Great Books and Genre Books

Monday, July 27th, 2015

There is no great Science Fiction literature, John C. Wright admits — or, rather, great Science Fiction isn’t necessarily Great Art:

To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak.


I must emphasize that the science fiction value of the work proceeds, in my opinion, from different standards. Whether a science fiction book is good as science fiction depends on several things, of which I will here list the top three:

Scientific – Are the ideas extrapolations from real (or fairly realistic) science? SF gets points form me when it is based on something legitimately scientific, even if my personal taste runs more toward the softer end of the spectrum. Larry Nivens “Neutron Star” captures this criterion: despite the magic technology of hyperspace or invulnerable hulls, the problem and the solution in the tale is all legitimate, basic Newtonian physics.

Wonder – Does the work awe, terrify, or inspire the reader with the contemplation of the scientific view of the universe. A book that delivers this might be written in an unpalatable style with stiff and lifeless characters, but still win on sheer strength of its sense of wonder. GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith, and THE NIGHT LANDS by William Hope Hodgson fit into this category; so does NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by Geo. Orwell.

Imagination – A good SF story is speculative in small things as well as in great. That is to say, given the counterfactual premise of the story, what details in the lives of the characters logically must also differ? If the author imagines the ramifications in greater detail than the reader, it is a better SF novel than one where he falls short. The Golden Age writers of John W. Campbell Jr.’s stable, for all their merits, were not good at this: some imagined future society would have remarkable technological changes, but the characters would still have to go downtown to make a long-distance phone call or send a telegram, the wife would be in the kitchen, and the porter on the train would be a black. When an author does it badly, the reader’s reaction is to slap his head and ask “Why not?” If these people can raise the dead, why not kill the sick and resurrect them in new bodies? If those people have teleportation, why not have your ‘house’ have a room on every continent? A whole book could be written on what Star Fleet in real life would do, if they had transporter technology, which they do not do on STAR TREK.


To sum up, these criteria are unrelated to the criteria for good literature. A books can have crummy characters, a weak plot full of wholes, or no plot at all, tin-eared dialog and cardboard characters, but if it is hard, wonderful, and imaginative, science fiction readers will rightly count it as a first class science fiction book for decades.


  1. Grasspunk says:

    And here I was expecting an article by GBFM.

  2. Graham says:

    I’m not immediately sure that any literature written in the postwar era would meet Adler’s criteria. To be very generous, perhaps some of the postwar literature on the war, e.g. Vonnegut. But that’s pushing it. It doesn’t compare to the post WW1 literature.

    Most of the rest seems to have been dominated by English satirical writing or American novelists obsessed with the trifling burdens of suburban domesticity and/or failing libidos, or more recently either meaningless wordplay or ever more navel gazing identity politics.

    How much of it could hope to meet any of Adler’s criteria, let alone all 3? By comparison, if I were to stretch it I might suggest works of SF that might address at least his third and occasionally his first criterion. Foundation and some other of Asimov’s works, not always well written but definitely addressing perennial issues. Ditto Dune. Some Bradbury and Clarke. Cordwainer Smith, even when otherwise mere potboiler stuff.

    I should stress that I am perhaps being harsh in my first sentence- there is probably more British and other literature than American that would meet Adler’s criteria, perhaps including some of the best work in English by Indians and others. But even most of that is probably not timeless.

    And would be amazed if much of anything written after 1945 would reward infinite study. That might apply to other art forms as well as the written.

  3. Buckethead says:

    The only SF/Fantasy books that I personally am able to re-read infinitely (or at least indefinitely) are Lord of the Rings and Dune. Some others are close — Bradbury, Cordwainer Smith, and perhaps (too early to tell) Vinge, Stephenson, some others.

  4. Ditto on Tolkien and Dune.

  5. Faze says:

    I love SF but also realize it’s not great literature. Up until now, I couldn’t have explained why. This guy does a very good job of it.

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