Science Fiction as Literature

Bibiblio challenges us to come up with 20 genre books that one could argue are not only genre, but literature.

I'm not much into the realm of argument, but perhaps I can start a list of what I like (which does not make it literature) and then try to figure out whether or not it falls into this ultimately elusive category.  For now, a few books I think may fall into the category--

Mary Shelley--Frankenstein, I don't much care for this book, finding it at times overwritten and very difficult to follow, but it did set the groundwork for what a science fiction novel could do and the themes that it could explore.

Philip K. Dick--The Man in the High Castle--perhaps his most perfect work, the best conceived and the most rivetingly written.  Does it qualify for literature?  Exploring themes first articulated in Chuang-tzu, it asks us to consider what is reality and what do we make of it.

Mary Doria Russell--The Sparrow--exploring deep themes of faith, religion, and what it means to be human, this one is certainly a contender.  All of Mary Doria Russell's books to date have been superb, and she deserves a good deal more recognition that she has gotten at this point.  But is it literature?  One would have to tell me what constitutes literature--dealing with great themes? Great writing? Great vision?  I think this has all three.

H. G. Wells--The War of the Worlds/The Time Machine/The Island of Dr. Moreau, particularly in the latter two, which while having the necessary scientific trappings, could do as well without them--the fantastic elements merely sugar coating the somewhat bitter pill Wells wanted the world to swallow.

Cao Xueqin--Dream of the Red Chamber/Story of the Stone--A Chinese novel that is propelled by the story of a sentient stone. Because this fantastic element is so integral to the story line, I think it may qualify, but perhaps it is not sufficiently in the "fantasy world."

William Shakespeare--Hamlet and MacBeth Once again, I readily admit, I may be cheating, but given that both plays (and more particularly MacBeth) are driven by the supernatural agents that start the story--one could make a good case for these.  More than either of these, the play many consider Shakespeare's masterwork--The Tempest--is so completely driven by its fantasy elements, that I think if safe to say it qualified--ditto Midsummer Night's Dream.  Indeed, we've become so used to viewing these through the lens of literature that we've forgotten that they truly are fantasy.

Flann O'Brien--The Third Policman--I don't even know where to begin to summarize this sprawling monstrosity of a story (contained in a very, very short book).  One must read it, with its bicycle obsessed policemen and its vision of heaven, hell, and the afterlife.

Anthony Burgess--A Clockwork Orange--and you could lump in here several other dystopian novels--Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Zamayatin's We.

So, I think we can demonstrate that there is literature grounded in elements of fantasy, the supernatural, and Science Fiction.  Perhaps the question that is being asked is "Are there any modern genre titles that qualify as literature?"  I've noted Mary Doria Russell above, to which I might add Ursula K. Leguin (particularly The Dispossessed, perhaps, Frank Herbert's Dune (although I'm hesitant about this one because my like gets in the way of my objective judgment about it as a work of fiction).

I guess the end result is that I need to think about this more and to settle on a defensible definition of literature before I can rightly answer the question.


  1. A couple of quick thoughts:

    • If Dick's best books aren't literature, then the concept of "literature" is pointless.

    • If you're going to mention Shakespeare, then I'll mention Swift. And while we're at it, how about "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"? Or "Faust"?

  2. Dear Don,

    Precisely. And a strong argument could be made that genre preceded literature--otherwise, what dp we make of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and most of the cycles of tragedies.

    However, I fear most post here strayed far from the original poster's intent, as will happen when we're captivated by an idea.



  3. I might - emphasis might - nominate Connie Willis' Passage. It's certainly not up there with Shakespeare, but a very serious topic, seriously thought about and well-written (not brilliant, but good, IMO.)


  4. I'm not a fan of retroactively slotting ancient and medieval works into modern genre categories; I think to do so is to conflate the (near-universal) appeal of stories that contain elements of the fantastic with the specific appeal of modern fantasy. So much fantasy is consciously steeped in nostalgia and intertwined (knowingly or not) with the rise of 19th-century medievalism. (I'd also suggest that most modern fantasy novels are knowingly written as fantasy and are often part of an implicit, ongoing literary discussion about how much escapism is too much.)

    I'm quite open to counterarguments, but I think that if we go back and declare a work like Sir Gawain "fantasy," it doesn't shed new light on Arthurian romance, but it does shut out the things that make a medieval work with fantastic elements very, very different from modern fantasy fiction--a genre which, IMO, can stand on its own without having to rattle off its lineage in public.

  5. Dear Jeff,

    I don't know. I stand by what I said a few days ago about co-opting authors, works, or other things for a purpose. And I do see your point here; however, there must be some acknowledgment that separates even Medieval Works such as Wace and Layoman's Arthur Sagas from something like Sir Gawain, or the Mabinogion. Something like Piers Plowman and The Pearl from other more fantastic medieval works. Something like Chaucer from something like the Perlesvaus. I think there is legitimacy in recognizing that not all of the works fall into the same degree of fantastic and some comprise fantasias on a theme and could be said to be the progenitors of modern fantasy.

    But, to acknowledge your point, it's always a dangerous game. When do we stop applying the rule. Should we rule out Frankenstein because it is deliberately co-opting the themes, settings, and motions of the Gothic that came before it. Is the Gothic also ruled out?

    I suppose it depends on what your purpose is. As to me, I am indifferent to genre--great work is great work. There is literature in what we call genre fiction and genre fiction has infiltrated literature--as in Doris Lessing, and even to some extent Jorge Luis Borges.

    But as I said, I do see your point, and my own arguments against it are recognizably weak.



  6. Hi, Steven! Re: Frankenstein, what's interesting to me is how much disagreement there is among science-fiction scholars about the place of Shelley's novel in the history of the genre, with a few people arguing that it's not SF at all because it doesn't sufficiently dwell on the science. I'm still not sure how I feel about that, especially since there's (delightfully!) no settled definition of the genre. (And the more one moves away from scholars and toward the reflections of writers and fans, the more whimsical the definitions become.)

    As a writer and a reader, I'm not particularly invested in drawing genre distinctions either; my concern is mostly pedagogical.


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