. . . That hope was born in the hearts of writers who, without any particular encouragement from the larger literary world, for a little while dragged the genre to the brink of respectability. The new-wave SF of the '60s and '70s was often word-drunk, applying modernist techniques willy-nilly to the old genre motifs, adding compensatory dollops of alienation and sexuality to characters who'd barely shed their slide rules. But the new wave also made possible books like Samuel Delany's Dhalgren Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch's 334 - work to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s, labels, categories, and genres aside. In a seizure of ambition, SF even flirted with renaming itself "speculative fabulation," a lit-crit term both pretentiously silly and dead right.
For what makes SF wonderful and complicated is that mix of speculation and the fabulous: SF is both think-fiction and dream-fiction. For the first 60-odd years of the century American fiction was deficient in exactly those qualities SF offered in abundance, however inelegantly. While fabulists like Borges, Abe, Cortazar, and Calvino flourished abroad, a strain of literary puritanism quarantined imaginative and surreal writing from respectability here. Another typical reflex, that anti-intellectualism which dictates that novelists shouldn't pontificate, extrapolate, or theorize, only show and feel, meant the novel of ideas was for many years pretty much the exclusive domain of, um, Norman Mailer. What's more, a reluctance in the humanities to acknowledge the technocratic impulse that was transforming contemporary culture left certain themes untouched. For decades SF filled the gap, and during those decades its writers added characterization, ambiguity, and reflexivity, helping it evolve toward something like a literary maturity, or at least the ability to throw up an occasional masterpiece.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. In the '60s, just as SF's best writers began to beg the question of whether SF might be literature, American literary fiction began to open to the modes it had excluded. Writers like Donald Barthelme, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Coover restored the place of the imaginative and surreal, while others like Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy began to contend with the emergent technoculture. William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon did a little of both. The result was that the need to recognize SF's accomplishments dwindled away. Why seek in those gaudy paperbacks what was readily available in reputable packages? So what followed was mostly critical rejection, or indifference. . . .