Jun 7 2011 1:56pm

Genre in the Mainstream: The (Depressing) Science Fiction Novels That Cross Over

Genre in the Mainstream is our weekly column that explores mainstream literary novels that have elements of science fiction, fantasy or horror and as such are appealing to readers of all genres. So far we’ve highlighted some up-to-the-minute literary stars of contemporary fiction, as well as classics from the past couple decades, even all the way back to Mark Twain!

This week we’re shaking up Genre in the Mainstream a bit and taking a look at the phenomenon of uber-famous science fiction novels that seem to have permanently crossed-over into mainstream literature. Books like George Orwell’s 1984, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, are seemingly on every single required reading list for high school students and college students. And they’re undeniably science fiction.

But in terms of their crossover into the literary canon, are these books of a certain type? Is a science fiction novel that reads as “mainstream literature” always a dark and depressing one?

1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 all share the common feature of depicting a bleak, dystopic and oppressive future world. An easy answer as to why the dystopias of Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley are considered “real” literature is that connoisseurs of high art love a good downer. (And to paraphrase Andy Samberg in his thought-piece “Laser Cats 2”; serious adults like politics.) While this might initially sound like armchair criticism; it seems in the world of pop culture that for many; “dark themes” are more likely to be considered to be “better” than optimistic ones. Why do so many think the Christopher Nolan Batman movies are so good? Because they’re dark. Similarly, many of us are hardwired in our literary experiences from an early age to regard dark cautionary tales as the highest form of creative expression. And it doesn’t get much darker than Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984.

While there are of course real profound thematic breakthroughs happening in all of these novels, there are certainly equally interesting thematic breakthroughs in other science fiction novels that aren’t as depressing. Take I, Robot for instance. When woven together, these vignettes end up depicting a future world run by benevolent robots hell-bent on taking care of humans and ensuring what is best for us. This is not to say I, Robot is without conflict, but that none of it is necessarily violent or dark. Instead, it’s a book that takes a science fiction concept and gives it a hopeful application, rather than one of pessimism and despair.

Is I, Robot hailed as a classic? Well certainly among SF circles, but it is not near as “important” as something like 1984. This isn’t a genre bias per se, as the concepts and fictional conceits in 1984 are just as outlandish as in I, Robot. In fact, I would assert the human characters in I, Robot are more well-rounded and believable than the ones in 1984. The brilliance of I, Robot is that it really isn’t about the robots, it’s about the people. In contrast, Orwell uses his characters as vessels to get his point across. 1984 is more of a political statement than an exploration of the human condition on any kind of even-handed level.

What of Bradbury? Well, we can pit Bradbury against himself here. Far and away Fahrenheit 451 is his most famous novel. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most non-SF readers consider it to be representative of his entire oeuvre. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Martian Chronicles on the other hand is basically a satire of every day human life and machinations set against a very fictional, almost comical, Martian surface. There’s a surreal quality approaching something closer to magical realism that occurs in The Martian Chronicles particularly in the section called “Night Meeting.” Here, a guy driving a pick-up truck exchanges some philosophy with a Martian who is temporally displaced from his dimension. Their dialogue is insightful and thoughtful, but also has the wit of a conversation straight out of A.A Milne. Not all of the chapters are as lighthearted as this one, but The Martian Chronicles is certainly no downer.

Another famous SF novel that doesn’t cross over into the mainstream as much as others is Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Yes, I know it’s controversial and I know some of the prose is rough, but have you tried to read 1984 lately? It’s not all that much more welcoming in terms of prose style. Unlike the dark dystopia of Big Brother, the tale of Valentine Michael Smith is one of an attempt to redistribute love. And though he is stoned to death at the end of the book, he touches the hearts of and minds of countless people in ways that are mostly positive. Stranger in a Strange Land’s message is that those who try to understand and love the world, (to “grok" it) are often persecuted and misunderstood. However, the attempt should be made all the same. I imagine a lot of high schools would shudder at the pseudo-orgies in Stranger in a Strange Land as being a too racy for their sensibilities. But, one of the messages of 1984 is that repression of sexuality is bad and unnatural. Valentine Michael Smith is all about being open with one’s sexuality. Should the world of serious literature meditate on sexuality by pondering its absence or abundance?

Maybe all of this is totally unfair; maybe I’m comparing bittersweet apples with sweet delicious oranges. Depressing and dark books are also not just in the purview of mainstream literature either; there are plenty of dark and depressing hard SF novels that don’t cross over into the mainstream. Making something depressing doesn’t make it mainstream, but it seems to me that it doesn’t hurt if you’d like to gain a wider audience. The famous dystopian books I’ve mentioned are also quite splendid and deserve their status as classics. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are overrated, but in terms of their acceptance by mainstream literature, their dark and almost defeatist tones (specifically 1984) seem to fuel a wallowing in despair that doesn’t necessarily always prove artistic superiority.

If Shakespeare is indeed humankind’s greatest writer, then it might be important to remember that he wrote comedies, too. Will The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ever be treated with the same reverence as Brave New World? One could argue it’s just as brilliant. And again, in terms of character development, I’d say it’s better. Perhaps the dissidence on the subject of “serious” literature lies in perceived earnestness. If an author is earnest, they are therefore not “kidding” and then can be welcomed into the mainstream. Earnestness is frequently important. But it bears remembering that The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy.

So dear readers, what do you think? Are there other science fiction novels, permanently in the mainstream that are—dare I say it—hopeful?

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. Despite the above assertions, his favorite book of all time is The Sirens of Titan because he cries like a baby at the end every single time.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. icantthinkofone
For what it's worth, I used to teach at a school which had The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as assigned reading.
3. Lsana
Amen. I've noticed this trend with sci-fi, and I hate it. I first commented on it to my friends back with Battlestar Galactica. Yes, it was a great show, but it seemed like the only reason it was getting mainstream attention was because of its dark and depressing nature. I get that great literature must have conflict, but it seems that the whole "we're in a dystopia and probably all going to die and can't do anything about it" is just as limiting to meaningful conflict as the optimistic "humans will be perfect in the future and we'll all get along and do everything we can for others."

Of course, this seems to be a trend in "great art" in general. I remember the alleged "modern literature" I read in high school English, and it does seem it can all be summed up with "Woe, woe, woe, etc." Either that or it was written in prose so impenetrable that it was hard to say if it was depressing or not.
4. Bill Altreuter
Huxley, Orwell (and Margaret Atwood, who is probably a better fit here than Bradbury) wrote mainstream fiction and crossed over into genre, using scifi conventions as a literary device with a specific effect in mind. That effect was to suggest the political shape of the world if X were to be carried to its conclusion. (See also, The Road.)

I'm not so sure that Stranger in a Strange Land is the best Heinlien example, either. That ending is pretty dark. Perhaps something like Double Star would be an example of the anti-Orwell, a novel about why politics is good, even though people are flawed.

Just as a general proposition it is difficult to come up with examples of fiction that are optomistic without being bromidic. About the only novel I can think of that is about a happy marrage, for example, is Dashiel Hammet's The Thin Man.
Andrew Mason
5. AnotherAndrew
I'm not convinced Brave New World and 1984 can really be said to have 'crossed over'. They are certainly SF in terms of content, but they were written by well-known mainstream authors for a mainstream audience, and that's why they are seen as mainstream.

Fahrenheit 451 is another matter, as Bradbury is a self-identified SF author within the SF community. But perhaps his work gained maintream recognition because if its similarity to the well-known mainstream works, Brave New World and 1984.
Teresa Jusino
6. TeresaJusino
Isn't Stranger in a Strange Land Heinlein's most popular novel? Indeed, on its cover, it's lauded as "the most popular sci-fi book ever!" Wasn't it named in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"? No, it isn't read in high schools, but that hardly means it's not mainstream.

I just read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time recently, and 1984 is one of my favorite books. I don't understand how you think Heinlein's prose style and Orwell's have anything in common. 1984 is completely accessible, which is why it CAN be read in high school. Stranger in a Strange Land is written in a dated hard-boiled noir style in which every character speaks in the same voice, so half the time you don't know who's talking. In 1984, there's a clear protagonist and a plot that moves forward. SIASL seems more like a non-fiction book about certain ideas disguised (and not very well) as a novel.
7. Mikers123
Some people and in some cases, manistream literature, can only identify with characters who cry in their beer for whatever reason. If characters are too happy or "cute" or inaccessible, people think its a trope, its been overdone and if they ever met an Ewok, they'd punch it in the face before trying to talk to it.
8. Chris Arthur
"Will The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ever be treated with the same reverence as Brave New World? One could argue it’s just as brilliant." - I would take this as a statement rather than one side of an argument. I actually didn't read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy until I was in my thirties and I regretted never taking the time earlier.
9. Teka Lynn
I thought The Martian Chronicles was pretty damn bleak. Genocide, nuclear war....
Rob Munnelly
10. RobMRobM
@9 ... self destructing automated houses, and a guy who goes to bed in the house of his birth with mind reading aliens nearby. Wonderful, but creepy as heck.

