Monday, January 19, 2009

Why Is Today a Good Day to Read Science Fiction?

It's Martin Luther King day, and inauguration eve. As I said on election eve, it's a good day to read some science fiction. Here is an excerpt from an essay in Jack McDevitt's Outbound that explains why better than I ever could:

"Science fiction is about maybe and what if. What happens when the biotech breakthroughs that researchers are now predicting for the first quarter of the new century begin seriously to deter aging and we discover that death and decay can be held off perhaps indefinitely? Or when we find ourselves living in a house that's as smart as we are, and maybe has feelings as well? Or when the climate heats up and the oceans begin to take back Tokyo and Los Angeles? When it becomes possible to design a child?

Science fiction, aside from its entertainment value, which is quite high, serves a particularly useful social purpose. We live in a time of constant and accelerating evolution. Change.... If science fiction is about anything, it is about change. Its implications. How we should react. What the risks might be. That is why the narratives so often take the form of cautionary tales.
"If this goes on--," we say, "here's what might happen."

Here are the potential consequences if we fail to develop a defense system against asteroid impact, or negotiate an international agreement to stop and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons, or provide adequate safeguards against the escape of engineered life forms. Here's what happens if we allow children to be indoctrinated in exclusive religious beliefs, if we fail to accept people for who they are instead of what their ethnic background is, if we do not find a way to stabilize long-term population growth, if some of the more populous nations continue reproductive policies that give us two or three times as many males as females.

On the positive side, we can demonstrate the benefits to be gained from taking time to ensure the health of the environment and from developing a global society in which everyone has a fair opportunity to live a reasonable life. Even in its Buck Rogers mode, science fiction has much to say about the human family. No one who's ever looked an intelligent (but hungry) spider in the eye will ever again worry about the color of someone's skin."

Let's celebrate Martin Luther King day by thinking about how to help with the changes we'd like to make, rather than just watching the spectacle. (But if you are watching, let me know if you see Walker, who has instructions to wave and yell "Hi, mom!" if he sees a camera pointed at him.)
If the change you want most seems beyond your power to influence, what's second on your list?


Anonymous said...

Well, my husband would say that any day is a good day to read science fiction, but it has tended not to be my thing--which is why I appreciate this post. I really like the way you've framed it here, making it more relevant than I've tended to imagine it to be. An eye-opening argument--but don't tell my husband I said so!

Lenore Appelhans said...

Great essay. I love Sci Fi for exactly these reasons.

Joe said...

I agree with your general thesis. It's good to spend time with the "what ifs". (Hold fast to dreams.) And I do think science fiction serves an important purpose when it lights the fire of "waitaminnit... could that really happen?"

But my concern is that spark doesn't catch fire often enough. It certainly hasn't with me. I like my science straight up (or maybe in a nice Mythbusters cocktail), and my science fiction, well, I like fairy tales with zap guns.

The thing is, I always feel unqualified to judge when the author is telling me science and when they're making stuff up. The science tends to feel tacked on (Cory Doctorow, Spider Robinson) or too thick for me to do anything with (Larry Niven, Michael Crichton, Vernor Vinge).

So I'd argue that successful (to me) science fiction addresses not the scientific consequences, but how humans might act in a fantastic situation. Enjoying fiction is about believing in the humans - whether they're at Callahan's or Florin (or SDSU in Vinge's "Rainbow's End").

When you're more interested in the trappings than the people - whether it's Anne Rice's fascination with upholstery or Crichton's... well, anything, the man's never introduced me to a character as interesting as the chemical composition of the ink it's created with...

...wait, where was I?

Exactly. :-)

Jeanne said...

Joe, the essay does say that SF serves a "social" purpose, which doesn't seem to me to be contradicted by what you say. What I like about reading SF is that it explores ideas.

If those ideas are technical, then you're saying the porridge is too hot. If those ideas are tacked on, then you're saying the porridge is too cold. If fairy tales with zap guns are just right for you, okay.

I do wish that there were more writers like Cory Doctorow, who can interest young people in SF. Have you read Little Brother? Ron says the computer stuff in it isn't wildly inaccurate.

Joe said...

No, I don't think there is a lot of discrepancy in our positions. My point is that interacting with "ideas" it what _all_ fiction is for, and I'm not personally convinced that "science" fiction (as a genre) does very well with the ideas in its domain.

I lack the scientific training (or curiosity) to know whether the ideas about "potential consequences if we fail to develop a defense system against asteroid impact" are realistic, or just a bunch of hooey. And if the "Put Bruce Willis on a rocket" solution is unrealistic, than I dispute that considering that particular idea has social value beyond entertainment.

And to be clear - I like entertainment. I want a lightsaber - shame they're physically unpossible.

I do, on the other hand, have the experience to judge whether or not I believe what the author asserts about human beings under those conditions. But that's the province of all fiction, not just "science" fiction.

(CF "Rainbow's End"... I don't know if Vernor Vinge's scientific assertions are any good, and I believe some of them to be practically unrealistic. But I really enjoyed the fact that he _nailed_ how universities and libraries would react to such a world if it did exist. Which, for me as a reader, puts it more in the realm of "Moo" than "Jurassic Park"...)

I thought Little Brother was OK, for YA fiction. The technical aspects struck me as plausible and moderately interesting. I read a couple Wikipedia pages. Like a lot of YA, I found the kids generally too smart by half (although there are a couple of places where he gets the early teen voice right) and the adults thoroughly flat and predictable. The politics were broad and one-sided... but hey, so's Heinlein.

For all its flaws, it was a well-paced page turner. I did pretty much devour the end. Kind of like a mini-Tom Clancy - a good adventure with some plausible tech. Oh, and some characters.

Have I mentioned how much I respect you and Ron as parents for reading YA fiction?

Jeanne said...

Joe, hmm. All kinds of things to think about. It might be that our differences in perception are apparent from your image of "Bruce Willis in a rocket," which is very, very amusing. But if I were thinking of it, I'd have said his character's name, not the actor's name.

It's not altruistic, or anything, us reading YA fiction (me more than Ron). Partly it's fun to talk to the kids about what we read. Partly they're good books (and so much is being reclassified every day as YA).

Joe said...

Wait... Bruce Willis characters have names? :-)

I have enough trouble with the names of physical people. If I try to learn fictional people's names, I'll never catch up...

Joe said...

Nice of John Scalzi to weigh in...

Jeanne said...

Yes, it WAS nice of John Scalzi. So timely! I tend to agree with his definition, that if you take out the aliens or whatever and you still have pretty much the same story, then it's not SF.

Am I the only person on the planet who liked Moonraker? Is it just because it's the first James Bond movie I ever saw?

Alison said...

Nothing much to add on this debate, but I'll vouch for Joe's complete inability to remember names. He is evidently convinced that Glenn Close and Meryl Streep are the same person, and don't even start on William Hurt/John Hurt/John Heard or the Bills Paxton and Pullman. He has actually been known to reject a movie because it has "that guy I hate from that other movie" in it, without any specifics.

What's scary is when I know exactly who he's talking about.