As an old-time fan, I react very strongly (with chills and nausea) and very negatively (with an angry face angry face) to the term “Sci-Fi.”

Science fiction is a unique form of literature in several ways. One of these ways has to do with how it’s looked at by people who do not approve of it, and do not like it, even if they’ve never read any of it.  For me, “Sci-Fi” was the term that was always used with disdain and contempt by outsiders–by people who would condemn SF as garbage or trash. (even if these days the term is often used, with affection, by insiders). (But for a more detailed discussion of this question of terminology, please read this conversation.)

You may or may not have noticed, but there are hierarchies in literature. People make lists, in their minds, or on paper, of “great books.” The Modern Library has made their list of the “100 Best Novels of the Century.” And they asked readers to submit their own lists. Take a look at the two lists by clicking this book an open book.

Did you notice the differences in the lists? There’s actually some science fiction on both lists, but there’s a lot more on the readers’ list.

Most people imagine some kind of  continuum or line of literature…like this

the continuum of literature from comics to Shakespeare

Where does your preferred reading lie?

You can place “types” of books at different places on that line above (“romance,” “western,” “romantic poetry”).  Where you place certain books or types of books says something about you and your preferences–and about the books, of course. And as you can see, sometimes whole genres get placed on the literature or garbage end of the line by some fairly authoritative sources.

So who decides where a genre gets placed? How much does it depend it on who is doing the placing?

I’ve had people ask me why I would want to use SF as texts for an honors course at the college level.  Is this a question people would ask about Shakespeare? Isn’t it one you should ask about Shakespeare, or Poe, or Alice Walker, or Toni Morrison?

Robert A. Heinlein has said that the loveliest phrase in all literature is “pay to the order of” and many SF books make a lot of money, even if they don’t get read or admired by college professors. So is money, or popularity, a measure of good literature? or is it something else?

If a book is popular, does that automatically make it valuable? Or does it automatically not make it valuable? Where does the lasting value of literature come from?  And again, who decides? The people who read and love the literature? The people who think some other kind of literature is superior?

Remember our experience with the novel Frankenstein in the previous unit.  For one of us, it’s an all-time favorite book.  For others, it’s a disaster.  So which is right, which is true?  When I used to teach introduction to literature, I would often start by having people shout out their favorite books, which I would list on the board.  Then I would have people shout out the books that they absolutely hated, and I would list those on the board, too.  Inevitably, some of the same books would appear on both lists.  Some people would love the same books that others hated.  How can that be?