The March 31 issue of THE NEW YORKER reviewed PAUL, which I blogged about recently. THE NEW YORKER didn't like it. They mentioned the same thing I objected to, the gratuitous raunchiness, but that was not the reviewer's main problem, which seems to be with science fiction itself. Anthony Lane (admittedly, always a hard man to please) calls SF as a whole "nothing if not mockable." He finds "science fiction so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it -- as movies like "Galaxy Quest" have done before, and Mottola does here with his blatant gestures to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." -- but to play it straight, as Spielberg managed to do. Only thus can we probe, to borrow a key verb from the aficionados, the ridiculous for the sublime: those terrors, or unlikely consolations, that lurk within."
I have several issues with this lofty denigration of an entire genre. In no particular order:
Most of SF "plays it straight," and often does so quite convincingly.
ALL art is "mockable." It's not as if parodies don't exist of HAMLET and ANNA KARENINA. Not to mention the parodies that go on in the world of modern painting.
Not all SF is "ridiculous" or needs to be "probed" for something -- anything -- of psychological value. Much hard SF, for example, exists in the borderland between the science we have today and the science we will have tomorrow. It is not ridiculous but predictive, not of a specific future but of aspects of the future we should take seriously.
My main objection to Lane's statement, however, lies in its last words. I am one of those writers who would agree that fiction is driven by character, by what "lies within." Yet that does not mean the outer world is valueless. The best SF explores large questions of how technology interacts with humanity; how political systems interact with humanity; how science shapes our thought. In short, it focuses on the outer world, while much of contemporary fiction focuses solely on small lives lived in small circumstances. Surely the larger universe -- the one outside our own lives -- has interest? Are we SF people the only fiction writers still cognizant of that? If so, then what we do is neither ridiculous nor inherently mockable.
Bad call, Mr. Lane.