Inaugural reflections on Science Fiction
Conceiving that the theme of a composition class I will be teaching this coming semester will have something to do with the future, I assigned as the principle text a ponderous anthology of science fiction stories, which I am presently making my way through. Outside of the odd paperback novel read and forgotten in youth, this is my first significant exposure to a genre which I have hitherto been content to ignore. Had I not required my students to buy the anthology (the Wesleyan, if you are curious) I would have been content, after reading as much as I have of it, to resume my oblivion.
My reasons for disliking science fiction are still not perfectly clear to me. I find myself bored by the stories not because they are not in their way exciting, but because I find little in them that excites me in particular–nothing that either corresponds to or illuminates my experience of existence. It is, so far, mostly a matter of taste: a disinclination formed of the same inborn biases as prevent me from enjoying most Victorian parlor dramas, books about animals, westerns, and a thousand such preferential distinctions.
My distrust of the science fiction, however partial, seems defensible when looked at acutely. Writing–since its earliest contrivance–has been used by man as a tool of posterity: a way of making record. For this reason our earliest stories–the foundational myths and legends that make up our original literature–invariably find their setting in the distant, sometimes immemorial past. The most natural tense in which to write fiction is the past tense, because this is the most natural way to tell a story, which is something that one has either experienced oneself or is transmitting from the experience of another. Even the prophetic voice, as found in the Bible, is more often than not telling of things that will happen, or are presently happening, as if they have happened already. The reason for it being so seems clear enough: the future tense, having necessarily the sound of speculation, is naturally more difficult to trust.
Beyond any personal cavil I may have, then, against such tedious topics as technology, extraterrestrials, and so on, my suspicion of science fiction seems also rooted in my instinctive regard for hearing of what has happened rather than what will happen. I am more likely to bear a science fiction story patiently if I can see that the conditions of the world being described are such as would reasonably evolve from the conditions of the world as it is now. There is a lesson in such stories, and it derives more from observations of the past than it does from roaming fantasies of the future. Mere imagination is not enough. It must relate to something if it is to have coherency. An occupying fleet of inscrutable space-creatures is useful only if, as in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it manages to instruct us somewhat upon our own limitations, or to cast a light upon our hubris, or to remind us of the cyclical fragility of civilizations. Even then, it is only performing the duty of history in a gaudier fashion, out of which the lesson will be harder to extrapolate, because impossible to observe. The ultimate lesson of The War of the Worlds may be that we would do well to keep a well-stocked arsenal of atomic bombs in case of alien invasion; the lesson of history is that the atomic bomb has made us alien to ourselves.
What I have found with much of the science fiction I have so far encountered is that the man is missing. There is a great deal of wonderful technology, and vast distances being traveled, and great world-shaking cataclysms that exterminate millions in a twinkling–but the man, the inmost owner of thought and experience–is gone: either overlooked in favor of enlarging upon the greater circumstance, or driven out of his senses by his participation therein. It is a genre, I have found, concerned most often with generalities, in which the individual life and death are obscured by the movement of centuries and the eradicating arm of unintelligible catastrophe. Man, when present, is usually deprived of all potency, already skewered and wriggling before the open jaws of fate.
Each of us has only one future, and that is our own death. In that moment, whether we are on earth or another planet, whether we are attended by doctors or drones, whether we are dying alone or in the company of our whole race, is of no consequence. The utopian dream of science fiction is that death will become an obsolete notion–that man will overcome it as he has every other material inconvenience. Perhaps its best use is to explore the implications of such a deplorable fantasy, which is today–in reality–the delirious impetus behind every new technological development–i.e., to outrace mortality. In the process, we are making ourselves not the conquerors of time, but its vassals: a condition made more intolerable each minute we remain alive.