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.