In a review of John Scalzi's The Android's Dream, Dave Itzkoff asserts that Scalzi might prove himself worthy of comparison with an SF icon such as Robert Heinlien "if he uses [his future] work to articulate a firm position on the political issues that will inevitably define his historical moment, take a stance that considerate readers might potentially disagree with, and even risk the possibility that a half-century later, some petulant, know-nothing critic will dismiss his ideas as dangerous and obsolete".
I haven't read The Android's Dream, but if it does not "take a stance" on issues defining our "historical moment," for me that is in its favor and only makes me more likely to give it a try.
Itzkoff's take on science fiction in general (or at least that branch he calls "military sci-fi") leads me to think I might not clearly understand the ambitions of science fiction, at least among its more serious-minded authors and critics. Although I have only relatively recently begun to sample noteworthy science fiction novels and writers (that is, I am most assuredly a johnny-come-lately), I have done so under the assumption it is a genre that seeks to provide an alternative to "realism" and other conventionally "literary" practices, not just by evoking speculative worlds and looking to the future rather than the past or present but also by creating alternative forms and experimenting with the established elements of fiction (plot, setting, point of view, etc.). That SF is inherently a kind of experimental fiction is a proposition I have been convinced to take seriously by some of the more intelligent critical discussion of the genre, both on SF litblogs and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, I have yet to find this proposition very persuasively confirmed. The novels I have attempted, by among others Philip K. Dick, China Mieville, and Samuel Delaney, while they certainly do engage the imagination well beyond what is offered in most humdrum literary realism, do not seem to me especially preoccupied with formal experiment or stylistic innovation. (Which is not to deny that the latter two, at any rate, do write well.) Traditional plotting prevails, setting is described in the kind of minute detail a Flaubert-inspired realist would almost certainly admire, and point of view (at least in the particular novels I have read) remains transparent and undisturbed. They are, finally, resolutely traditional novels, if anything overloaded with conventional storytelling, marked as "other" only by their deliberately exotic subjects.
And now Dave Itzkoff tells me that SF writers ought to emphasize "stance" and "ideas" in a way that makes even these exotic subjects just a convenient facade behind which to hide the writer's ultimate intent to "articulate a firm position." Indeed, writing science fiction, it turns out, is just another way of conveying a "philosophy": In one of Scalzi's other books, the characters read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which "they collectively decide 'had some good action scenes but required too much unpacking of philosophical ideas.'" "Heinlein may have cultivated a philosophy that now seems distasteful bordering on appalling," says Itzkoff, "but it is unfair to criticize him for simply having a philosophy. At a time when endless war is not just a nightmarish fictional scenario but a real and looming possibility, there is still a position less commendable than having dangerous ideas, and that is having no position at all."
Perhaps having "no position at all" on real war isn't very "commendable," but declining to take positions in fiction, even if war is the ostensible subject, brings no moral opprobrium at all. In purely literary terms, refusing to "take a position" by sticking to, well, literature, and leaving the moral or political discourse to other, more suitable forums is as much of a "stance" most fiction writers ought to feel comfortable assuming. If John Scalzi thinks his job is to write engaging works of fiction rather than "cultivate a philosophy" by indirection, it's all to his credit. But is Itzkoff's own position, that the work of the science fiction writer can be reduced to the attempt to stake out a position on this or that, really shared by most writers and readers who lay claim to this genre? Is it the literary "philosophy" of SF?
I have every intention of carrying on with my survey of science fiction, both current and classic. The next writer whose work I've decided to assay is Stanislaw Lem. Perhaps here I will find at least as much art as philosophy, an equal effort to explore the possibilities of fiction as a literary form as to "say something." I continue to expect (hope) that eventually I will find that science fiction truly can be a genre that expands these possibilities, that in my initial forays into SF I just didn't get it because of my own limitations or presuppositions. That critics like Dave Itzkoff themselves underestimate SF's potential to escape the tedious restrictions of polemics and "message."
UPDATE In a response to this post, Niall Harrison at Torque Control suggests I am "under the unfortunate impression that Dave Itzkoff knows what he’s talking about." This may be right. I don't know much about Itzkoff, and I should certainly be wary of taking reviews that appear in the New York Times Book Review as representative or authoritative about anything. Otherwise, Niall says that my attempt to find SF that does "something formally new not found in other kinds of fiction" is probably "doomed to fail" because "sf stories won’t often look like experiments, because the point is the subject." I'm not sure I know exactly what he means by that last statement, but at first glance it doesn't seem that far removed from Itzkoff's "taking a stance" except that the "point" to be made is inherent in the act of imagining alternative worlds.