Ender's Game has crossed over as well and has surprising dark elements.
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
@Teka Lynn.
Fair enough. Though I guess I felt like there were thematic shifts that didn't feel one-note, and overall it’s a more upbeat book than 451. I'd like to also go on record saying that I like all these books!
Ryan Britt
12. ryancbritt
@6 Teresa:
I think we simply disagree about the prose styles of these two books. So I'll leave that alone.

However, I really don't find 1984 to be a plot-oriented book. I feel like it begins in a place of oppression and ends with 2+2=5. It's like Kafka or something. It starts bad and gets worse. This doesn't make it a bad book, just the opposite; it's a splendid book! However, in terms of tone it doesn't really change. Conversely, Stranger in a Strange Land challenges social conventions about all kinds of social mores and the tone and mood actually ebbs and flows throughout. Again, as I mentioned before, this comparison is unfair, and yes it is his most famous novel. But 1984 is shelved in "literature" and Stranger in a Strange Land is shelved in "science fiction."

If I were to adopt your position that Stranger is a non-fiction philosophical musing and 1984 is a real fiction story, then the positions these books occupy on their respective shelves would be inverted. No?
Ryan Britt
13. ryancbritt
@ 4Bill : Good point about Double Star. Or perhaps even Time Enough for Love?
14. Polymath
For what it's worth, the Folio Society has done an ultra-fancy edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide. That is pretty "canonical", especially since they kind of have an aversion to SF.

But: Huxley and Orwell have always been mainstream, and one could take Adams as representing humor rather than SF, which leaves us with only Fahrenheit 451 as an actual example of "crossing over". I think the explanation is more boring: this is an SF book that mainstream readers can understand easily, since it requires little world-building beyond "suppose they made books illegal." Learning to read beyween the lines to understand the world implied by the text is not a universal skill.
15. Bill from PA
I think one barrier to most SF comedies becoming mainstream is the fact that they rely on the reader’s familiarity with SF conventions or ideas. This is certainly true of Hitchhiker’s Guide and other comic SF novels I can think of by Fredric Brown and Charles Platt. One novel I thought had potential to be recognized in the mainstream was John Sladek’s Roderick, but perhaps your thesis is correct and its basically comic and playful tone kept it from being considered as a serious work, even though many of its inspirations, from Fielding’s Tom Jones to William Gaddis’ JR, are highly respected, and very funny, mainstream works.
Karen Lofstrom
16. DPZora
In 1906, Helen Black published Notable Women Authors of the Day, a series of interviews with popular authors (none of whom have since been admitted to "the canon"). One of the authors , Matilda Betham-Edwards (a friend of Marian Evans/George Eliot), inveighed at great length against the "school" of Ibsen and Tolstoy. I didn't understand why these two authors should be considered to belong to the same aesthetic school, and took my question to a list populated by English professors. Answer: Betham-Edwards disliked "realist" authors who insisted on unpleasant and ugly facts. The ones who derided the proprieties. To the extent that they were rebels against the mainstream, they were a "school".

Fast-forward fifty years and the rebels become the arbiters of taste and rulers of the English departments. One hundred years later, happy endings are still despised and works that insist on unpleasant and ugly facts are still the "serious" texts.

