Thursday, April 26, 2012
Mundane Science Fiction - an Oxymoron?
This morning I learned for the first time about something called "mundane science fiction." Here is how Wikipedia defines it: "It focuses on stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written" and the article goes on to state (in summary) that there is no evidence for the existence of any of the premises of SF, such as FTL travel and communication, intelligent aliens, alternate universes, etc. Therefore, "the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet"; furthermore, the article states that "unfounded speculation about interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth [and] that this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth."
I couldn't disagree more! I thought we were writing fiction here! Most fiction -- even the most mainstream or literary non-science fiction is not totally reflective of everyday life. The very idea of creative writing and art in general is to be creative -- to expand and enhance our perceptions of the human existence. Tolkien spoke of the Sub-Creator, and that's how I like to think of the best writers.
The first people to create "science fiction" were sitting around a campfire shortly after the invention of language. They looked at the stars and the seasons and the weather and the process of birth and growth and they invented explanations for these wonderful and fearful things according to the best understanding of their times. They invented gods (the greatest fiction of all), and they invented myth, which enhances our perceptions of our humanity better than any experiment with molecules can do. Today we may call this way of writing "fantasy," and in my opinion the borderland between SF, fantasy, and reality is where the most impressive creations lie.
If you want to write a story set on Earth, with science and technology as it exists today, that's fine, but you would do just as well to write a mainstream novel. What "mundane" SF seems to want to do is to eliminate or at least restrict the human imagination -- no mythmaking allowed! In my opinion, the best Fantasists are writing modern myth. Think what you can learn on a psychological basis from Frodo's final statement after he has endured so much suffering to save the world from evil, "I have come, but I do not choose now to do that I came to do! I will not do this deed! The Ring is mine!" What about the mysterious insights obtained from reading about Ged as he chases his evil self across the oceans of Earthsea in the boat Lookfar, only to absorb it into his greater self when he finally catches it?
And if you want a more typical SF treatment, let me cite a couple of my favorite "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episodes. One is "Darmok," where a race is encountered whose language is based on metaphor and thus, while the words can be translated by that improbable Universial Translator, the meanings cannot be comprehended without a knowledge of the myths of the culture. Alone together on a dangerous planet, Jean-Luc Picard and the Captain of the alien ship have to communicate using their respective myths; Picard uses the Gilgamesh story. And at the end Riker catches Picard reading the Homeric Hymns in Greek (in a "real" book, by the way) and the Captain explains, "More familiarity with our own culture might help us to relate to theirs." Then in the episode "The Inner Light" a probe enables Picard to experience the life of a man on a dying planet and thus is able to keep the memory of that planet alive. I have probably seen that episode a dozen times! Sure, the science is improbable; no probe exists that could make Picard live that man's life and there is no such alien race that speaks in metaphors. But there are universal truths expressed in all these examples. It's not for nothing that the human species was endowed with the ability to suspend disbelief!
And one final word -- this business that SF creates a "dream of abundance [that] can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth." In other words, anything that leads a person to conceive of something beyond what is known causes us to behave like spendthrifts and waste all the goodness that the Earth provides. Are people really so incapable of telling the difference between fantasy and reality that they have to be shielded from the imaginary? There are lots of reasons why a greedy, selfish, heedless humanity is likely to destroy its home planet. I really don't think imagining the possibility that the grass is greener elsewhere is going to be at the top of the list! In fact, many works of SF, including my own, present a significantly cautionary tale about the future.