The future

The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949

The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science fiction is a fun genre.  It’s the genre of the future.  Says so on the ad copy.  Thing is, that’s true.

First, though, it’s fantasy.  It’s myth.  It’s a fairy story.  The difference between The Hobbit, and Star Wars comes down to one has ray guns and spaceships.  This is important to the genre of the future angle, though.

Fairy stories are, by and large, morals.  They tell us something about the human condition, or they tell us a moral or ethical lesson.  Science fiction does the same, but it does it with fewer princesses and more explosions.

Some people have taken to calling science fiction the genre of ideas.  That’s nonsense.  Not because science fiction isn’t the genre of ideas, I mean the concept of a ‘genre of ideas’ is preposterous.  I mean, what the fuck does that even mean?  All stories are, in some form or other, an idea and expressing one.  SciFi isn’t special there.  SciFi is a way to paint what the future could hold, it’s a way to warn and guide.  Myths, legends, fairy stories of the classic sort remind us how to be and how to behave.  SciFi takes those stories, puts chrome and lights on them and uses it to set the bar on where we should go, what to strive for.

Orwell’s 1984 is a dire warning of what blind patriotism can lead to.  Clarke’s Space Odysseys paint a picture of what man might one day achieve.  Star Wars tells a classic myth with ray guns and starships, which shows us that no matter what — some things will never change and the old morals and old ethics will be eternal and universal.  

Hope, fear, dreams, nightmares.  That is science fiction.  You can fill it with all the robotic pornography you like.  You can genetically alter people until they’re no longer Human.  You can lob off limbs and carve out organs to create cyborgs.  You can build vast civilisations that drift through space in a starship the size of Jupiter.  You can arm the cops of next week with esoteric weapons of your own dreaming, based on established scientific thought.  In this way, yes, it is the fiction of ideas.  It’s the genre of dreams.  It’s chrome plated fucking fairy stories.

Realism and reality are relative.  Dream the dreams, leave the rest to the engineers.  Gene Roddenberry invented the matter transporter because it was cheaper to pour glitter into a glass of water than it was to make scenes of a massive star ship, or a small shuttle, landing on this week’s alien planet.  Today there are scientist working hard to solve the puzzle of just how we might transmit matter from point to point as though it were a digital photograph.  He wanted the crew of the Enterprise to visit strange worlds all over the galaxy, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before … he needed to outrun light to do it.  Warp drive.  What is it?  Technobabble adding up to “we make a BIG BOOM with some antimatter”.  Why that?  It was the new cool kid (er …  I mean theory) on the block, for much the same reason early Marvel had a thing for gamma rays.  Today scientists are wondering if, just maybe, we could race photons in warped space.

Jules Verne took us to the moon, as did Heinlein, Clarke, and others after.  In 1969, NASA took us to the moon by live video broadcast on our TV sets.  Mankind was, on that day, living nearly a century of science fiction, and aeons of dreams.  In this century Mars One plans to set Human colonists upon the rusty plains of Mars.  Barsoom will have upon her soil the footprints of Man.  A dream and a tale that has been told since humans first gazed through a telescope at the strange red star at the riverbeds, seas, mountains, and canyons of that eerily familiar globe.

Orwell’s stories gave people a vocabulary to discuss their fears and worries after the attack on the World Trade Centre.  Of the powers granted the president.  Of the invasions of privacy that have been rampant since.  Before and since there have been concerns and fears of cameras watching our every action upon every street corner and intersection.  Because, when Big Brother is watching … how safe do we feel?  Should we achieve security at any cost, or should we sacrifice security for freedom?  As Heinlein points out in many different ways, through many different voices, and upon many different worlds, a free man can make his own security; a man under the watchful thumb of enforced security, on the other hand, is never secure.  Well, that last part is injecting a bit more of Orwell’s warning into the blend, but it’s a valid point.  A free man makes his own destiny, a lab rate in a maze under the watchful eyes of his Keepers, does not.  When we have Big Brother over our shoulders we are that rat, not that man.  This we are taught by the fairy stories of science fiction.

What?  Fairy stories can’t be dark lessons?  Dire warnings?  Ever read some of the old classics in the original Grimm versions?  How about the versions that they, in their turn, candy coated?  Just as the hopeful utopias with their shining knights in their gleaming rockets that are Flash Gordon and Buck Roghers are a fairy story, so too are the grim dystopian futures of cyberpunk and 1984.  Oh, and because I’ve seen people not grokking this fact in recent times:  1984 was, in fact, a warning, not a bloody great idea; okay folks?

When we write science fiction we should look forward, foresee not the future as though we were Agnes Nutter, but rather we should look at the future and ask “what if”.  We should wonder, what if Mankind grows up?  What if Mankind develops warp drive?  What if we continue down the path upon which we currently trod as a society?  What if the sun begins the process of collapsing into a red giant later this year?  What if a giant meteor crashes into the earth tomorrow?  What if, what if, what if.

Dreams and nightmares, hope and despair.  Those are the tools, are the fuel of scifi and always have been.  Science fiction should be driven by our hearts, our emotions, our fear and our laughter, our psyches, our deepest instincts.  It should be steered by our minds, our logic, our reasoning.  Science fiction is about foreseeing the future in our What If answers.  We should look around at history, at myth, at legend, we should look at those we know, at our own souls, and we should follow the paths we envision to see where they go.  We are Sherlock Holmes investigating the possible truth, regardless how implausible, of these paths so that the futures we paint, be they frightening or cheerful, are ones that ring with Truth.  Does it matter if the future is painted with miniaturised vacuum tubes instead of microchips because, oh my, but no one say that coming?  Does it matter if our future is envisioned with warping space being our method if getting from star to star when, in fact, it winds up being wormholes or quantum teleportation, or floo powder?  So long as it’s believable in its own context it’s fine.

As readers we should also remember that the context of the internal story — the context of “in the year 2437 A.D. …” must be considered against that little copyright date that says “(c) E E. “Doc” Smith 1938″.  His 2437 had vacuum tubes, the ether, and similar, because man had not yet so much as split an atom — we were still working on that.  Give the man a break.

Yes, it is true, SF is born in a crucible of ideas.  So is any story.  What makes science fiction, science fiction; what makes it stand out, and what makes it spark the imaginations of Mankind … it’s magic, that is that mysterious, elusive, intangible substance, place, idea, all rolled into one, of The Future.  Look to it, dream about it, fear it.  If we don’t, we’ll stay stuck right here in the present; because one day a fan of Roddenberry’s dreams will transport himself from Earth to orbit on a carrier wave.  One day a fan of George Lucas will jump to hyperspace, ready to see just what Alderaan looks like.  And, if we’re not careful, one day — gods help us — Big Brother could send his thought police to deal with our treasonous minds.

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