Plainly stated: science fiction retains the bold, reality-breaking element of ancient myth-telling, far better than any other genre. But it also rebels against venerable tradition, by portraying change as a protean fluid, sometimes malleable or even good! Violating a core tenet of Aristotle's Poetics, sci fi contemplates the possibility of successfully defying Fate.
Writer and futurist David Brin aruges for the academic validity of science fiction, as the literature best suited to expanding out horizons while explorng solutions to society's most pressing problems.
Who dealt with the scale of human destiny better than the great Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series? Elsewhere I've said about him: "Asimov served wondrous meals-of-the-mind to a civilization that was starved for clear thinking about the future. To this day, his visions spice our ongoing dinner-table conversation about human destiny."
Science and technology and politics have helped push us to new heights, fostering our ability to criticize and change countless old/bad habits. But culture also plays a big role. The myths we tell and love, these propel us to action. "Self-preventing prophecies" like 1984 and Soylent Green helped save us. Star Trek offers a glimpse of our better-than-us grandchildren. Here are many of the essays and deliberate provocations in which I have tried to shake up stodgy ways of looking at film, literature and science fiction. Break the assumptions and cliches!
Ray was the last living member of a “BACH” quartet — writers who transformed science fiction from a pulp magazine ghetto into a genre for hardcover bestsellers. Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein helped shatter barriers for the rest of us, establishing the legitimacy of literature that explores possible or plausible tomorrows.
But it was Bradbury who made clear to everyone that science fiction can be art. An art form combining boldness and broad horizons with sheer, unadulterated beauty.
although it might be called a form of lying, most societies have highly valued storytelling. In my role as a novelist, I join this tradition by stringing together lengthy chains of coded squiggles—in the Roman alphabet—that highly skilled readers later deconvolute and transform into stirring mental images, rollicking action, empathy with imagined characters, and even (possibly) an insight or two. Motion pictures shortcut and amplify this process with a firehose stream of visual images, cues and crutches that cater to the same human genius—a knack for picturing things, people and events that never (objectively) existed. If “magic” is the creation of subjective realities in the minds of other peoples, then we moderns have learned how to perform magical incantations on a vast, industrial scale.
Overall, 21st Century SF is heavily warped and crushed under a burden of nostalgia for the past...and anomie toward the future. In "Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future," Jonathan McCalmont says -- and I agree -- that this dismally destructive and demoralizing trend controls most of the top magazines and most of the Best of the Year anthologies... oh and the awards. McCalmont illuminates how this is not only manifest in the omphaloskeptic (navel-contemplating) short story community of SF but in sub-genres that proclaim themselves to be bold, like Steam Punk and the surge of Skew Cultural science fictional novels (many of which I find admirable) by non-male, non-western or interestingly-origined authors.
In Star Wars, elites have an inherent right to arbitrary rule. This is just the beginning of a long list of “moral” lessons relentlessly pushed by “Star Wars.” Lessons that starkly differentiate this saga from others that seem superficially similar, like “Star Trek.” (We’ll take a much closer look at some stark divergences between these two sci-fi universes below.)
Consider the ages from twelve to fifteen, when a person's sense of wonder can bloom or wither, starved by ennui or seared by fashionable cynicism. Sometimes even the right book or film can ignite a fire that lasts a lifetime — you never know. For many of us, it was futuristic or speculative literature that helped cast our minds far beyond family, city, or oppressive peers... not to mention the limitations that others seemed bent on imposing, shackling our dreams.
Robert Heinlein was a question-asker. I consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon (BTH) that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be. And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.
The Postman is fundamentally about civilization -- the things that we'd miss, were it to fall. Many people ask my impressions of the film by Kevin Costner, and I posted an article on my website. I understand Hollywood and know that prose fiction is only glancingly related to what you see on the big screen. It's a director's medium, calling for visual storytelling skills and an eye for dramatic moments that are shown, not told. But here I've recorded a ten minute YouTube author reappraisal of the book and the movie:
Jack Williamson's life is one long tale of hoodwinking fate, of turning adversity into advantage, and above all, changing the world through the sheer magic of his perceptions. By seeing the universe in a new way -- and conveying his vision through science fiction -- Williamson helped break the old spell that held human beings enthralled for so long. The tradition of static sameness. The old fear of innovation.
He helped make the world we live in. A world in love with change.
