Something about blogging brings out my confessional side. Already this week I’ve confessed my shameful love for Walmart; in one of my first posts I confessed my addiction to the $5 necktie. Now I’m overwhelmed with the urge to share a dark, dirty literary secret: that I not only read science fiction, I love it, I learn from it — and I think you should too.
I have read a lot of science fiction. I started reading this stuff when Sputnik was still in the news; the first satellites were spooking through the sky when I was turning the pages of novels by Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein and A. E. Van Vogt. I read everything in the genre that the Glenwood Elementary School and Chapel Hill public libraries contained — and I have stuck with it ever since.
This isn’t because the genre is producing great literature. For the most part, it isn’t. A lot of the best known science fiction looks either dated (Jules Verne, HG Wells) or dumb: the platitudinous and banal ‘philosophical’ discussions of the Star Trek crew on their pointless and endless galactic cruise. Or take (please!) the movie Avatar, a lot of science fiction is about flashy special effects grafted onto silly politics and creaky plots. And while there is a lot of fine writing in the genre (names like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany spring to mind), there is a lot of flapdoodle as well: bad western plots tricked out with Buck Rogers gear. Some of the genre’s most venerated names (Isaac Asimov comes to mind) were gifted hacks whose ability to spin entertaining tales overcame their leaden prose, superficial ideas and pasteboard characters. It was only in the last generation that interesting women began to pop up in space; science fiction novelists as a class seemed to think of women the way sailors did back in the age of sail. Alluring, incomprehensible and rare: fun in port, but bad luck on a voyage. And some of the funniest pages you will ever read are found when scifi hack writers whose own thought processes are sludgy and slow try to reproduce the inner voices and thought processes of superhuman intelligences. At its best (worst), such writing achieves the unintentional hilarity of “Battlefield Earth”, the ponderously leaden and reverential movie adaptation of a crashingly bad book by the Grand Poobah of Science Fiction Hackery, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Nor should you read science fiction to find out where technology is going. Sometimes the genre gets lucky. The (very mediocre) writer Arthur C. Clarke did predict the rise of the geosynchronous satellite; the much more gifted and interesting Vernor Vinge not only predicted the rise of the internet; he has continued to produce very thoughtful and sometimes even accurate predictions about how it might develop and what its consequences might be. But science fiction misses as much as it gets; there were not, for example, many computers in space before they started popping up down here on earth. Flying cars were frequently posited in old science fiction, but it is hard to find anybody who predicted the Ipod — or Moore’s Law.
Not that you don’t learn something about science from science fiction; over the years my reading in the genre has certainly helped me keep abreast of the direction of scientific research – and the accounts of the lives of scientists by writers like the accomplished and entertaining Connie Wills can give non-scientists a better sense of what doing science is like. (Outside the genre, the brilliant Andrea Barrett does this as well.) ‘Hard’ science fiction writers like Larry Niven and Gregory Benford make a point of writing fiction in which the most arcane and speculative arenas of contemporary scientific theory are shown playing out — and in which everything from the physics of far off solar systems to the principles by which space ships travel is extrapolated from and consistent with contemporary scientific knowledge. One of the ways in which a history and word person like me can at least maintain a reasonable lay knowledge of the great scientific achievements that are defining and shaping our times is to read hard science fiction — and follow up by checking out theories and principles that seem particularly challenging or unexpected.
But science fiction is not really about science. A book like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels really captures what science fiction is about. Writing in a scientific and enlightened era, Swift knew his readers wanted plausible explanations that helped them suspend disbelief and follow his plot. Swift made the manner of Gulliver’s travels consistent with the scientific knowledge of the day; the countries he described are located in remote locations that were still unexplored in Swift’s time. As a result, Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput, Brobdinag, the land of the Houyhnhnms and Laputa were consistent with what was scientifically known at the time — just as C.S. Lewis worked in his famous space trilogy to make Dr. Elwin Ransom’s voyages to Malacandra and Perelandra consistent with the science his readers would know. (The houyhnhnms are related to the Malacandrian hrossa in many ways, just as Swift’s yahoos look a lot like Lewis’ Weston and Divine.) The books describe voyages to Lilliput and Mars — but the subject is always home.
Science fiction is perhaps best understood by an alternative name for the genre: speculative fiction. It is fiction that asks questions about the human condition and the meaning of life by taking us beyond everyday life. We go to strange planets, far distant futures or even to our own past — in order to learn about who we really are. Science fiction takes its readers to far off galaxies in order to help them understand life on earth more clearly — just as Dorothy traveled to Oz to learn what Kansas was really all about. The results can be startling and profound; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a riveting and harrowing exploration of faith and intercultural contact as a Jesuit missionary lands on an alien planet. Reflecting earlier Jesuit missions in China and the Americas, the novel casts startling new light on those encounters and leads readers to think more deeply and more richly about what faith and culture are really about. Less profound, but a great deal of fun, the 1632 series of novels and short stories by Eric Flint and various collaborators that postulates the arrival of a small West Virginia town from our time thrown back into the middle of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. The impact of Grantsville’s technology and ideas on historical figures ranging from Cardinal Richelieu to Gustavus Adolphus and his daughter Kristina allows readers a chance to see the world in a fresh and stimulating way.
Taken as a whole, the field of science fiction today is where most of the most interesting thought about human society can be found. At a time when many academics have become almost willfully obscure, political science is increasingly dominated by arcane and uninspiring theories and in which a fog of political correctness makes some forms of (badly needed) debate and exploration off limits, science fiction has stepped forward to fill the gap. In the work of writers like David Brin and Neal Stephenson there is more interesting reflection on America’s place in the world than you will find, I fear, in a whole year’s worth of reading in foreign policy magazines. Robert Heinlein’s work brilliantly lays out the ideology of populist libertarianism and predicted the revolt against the welfare state that has defined American politics since the 1980s. Read C. J. Cherryh’s foreigner novels for insight into international relations and her Cyteen novels to sharpen your wits about both international politics and the impact of technological change on human society.
The biggest single task facing the United States today is the unleashing of our social imagination. We are locked into twentieth century institutions and twentieth century habits of mind. Science fiction is the literary genre (OK, true, sometimes a subliterary genre) where the social imagination is being cultivated and developed. Young people should read this genre to help open their minds to the extraordinary possibilities that lie before us; we geezers should read it for the same reason. The job of our times is to build a radically new world; speculative fiction helps point the way.
Wear cheap ties, shop Walmart, and read lots of science fiction. Follow this advice, friends, and you are sure to go far.