literature. The lecture halls, the editorships, the endowed chairs that might have been occupied fifty years ago by academics and intellectuals of a more traditional stripe are now occupied, and have been for decades, by insurgents who gained sway beginning in the 1960s. Ever since then, this new breed have been teaching a kind of approach to literary criticism variously called 'post-modernist' or 'post-structuralist' or 'deconstructionist'.
What literary theorists, post-structuralists anyway, are teaching might be fascinating and encouraging to people who aspire to be critics, but it must be just a bit unsettling to people who would like to become authors. One of the founding documents of post-structuralism is 'The Death of the Author' by Roland Barthes. I am not here to try to explain post-structuralism or to argue with it, but I will say that if I were a would-be author studying literature 100 years ago, from professors who were willing to grant that authors actually created, understood, and controlled the meaning of their own work, I would feel more encouraged than I would studying it from post-structuralists. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I would feel more sanguine writing certain types of fiction than others. I have not been in this situation myself, but based on what I read of post-structuralism, I would imagine there would be a weeding out effect. It is fun to imagine a comedy sketch with Robert Heinlein in a writers' workshop having the first draft of 'Starship Troopers' evaluated by a circle of earnest, young post-structuralists. I don't imagine that there is anything like out-and-out censorship, but I do suspect that people who write about relationships, who write autobiographical, introspective fiction from a subjective point of view, are going to have an easier time of it in this environment from those who write SF.
On the science-fiction side of SF, such writers are working with abstract ideas from science, and scientists who believe and who can prove that they are right are notoriously at odds with post-structuralists, who are always looking for ways to bring science into the realm of what is called 'criticisability'.
On the fantasy side, writers are creating entire worlds inside their brains and populating them with species and civilisations and histories, an undertaking that seems fantastically arrogant from a post-structuralist standpoint.
The characteristics I spoke of earlier that lead SF fans to want to see intelligence at work in the faces of movie characters, when rolled over into literature, mean that they want ideas. They want to learn something or to join with the author in speculating about a future or about a fantastical other world. Naturally, they will see the aliens as dangerous, predatory creatures that have to be killed, while literary theorists would say that perhaps the real reason we are afraid of the alien other is because it represents the eruption into our discourse of heretofore subjugated knowledges. Post-structuralist critics, assuming they have the courage of their convictions, would say to the young Heinlein, 'I see that you are intelligent, that you know a lot, that you have worked hard, and put a lot of ingenuity into this book, but the whole thing is pre-theoretical and therefore naïve, and as such, simply of lesser intellectual stature than something that was written taking into account the intellectual trends of the last half-century.'
This is the same attitude, for completely different reasons, that the occupants of those lecture halls and editorships and endowed chairs 50 or 100 years ago would have taken towards the pulp genre fiction of their day, namely that it was intellectually inferior to literary fiction. The author of a fantasy or a science-fiction novel may be an Oxford linguist, like J.R.R. Tolkien, or a PhD astrophysicist, like Gregory Benford, but by taking their own ideas seriously enough to write fantasy or science fiction about them, they reduce themselves, in the eyes of critics, to pre-theoretical knuckle-draggers. A curious inversion has taken place in which the very intellectual credentials that back in the heyday of the standard model might have given such authors the credibility needed to escape from the stigma of genre-hood, today consign them irrevocably to the same.
Another feature of genre-hood in the standard model is moral depravity. This was easy to talk about back in the day when universities were strongly linked to churches, and professors, among other responsibilities, were the guardians of a religiously-based moral code. It might seem more difficult to talk about now because we no longer have a shared idea of what it is to be moral, and yet post-modern academics are nothing if not censorious. Mind you, I don't mean to say that all SF writers are oblivious to the last fifty years' developments in critical theory or that there is no SF literature that is alive to those changes. But there are entire swathes of SF, for example a whole vast sub-genre called military science-fiction, that I am pretty sure would be considered not only intellectually naïve but morally bankrupt as well by many members of the Modern Language Association. The incredulous hostility with which the movie '300' was greeted by a good many film critics serves as an especially vivid and entertaining example.
So, having gone to some lengths in part one to dismantle the idea that there are genres and that SF is one of them, I conclude part four in this talk with the observation that, in the current critical theoretical environment, SF does possess at least two of the classic markers of genre-hood: namely, intellectual disreputability and moral salaciousness. SF thrives because it is idea-porn.
Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to participate.
©Neal Stephenson, Gresham College, 8 May 2008