What is mainstream now was once rebellious.
Michael Burke
17. Ludon
If the basic difference between a science fiction story and a mainstream story is, at the foundation, the difference between saying "what if..." and saying "There was..." then Polymath @14 may have touched on the answer. What if the "what if..." being proposed happens to be close to mainstream or real world experiences? History and literature are full of bad leaders, dictators and repressice governments so the leap the reader is asked to make to enter the world of 1984 is not that difficult a leap to make. Likewise, everyone has at least heard of banned books or heard news reports about another group trying to get a book like Adventures of Huck Finn banned from the local schools so again, the leap asked of the reader of Fahrenheit 451 is not too great for the mainstream reader. The same could even be said about the as yet to be discussed stories by William S. Burroughs. Being in my 50s, I can say that as a kid, I could count on seeing at least two Bowery Boys / Deadend Kids stories on TV each week. Those who were reading Burroughs' stories when I was a kid either were kids during the time of the Deadend Kids or had heard about that time from their parents.True, the drug and sex amplification and Burroughs' writing style made the leap more difficult but when you strip away those gimics you are left with stories about the battles between generations. Take away those gimics and the wild boys are left somewhere between the Deadend Kids and the Lord of the Flies.

I, Robot may yet make the crossocer to mainstream but there was (in my opinion) no way for it to make that crossover from the start. Even with the use of robots in manufacturing and space exploration, the mechanical man of I, Robot was still very much a science fiction fantasy for the mainstream reader to make a comfortable leap. Today the mechanical man is still treated more as a curiosity than as a reality. That's because he is still more of a clockwork tool than a a fully automated device. The difference is that today we have a generation or two who have grown up knowing about the machines at the Disney theme parks and those robot man prototypes in Japan. Maybe they will carry I, Robot over to the mainstream.
René Walling
18. cybernetic_nomad
I think the difference between mainstream and SF works is that in SF, by the end, very often, the world, the environment or the society is changed, not just the protagonists. Mainstream fiction strives for the opposite, teh protagonists grow and change, but the world returns to the state is was at the beginning. Classic views of fiction encourage this. Look at Freytag's pyramid, in his explanation of resolution all that is mentioned is that one of another of the characters prevails, nothing about the world9environment/society never being the same again.

If you look at 1984 and others like it from that perspective, they hold themselves much more in the mainstream tradition – the status quo may not be the one we have today, but it is maintained by the end of the book. Even F451 only hints at the possiblity of change at the end.

For an example of a non-SF book that follows an SF plotline, I suggest Clarke's Glide Path – by the end, the world will never be the same, the radar (not to mention jets and electronics) has changed the way everyone lives (including those who never fly, radars are used to catch speeding cars, in meteorology and in many other applications)
Ryan Britt
19. ryancbritt
@17 DpZora-

Wonderful analysis. I love it when other aspects of literary criticisms intersect with what we're discussing here. Thank you.
Ryan Britt
20. ryancbritt
@15 Bill from PA

I'm not sure people need to understand SF conventions to enjoy Douglas Adams. I think my concern is that everyone understands it, but it's not considered as "profound" or "important" as other books. I'm entering David Brent territory here, but it occurs to me that in terms of lit (SF or otherwise) we tend to laud thoughtful praise on the earnest ones, when to me, the over-looked geniuses are the comedians.
21. Bill from PA
@ 18.cybernetic_nomad
That’s a very interesting distinction and has provided me with some food for thought concerning two novels that have been orbiting one another in my mind during the past week: Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, which I just read and which seems that it may have been intended as a response to the Golding.
22. Chris Johnstone
Interestingly, Shakespeare highlights the dark-light divide pretty well on his own. Hamlet, King Leir, MacBeth and Othello are seemingly considered much more weighty works than Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, or even A Midsummer Night's Dream.

This goes back a long way. The entire plot of Aristophanes's rather self-effacing The Frogs (405 BC) is that serious literary plays are more worthy and valid than light comedic plays. The irony is that people *liked* Aristophanes comedies enough to transcribe them throughout history. And Aeschylus*, the tragic/serious playwight who Aristopanes held up as an example of good literature? We don't have hardly anything by him: Aeschylus's plays were no fun. People admired them, but didn't transcibe them, perform them or keep reading them centuries later.

One day I mean to write a story about this, though it will probably end up didactic and gloomy.

In 3000 years, assuming humanity is still around, regardless of whatever civil collapses may come and gone, I guarentee someone somewhere will still have a more or less complete copy of The Lord of the Rings. Whoever won last years big lit-fic awards will have been utterly forgotten. Hell, in 3000 yearsw people may find it hard to distinguish between Tolkien and Homer. They both wrote down the mythologies of an ancient people, right?

