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Were the Bronte sisters science fiction writers?

May 25, 2011

Alice Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree Jr., was a real science fiction writer.

A major new exhibition at the British Library apparently seeks to challenge received notions of what science fiction is, but a package of stories in the Telegraph make such a hash of the whole thing, it’s hard to tell if anyone over there knows what they’re talking about.

The newsiest bit arising from “Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It” is the secret passion of the Bronte sisters for sci-fi. According to the Telegraph‘s Morwenna Ferrier, before turning to realistic romance in Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, Charlotte, Jane and Anne wrote hundreds of poems  and stories set in an imaginary land called “the Glass Town Federation.”

Scholars have always known about the Glass Town documents — the three surviving works were donated to the library in the 1930s — but they’ve never been labeled “science fiction” until this exhibition. But are they? Do they actually qualify as writings that, say, Hugo Gernsback or Gene Roddenberry would recognize as sci-fi?

I’d love to claim the Bronte sisters are proto-science fiction writers, antecedents to Ursula K. Le Guinn or James Tiptree Jr. or Connie Willis, but based on Ferrier’s inadequate description of the Bronte writings, I have a suspicion these are actually fantasy works, and not sci-fi at all. I expect the exhibit’s organizers are trying to ramp up some publicity by including big literary guns like the Brontes when they really don’t belong.

Ferrier’s three pieces on the exhibit and sci-fi in general are not help at all. She seems to have only a glancing familiarity with the genre (though I’d bet she is a frequent visitor to Wikipedia), snatching a famous name here, a well-worn title there: “The intricacy of [the Bronte’s] work precedes the minutae detail of JRR Tolkein and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series and provides further, invaluable insight into their imaginations.”

Tolkein and Rowling? Really? Between 1855 and 2011 all you can come up with is Middle Earth and Hogwarts? Oh, and not to be (too) petty, but I’m assuming “minutae” is a typo, and she really meant “minute.” Not her fault. Blame the copy editor.

But Ferrier must take full responsibility for the opening sentence of her main story, which is pretty much wrong in general and all its particulars: “The literary genre of science fiction isn’t terribly accessible. Widely seen as an extension of man’s anxiety over the future, sci-fi is usually affiliated with geeks and/or militant feminists pawing over the otherworldly.”

In fact, science fiction is a popular genre, like the crime novel or the spy thriller, intended to provide escapist reading for the widest possible audience. As Robert Heinlein, one of the three greatest Golden Age sci-fi masters, famously said, science fiction writers are competing for beer money.

Before I lay the blame for these confusions entirely at Ferrier’s feet, let’s note that the organizers at the British Library seem little better informed. As evidence I offer the inclusion of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Whatever Alice is –a great children’s story, a first-rate fantasy, a subtle social satire — is most assuredly is not science fiction.

Which leads us, I suppose, to that inevitable fork in the trail where we must discuss definitions: What exactly is science fiction? If you’re not a sci-fi reader yourself, you may be surprised to learn that this is not an altogether settled question. Here’s what I’ve come up with after a lifetime as a casual but deeply interested observer:

Science fiction is a subset of the fantasy genre, distinguished from other fantastic fiction by the prominence of science and technology to the plot and themes. Almost more important, science fiction is a literature of ideas. Even in the best examples of the form, ideas are more important than, say, character development.

Before my fellow geeks start throwing things at me, I hurry to declare that science fiction is a big tent, capable of containing everything from the seminal space operas of E.E. “Doc” Smith to the deeply perceptive Golden Age novels of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke to the uniquely poetic stories of Ray Bradbury to the work of George Orwell, Aldous Huxely, Margaret Atwood, P.D. James, Jose Saramago, Doris Lessing and other literateurs who have slummed in the genre to great profit.

I’m also aware that some science fiction aficiandos are chafing under my use of the designation “sci-fi.” They consider this a dismissive term for their beloved genre, preferring the stuffy “SF” — which I think is just silly. Let’s claim the sleeker, sexier term, already! Why let those who look down on our passion define what words we can use?

Or as Austrailian sci-fi writer Simon Haynes once said, “If you care about the nomenclature you can always vent in a blog post. Personally I believe that around 99% of the reading public think that SF and Sci-fi are one and the same, and I’d like to encourage them to read more of it, not promote it as an exclusive club for those with The Right Knowledge.”

To which I add: There’s plenty of great work already clearly marked “sci-fi,” (or “SF” or whatever you please) and the best of it can stand up to any other genre, including mainstream fiction. We do not need to be overreaching to make dubious claims on the Brontes or anyone else.

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