Thursday, December 14, 2017

Science Fiction, Genre and Literature: guest blog by Robert I. Katz

Science Fiction, Genre and Literature

Between 2001, when my first book was published, and 2011, when I moved away from the Northeast, I attended an average of three science fiction conventions each year. At all of these conventions, there were numerous panel discussions on topics of common interest to fans of the genre. One of the more common topics was, "Is Science Fiction Literature?" To science fiction fans, and hopefully to the writers as well, the obvious answer is "Yes," but since the question is so commonly discussed and debated, I suspect that there is a fair amount of insecurity among those who write science fiction for a living as well as those who read it for enjoyment.

Personally, I have a rather jaded view of the whole question. As an English major at an Ivy League school, I was required to read a lot of great books. The classroom discussions tended to focus more on how the book illuminated both the author's mind and the times in which the book was written--a combination of psychoanalysis and sociology--than on the book itself. Though a lowly undergraduate, I nevertheless held to the conviction that it should have been the other way around. Naturally, as a lowly undergraduate, I kept this opinion to myself.

Later in life, I became good friends with the Vice-Chairman of the English Department at the University where I worked. I once remarked to her that one of the things that I found discouraging about so many of my classes was the fact that never once did any of my professors ever discuss what made a book "good." She seemed surprised by my statement, and then said that she herself would never dream of discussing such a thing. My decision, made so long ago, to not bother seeking an advanced degree in the Humanities was thereby confirmed; though again, I kept this opinion to myself.

So, what does make a book "good?" The basics of good story telling are the same no matter the genre: plot, theme, characterization, style. Many writers often considered great were lacking in style. Theodore Dreiser, for one, comes immediately to mind. And one can argue whether or not Finnegan's Wake, for instance, had any plot at all, but it is rare for a "good" book to be seriously lacking in any of these characteristics.

Literature has sometimes been defined as “news that stays news.” A good story is timeless. It will speak to people across many cultures and eras. It says something worth saying about humanity and the human condition. There are many science fiction novels that have stood the test of time: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Frankenstein, many others. I read an essay some years ago by Gore Vidal on Tarzan of the Apes. Gore Vidal did little to hide his contempt for Edgar Rice Burroughs and his creation, but generations have read and are still reading the adventures of Tarzan and John Carter. I doubt that it ever occurred to Gore Vidal that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a far more important, more influential writer than himself.

Similarly, I once read an essay by a professor at Columbia on The Lord of the Rings. The professor did not think highly of Tolkien’s trilogy. The books lacked realism. Evil was too starkly drawn. There were not enough shades of grey. The characterizations lacked subtlety. The place of women in Tolkien’s world was too minor and too restrictive. The last words of the essay were, “The Lord of the Rings lives, but on borrowed time.” Yet here we are, more than fifty years after its publication and The Lord of the Rings is more popular than ever. Will it still be popular fifty years from now? A hundred years? We cannot know, of course, but I suspect that it will.

Genre writing: science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, romance, westerns, thrillers, are all regarded by the commentariat as somehow inferior to what is often referred to as "mainstream," or literary fiction. But this opinion is no more nor less than intellectual snobbery. It’s a distinction without a difference. If a book has an engrossing plot, characters that come alive, themes and ideas that resonate with the reader and reflect real issues, and if the style at least provides clarity and does not distract from all the rest of it, then it's worth reading. A good book is a good book, and if it lasts for a hundred years, then it’s literature.

About Robert I. Katz:

I grew up on Long Island, in a pleasant, suburban town about 30 miles from New York City. I loved to read from a very early age and graduated from Columbia in 1974 with a degree in English. Not encouraged by the job prospects for English majors at the time, I went on to medical school at Northwestern, where in addition to my medical degree, I acquired a life-long love of deep dish pizza. I did a residency in Anesthesiology at Columbia Presbyterian and spent most of my career at Stony Brook University, where I ultimately attained the academic rank of Professor and Vice-Chairman for Administration, Department of Anesthesiology.

When I was a child, I generally read five or more books per week, and even then, I had a dim sense that I could do at least as well as many of the stories that I was reading. Finally, around 1985, with a job and a family and my first personal computer, I began writing. I quickly discovered that it was not as easy as I had imagined, and like most beginning writers, it took me many years to produce a publishable work of fiction. My first novel, Edward Maret: A Novel of the Future, came out in 2001. It won the ASA Literary Prize for 2001 and received excellent reviews from Science Fiction Chronicle, InfinityPlus, Scavenger’s Newsletter and many others.

My agent at the time urged me to write mysteries, as mysteries are supposed to have a larger readership and be easier to publish than science fiction. Since I have read almost as many mysteries as science fiction and fantasy, and since I enjoy them just as much, I had no objection to this plan. The Kurtz and Barent mystery series, Surgical Risk, The Anatomy Lesson and Seizure followed between 2002 and 2009. Reviewers have compared them favorably to Patricia Cornwell and Robin Cook and they’ve received positive reviews from The Midwest Book Review, Mystery Review Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Lady M’s Mystery International, Mystery Scene Magazine, Library Journal and many others.

In 2014, I published a science fiction short story, To the Ends of the Earth in the Deep Blue Sea on Kindle for Amazon. Since then, I have made all of my previously published novels available for purchase on Kindle. A new science fiction novel, entitled The Cannibal's Feast, was published in July 2017. The next, entitled The Game Players of Meridien, a tale set far in the future after the collapse of the First Interstellar Empire of Mankind, is the first in a projected seven book science fiction series, and will be published on December 16, 2017. The second novel in the series, The City of Ashes, will appear early in 2018. In addition, a fourth novel in the Kurtz and Barent mystery series, The Chairmen, will also be published in the first half of 2018.

For further information, please visit my website, or my Facebook page,, and for updates on upcoming books, stories, promotions and author appearances, please subscribe to my email list at

Robert I. Katz's latest novel, The Game Players of Meridien, is available for pre-order from Amazon and we will be featuring it as a new release on this blog on December 16, 2017.

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