Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
The knock on 1950s-era science fiction is that it is poorly written, all plot and platitudes (sounds like a Jane Austen title, huh?) with too little sense and sensibility. Characters are as thin as the pulp paper they inhabit; the prose is functional, relentlessly pushing the storyline forward, without elegance or subtlety; and everything in the tale operates at the surface level, with nothing to grapple with beyond the gutsiness of the technological vision.
In truth, there are countless sci-fi novels that fit this depressing description. Theodore Sturgeon put it best in the formulation that has come to be known as “Sturgeon’s Law.” “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap,” he proclaimed. “But then,” he added, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” All the more reason to pity the ten percent of sci-fi writers who aspire to something better, who deliver works of artistic merit, yet find few paying attention. The adolescents, teens and grown-ups with arrested development who (supposedly) make up the core market for these books positively dislike more stylized writing, while the discerning readers who might enjoy these more ambitious sci-fi works never even consider reading them in the first place. The covers alone are enough to warn them off.
Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was clearly a member of the talented tenth, or — to be more fair — the talented tenth of one percent. He wrote genre fiction that could withstand comparison with the better literary fiction of his era. He took chances, and not just with bold story lines, but also with his narrative construction, his style of his writing, and his willingness to incorporate multiple levels of signification into his books. He challenged his readers, in various ways, and rejected the conventional time and time again.