Friday, September 23, 2011

Some Thoughts on Science Fiction

     In my series of articles on classic science fiction stories as well as the contemporary stories that I recommend I am hoping to make it clear that the genre, which is so often dismissed as escapist garbage, is actually a genre filled with deep ideas. Through a lens of the future or alien-ness or artificial intelligence or any of the other common or not-so-common science fiction tropes readers are allowed to view themselves, their culture, from a distance. How people react to completely fanciful situations often mirrors how they react to all-too-real situations in their everyday lives. This goes toward solving a problem that I think is prevalent in our society. It is the problem of self-centeredness. If one thinks only in terms of “me,” of “here,” of “now,” then one’s perception is greatly limited.

     I consider myself to be a Universalist. If one thinks of one’s relationship to the Universe as a series of spheres, the first sphere is that which encompasses oneself. The next expands to include one’s family, the next includes one’s friends, then one’s immediate acquaintances, then perhaps a neighborhood, a city, a state or province, a nation, and so on. These myriad spheres (see what I did there?) expand to the edges of the Universe and, if you believe in parallel universes, they expand into those as well. I think that the farther humans are able to expand their spheres of understanding the better off we will be as a species, both in regards to one another and in regards to possible future contact with other intelligences.

     So what does science fiction do? It allows this expansion. It allows one to examine the Universe not from the sphere of, say, a young white male living in America in the early 21st century (me) but, literally, from any infinite number of spheres of varying sizes, each originating from an infinite number of points in time and space and reality.

     Through science fiction and other forms of speculative fiction I can find myself relating to and sympathizing with a character who shares nothing in common with me other than sentience, maybe not even that. Mainstream fiction--which I also enjoy, don’t get me wrong--limits one to the viewpoints of other human beings. If it’s from the viewpoint of an animal, sorry, that’s speculative fiction. Alternate histories? Also speculative. Dystopian views of the future? Definitely speculative. Unless a story is set in our current reality as we perceive it, either in the present or in an accurately depicted past, it is speculative fiction. As Damon Knight said, "science fiction is what I mean when I point to something and call it science fiction.” By this definition a lot of “mainstream” stories and novels do not escape the stigma of “genre fiction.”

     Despite that, it is, for some reason, “hard” speculative fiction that bears the brunt of the stigma. Space ships and aliens. Elves and wizards. Surely this is the dominion of the overweight, videogame-playing, Mountain Dew-guzzling, basement-dwelling, D20-tossing, socially awkward nerd. Sure, a “normal” person will dabble in it now and then but no serious individual would spend any great deal of time engaged in such frivolity.

     And, yes, I will admit that “nerds” do have some unfortunate stereotypes associated with them that aren’t entirely undeserved. But this is where escapism comes into play. Many of these people are either not comfortable with the “real” world or else do not like it. The future, or in a magical kingdom, is where their hearts lie. But is that any different than reveling in detective stories or thrillers about lawyers? Why are the latter two acceptable and top the best seller lists with science fiction or fantasy only making an occasional appearance, Harry Potter and other recent teen-oriented fantasy notwithstanding. Many adults have jumped onto these fantasy series but they are still largely viewed as “for kids.” They are not “serious” literature and encompass the “dabbling” I mentioned last paragraph.

     I, for one, love science fiction (enough to be a writer and create fantastic worlds of my own) and I feel that I am a well-adjusted, presentable, socially competent nerd. And I love it for all the reasons listed above. Sure, maybe your neighbors' kid who plays D&D is playing it because this life, this reality, is ultimately unfair and unjust. He wants to imagine himself in a world where courage and dignity still count for something, and perhaps courage and dignity are things that he is unable--through whatever internal or external mechanism--to experience in real life. But maybe the grown man you see reading a science fiction novel isn’t necessarily trying to “escape” but is rather imagining a better future, a future in which anything is possible if we only have the will to make it happen. Novels detailing the emotional trauma of narcissistic doctors or dysfunctional Midwestern families are fine but what about the emotional trauma of people exploring other star systems? Science fiction is, ultimately, about people (not necessarily human people) so why not make them people that challenge one’s perceptions, that make one imagine what it would be like to be so different, yet so similar. Why not make them stories that force us to expand our spheres of understanding away from ourselves, away from family and friends, away from cities and nations and even away from planet Earth; let it expand to the farthest reaches of the Universe and beyond! There is so much possibility in science fiction that I don’t even know how one begins to even scratch the surface of what it encompasses. But, fortunately, we have writers who guide the way, who pluck some of those possibilities out of the ether and form them into stories. “Look,” they say. “Imagine the possibilities.”

     I hope that my writing will one day become strong enough to be able to do that for other people. I hope to one day say “what if?” and take you along with me into the deep recesses of those infinite, myriad spheres.


  1. Interesting piece. For years I've been telling people, to be brief, that SF is epistemological fiction (and depending on my mood I either explain that or tell them to look it up). It shares with fantasy one structural characteristic, foregrounding the metaphor, which is of course where the snobbish criticism comes in. The critics, though, are usually either too lazy to decode it or too invested in their MFAs and Henry James to allow for the rich possibilities to which you allude.

  2. That's funny because personally I love Henry James! "The Aspern Papers" is one of my all-time favorite stories. As for metaphor being somewhat on-the-nose in speculative fiction, who cares as long as it works and enriches the piece, right? Successful fiction shouldn't have to be parsed for meaning. It can be, but it shouldn't be required for a layperson who just wants a good story to get something out of it as well. Wait, didn't I just say I like Henry James? Oh well, I'll quote Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

  3. H.G. Wells relates a dispute between Henry James and himself over what Wells chose to write about. James thought he had talent but was wasting it by writing about things other than pure character. It's in Wells' "Experiment in Autobiography" which is worth the read.

    By no means do I expect lay readers to parse everything in a work---that's not their job and only their pleasure if they choose to indulge in it. But for us, the writer, it should be there, because the more layers, the more significance we pack in, the realer the experience feels and the richer the surface appears. This is what separates good writers from hacks. The meaning should be there to be found if people want to find it---and if we do the work of imagination well enough it will be there automatically.

  4. I agree completely. I've always felt that the whole "purpose of art" debate was a bit silly. On the one hand you have those who insist that art is only about meaning, and on the other those who simply want a pretty picture or nice bit of prose or music. The fact is, the best art satisfies both of those crowds. After all, people have to want to read my work before I can deliver unto them my profound, life-changing philosophy. And as much as I like James, I think a lot of people don't get to experience the depth and rich inner lives of his characters because often in his stories, nothing happens for pages on end. Light summer reading it is not! It is a balance I think I am still trying to find in my own work.

  5. I think you've attained your goal, simply by explaining scifi so well. I read an article some time ago, which stated that scifi is not as respected as regular fiction because of the snob factor (I'mparaphrasing) and because people ate embarrassed to admit they like scifi>with its fanboy connotations.
    I see scifi as a genre that allows you to explore racism, religion, physical and sexual abuse... I needn't give examples, each was examined minutely in all the Star Treks... from the safety of imaginary creatures and scenarios.
    By creating a safe space to explore these unpleasant aspects of human behaviour, we can say to each other... racism, or xenophobia, or religios fanaticism isn't good! Quit it!
    I write fantasy and scifi because I find it more interesting, and more manipulable than real life.
    I really enjoyed your post.

    1. Louise: exactly! :o) Thanks for reading!

  6. Here is my editors note for a start-up eMag I am trying to creating. It gives my views on some of the lack of content of scifi and fantasy today in the mainstream.