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Science Fiction: A New Hope by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Date: 24 November 2007

Links: London Times 11/24/2007 Brian Aldiss Essay /

Brian Aldiss wrote an interesting bit in the London Times recently (see link above) where he asked why nobody takes SF seriously (Why are science fiction's best writers so neglected? Brian Aldiss makes an impassioned plea for his genre. London Times November 23, 2007). He asks why the public doesn't take SF writers, with their tales of gloom and disorientation more seriously. Amusingly, he quotes Stephen Fry who counters this by asking: "Why do science-fiction writers take themselves so seriously?" Actually, I think they're both only half right. [Image: NASA Hubble telescope image "Star-Birth Clouds in M16: Stellar "Eggs" Emerge from Molecular Cloud"]

Brian Aldiss' London Times essay (see link above) gives some thoughtful and thought provoking reasons why SF continues to be ghettoized. While I encourage you to read the article, there are some other reasons and consequences to this that I'd like to explore here.

I think that SF fails to engage literary critics because it's not gloomy enough, and readers because it's either too real or too patently wishful thinking, but in both cases of little use to their lives. Let's look at the first case.

While there are no shortages of cautionary tales one can point at, the other end of the storytelling spectrum is full of SF authors that don't set out to depress us, at least not over here in the US. Though you can come up with notable exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic and past and present, from Frankenstein to The Andromeda Strain, to prove that SF writers are harbingers of doom and gloom, the truth is that SF often isn't about the end of the world. Usually its about saving it, albeit in the nick of time. Sure, it's been prey to literary allusion, with dismal characters waiting for Godot, generally in the guise of a Robot or Alien to tell us where we went wrong...but that's not all that interesting to the folks who read SF in the main.

SF's characters don't do angst very well. They tend to be the sort of folks who jump in and solve problems rather than rail at the unfairness of the universe or mope about the futility of it all. This is pretty interesting, considering they're generally more aware than most that it all came from nothing and is heading back that way one fine day. Of course, partly it's because SF characters don't really believe that failure, or possibly the end of time, is really an option. OK, there are writers in the UK that see things that way, but they're relative newcomers.

The shoulders today's authors stand upon were in the main not dismal predictors of global doom, though not because they didn't foresee challenges ahead. More because their protagonists always seemed to be able to think their way out of trouble and into a wonderful world of tomorrow.

Which brings me to my second point. The future arrived more or less on time, but it's not working out very well.

Though I would argue that the technology of of today has more in common with the future as seen in the middle of the last century than it has not, it's certainly not as Utopian as the "Golden Age" authors had hoped. That's where I think the public sees a disconnect with SF.

Science Fiction tells us that things are going to work out in the end, that smart toolmaking man will fix things up in the nick of time and that we'll all live happily ever after. Or at least we'll have exciting lives. I think that most people recognize that this is a fine fantasy with little to do with their real lives, and don't want to buy into it. Fantasy, on the other hand, doesn't pretend to offer any answers to our problems beyond momentary happiness, so at least nobody feels cheated by it.

So what does that hold for SF's own future? As I see it, one of two courses (not mutually exclusive) lays open to it. First, SF can continue to tell stories about the good old future and we can all worship upon the altar of our youth, and second, it can engage with the real problems of tomorrow, which we've come to realize aren't so much where will we get more energy from, either for our cars or ourselves, or how we'll escape the Earth and each other, but how we'll manage to share our limited resources and deal with our differences. Whether or not we can break the speed of light is ultimately less important to our survival as a species than whether or not we can keep from killing each other over issues that made more sense when we were fighting with clubs and claws.

Maybe that won't bring readers to SF either. But maybe it will, and when it's over, won't it be better to say we tried? After all, it's our SF heritage to save the world, and I think we've been slacking a bit.

The new millennium is well underway and the new year almost upon us. Let's put our shoulders to it then and make this millennium the one where humankind grew into something we could be proud of, and let's see what the SF community can do to lead the way.

    Ernest Lilley
    Sr. Editor

Our Readers Respond

From: Styx
    Actually, I tend to agree with the thesis that SF is read differently from mainstream fiction. The snobbery of literary critics and reviewers masks the fact that they don't, in the main, understand what is going on in SF.

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