This post, from Dennis Jernberg, originally appeared on his Spanner’s World: The Blog! blog on 9/6/09.
Face it: the traditional literary fiction that defined the mainstream in the 20th century is on its way out, much like the newspaper it drew from starting in the late 19th century. During its period of dictatorship, anything outside its narrow boundaries was ruthlessly relegated to the lowbrow genres of pulp fiction by the cultural establishment’s literary police. But now literary fiction is almost extinct. Why? Because its ideology, called Naturalism, no longer reflects the daily lives of ordinary people.
What does? Science fiction. You see, far more than in Isaac Asimov’s day, we are living in the world predicted by science fiction. Rockets and space stations? Check. Supercomputers, internets, virtual reality? Check. Robots do more of our manufacturing work. Cyborgs are increasingly banal. Androids and jetpacks are in development. Can interstellar spaceships, wormholes, antigravity, and time travel be far behind? And there’s some amazing stuff now commonplace or in development that were inconceivable to the likes of Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and their contemporaries: nanotechnology, personal area networks, quantum computing, augmented reality — the list goes on…
The conclusion should be obvious. The central place in the mainstream of modern literature that was once held by the now dying Naturalist literary fiction properly belongs to science fiction. Why, then, is it still relegated to genre and fandom? Because the old literary establishment still controls the publishing industry.
Not that there’s anything wrong with fandom. I myself am a comics fan of long standing. Without a fandom, a genre or medium is dead. Literary fiction has no fandom; the only thing resembling one is a shrinking hard core of the cultural elite, the modern survivors or descendants of the once all-powerful literary snobs that not only exiled most fiction to the pulp genres but also murdered poetry. Conversely, all the vital genres have fandoms, especially those that belong to that family of genres collectively known as fantasy, which includes horror as well as science fiction. The strength of a genre in the culture can be gauged by the conventions its fans hold.
Anyway, back to my point: the Naturalist method of traditional literary fiction no longer reflects our common reality. The method of science fiction does. Here’s why:
Naturalism is based on the deterministic assumption of Newtonian mechanics, which claims that every single thing that ever happened or ever will happen can be precisely predicted into the infinite past or future. This strikes people as absurd today, but this was the common assumption in the 19th and 20th centuries. So traditional literary fiction came to restrict itself to the petty lives of insignificant people stuck in static or slowly deteriorating situations. It resembles the 19th-century social novel at least on the surface, but the method is supposed to be scientific or at least journalistic. The writer who most strongly defined the Naturalist school and its method was Émile Zola.