Back in high school, my AP English teacher was fond of telling us that all fiction could be divided into “Literature with a capital L” — i.e., the good, important work, the books you read for AP English class — and everything else, which was, by implication, crap.
Needless to say, his list of “Literature with a capital L” did not include any science fiction titles. (Well, to be fair, it did include 1984 and Brave New World, which are technically SF, but they weren’t SF by my exacting standards of the time… no spaceships, you see.) This was 1987, way before geeks conquered the world, and SF was a ghetto genre that was widely dismissed as kid stuff, or else as disposable, escapist fare that couldn’t possibly provoke any worthwhile thoughts in its readers, and could possibly even be harmful to thinking. Even when you were reading the best the genre had to offer, there was something slightly shameful about being seen with it, as if you were just exiting a strip club and didn’t want to run into anyone you knew.
Nevertheless, I was a fan, dammit, and I was utterly incensed by the idea that the books and movies I loved above all others were considered second-class. I was a smart kid with good grades, college-bound for sure; reading SF certainly hadn’t caused any damage to my brain cells. Obviously, I needed to send a message, to strike a blow against the elistist literati who thought that dreary English moors made for better settings against which to explore the human heart than the surface of alien planets. It was, in the immortal words of Chris Knight, a moral imperative!
My message was to be a lengthy research paper on the genre, specifically on the giants of science fiction’s Golden Age: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. Through sheer logic and examples I no longer recall, I set out to prove that the work of these three men was just as significant and influential, just as important, and most of all just as literary, as anything produced by Faulkner or Fitzgerald or whoever else we’d been reading in class.
What can I say? I was young.
Looking at those three authors now, through eyes that have seen a hell of a lot more of life than the ones that eagerly watched my old teacher for any signs of capitulation in the face of my audacious act of rebellion, I suspect I would probably come to different conclusions than I did back then. I haven’t actually read these authors in years. But from what I recall of their work, Heinlein — always my favorite of the three, by the way — would probably strike me as a writer of excellent adventure stories that weren’t lacking in significant ideas but perhaps also were not as profound as my 17-year-old self believed. As for Asimov… well, I doubt I could get through an Asimov novel these days; even when I was 17, I thought his characters were little more than cardboard props, and I suspect his most famous works probably haven’t aged very well. No, out of my “holy trinity,” only Arthur C. Clarke, the legendary science fiction author who died yesterday at the age of 90, produced anything that I would dare to call “Literature.”