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Mainstream versus Sigh-Fie

The Continuing Marginalization of Genre Fiction

Welcome. Welcome to the May 1999 edition of Outside: Speculative & Dark Fiction. We're proud to present a wonderful new short story, "a Predatory Nature" by Randy D. Ashburn, and compelling new reviews by our Critic At Large, A.L. Sirois.

Awards. We're also happy to announce the May recipients of our Step Outside award. They are "The H.P. Lovecraft Archive"—the definitive resource for the HPL fan—and "2019: Off-World"—a great Blade Runner resource page maintained at Stanford University since 1992.

Rant. I was recently in another of those conversations with a sweet and intelligent person who, on learning of our magazine, said: "Oh yes, my uncle reads sigh-fie; I'll have to steer him to you." There was no malice in that tone dripping with unconscious condescension. This brings to mind the fact that I noticed, as I was growing up, that every SF anthology seemed to begin with a prolog in which it was hoped that one day SF would be accepted as literature rather than some form of intellectual fungus. Why the need to apologize? The fact is that, if you look at any high school or college literature syllabus, half or more of the items are SF/F/H. Consider the following slice and dice roto mix: Brave New World, 1984, Moby Dick, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, everything William Blake ever wrote, Hawthorne's ghost stories, the medieval grail stories, Tolkien, Kafka, Verne, H.G. Wells, Gulliver's Travels, Anthem by Ayn Rand, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker, the complete works of Ray Bradbury (which mainstreamed long ago), and so forth! How is it possible that we live in a society that still has that certain contempt for the literature of the imagination, when we've put people on the moon, we're cracking the human genome, and we have telescopes that can look back to the beginning of time? We live in a generation of revolutionary progress in every one of the sciences—the most brilliant strides since the Renaissance—and yet we have Kosovo, Littleton, skinheads, dragging deaths, the bizarro-science of creationism, and, yes, sigh-fie.

A lot of it has to do with the way publishers have stuck fiction into categories, like fast food—oddly, placing bestselling romance and horror authors in the mainstream shelves, while sidelining category areas for SF/F/H, mystery, and romance. Of course, when I want a good SF novel and I want it now, I'm glad they've done this.

Incidentally, I once listened to an expert on fast food on PBS. He explained that the principles of fast food are these: predictability and security. We no longer raise our food outside the kitchen window and then cook it inside—we graze again, as our long-ago ancestors did. Food, of course was a preoccupation of people who lacked Tupperware‚, deli specials, or synthetic snack foods that no insect would touch. Food, therefore, was then, as it is now, a source of great anxiety. Enter fast food: it doesn't matter how mediocre it tastes, but it always looks the same, smells the same, and tastes the same. And the average fast food eater usually orders the same thing at any given such restaurant. Thus, a remedy for anxiety. Same thing with category fiction. If a good horror novel is your desperately craved sleep medicine (I'm tempted to say that for me it's mainstream books in which nothing happens; Part 2 of the Rant—about "literachoor"—soon) then you just march on autopilot down those carpeted aisles to the horror shelves.

I think that lovers of imaginative literature nowadays look at the sigh-fie crowd the way that young Goth lady looked at me at the comic shop a few weeks ago when I looked at (what Brian Callahan explained to me was her pocketbook) the metal box on a leather strap that she waved, and I remarked that she had "a nice lunch box" (it did have a certain industrial eye- appeal for me). I'm lucky she didn't hit me with it.

Back in 1977 I thought, as I stood outside the Valley Circle movie theater in San Diego to see "Star Wars," that SF had finally reached the mainstream in a way that "Forbidden Planet," "The Twilight Zone," "Planet of the Apes," and other powerful contenders hadn't managed. I was wrong. SF/F/H is as much in what Dean Koontz once called "the SF ghetto" today as it was then—it's just that the number of inhabitants of the ghetto has grown—or perhaps they are no longer hiding their copy of "Weird" behind the New York Times in the reading room at the library (as one anthologist actually claimed he used to do during the 1930's or 40's). SF/F/Hr's were, perhaps, the Goths of that time.

So the majority of human beings have probably actually been exposed to our literature by now, but many still don't understand, and likely never will, that sigh-fie is just a dirty word for something quite wonderful. Again, publishers and educators must shoulder much blame for this smutty attitude. The standard practice is to take the best of speculative fiction and simply market it under some other name, like "literature." This is what happened to "Brave New World" and"1984" and other works. Generations of people who disdain sigh-fie have actually read lots of it, in school no less!

The other end of this disconnection is that we lose sight of the social themes of such works as H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine." Here is a work that most readers simply think of as sigh-fie (ray guns, funny suits, juvenile situations) when in actuality it was Wells's horrific view of a future dystopia bifurcated between the enslaved and brutish workers (Morlocks) and an effete, useless monied ruling class (Eloi); both classes have lost sight of the value of life, and of value itself.

Ultimately, this points to a profound vacuum of perception between those who lack imagination, and those who brim with it; or, conversely, between those who lack pragmatism, and those who bob logey in the water with a surfeit of it. Having too much of either quality cannot be very helpful or pleasant. I trust, in my optimistic SF manner, that most of society lives in the middle of the great river where reality and fantasy mingle their waters, nurtured somehow from both shores. Without both qualities—imagination and pragmatism—we couldn't have put that golf cart on the moon! And without more of both qualities, we won't be going to back to ride in it again any time soon.

Next Month. The June edition of OSDF will feature a short story by Bram Stoker Award-winning author Melanie Tem (author of Prodigal and Revenant), and reviews by A.L. Sirois, including one of the movie The Matrix.


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