Editorial License: A Literature of Possible Tomorrows - by Ernest Lilley - Editor/SFRevu
Ian Randal Strock, Editor/Publisher of Artemis Magazine, was chatting up an attractive person wearing a press badge that said "Atlantic Monthly" on it outside a panel I’d just been on at Readercon. Knowing that Ian is happily engaged, and that I’m totally immune by virtue of my recent nuptials, I stepped in to help him out.
Liz Wasserman was trying to figure out what’s going on. She works for the New Media department at the Atlantic Monthly, and came to Readercon hoping to come up with a really great story about this…(she didn’t know what to call it) …SF? Science Fiction?
She didn’t even know that SF was evil. She said that she wanted to know more about this stuff, but she didn’t really know where to start. Be still my heart.
“That means you have a chance,” I told her. “There are generations that have already decided what box to put all this in, and how much tape to put on the box.”
“What do you think people need to know about Science Fiction?” She asked me.
She had to ask. Here’s what I said.
That it’s a literature of zany ideas. The best of Science Fiction is stories that make you stop and say, “I never looked at things that way before.” Science Fiction is a literature of paradigm shifts.
It’s also one of the last, best refuges for the Short Story form…along with Atlantic Monthly. The SF short story traditionally ends with something happening that makes you feel like you were hit on the side of the head with a hammer. Usually in a good way, or at least an interesting one.
And the best way to get that experience quickly is to pick up a copy of Gardner Dozois’ Years Best SF (like the one I review in this issue: Year’s Best SF 19) or David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF…which has a slightly different take.
LW: Which one is more science oriented, or is that a bad distinction?
It’s a great distinction. We call how "Hard SF" is it? How much is it based on science and technology as opposed to how much is it based on character?
There have been a number of different waves of Science Fiction, and other people will break them up in different ways, but this is the way I see them.
First, there was the Golden Age of science fiction. It took place in roughly the first half of the twentieth century, and was full of the “gee-whiz-iness” of science and technology. That was the stuff that a lot of the graying population around here cut their teeth on. Including me, but I started early. That generation is moving off the stage, and the generation that followed them discovered character and the story has gotten more depth, and more complexity, and pushed technology to the side as a false prophet, and that characterized the writing of the second half of the last century. There were many people that cared more about legitimizing SF as literature than enjoying it for it’s promise of a groovy future. Which they’d stopped believing in anyway. So you had a lot of really downer SF, full of apocalypse, environmental collapse, and overbearing corporations. Very dystopic…very cranky.
In the first part of the last century, technology made life more exciting, and expanded our horizons in ways that didn’t seem to have a lot of downside. Yes, there were really big wars…but the idea was to solve the problems that caused wars so that we could get on to the future and drive jet-cars to our bubble cities in the sky.
By the end of the 1950s, that dream was seriously stressed.
The second half of the century was a reaction to the enthusiasm. Among other things, America was full of refugees from World War II that had come to escape the horrors of the war and never left. What they brought with them was the first hand knowledge of man’s tremendous capacity for destruction and the creation of misery. They had a right to their despair, having lived through concentration camps and executions on a scale that only modern weapons could provide…but their legacy was to convince a generation looking for something to rebel about that the future was inescapably bleak.
SF of the second half of the century isn't taken seriously if it's any fun. Fun, we had learned, wasn't something the future offered us. Misery was more like it. Like a broken record, wave after wave of SF prognosticated nuclear destruction, plague wars, bioshphere collapse, and just plain bad times ahead.
There are generations coming along that are just plain tired of doom and gloom. Generation X is now starting to nest, and Trust No One isn’t a motto that they can use anymore. They want to be able to trust others, and this whole dystopic conspiracy thing had gotten as old as an aging rock star…and about as pretty.
Today, people can, and do, write any kind of SF they want, and the early stuff is creeping back onto the stage. Folks like Ian Strock, are taking the stage, and they really want the gee-whiz future back. Even if they have to make it themselves.
People used to say SF was terrible at predicting the future, and they would cite things like atomic powered cars and space travel as evidence that SF got it all wrong…but the truth is that a lot of the technology we have today clearly has the potential to provide the kind of future people used to dream about.
Science Fiction doesn’t so much attempt to be descriptive as it suggestive. It seeks to plant seeds in people's minds about the kind of future they could have, and then let them go out and interpret those ideas in their own ways.
William Gibson dreamed about virtual reality before there was an internet…and the people who read his seminal book, Neuromancer, found it so compelling that they went out and built the internet …in no small part in the image Gibson had created.
Neuromancer didn’t predict the future, it laid out a vision for a possible future.
The entire US Space program is made up of people who read SF and went out to turn it into reality…it’s not their fault we don’t have colonies on the moon. (I got that line from Ian)
It seems to me that the new millennium is a chance for us to take the dreams of the first half of the twentieth century and the cautions of the second half and to make something new out of them. Something great.
The future doesn’t just happen. We make it happen.
© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu