Science fiction, if you’re doing it right, is reality in tight focus.
That’s the only sentence left from my first draft of this post, which for me was getting on a soapbox and complaining. (Okay, so I threw in a few more sentences once I got rolling, but I really did want to change the tone from a grumpy tirade to something more.) I looked it over and decided that complaining will get me (and you, and everybody else) nowhere. I want to do more. I want to actually understand what’s going on.
In the past couple of years, I’ve had a number of students who’ve wanted to indulge in the accoutrements of science fiction without really taking advantage of what can, potentially, be at the heart of this form. They want the smell of the burger, but not the meat – or, when it comes to science fiction, they want the rockets, ray guns and robots, but not the who, what, when, where, and why. They want to play in the dirt, but they don’t want to tell you what’s in the dirt, or where it came from, or why anyone would want to play in it in the first place. It’s a game. It’s a joke. It’s an evasion.
Escape literature is one thing. It helps define what we’re escaping from. Evasion literature is another. It altogether denies the thing we’re escaping from.
So … why? Why go for the easy stuff, other than that it’s easy? The problem I have with a literature of evasion is that it always travels on the same tracks, stops at all the same stations. It moves right on schedule. The changes are superficial. Red shirts become blue shirts. Desert planets become ocean planets. Robots become scary aliens, and vice versa. But it’s always the same trip taking us to same place. So what?
So bloody what?
A literature allegedly devoted to wonder and awe cannot run on schedule. It cannot rely on conventions. It should not settle for competency and mediocrity, even if that’s what sells. This is not to say there should be no schedules, no conventions, no competency. But somewhere, somehow, someone’s got to mess with the rules, switch the tracks, surprise us without getting us all killed. Someone has to write more than a variation to a theme, perhaps change the theme altogether. And when that theme becomes a convention, subvert that one as well.
Then again – we’re talking about young writers here. And I have to remember what was important for me as a young writer. In honesty, I have to say that nothing mattered to me more than what was called at the time “emotional expression.” I think that’s what we still call it. We want feelings to guide every element of storytelling we take on: character, setting, motivation, conflict and complications, resolution. In one sense, we’re right. Feelings are what we have to return to when we’ve labored at everything else. And labor we must, because none of this easy, especially for writers whose main influences are graphic stories, TV, and – dare I say it? – popular fiction.
I don’t want to denigrate “popular” fiction categorically. The best of what sells is usually something that transcends category, and in doing so creates its own niche. But it also narrows one’s perception as to what can be done in the field of written prose, not to mention science fiction in particular. There are books in the “unpopular” category that can do as much to widen a young writer’s perspectives as anything sitting in the racks at the airport concourse newsstand.
The problem with young writers relying so greatly on “feelings” alone is that young writers, in general, have a blurry, indistinct notion of what those feelings are. They are too busy “feeling” them to successfully render them on a page. It’s like trying to render a self-portrait without the aid of a mirror, and more – while one is in the process of doing something else, like running, or operating heavy machinery, or making a salad, or playing a video game.
It’s the process of writing, the actual work of putting the thing together word by word, that helps makes sense (every way in which that term can be used) of the raw feelings we feel so desperate to convey in our work.
When we’re young, we don’t know so much about writing – no mystery in that. We learn by doing, and the more we do, the more we learn. Or so we hope.
The truth that gets forgotten or overlooked is that when we’re young, we don’t know much about feelings, either. We know we have them, and that they shape us and direct us, but that’s not saying a lot. We can fly as passengers in a plane and know nothing of the basics of aerodynamics, either. We still get to places, though we don’t know how.
Writing is a place we can learn more about our feelings. We can examine them, test them, put them to work. We may not be conscious that this is what we’re doing, but we do it. We write to learn, whether we’re aware of it or not.
And one of the things that has most intrigued me about science fiction in particular, apart from the process of fiction-making at any level, is its natural tendency to put what we know to the test. When Philip K. Dick tried to “explain” science fiction in his speech, “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” included in the collection I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, he boiled it down to two questions: 1.) What is Reality? and 2.) “What constitutes an authentic human being?” – this second I place in quotes because Dick’s wording is important. Dick has perhaps oversimplified the issue and defined what science fiction is for him, though not for everyone else, but a truth hovers over his assessment. Science fiction does – or at least can – include as much metaphysics as physics, but is not necessarily about the metaphysics. It’s about us. It’s about what we believe and what we desire – and what we feel. It’s about all the things we look for and often discover when we read what’s often referred to as “realistic” fiction, but then takes that and applies an even sharper lens to this “reality.” It allows for alternatives to the status quo. It allows for glimpses into what we cannot know – the future – through what we do know, or think we know.
At its best, science fiction can do this.
Would that we do it more often, especially now, when “status quo” and conventions have become the objects of constant struggles – when science and technology may play an even more important role in shaping a world culture than even money and power. Science fiction need not be a limitation, not a simplification, of human experience, but an opportunity to expand our experience and comprehension of it.
And our feelings toward it.
If we do it right.