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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Via the Tor Blog, the first in a series called Genre in the Mainstream discusses Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s relationship to science fiction. Oddly, it is probably the science fiction crowd that would have problems with having Vonnegut, rather than the mainstream bunch, although he was nominated for three Hugo Awards. Looking at the books on the Hugo lists for those years is interesting: In 1960 Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein won; also nominated were Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson, The Pirates of Ersatz by Murray Leinster,That Sweet Little Old Lady by Mark Phillips and The Sirens of Titan

In 1964 Here Gather the Stars (alt: Way Station) by Clifford D. Simak won. Also nominated were Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein, Witch World by Andre Norton, Dune World by Frank Herbert, and Cat’s Cradle.

Finally, in 1970 Slaughterhouse Five lost to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Also nominated that year: Up the Line by Robert Silverberg, Macroscope by Piers Anthony, and Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad. (The awards presentation that year was in Heidelberg, and I wonder if Vonnegut went. I wonder if he had prepared remarks in the event of winning.)

The author of the Tor post suggests as a test, "that if the science fiction elements are removed and the story ceases to function, it’s probably science fiction," but I'm not so sure that this is meaningful, and am more inclined towards applying Duke Ellington's approach when he was asked to define jazz. For the Duke there were two kinds of music: good music and everything else. That seems like a fair way to think about this issue as well. If the test is whether the story has to have a rocket or time travel or something than the chances are that it is not a very interesting story. What makes Starship Troopers an enduring work, for example is not the fact that Earth is at war with extraterrestrials: it is the book's descriptions of basic training, and the discussions about the obligations of citizenship. You could take out all the high-tech weaponry and it would be closer to The Naked and the Dead than to anything else. (It would not be as good as The Naked and the Dead, but it might be as good as, maybe, The Winds of War.)

The question of whether something is genre fiction is really a kind of ghettoization issue. The Tor author incorrectly reports that Cat's Cradle lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz, which actually won in 1961, but if that were true would it have seemed an injustice? It's been a long time since I've read Leibowitz, but I recall it as being a lot better turned out than The Foundation series, with which it shares a great deal. Come to think of it, what's the difference between Leibowitz and The Road, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize? I think the real issue here is that Vonnegut was and may still be poorly understood, but that's our problem, not a problem with his work.

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