Sci-fi and Great Books

Still a better adaptation than that godawful travesty that Paul Verhoeven inflicted upon us
The brilliant and erudite John C. Wright had some interesting things to say recently about the question of whether or not science fiction books can possibly be counted as great literature:
As much as it pains me to say it, my reluctant conclusion is that there is no great Science Fiction literature. 
Now, before you get out your crying bags, fanboys, keep in mind that the standard for being a Great Book is extremely, absurdly high. It is the best of the best of the best. There is no Western that makes the cut for being a Great Book; no mystery novel; no horror novel (unless we stretch a point to include HAMLET, because it has a ghost scene). One might even argue that no romance novel that makes the cut, not even GONE WITH THE WIND, and that is a damn fine novel. Genre writing does not reach the stratospheric heights of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.
Science fiction is the fiction of the scientific revolution. It is the unique product of the revolution in thought that ushered in the modern age. That revolution changed both the theory and the practice of life, the paradigm and the technology, both what men thought about the cosmos and how they lived their daily lives. 
Having lived through one paradigm shift and its attendant technological advancements, an audience was ready for fictional speculation about the next paradigm shift, the next technological advancement. 
Speculative fiction, properly so called, is fiction taking place in a cosmos that differs from what the audience understands to be the real world, either (in science fiction) after the next paradigm shift or (in fantasy) before the previous one. Both challenge the imagination by rejecting the paradigm, or the technology, current to the time and place in which the author and his readers generally agree they live. 
Even a single element unearthly or extraterrestrial element in an otherwise mundane setting —a Mindreader in Brooklyn—can make the story science fiction; this is because discovering a Mindreader in Brooklyn would overthrow the current paradigm. We don’t believe in telepaths, and James Randi disbelieves even less than we do. 
Therefore a tale where the reader is asked to take that possibility seriously, to think through the implications, challenges the current paradigm.
Mr. Wright goes to considerable trouble to explain his position that there is no science fiction that can be counted as great literature. His criteria for judging sci-fi books as great literature are as follows:

  1. Is the book timeless? Does it speak to eternal truths and facts?
  2. Is the book infinitely re-readable? Does it give you something new and original to think about every time you read through it?
  3. Is it relevant to the Great Conversation? Can the book, and by extension its author, give you any meaningful information about Man's eternal quest to understand the Universe?
  4. Is the book graceful? Does the writing style come across as one that future authors will attempt to match or exceed?
  5. Is it natural? Are the characters realistic, is the plot sensible (given the nature of sci-fi), and are the ideas presented within it plausible?
  6. Is there wisdom to be found in the book? Does it leave you better informed and more capable of understanding the human condition?
The first three points are the criteria by which great science fiction should be judged. The last three points, by contrast, are the criteria by which great literature should be judged.

Mr. Wright argues, at length and in considerable detail, that there is no science fiction book that simultaneously meets all six. And to support his argument, he goes through a number of the greatest works of sci-fi literature ever produced by human minds, including the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, and the Planetary Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. His conclusion is that it is only the latter that can possibly be ranked among the greatest works of the Western canon as a great book, rather than merely as a great science-fiction book.

With the greatest possible respect to Mr. Wright, I believe that there is one book that he missed in his cross-examination.

That book is the one that will always get my vote for the greatest military sci-fi book of all time- Robert Anson Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

This book was not the first time that the concept of the "space marine" was introduced to the world. But it is the book that forever cemented the idea within science fiction and military literature. This is the book that introduced concepts like powered armour and orbital assaults into the lexicon of science fiction. This is the book that showed the world that science fiction could be used to deliver more than just a great story- it could also be used to deliver a serious and profound message as well.

If we stack up Starship Troopers against Mr. Wright's six criteria, what do we find?

