In recent issues of Foundation and other magazines Ian Watson has been reiterating a notion that I finally cannot resist calling into question. His thesis, in its most skeletal form, is that science fiction characteristically treats of Ideas, and that such is the weight, wonder, and significance of these Ideas that the genre transcends mundane literary criteria, which are dismissed as "stylistics." This argument begs so many questions that it is virtually unassailable. As to his central thesis, that important Ideas are exciting, or vice versa, who will deny it? How, from this vast and fuzzy premise, he comes round to his usual conclusion that sf is the sacred preserve of a muse unlike all others varies from pronouncement to pronouncement, but that is his unchanging moral. I would like, here, to point out some of the ways in which his arguments strike me as wrong headed, self-serving, and dishonest.
Watson seems to be demanding that his Ideas be judged on their own merits--not as the elements of fictional invention but on the grounds of their literal truth. He makes a distinction between science and poetry parallel to that between Ideas and Stylistics. E.E. Smith, for all his failings, is to be admired for his faith in Science, while other writers, manifestly more accomplished, are nevertheless deplored because they worship the false gods of Poetry, Irony, and Skepticism. Of the work of these writers (though he doesn't mention me by name, I trust he would include me in their number), Watson writes:
"The science ideas of genuine sf, and science itself too, become all too often a form of stylistic kitsch, reflecting a self-indulgent disillusion with science, wonder, and hope, the future and their replacement by a sophisticated Silver Age rococo."
Science, in its current usage, is that area of knowledge which does not fall under the strictures that apply to Ideology. It is certain, not relative. "Science ideas," thus, are ideas we can believe in, and that is what Watson longs for on the evidence of his own work.[...] Faith must be, by definition, in things unseen and unproven--but passionately longed for.There is always the temptation to insist that one has, in fact, seen those things. Gospels are written to this effect, and novels. And yet, maddeningly, doubters continue to express their doubts about one's words of witness, doubters who reflect, to quote Watson again, "a self-indulgent Western disillusion with science, wonder, hope, the future."
I am not suggesting Watson's Ideas are Dumb Ideas on a par with those of E.E. Smith. But they are Doubtful Ideas, in that they are not susceptible of proof and so find themselves in the same boat with other Ideologies.
The Ideas of Poetry, similarly, tend to be Doubtful Ideas (and I would even suggest to Watson--and to sf writers in general--that Poetry, willy-nilly, is the business that they're in), but poets have a different relation to their Doubtful Ideas than do true believers. Poetry is the language Faith speaks when it is no longer literal, a language that is, of course, self-indulgent (i.e., playful, provisional, undogmatic) and that is also, perhaps, disillusioned (if the alternative is to be illusioned). It is the language of Ovid, of Dante, and of legions of other poets, and nowadays it is the language of such science fiction as I would care to make a case for. If it smacks of the Silver Age, there is no disgrace in that--for the Golden Age never did exist. Least of all in science fiction.