Thursday, April 26, 2007

Taking the Sci Out of Sci-Fi

I've always liked the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it's science fiction "because it's not about robots and spaceships". ~ Terry Pratchett

Evidently, "science fiction" is a taboo term to the so-called "intelligentsia" of the world. According to this article, even Battlestar Galactica, which is on the Sci-Fi Channel prefers to refer to itself as "fleshed-out reality."

Fleshed-out reality? A civilization is stupid enough to believe their worst enemy when they say they'll meet with them to talk peace as long as they bring all their battleships with them and leave their home world unprotected so the baddies can wipe it out? That's not any kind of reality; that's stupidity on a galactic scale.

Some critic quoted in the article refers to sci-fi as "fantasy with testosterone," thereby proving that:
  1. He's never read any real science fiction;

  2. He's never read any real fantasy; and,

  3. He's an idiot.
Fantasy and science fiction are entirely different literary forms. There does exist a genre referred to as "science fantasy" which might include something like Star Wars, with its space ships and Jedi mysticism intermingling freely.

The bigger issue to me, though, is the denigration of the term science fiction. Somehow, the genre that includes Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur Clarke, has always been regarded as something less than great literature. Teachers would frown on any student who would try to use a sci-fi novel for a book report.

There were exceptions, of course. Some teachers have actually recommended Madelaine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, which surely qualifies as sci-fi. Some works of C. S. Lewis fall into the science fantasy area and are often the subject of literature courses. Of course, both authors are dealing in "allegorical novels" that somehow transcend the baseness of the sci-fi aspect. After "science fiction" is about rockets, robots, time travel, and disintegrator rays.

Some people, notably Paul Allen and several universities still have some respect for the literature of Robert Heinlein, Hal Clement, and possibly even Andre Norton. But, for the most part, it seems that authors and producers feel that calling their work sci-fi puts it into some sort of pulp fiction category. Perhaps it's the works themselves that are pulp. Much of what passes for sci-fi these days is drawn-out soap opera material about relationships and various personal crises, just like everything else that passes for entertainment on the tube these days.

Real sci-fi falls pretty much into two groups. There's "space opera", a spin on the old term "horse opera" which used to refer to westerns. A good space opera story (which may not ever get into space) features heroic heroes, lots of action, and good triumphing over evil in the end. These are basically good old action stories which use science as a hook, mostly to get neat gadgets or monsters into the plot. There's nothing wrong with space operas; many are good entertainment, while some are just plain pulp. That's no different from the mystery genre or the heaving-bodice novels.

But there is also the truly literary sci-fi that deals with large themes, where good and evil are not so easily defined. Many of these stories are as good as anything in the category of "serious" or "classical" literature. Jules Verne was imaging the possibilities of technology while Wells often looked at the potential dangers. Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov told us much about the human condition. Hal Clement's stories have a poignancy and universality that can touch anyone.

On the one hand, great stories are great stories, whether set in Victorian England or on a mysterious spaceship called Rama. On the other hand, the science aspect of science fiction sets it apart because it can deal with problems we haven't even had yet.

Maybe the current downplaying of sci-fi is just part of the western world's general lack of regard for science. Science, although it provides us with the world in which we live, is the province of "eggheads" and "geeks." Carl Sagan often talked of the deplorable lack of scientific knowledge within the general public. Perhaps those who are afraid of "science" being appended to their "fiction" are afraid that viewers and readers will be turned off because they might actually learn something.

Maybe it's time to recognize that many of the sci-fi authors were warning us of precisely this situation.

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