The Hidden Wisdom of “Low-Brow” Literature

When I was a kid (or, more precisely, when I was between the ages of 9 and 14 or so), I read a great many Star Trek tie-in novels. For me, they were like a sort of literary candy; easily digestible, with comprehensible themes, and a well-defined beginning, middle and end (although the order of these may be mixed-up in the ones premised around time travel). They were wonderful sorts of stepping stones between the simplistic narratives of children’s fiction and the often over-the-top “maturity” (by which I mean gratuitous sexuality and stereotypical “downer endings”) of “high literature.”

That’s not to say, mind you, that these novels didn’t have any good writing in them–any strong characterization, symbolism, social commentary or the like; rather that it was not considered to be a requirement of the genre. The first consideration, in all cases, was that the stories would be exciting and all around fun to read: “literary” elements (I am deliberately using the word in the same snobbish way my Grade Twelve English teacher did*) could be inserted if the author felt that it was a good idea**, but they weren’t strictly necessary.

Well, eventually, time moved-on a so did I, both to non-franchise based science fiction and to “literary” fiction. Recently, however, I have had cause to return to the “low-brow” literature of my childhood, as a sort of intellectual comfort food. And let me just say: as you might imagine, it’s not exactly the sort of prose-poetry you would find in, for example, an Ondaatje novel. But do you know what? It’s still really, really fun. And more than that, it’s actually good. Speculative Fiction always likes to bill itself as the literature of “ideas”-that is to say that the merit of a work of SF should be judged primarily on whether or not it forces you to think. In practice, however, what tends to happen is that one person will produce an interesting, innovative, and original idea and then nine people will blatantly rip it off with ever-decreasing degrees of fidelity; as such, broad swaths of the genre (and, quite frankly, the entire subgenres of military science fiction and, to a slightly lesser extent, high fantasy) tend to be clichés***. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in SF based-on franchises, where authors have additional constraints imposed upon them by editorial mandates and intellectual property considerations. But alot of the novels actually do succeed in that regard–the one I am reading right now is written by a Mr. Christopher L. Bennett, who very obviously has a firm command upon principles of theoretical physics, and has actually motivated me to change the way in which I think about time and reality. Moreover, some of them, frankly, even hold their own against the more nebulously-defined standards of “literary” fiction. I would honestly and without hesitation say that Una McCormack‘s Deep Space Nine tie-in novel “The Never-Ending Sacrifice” is a better vehicle for dealing with its themes  than, for example, Louis de Berniéres’s A Partisan’s Daughter is at dealing with itsown, and I defy anyone to read both and then try to explain otherwise to me in a way that doesn’t rely on condescending generalizations about “low-brow” fiction. Let us keep a good regard for ‘rules of thumb,’ but know when we’re judging a book by its cover.


*My Grade 12 English teacher was a vocal critic of Science Fiction (or at least her ill-informed, stereotyped conception of it), but an ardent fan of Margarer Atwood. I wonder how this book is making her feel these days.

**Oddly, the worst Star Trek novel I ever read attained that dubious distinction because the author lost sight of the fact that he was writing glorified fanfiction, loading the tale up with turgid prose and ultimately crapping-out a stillborn, six hundred page snoozefest.

***This is not to say, mind you, that broad swaths of non-speculative fiction are not also clichés, but these books aren’t even fun to read, so nobody pays them attention; they find obscure publishers and die dusty deaths on the shelves. With a few exceptions which somehow manage to become bestseller.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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