Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Science Fiction

This is long, but I had to get it out of my system. I have been posting about literary fiction over on my blog and ended by writing this.

I talk mostly about science fiction, but most of it also applies to fantasy.


Literary fiction clearly bugs me. Most likely because science fiction and fantasy still don't get the respect they deserve from most of the literary community. But I don't know enough about contemporary literary fiction to criticize it.

So I will talk about what I like about SF & F.

What people think is important. But I am more interested in how people act and how societies change. Technology is important, science is important, because both change our lives and how we think. NASA's Astronomy Photo of Day opens our minds, and lets us see the extraordinary beauty of the universe. It can move us -- mentally -- hundreds of thousands of lightyears. The Internet enables us to hold conversations that go around the planet. For the first time, we can find out what's happening at the level of individual experience everywhere. The New York Times ignored Occupy Wall Street at first, and has not covered it well since it began paying attention. But we have the videos of cops pepper spraying and beating demonstrators, which were taken by cell phones and put on line. We've seen what the demonstrators look like, heard what they have to say. Their signs and stories are all over the Internet.

When I was a kid in the truly strange 1950s, science fiction was the only fiction that explained the world I lived in, which might at any moment be destroyed by nuclear war. Most adults pretended the problem did not exist. Nuclear war was no worse than any other kind of war. All you needed was a fallout shelter in the back yard or a school desk to hid under. But I remember waking up terrified when a siren went off in the night. Science fiction was real. MAD magazine was real. Comic books were real. Because all knew reality was strange and scary and uncertain.

I subscribe to New Scientist and Technology Review. Science and technology are moving too fast for me to keep up; and it isn't one kind of science or technology that is moving fast. They are all going like gang busters. I figure SF is the best way to describe this astoundingly fluid world, changing from moment to moment in a hundred plus ways.

Did you know that slime molds can run mazes? And they could be used in city planning, though no one is doing this yet? They will find the most efficient way to go from A to B; you could use them to lay out a highway system. How do I know this? Some guy ran slime molds over a map of Tokyo. They laid out a highway system as well as city planners.

What do you do with a piece of information like that? I imagine using slime molds to plan cities. Someone is likely to do it. I also think of an organism that is usually single celled, but can become multicelled -- two different kinds of multicelled, if I'm remembering correctly, one a network and one a kind of hierarchy. The guys on top of the hierarchy get to reproduce. I am trying to imagine an alien society which is usually an anarchy, but can form two kinds of social organizations when needed. In a sense, Occupy Wall Street is like this: separate individuals coming together to form a network with distributed power.

I guess I will give one more example or pair of examples: Margaret Atwood's famous novel The Handmaiden's Tale and Suzette Hayden Elgin's far less well known science fiction novel Native Tongue.

I started The Handmaid's Tale, but gave up on it. Atwood established her idea: the US has turned into a religious patriarchy that enslaves women. But as far as I got into the novel, there were no more ideas, and I couldn't see why I should read a depressing book that was going to go on and on, with nothing new happening. (Many SF fans loved Atwood's book, by the way.) Elgin began with the same idea, then added her ideas about language, which are respected among linguists. (She was a linguist, teaching at the university level.) And she added aliens. I finished Native Tongue and read the sequel.

One idea is not enough in this world, where change comes from every direction, unless you are writing a short story.

1 comment:

lydamorehouse said...

A very thoughtful and useful post, Eleanor. I very much agree with the idea that, when I was young, comic books, etc., felt real because they expressed a world full of things that were scary and thoughtful and marvelous.