Neal Stephenson on science fiction as a genre

Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favourite books, Cryptonomicon. He started off as an author whose work was obviously science fiction but has gradually morphed into someone who writes fiction about science, much of it set in the past. He's returning to sci fi for his next book though.

In May Stephenson gave a talk at Gresham College about science fiction and its status as a literary genre. He turns out to be a very boring public speaker. That's reassuring in some ways - I'm all in favour of talent being rationed. I point it out not to gloat but to warn you that the 40 minute talk takes a bit of effort to get through. It's worth persevering.

His speculation about how literary fiction gets 'made' was particularly intriguing, even though it may strike some as being somewhat bitter:

"I'd imagine there'd be a weeding-out effect. It's fun to imagine a comedy sketch with Robert Heinlein in a writers' workshop having the first draft of Starship Troopers evaluated by a circle of earnest, young post structuralists. I don't imagine that there is anything like out-and-out censorship but I do suspect that people who write about relationships, who write autobiographical introspective fiction from a subjective point of view are going to have an easier time of it in this environment from those who write SF."

Despite his obviously dismissive take on post structuralism and his apparent belief that it rules every literary department of every university in the western world, he draws a plausible picture of how trends are shaped. In certain 'trendy' environments things that are different are shunned, in others they are celebrated and in neither instance does the quality of the thing itself have much to do with the reaction.

Which is only really tangential to the point he was trying to make.

His section on what happened to genres - westerns disappeared, romance merged with Hollywood and crime merged with television - is interesting and so is his description of sci fi as "idea porn".