I’m about halfway through Samuel R. Delany’s the Jewel-Hinged Jaw and am not only enjoying it, but also struck by how little seems to have changed in the field. Oh, some of the concerns and details are different, and, of course, Delany’s concerns were quite forward-thinking for the time. But considering the book was published in 1977 (with essays that go back to 1967) it sure seems still quite relevant to the field.
One thing I’m always interested in is claims of exceptionalism for genres/sub-genres. What does a particular discourse community claim to do/be better than related communities? What do they claim as unique to their field? In a post-modern world, exceptionalism is always (often rightly) interrogated, but it’s still fun and thought-provoking to see the exceptional claims being made. It is within that spirit that I quote from page 95:
I feel the science-fictional-enterprise is richer than the enterprise of mundane fiction. It is richer through its extended repertoire of sentences, its consequent greater range of possible incident, and through its more varied field of rhetorical and syntagmic organization. I feel it is richer in much the same way atonal music is richer than tonal, or abstract painting is richer than realistic. No, the apparent “simple-minded-ness” of science fiction is not the same as that surface effect through which individual abstract paintings or particular atonal pieces frequently appear “impoverished” when compared to “conventional” works, on first exposure (exposed to, and compared by, those people who have absorbed only the “conversational” textus with which to “read” their art or music). This “impoverishment” is the necessary simplicity of sophistication, mete for the far wider web of possibilities such works can set resonating. (splg. corrected)
As with anything Delany writes, no single passage can be fully understood when ripped from its context (and I suspect even reading a full essay may not be sufficient — repeated exposure to his work my be necessary). On the other hand, the core comparison situates science fiction in a context that makes a lot of sense to me. To be reductive: the palette is larger and different for science fiction in comparison to other literary genres and especially in relation to literary realism. It is that way because it allows one to create imagery (to a certain extent all future technology found in SF is simply metaphor), setting, incident that goes beyond mimesis of current and historical conditions.
This may, incidentally, be why literary fiction writers have been dabbing their brushes in this palette lately.