The genres of science fiction and fantasy, sometimes classified as subgenres of a broader class called “speculative fiction” or SF, have hit the news lately. The press covered an acrimonious dispute between those who think that the literature should return to its roots and concentrate on adventure and entertainment and those whom the first group believe have let “message” take priority over entertainment. However, as someone who read his first SF novel (Andre Norton’s Star Rangers) and watched the original Star Trek in those alleged Good Old Days and has taught SF for 30+ years, this is revisionist history.
The works generally regarded as the classics of SF pair important ideas (what those who do not like it call “message”) with well-plotted story. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein explores whether scientists should play God. H.G. Wells extrapolates class warfare into the future in The Time Machine. Aldous Huxley wonders whether genetic engineering would yield a Brave New World or a dystopian nightmare. And 1984’s author lends his name to “Orwellian” concerns about the modern information state.
Great works from the Good Old Days? Same story. Star Trek sometimes offered pure escape or adventure but often commented on race or gender, colonialism, pacifism/militarism, economic rights/duties, etc. Gene Roddenberry even screened the first interracial kiss on television. Published SF? No different. From Robert Heinlein’s idiosyncratic libertarianism to Frank Herbert’s ecological awareness to Joanna Russ’s feminism to the Philip K. Dick’s questioning of reality, the era teemed with “messages.” My Philosophy and Culture class at Heritage just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975). The novel imagines a world with the moon large enough to support life and considers what happens when the counter-culture revolutionaries take exile there, leaving the “richer” world behind. Generations later, neither society has proven perfect (hence Le Guin’s subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia”) because any society consists of humans full of human weaknesses. The class segued to historical utopian communities and why they lasted or collapsed. The novel oozes “message” but memorably offers the story of a real individualist who doesn’t quite fit on either world.
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5/13/2015 7:53 AM
Message is always present in literature. It is perhaps not always abundantly clear or obvious but it is frankly impossible to write anything worth reading without making a point, (message), so those who decry the message within are really objecting to a point of view that doesn't agree with theirs and therefore it is no longer entertainment for them. The simplest remedy is to disingenuously protest all message but as soon as the heat is off, begin once again to insert their own message into the story. It seems that some believe that "Message" is that which they embrace and equates to "Entertainment" for all while "message" with a little "m" is everything else and results in "entertainment" with a little "e" and therefore should be discouraged.