  1. This book is indeed timeless. The ideas contained within it are nearly 60 years old. Yet they are still as fresh and as interesting today as they were then. Without this book, countless other science fiction books, movies, and video games simply would not exist- including my beloved HALO, and imitators like TitanFall, Destiny, and considerable parts of the StarCraft canon. Moreover, the concepts of powered armour, of space-borne assault troops, and of highly specialised, highly trained corps of men operating as shock troops in hostile environments, were radical at the time- but are now considered normal in military environments.
  2. It is absolutely infinitely re-readable. I have lost count of the number of times I have re-read this book, just in the last three years alone. Prior to that, the first time I read it was when I was just fifteen years old. Even then, I could tell that there was something amazing about it- and many of the concepts and ideas within it have stayed with me, around and through the many abuses heaped upon its legacy by Hollywood's pathetic and cack-handed attempts to adapt it into cinematic format. Every time I read this book, I discover something new and wonderful to enjoy- whether it is the concepts of powered armour, the shock tactics, the descriptions of the importance of the military chain of command, or the incredibly powerful and timeless lessons about what it means to be a man, a productive agent, and a citizen of a body politic.
  3. Its relevance to the Great Conversation has never been more pronounced than it is now. This is the book that argued, at a time when it was horribly unfashionable to do so, that citizenship is not something that should simply be given away cheaply. It argued, passionately, logically, and clearly, that citizenship must be earned by those willing to strive and sacrifice for the good of their people and their nation- an idea that is more relevant today, in an era in which this country's government is stupidly considering granting amnesty and citizenship to millions of law-breakers, than it has ever been before. It was branded as a work of fascist propaganda at the time by people who completely misunderstood its basic points about the fact that human freedom is precious and must be protected by those who understand and appreciate its true worth. Its author was slandered as a reactionary and a lunatic by people without the wit to read its message and understand it- and one of these twits included Paul Verhoeven, whose "adaptation" of the book into one of the most ridiculously stupid action movies ever made was one of the most egregious and vile abuses that Hollywood has ever committed upon great science fiction.
  4. The writing style is as prosaic as it gets, and yet flows from every page. The book is written, of course, from the first-person point of view of one Juan Rico, and you never ever get the feeling that the prosaic, homely style is in any way forced or affected. You get the distinct impression of standing right next to him as he goes through the trials and tribulations of a boot and eventually becomes an admirable, upstanding young man. He takes you on his journey, and you never once find yourself thinking that the prose is over the top. The ideas, as powerful and weighty as they are, are delivered in terms that are easy to understand, with an eloquence and a gravity that is commensurate with their worth. Yet you never get the feeling that you're being lectured at or hectored; you are on a journey of discovery as much as young Johnnie Rico is.
  5. The plot, the characters, and the development are natural, though somewhat odd at points. What I mean by this is that, although the plot itself flows well enough- it tells the story of a war, after all- the flow of the book is probably the weakest thing about it. It starts with a skirmish in enemy territory, then backtracks considerably to tell Juan Rico's story, then goes forward a bit to talk about his time as a candidate for officer, and finally finishes with a murthering great battle followed by the beginning of another raid. While the characters contained within this book are natural and interesting and relatable, the flow of the book is probably the one area where we can legitimately criticise it.
  6. Is there wisdom to be found? Dude, have you read the book?! There is more wisdom to be found within the 268 pages of this short, brilliant story than you will find in entire libraries of textbooks on civics and citizenship. This one little book has done more to shape my views about the rights and responsibilities of free men than any other document ever produced by Man, except for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. This one book is the most brilliantly realised exposition on the rights and duties of a citizen in a free society that has ever been written.
So, with all of that said and done, have I in fact disproven Mr. Wright's contention that there is no such thing as a great science fiction book that is also a great book? Is he, in fact, wrong through counterexample?

Actually, no. He isn't wrong.

The reason is simple. Starship Troopers, as I said in my original book review, is not really a science fiction novel. Its primary concerns are not plot, character, or dialogue. It is, in fact, a treatise on rights and responsibilities. Its bulk is taken up by long, highly though-provoking, brilliantly written discourses upon the nature of freedom, the price of this most wonderful of gifts, and the need for free men to understand and pay that price.

It is, in fact, a civics textbook- the best such that you will ever read, and the most important and useful by far.

And while one could nitpick about the flaws in its construction of the "ideal citizen", one would be hard-pressed to argue that its ideas about citizenship and duty are in any way juvenile or amateurish.

But there is no getting away from the fact that, with the exception of about three chapters in the whole thing, there isn't really much by way of hard science fiction going on. You don't really have to suspend disbelief or ponder any truly whiz-bang ideas, other than powered armour and the usual FTL Macguffin (in this case, the Cherenkov Drive). This is not Dune or Hyperion, after all.

Make no mistake, Starship Troopers is a truly great book. But it isn't really science fiction. So it doesn't disprove Mr. Wright's basic contentions at all.

