Lesson 7: Science Fiction and the Mainstream

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the characteristics that readers look for in a science-fiction novel.
  • Describe what characterizes a “mainstream approach” in science fiction.

The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg
The Listeners, by James Gunn

Science fiction did not separate from the mainstream until the creation of the first science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. Until that point, as Bruce Franklin documented in Future Perfect, many major nineteenth-century writers—from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville to Twain—wrote one or more stories identifiable as science fiction. After 1926, it seemed as if being identified with pulp magazines disqualified an author from publishing in book form. The only science fiction books published were by authors not identified with the pulp magazines, such as H. G. Wells, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, W. Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Sinclair Lewis.

After World War II, science fiction once more became viable in the book market, as demonstrated first by the fan publishers and then by mainstream publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Doubleday. In a world that had validated in World War II science fiction’s basic icons of rocket ships and atomic energy (and bombs), publishing anthologies of science fiction became commonplace and publishing science fiction novels became acceptable, even by mainstream writers.

But these mainstream writers rarely acknowledged their novels as part of the science fiction genre. Kingsley Amis wearily summed up the rule: “If it’s SF it can’t be good; if it’s good it can’t be SF.”

Among the mainstream writers of occasional science fiction were Nevil Shute, Bernard Wolfe, Herman Wouk, Ayn Rand, John Hersey, Pierre Boulle, Anthony Burgess, Vercors, William Burroughs, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Marge Piercy, Jean M. Auel, Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Nobel laureates William Golding and Doris Lessing, and writers in other languages such as Kobo Abe, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

A prime example of the transformation that can be accomplished by a change in publishing category is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Vonnegut began his career publishing in science fiction magazines, and his first two novels, Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, were published as science fiction and were selections of the Science Fiction Book Club.

Beginning with his novel Cat’s Cradle, however, Vonnegut insisted that the science-fiction designation be removed from the book’s cover. The novel was accepted critically as mainstream (Time named it one of the best ten novels of the decade) and launched Vonnegut’s subsequent career, which was solidified by Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade.

At the same time that Vonnegut was moving from a category he admired (see God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater) but felt uncomfortable in, science-fiction writers were writing works fully the equal of those being published in the mainstream and sometimes indistinguishable from it. In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Ian Banks, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and others have moved without apparent effort into the mainstream and back.

It was not so easy in the 1970s, when Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside and James Gunn’s The Listeners were published.

Both Dying Inside and The Listeners are concerned about communication. Dying Inside takes the science-fiction theme of telepathy and turns it inside out: rather than using the ability to read minds as a step upward in understanding, the novel depicts it as a handicap. Like a mainstream novel, Dying Inside uses its trope as a metaphor for any alienating condition; it could be race, gender, poverty, wealth, beauty, or, most aptly, superior intelligence. Silverberg himself felt isolated by his intelligence and, like his character of Selig, wrote term papers for hire at Columbia University. Dying Inside can be read as fictionalized autobiography: the circumstances are different but the emotional responses to situations are based in fact.

What David Selig is responding to when the novel opens, however—what is “dying inside”—is the power that has set him apart for the earlier part of his life. In that sense, the fading of telepathy is a metaphor for the loss of individuality, or of manhood itself.

The Listeners, on the other hand, is more literal in its use of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence that later matured into SETI, and the metaphors it provides support and complement the central concept. Where Dying Inside covers a few days in David Selig’s life, The Listeners covers a century and is episodic, since no character lives long enough to encompass the entire period (with the exception of the computer, which becomes a participant at the end). Each episode moves the process forward while at the same time complementing the central motif with an issue of human communication. Unlike Dying Inside, The Listeners sees listening and communication as the way to understanding.

Although both Dying Inside and The Listeners may be considered to take a “mainstream approach” to science fiction, both faced challenges in becoming accepted on the terms of mainstream literature. Silverberg could not get Dying Inside published as a mainstream novel, in spite of the fact that it reads like one and would have been praised as one if it had been published like one. The Listeners, on the other hand, had a leg up: It was published as “a novel” by Scribner’s.