The self-preventing prophecy is arguably the most important type of literature, since it gives us a stick to wield, poking into the ground before us as we charge into a murky future, exploring with our minds what quicksand dangers may lurk just ahead. This kind of thought experiment – that Einstein calledgedankenexperiment – is the fruit of our prefrontal lobes, humanity’s most unique and recent organ, the font of our greatest gifts: curiosity, empathy, anticipation and resilience. Indeed, forward-peering storytelling is one of the major ways that we turn fear into something profoundly practical. Avoidance of failure. The early detection and revelation of Big Mistakes, before we even get a chance to make them. While hardly in the same league as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Carson, and Butler, I’m proud to be part of that tradition – an endeavor best performed by science fiction.
Why are SF and Fantasy so often grouped together? Obviously, because they share readership and so are well placed together in book stores. Fantasy is the mother genre -- e.g. Gilgamesh, the Illad, Odyssey and most religions. Sci Fi is the brash offshoot. All literature has deep roots in fantasy, which in turn emerges from the font of our dreams. Having said that, what is my definition of the separation? I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability. Science Fiction considers the possibility of learning and change.
Seriously, I was always fascinated by our relationship with the “highest” animal species on Planet Earth. The more I learned — talking to researchers who knew cetaceans and apes intimately — the more I realized, these creatures are not quite as smart as mythology pictured them… but they wanted to be! Both dolphins and chimpanzees seem frustrated and eager to accomplish more than they currently can achieve, in solving problems, in communicating with us.
So? Suppose someday soon we became capable of giving them a hand? Of helping them cross the remaining gap and becoming skilled members of an advanced civilization? What an interesting society that might be! With our horizons of tolerance and citizenship expanded, along with new styles of wisdom…
… only what if others, out there, had already done this same thing?
In some other places, the topic of legendary science fiction author Robert Anson Heinlein has repeatedly come up, along with shouting matches -- "He was a libertarian!" "No, a socialist!" "No, a fascist!" I finally had enough and weighed into one of these discussions, with a comment I'll append below... along with more snippets of science.
A good starting point for delving into the literature of science fiction, ranging from classics such as 1984 and Dune to more recent works by Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson. Sci Fi novels are categorized as The Hard Stuff, Harbingers of Hope, Dire Warnings, Gedankenexperiments, Alternative History, Time Travel, Humor, and Predictive Successes.
What is the message of Dune? How does the 1984 movie, directed by David Lynch, differ from the book by Frank Herbert? While the viewer roots for the House of Atreides, even they represent a future endlessly dominated by old-style oligarchy - the perpetual enemy of freedom. Is Frank Herbert catering to our fascination with feudalism? Or is he trying to shake the reader awake?
Too many authors and film-makers buy into the playground notion that cynicism is somehow chic and knowing. So many 50 or 80 year-old cliches are rampant -- e.g. "hey look, I invented suspicion of authority!" -- while nostalgia pushes aside what used to be our genre's golden notion. That we in this civilization might find ways to improve, to solve problems, to become better than we were. A difficult project, fraught with many pitfalls. But too many portray it now as hopeless.
Writing is a worthy calling -- one that can, at times, achieve great heights taht ennoblet he human race. Actually, I believe writing was the first truly verifiable and effective form of magic. Think of how it must have impressed people in ancient times! Author David Brin offers suggestions to set new authors on the path toward writing...
What books can we give our teens that don't mire them in a swamp of vampires, domineering wizards or nostalgia for feudalism? These are a few favorites for young adults, weighted more toward SF and a little common sense mixed with lots of sense-o-wonder. Many are classics...along with some marvelous recent additions.
Earth was written at the end of the 1980s. Some 'predictions' that got attention were my portrayal of a vivid, dynamic World Wide Web, wearable computing, Tru-Vu sousveillance goggles, as well as large-scale changes such as sea level rise and global warming. In fact, predictions registries have been set up at Technovelgy.com and Issuepedia to track hits and misses from Earth, such as bee zappers, reading plaques, filtered reality, and subvocal computer interfaces.
It’s well known that in 1865, Jules Verne published his novel, De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), which includes the concept of human spaceflight. And yet, Verne never discussed the far more practical notion of of an artificial satellite orbiting Earth. For that it took an American, Edward Everett Hale (author of the Man Without a Country). The Brick Moon was published serially in Atlantic Monthly starting in 1869. And it is absolutely amazing. Almost every other paragraph you are either chortling over some bit of what we’d now call scientific naiveté… or else staring at the page in disbelief that some folks back then had such clear notions as geo-stationary navigation satellites.