So, perhaps sadly, Mr. Wright is in fact right, and we are still very much waiting for a great science fiction book to come along and show us that sci-fi can actually produce not just great ideas, but great literature as well.

But perhaps not all hope is lost. I haven't read them myself, but I am given to understand from fellow fans of Mr. Wright's most excellent work that his Count To A Trillion series is both mind-bendingly brilliant in terms of ideas, and stupendously well-written.

Perhaps, in fact, it will be Mr. Wright himself who will provide us, and our descendants, with the first examples of magnificent science fiction that can also double as timeless, evocative, brilliant literature.

We can but hope.


  1. I would like to point out that there are some other books that come darned close to matching up to Mr. Wright's list, but as you said, they are right on the edge of science fiction, fantasy, and simply fiction. Perhaps they have a Macguffin or two, but several of John Ringo's books, Some David Weber, and even a hint or two of other authors have taken up the mantle of great literature.

    The interesting thing is that one can really only apply that label to science fiction that generally falls under the auspices of 'military' scifi. I think the reason is that milsf strips away the utopianism that destroys any connection to the human condition, and reduces the 'sf' to little more than a storytelling aid for an otherwise great piece of fiction. The Posleen war series, for example, is far less about the (relatively shallow and meaningless) alien aggressor, than it is about the PEOPLE that choose to fight them, the meaning of courage, and the true enemy within.

  2. several of John Ringo's books, some David Weber, and even a hint or two of other authors have taken up the mantle of great literature

    Well, with those books, the important question is whether or not they will be read by our children, and their children, and so on, down into the centuries. The works of Homer, Virgil, Milton, Shakespeare, and so on, will still be read long after we are all dust- but can the same be said of John Ringo's work?

    Don't get me wrong, John Ringo is a phenomenal writer. I'm re-reading The Last Centurion right now, for like the umpteenth time, and I find more value and pleasure in it every time I do so. But will my descendants feel the same way? Probably not. You and I are in agreement, though, that those sci-fi books that come close to achieving the status of "great literature" aren't actually truly science fiction.

    The Posleen war series, for example, is far less about the (relatively shallow and meaningless) alien aggressor, than it is about the PEOPLE that choose to fight them, the meaning of courage, and the true enemy within

    Agreed. Personally I think the best book in the series is actually The Tuloriad, because it fuses the kind of writing style found in epic poems of the past with military sci-fi concepts and a reasonably rigourous examination of the need for faith. But even then, it still lacks sufficient weight and depth to be on the level of, say, The Chronicles of Narnia.

    1. The Tuloriad was decent, but I found myself more attached to Watch on the Rhine and, of course, the last centurion series... Then again, who knows... in a Thousand years perhaps the chosen will have forg... ahh who am I kidding, the actions of the Third Reich will still be alive and well in memory for my children's great grandchildren.
      But I do hope that some of John Ringo's work becomes akin to Robert Heinlein's in living long past the relevance of it's Macguffin.and considering that both the odyssey and Dante's work contained many macguffins of their own (The cyclops, the underworld, Hell.) It might not necessarily be a drawback.

      The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there is so MUCH fiction now, that wading through it to find the gems is a thousand times more difficult than when the greatest works were hand-copied by scribes. Not to mention the fact that Literature, as a whole, has matured greatly, hiding the actual themes and stories of great fiction beneath a veneer of style without substance, form without depth.

  3. I consider science fiction to be adolescent - and that is NOT an insult. It was the most important thing in my life in-between 11 and 14. Reading it was almost blissful, and once your mind is stretched by it, it never goes back to the mundane world.

    1. I agree. Very few sci-fi books, if any, make you really sit up and think about serious issues all the time. Their primary purpose is to provide a sense of escape from the mundane realities of daily life into strange and amazing new worlds. Great sci-fi does this exceedingly well.

      There are a few great sci-fi books that also address deeper questions about the human condition. But they are vanishingly few in number. And of these, almost none can be considered great literature in any meaningful sense.

  4. Starship Troopers is probably my all time favorite science fiction book. I agree with you that's it not quite sci-fi though, which is probably why I like it so much. Anyhow I did a short review of it here (# 23):

    1. Hey man, great to see you're back. I remember reading that post, it's a solid list of great books.

      Starship Troopers definitely isn't strictly sci-fi. While it has great sci-fi concepts, it's much more of a political philosophy novel- and a great one at that.


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