Ultimately, the main barrier to mainstream acceptance of science fiction may be that science fiction judges itself using different criteria than the mainstream. In his introduction to an Oxford University Press series on major science fiction authors, mainstream critic Robert Scholes commented, “As long as the dominant criteria are believed to hold for all fiction, science fiction will be found inferior: deficient in psychological depth, in verbal nuance, and in plausibility of event. What is needed is a criticism serious in its standards and its concern for literary value but willing to take seriously a literature based on ideas, types, and events beyond ordinary experience.”
Writing Assignment
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • What characteristics of each of this lesson’s three novels contribute to its classification as science fiction or mainstream? How is The Sirens of Titan like science fiction? How is it like a mainstream novel?
  • In The Sirens of Titan, what is the function of the “chronosynclastic infundibulum”?
  • Names have significance in The Sirens of Titan—even chronosynclastic infundibulum. What does Malachi mean? Why is that meaningful? What does the coat of arms mean? Why is it relevant that Malachi’s father Noel got rich and why is the way he did it significant? What is the theme of the novel? How does Noel and Malachi’s experience fit into that theme?
  • The novel has many quotable phrases. “Nobody thinks or notices anything as long as his luck is good.” How does this relate to Malachi? “A single message—sufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it humbly between two points.” How does this apply to Salo? What does the novel say is the significance of human history? Is the quotation true? How does it work out? “Everything that ever has been always will be and everything that ever will be always has been.” Whose observation is this? Who “spends a lot of time figuring out why whoever made everything went and made it”? “I was the victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” What role does this play in the novel? What is the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent? “Any man who would change the World in a significant way must have showmanship, a genial willingness to shed other people’s blood, and a plausible new religion to introduce during the brief period of repentance and horror that usually follows bloodshed.” What religion does this lead to?
  • Who says “Don’t truth me and I won’t truth you”? What does it mean?
  • Ruumford and his wife Beatrice seem modeled after a U.S. president and his wife. Any ideas? Ultimately Ruumford, the manipulator of the events that lead, in the end, to the delivery of a piece of steel strapping to Salo by Malachi’s son Chrono (his “good luck” piece”), may be one of the principal victims of Trafalmadoran influence on Earth affairs. How is he victimized? Can you identify the phrase “A Universe schemed in mercy would have kept man and dog together”?
  • What is Salo’s message? What more meangingful message could he have carried from one side of the universe to the other? How does he betray his makers? Why? What does it mean that Salo, like Earth and all the characters, has been used as well?
  • Why is Beatrice writing The True Purpose of Life in the Solar System? How does Malachi sum up the story of his life? Ultimately the novel deals with the possibility that life has no purpose, no meaning. How can people endure life in a universe without meaning? On Titan, Beatrice, Chrono, Salo, and Malachi all come up with answers. What are they?
  • All through the novel, and again at the end, Malachi echoes Stony’s statement “Don’t ask me why, old sport, but somebody up there likes you.” How true, or ironic, is this?
  • In Dying Inside, we read in the opening paragraph “Let us go then, you and I, when the morning is spread out against the sky” and, later, “etherized upon a table.” To what do these refer? Why is it appropriate to David Selig’s condition? What other references to literary works do you notice? Why is it appropriate for Selig to incorporate quotations from literary sources? How does this guide the reader’s response to the narrative? Note that a skillful author provides subliminal instructions to the reader on how to read his story.
  • Why is it appropriate to tell the story in first person?
  • Finally, how is the reader supposed to interpret the final pages of Dying Inside? Is Selig resigned to losing his powers? Does he welcome it as a way to rejoin the human race? To make peace, and even friendship, with his sister? What literary work does the final passage evoke? What is the significance of the snow in that work, and what is the significance to the protagonist? Is the ending of Dying Inside happy or tragic?
  • Can you identify the issues in communication that support the central theme of communication with aliens? Husbands and wives? Fathers and sons? Writers and readers? Daughters and fathers? Believers and non-believers?
  • Why should some people welcome the existence of intelligent aliens and others dread it? Why would aliens want to communicate? Why is such communication the likeliest contact with aliens?
  • How do you structure a project to last a century without results? What does The Listeners say about this?
  • Do the Computer Run inter-chapter sections add anything to the narrative? What is their purpose? What do the fragments represent? Can you identify the nature of the various components that go into each one? What do the attempts at poetry represent? How does this mature in the final chapter?
  • Can you justify the foreign-language quotations sprinkled in the first few chapters? Do they add to the narrative or detract? What about the quotations that serve as epigraphs to each chapter?
  • In the last paragraph, what does it mean that the computer is at least “half Capellan”? What does it mean that half a century later the Project picks up a message from the Crab Nebula? What is the Crab Nebula?