The Formulaic Plot. Basically, the stereotype is that there are spaceships, lasers, damsels in distress (albeit, futuristic ones), rogue heroes and/or beautiful, sexually independent, kick ass, genius heroines, villains who laugh maniacally, a doomsday device and/or McGuffin, kidnappings, daring rescues, threatened rape/sexual slavery, computers gone haywire, etc. And there’s no denying that these elements permeate the genre as extensively as did black berets the Beat Generation. But it also permeates Shakespeare, Fielding, Radcliffe, Goethe, Nabokov, Stoker, Poe, and the list goes on and on. Maybe not the spaceships and lasers, but pirates and guns or swords are a decent equivalent. Star Wars, which is undoubtedly the quintessence of what most people think of as science fiction—along with Star Trek, of course—is actually a hybrid sub-genre known as Space Opera, bringing in an older, more established form of literature. What’s seen as sinful in today’s science fiction is still critically studied as a virtue in the literary canon. And, depending on whom you ask, there are really only so many plot lines available anyway. Joseph Campbell will attest to only one and it’s difficult to think of a story that would refute his claim.
Reality Is Too Loose. “An author can make a spaceship that flies through walls, if she wants to, and no one can say anything different.” Yes, it’s true; a writer can make a story however she wants. And she can also not get published or—worse—fall into ignominy even among the marginalized. If you took a serious look at the “must reads” for science fiction, you’ll see that the best stories are always driven by strong character development and believable setting, plot, and dialogue. An author introduces a gun without firing it only at her peril. More often than not, the writers of science fiction follow the development of contemporary science and are conversant in scientific terms and concepts. The best stories (and there are many of them) use science and technology, not as a hollow prop for advancing the plot, but as a means to reveal something about the society and the people around which that advancement has developed—which itself points to an unconscious, societal belief that possessions (in the case of science fiction, tools and luxury or cutting edge technology) reveal one’s inner character and worth! In some cases, the author makes reality as chaotic or fluid as possible, yes, but only to a specific purpose if she’s wise. But Allende and Pynchon don’t do this? Ah, but that’s postmodernism in general and/or “magical realism” in particular so it’s okay.
Stock Characters. If you want stock characters, you need look no further than the Jew of Malta or Romeo and Juliet or Daisy Miller or even (gasp!) Pride and Prejudice. The truth is that stock characters are difficult to avoid because there’s something in most of them that gets the blood boiling for the reader. A cliché doesn’t get to that point by being false. The evil of a stock character lies mostly in the implication that the writer has a limited imagination or nothing original to add to the historical/literary dialectic or lacks the skill to give life to the character beyond the ink and paper in which it exists. This last is usually the intent behind the calumny “stock character.” That being said, I must profess that I’ve rarely come across a character that would answer the qualifiers of “stock” unless it was done on purpose and there are plenty of canonical postmodern texts (yes, I’m aware of the contradiction there but it’s unavoidable) that do the same thing. Every other great piece of science fiction that I’ve read has dynamic character development. If ever a character started out as “stock,” the author took it and set her signature on it. (Yes, I’m also aware that I’m using the feminine demonstrative while referring to a field of writing that is still monstrously sexist with too few exceptions).
Too Popular. There must be a defective meme that attaches to the artistic gene, which builds into the construct of the person the idea that to have written something great a writer must first be misunderstood by the common man. By this definition, science fiction novels—the novels that fly off the shelves, that are read by teenagers of all people, that are, in short, accessible to the common, interested reader—are necessarily low brow, populist, and “commercial.” Critics, I suppose, like to believe themselves above the common reader. But why else do we, genre and literary writers alike, write but to tell a story to anyone whole will listen and who is more open to the story than the reader who has nothing on the line—no reputation, no paycheck—but her own pleasure? The only time a popular novel gains critical recognition is if it is also controversial—point in case, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, A Brave New World, and 1984. Only then do these essentially science fiction novels get eaten up by the “literary” critics. Because God forbid they admit to reading something that any Tom, Dick, or Harry could also read and understand and enjoy. And if postmodernism is all the rage, why is James Tiptree, Jr. not more studied. Tiptree revealed her real name in 1977 after an illustrious career as a science fiction author—Alice Sheldon. She also published under another pseudonym, Racoona Sheldon. Interestingly, Racoona did not have the selling power that James did. Sheldon did not just produce great stories, she lived one. How is this not more appreciated?
The written word always has a bit of the revolutionary behind it and how is a revolution, of any kind, to be had if it is not popularly known and discussed. Critics and theorists don’t lead revolutions (aesthetic, real, or otherwise), people do. To assigning genre fiction to “low-brow” and literary fiction to “high-brow” is a means of controlling the context in which the work is received and therefore the importance it should have in the minds of the readers. In its nascent days, the same terms were applied to the novel in general and we see how true that’s turned out to be. The same misguided words are used now, but with greater specificity. This specificity does not make them any less false.
Suggested Reading (and this list is by no means comprehensive and in no particular order):
Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Lilith’s Brood, Octavia Butler
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Light, M. John Harrison
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
I Will Fear No Evil, Robert Heinlein (I would compare this to Orlando, by Virginia Woolf)
The Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
The Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis
Neuromancer, William Gibson
Anthem, Ayn Rand
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (I include this one as an example of parody and satire with in the genre)