In a recent post on his blog, author Ken MacLeod, draws attention to an article by Kim Stanley Robinson (author of the Mars trilogy) about the failure of the modern literary elite to recognize the genre of science fiction as a source of some truly great works. Also highlighted is the article in the Guardian in which Booker Prize judge John Mullan makes a sad attempt at rebuttal.
Follow the links above, then move on to my comments below (also left at Ken MacLeod's site).
I'm reminded of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures (many thanks to posts and discussions here for introducing me to the work). The natural sciences were dismissed by traditional academic elite of the day as being less important to the essence of human existence than the great works of literature that had (for centuries in many cases) served as the pillars of culture. Regardless of their role in the maintenance of our species' humanity, the Humanities cannot claim much credit for the technological progress that allows (the luckier segments of) the world to live largely free of the plagues, famines, and myriad daily inconveniences so pervasive in times past. (And as a side note, I would suggest that Humanities are at least as responsible as the Natural Sciences for all of disastrous abuses of technology that have followed its development).
I am, I'll admit, a relative new comer to SF, but it seems to me that SF is the experimentally investigative science of literature. I mean this in the sense that in SF, the author is allowed to create controlled experiments, as though he/she were working in a laboratory. The parameters can be set and altered as necessary to optimize the conditions, and then the author can follow scenario to its natural conclusion, free of many of the constraints of the outside world. Then, as the themes emerge, more and more of the outside conditions can be re-introduced, in a systematic way, until the controlled environment resembles the outside world enough to allow reasonable extrapolations based on the investigator's (author's) observations. I would think that the writing of historical novels, or most other genres of fiction, would be more akin to field observations, in which the author can follow events in great detail as they proceed, but has far less freedom to alter or shape their courses, and can therefore only ever report associations and correlations, rather than the causative relationships sought by the experimental investigator.
Perhaps this is all a bit of a stretch, but building upon the (partially implied) argument that the Natural Sciences are the vehicle by which a civilization, as a whole, may potentially progress (or destroy itself), and upon the observation that regardless of the attitudes of the literary elite about the Natural Sciences, science and technology have continued to prosper, I propose that SF is the future of literature. It will continue to grow, and regardless of whether it is recognized by the Booker Prize judges and other such experts along the way, it will become to traditional literary genres what the Natural Sciences have to the Humanities -- not a replacement, and (I hope) not a direct antagonist, but rather a separate (and ever growing) culture whose power for understanding and shaping the world forces it to be recognized, acknowledged, and embraced... even if it is never fully respected by the elitists who are left to maintain their arts in the dusty halls and paper-strewn offices of an age that has past.