In 1973 Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was awarded the Nebula, the highest honor available in the field once known as “science fiction”—a term now mostly forgotten.
Sorry, just dreaming. In our world Bruce is dead, while Bob Hope lurches on. And though Gravity’s Rainbow really was nominated for the 1973 Nebula, it was passed over for Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, which commentator Carter Scholz rightly deemed “less a novel than a schematic diagram in prose.” Pynchon’s nomination now stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream.
That hope was born in the hearts of writers who, without any particular encouragement from the larger literary world, for a little while dragged the genre to the brink of respectability. The new-wave SF of the ’60s and ’70s was often word-drunk, applying modernist techniques willy-nilly to the old genre motifs, adding compensatory dollops of alienation and sexuality to characters who’d barely shed their slide rules. But the new wave also made possible books like Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch’s 334—work to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s, labels, categories, and genres aside. In a seizure of ambition, SF even flirted with renaming itself “speculative fabulation,” a lit-crit term both pretentiously silly and dead right.
For what makes SF wonderful and complicated is that mix of speculation and the fabulous: SF is both think-fiction and dream-fiction. For the first 60-odd years of the century American fiction was deficient in exactly those qualities SF offered in abundance, however inelegantly. While fabulists like Borges, Abe, Cortazar, and Calvino flourished abroad, a strain of literary puritanism quarantined imaginative and surreal writing from respectability here. Another typical reflex, that anti-intellectualism which dictates that novelists shouldn’t pontificate, extrapolate, or theorize, only show and feel, meant the novel of ideas was for many years pretty much the exclusive domain of, um, Norman Mailer. What’s more, a reluctance in the humanities to acknowledge the technocratic impulse that was transforming contemporary culture left certain themes untouched. For decades SF filled the gap, and during those decades its writers added characterization, ambiguity, and reflexivity, helping it evolve toward something like a literary maturity, or at least the ability to throw up an occasional masterpiece.