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.
Isaac Asimov added several entire courses to our endless and ongoing dinner-table conversation about human destiny. Even so, Asimov kept re-adjusting focus in his Foundation Universe! Like any truly honest scientist, he re-evaluated. Each and every decade, Isaac found hidden implications in his universe. Things that were already tacit, between the lines. In meticulous honesty, he always bared these implications and explored them... till the next decade started another round.
Science Fiction contemplates the possibility of successfully defying fate. Author David Brin discusses the literature of science fiction, how it has evolved through history, and how the genre differs from fantasy and mainstream literature.
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.
Is interstellar travel by bio-humanity even possible? Not according to my dear bro and esteemed colleague Kim Stanley Robinson. Whose new novel AURORA follows one of the first… and possibly last… efforts to send a generation starship to a neighboring star. Naturally, any KSR book is worth rushing out to purchase… though like many of his other works, there is a very strong sense that the author has a point to make.
Starting with the fact that he's been asked for thirty years: “Hey, Robinson, how come you never leave the solar system!” AURORA is – foremost – his answer....
I consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A "prescriptive utopia" is a tome wherein an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.)
While Heinlein did opine about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, (and, as I said, in many cases each contradicting the other), it is in Beyond This Horizon that you’ll find him clearly stating ... This Is The Way I Think Things Ought To Be. And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future. Here - rather than in his novels Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land, we see the clearest ever expression of his political philosophy, which is demonstrably neither “fascist” nor anywhere near as conservative as some simple-minded critics might have us think.
Literature was the first truly verifiable, repeatable and effective form of magic. Picture how it must have impressed ancient people to look at marks – on papyrus or clay – and know they conveyed the words of scribes and kings long dead. Knowledge, wisdom and art could finally accumulate. Death was robbed some of its sting. Writing still is magical. To create strings of black squiggles that millions of others skillfully de-code with just their eyes – into emotions and thoughts, or the struggles of believable characters – or spectacle beyond Hollywood’s wildest dreams. Still, despite all of that, science and the honesty that it engenders have been our true accomplishments. I believe in a literature that explores this revolution, that presents alternatives and hard choices and that might help us to be wise about the onrushing process of change. One that helps to remind science and progress that it needs a heart. I reject the dichotomy, the notion that these things oppose each other.
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.
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