September 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
So first let me acknowledge that I began this course with a healthy amount of skepticism. Excluding the coursework of these past few weeks, I think the last science fiction I read was Ender’s Game, and that was probably about a decade ago. I used to devour fantasy in grammar school. Lloyd Alexander and E. Nesbit were among my favorite writers, although my favorite series was probably Artemis Fowl. At some point I abandoned those impulses for fantasy and switched to thrillers, starting with Ian Fleming and working my way to Elmore Leonard. These went by the wayside when, at some point, I began to pick books that I thought I ought to read, whether or not I really wanted to. This is definitely not the best reason to read something, and it has resulted in a lot of unfinished or even unopened volumes. What I’m driving at is that I came into this course with a sort of prepackaged disregard for genres of literature that might be thought of as escapist or, more applicable to sci-fi, pulp. I’m coming around though. I’ve since realized that the nuance and conventions specific to sci-fi stimulate plenty of thought. Sci-Fi is not just pulp, and I’m glad to have had my horizons expanded thus far. There is, however, one thing bugging me about these stories. I think there’s something missing.
Once again dipping into the halcyon memories of middle school I can recall a strange experience which took place between seventh and eighth grades. One day my best friend showed me a website that had compiled a list of songs which, when played backwards, broadcast satanic messages. The most notorious of these was “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, but there were surprises as well… like the Pokemon theme song. At any rate, the presence of these messages did not sit well with me and ultimately I spent the better part of that summer trying to wrap my head around some big ideas. What would happen when I died? How could the universe be infinite? How could time be infinite? If the universe is expanding then what is it expanding into? What is that expanding into?
These issues wigged me out majorly. Granted, I was pretty young and fragile and sheltered, but I don’t think it takes very much to make the average person begin to question the world around them. When you start to grapple with these concepts in an emotional mind frame the walls can really come down. So then I have bone to pick with the sci-fi we’ve been reading, particularly the large part of it which has dealt with time travel. The protagonists of the stories we have read simply hurdle through time with only very practical ideas about the ramifications of their actions. They might wonder speculatively about what they find, or attempt to manipulate their new circumstances to great personal gain, but no one ever stops to consider the big, complex implications which stem from the mere fact that they are able to travel in time. I understand that the characters within these stories were considerably better equipped to deal with big questions than a rising eighth grader at a catholic middle school, but I can only suspend my disbelief so far. The fact that so few stories (“The Nine Billion Names of God” and “Mimsy” are the only exceptions that come to mind) address the question of existence, of how would we reframe our life philosophies in the face of incredible new circumstances, stands as something of a boundary for me. Even if as a science fiction writer one chooses to explore topics more than characters, the characters should really be given a bit more attention sometimes. After all, what’s a science fiction writer without characters, without stories? Nine times out of ten, a really, really bad scientist. My word of advice then to sci-fi writers, and I suppose in a few months everyone will have an opportunity to see if I’ve followed it, is to endow the characters with a bit more humanity, let them carry some more of the weight. I think with that addition a lot of good sci-fi would really blow away your average reader. I think in large part science fiction writers are ignoring the enormous potential afforded by the conventions of their drama. The exceptional events which transpire in science fiction could provide wonderful new lenses through which writers might examine human life on an individual scale. Maybe what I’m saying is that science fiction looks at humanity on a macro scale. If that’s the case, I’d like to see more micro science fiction: Rabbit Angstrom leaves Titan for Dione, Holden Caulfield finds phonies on Mars, Hal Incandenza plays space tennis…