* He used a pseudonym for Aeschylus, in case you know the play and are wondering what I'm going on about.

Ryan Britt
23. ryancbritt
@22 Chris Johnstone

If someone does copy Lord of the Rings in 3,000 years, maybe they'll put some more female characters in it. (Oh snap!)

In all seriousness though, I think the conventional wisdom that Much Ado About Nothing is less “weighty” than King Lear is exactly what I’m challenging. Ultimately both are designed to evoke (and entertain). Just because they access different aspects of our emotional spectrum, why is one form of art more “important” than another? Would robots or aliens with no concept of emotional be able to understand this distinction?
Richard Chapling
24. Chappers
I couldn't help but be reminded of this article.

Essentially, it's probably a result of there being far more tragic Greek works preserved (presumably by the Renaissance, and previous to that, the Byzantines and Muslims) than comic ones, and religions being based on tragic stories.
Bruce Meyer
25. dominsions
We live in a dark world. In the last century, we faced nuclear annihilation, in this century, we've already faced world-altering disaster at the hands of terrorism. What will be next? Earthquakes in Japan; financial calamity in Europe; uprisings in the Middle East.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps there is a reason to be optimistic, since we live in the most prosperous moment in human history. But don't forget, there have been other optimistic times. The Bronze Age boasted of Egypt, the mighty Myceneans, and the wealthy Minoans, but fell into the catastrophic first Dark Age. The Roman Empire was supposed to last forever, but fell into the Middle Ages. In fact, every civilization small or great has eventually fallen in one way or another.

Dark plots resonate with the mainstream because they are real. We all face the difficulties of our daily world, the challenge to survive, and the struggle of good over evil. In a real world, evil often wins. Machiavelli once wrote that those who are good will never hold onto power. Our world contains brutal dictators, rogue nations, and terrorist states. These are things we read about every morning. And in the evening, we know the same fate awaits all of us, its just a matter of time.

The brilliance of SF is to transport human machinations into another setting where we can view it from a different angle. A dark setting just happens to be more in line with our daily experience, and so those SF that are dark are more likely to make it to the mainstream.

26. Ty Myrick
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article talking about literary authors incorporating science fiction and supernatural elements to boost sales. The article's author gave the impression that what they were doing was effectively slumming despite admitting that genre fiction is more widely appreciated and sells much better than literary fiction. But the worst thing about if for me, considering I am always interested in new books, was how all of these "literary" genre books sounded so depressing as well as being pedestrian. They certainly weren't exploring anything new or building on the SFF ideas that had come before. The authors were merely rewriting their literary (read: depressing) novels and adding werewolves.
27. Joe9
First, Mainstream here means two different things. When discussing 1984, F451 & BNW we're talking about their popularity through academics encouraging it. That's a far cry of the mainstream of the public and the public's market, the masses. Harry Potter & Lord of the Rings easily out sell all of those books.

With that stated, the next thing to note is that Tragedy is more appealing to an overall intellectual mind (elites) while Comedy is more appealing to an emotional mind (the masses). Comedy is an instant emotional reaction (as is action and horror) and this easily reflects for example in the better selling films each year. Tragedy, depression and existential horror (terror) are things that require a trained mind to comprehend and appreciate (though I admit these vary with every culture, where some adapt more to tragedy or comedy based on the historical and current conditions in the culture. For example: Germans, Swedes and French are able to enjoy far more demanding works if the cinema produced from those nations is any standard).

So that's a bit jumbled up, but in summary what has been called mainstream in this article is really more the majority opinion of an intellectual elite in academic positions and literary criticism. Such people naturally gravitate toward tragic expressions because as intellectuals their angst is sufficed by the catharsis of the tragic experience. A person who functions far more on immediate emotions, the masses, will gravitate towards media that fulfills that quick emotional moment.
28. a1ay
the next thing to note is that Tragedy is more appealing to an overall
intellectual mind (elites) while Comedy is more appealing to an
emotional mind (the masses).

It's more that tragedy is universal and comedy is parochial. You can see it even between countries today, and it's even more true over time: Shakespeare's comedy is simply not funny today, not without hard work on the part of the cast and director, but the tragedies are still tragic. You can read Lear and feel sorry for the old king. Can you read A Comedy of Errors and laugh at Antipholus of Syracuse being mistaken for his identical twin brother?

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