Why Science Fiction?

There was a time when I read nothing but science fiction. Then the end of high school came and university began, and new priorities and distractions seemed to lead away from that genre and towards the grittier, more relevant it seemed, world of thrillers and detective stories.  At the same time reading fiction for fun became less important, and the world of non-fiction opened up.

I dabbled a few times over the years since, but I often ran into fantasies about the lost Princess Chermroyen and the Great Sword Flageltov set on the planet Gosh and I was put off.

I’ve started to read the genre more diligently now, since I’m interested in writing the stuff, and I’ve found more to like. There are many good ones that I just plain missed during the decade or three I stayed away.

Here are a few I’ve read recently. They are random in how I came across them, but also there’s something about these particular novels I found memorable for good or ill.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, 1992.

I picked this up because I had read his later book Cryptonomicon (1999), a huge novel about cryptography both during WWII and in modern times, hidden treasure, computers, secret societies and a haiku writing, gung-ho Marine.

Snow CrashSnow Crash, though, is set in the near future, where a kind of corporate fascism holds sway. The Mafia controls pizza delivery, and getting Cosa Nostra Pizza late to the customer beyond the mandated 30-minute delivery time may mean dismissal with extreme prejudice. The USA’s cities have become a network of corporate franchises. The hero protagonist, Hiro Protagonist, is a courier, part-time pizza delivery guy and samurai swordsman who works for the Central Intelligence Corporation and lives in a storage unit. He uses his laptop to link with the Metaverse.

He hooks up with a smart-aleck skateboarder girl, and they try to save the world from a combined designer drug and computer virus called Snow Crash. This virulent stuff is part of a conspiracy traceable back to the times of ancient Sumer.

This is amusingly wild and inventive cyber-punk and, despite its age, is surprisingly not that dated. I was intrigued by the Metaverse Stephenson describes, with its avatars and sense of another realm with its own rules. It seems quite like Second Life, the real virtual world launched in 2003. (Apparently Second Life was inspired greatly by this novel.)

The inspired mayhem of the first half of the book seems to slow down and plod in the second, but by the end, the world is saved and the ultimate snow crash when everything turns to static is avoided.

DeathDay by William C. Dietz, 2001.

Give me a good alien invasion story and I’m hooked. Unfortunately this example is too …American and predictable for me. Let me explain.

DeathdayDietz has made his name producing works of military science-fiction, which is an interesting sub-genre if often a little too much fighting the Germans/aliens in outer space.

There are a few intriguing details about the tyrannical giant ants who overwhelm us with their technology and invade Earth. (But giant ants? Couldn’t we have something more imaginative?) They have a caste system of black, camouflage and white ants, black being preeminent. They have as assistants a small furry intelligent slave species.

They enslave and co-opt the humans, after killing off a few hundred million. Their intent is to fabricate huge ritual structures. They tell the humans these are temples. But they are really nests for when the entire species dies and the nymphs inside them restart their species. To make that time safe, when the structures are built, almost all the slaves including the humans will be killed.

The plot revolves around the black governor of the state of Washington who is induced by the invaders to become leader of the humans and keep them in line to help build the nest structures. Since the head ants are black, they want to only deal with dark-skinned humans.

The story becomes a Hollywood style formula about protecting the “president.” The hero is the leader’s bodyguard and there is much action as different assassins, including human skinheads, try to kill him, while the leader gradually becomes a true resistance figure.

But it all comes to seem like a typical American rally round the flag tale, with the alien ants serving as the evil Germans or the Iraqis. There’s a sequel, but I’m not motivated to seek it out.

The Meek by Scott Mackay, 2001.

This novel focuses on Ceres, the large asteroid, now classified as a dwarf planet along with Pluto, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

meekIt became home to a genetically altered race of humans originating on Mars and then moved to Ceres — constructed so that they might more easily survive in harsh, other-worldly conditions. They rebelled against the pure humans there, and were exterminated, in self-defense of course, by the real humans 30 years ago, who then abandoned Ceres.

A survey ship from another inhabited but smaller asteroid goes back to Ceres to investigate the remaining structures and consider a return. Ceres is large enough to have sufficient gravity to allow children to grow without the debilitating illnesses of the smaller asteroids.

They discover strange blue humanoids capable of surviving in near vacuum and almost absolute zero conditions and who eat a peculiar plant. Their oddity and attractiveness eventually leads to one of the surveyors melding his mind with one female when they kiss. At the same time, the gravity of the asteroid fluctuates wildly, and it is suspected, under the blue people’s control.

These people, who managed to survive the attempted extermination of 30 years before, call themselves The Meek. The mad scientist who originally altered their DNA built into them a streak of savage aggression in order to survive harsh conditions on Mars and Ceres. But the altered ones understand that meekness is the only trait that can compensate for their nature and allow them a future together.

However, the humans and the Meek clash again, and another attempt to exterminate them is thwarted by the surveyor, who journeys from being a staid technocrat to becoming linked by sympathy and admiration with an alien people.

There is an odd flavor to the book: it veers from family clashes and telepathic romance to using an rogue planetoid as a spaceship. The Meek survive.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, 2005

This is the farthest out, even beyond blue humanoids surviving in near vacuum, of the works reviewed. The premise is that a shield is erected around Earth by powers unknown which blocks out the rest of the universe. People can no longer see the Moon and the Sun is not the real Sun. Inside the shield, 30 years will mean 30 billion years passes outside the barrier.

Spin The story is about three people, richly drawn twin brother and sister and their friend, who witness the raising of the shield and take three divergent paths.

Jason, one of the twins and a genius, devotes his life to trying to decipher the Spin shield, as it becomes known. Diane, his sister, becomes embroiled in a religious cult as she tries to make sense of the momentous changes. Tyler, their friend, who always secretly loves Diane, becomes a doctor and ministers to both siblings.

The Spin shield actually is a membrane that is selectively permeable: it allows the passage of manmade articles while the outside universe ages so much that the sun swells. Without the Spin membrane, the Earth would fry.

But this permeability allows the initial seeding of Mars with equipment and a few colonists. Due to the Spin’s effects, the red planet is completely terraformed and in a position to try to help the Earth from the outside while only a few years pass within the membrane.

This is only one of the intriguing consequences Wilson explores due to the disparity in time frames, which essentially makes the entire Earth a time machine.

At the end, from Jason we learn of the Hypotheticals, the mysterious ones who strove to preserve the Earth and other worlds like it, for a grander plan.

Why science fiction?

These snapshots of a few science fiction novels show what the genre does so well. While talking about out-of-this-world events, aliens hostile and loving, wars against The Other, and the meaning of time itself, the subject is always, unavoidably, us humans here and now projected upon the huge canvas of the infinite stars.

As malleable as the world is in the computerized virtuality of Snow Crash , we are still just sweaty animals with large brains and uncertain identities.

Even in a lacklustre novel like DeathDay, the projection of ourselves upon an unknown universe, conjuring up Nazi ant villains, is revealing in itself.

In The Meek, genocide and the nature of humanity are explored in a way that can be found nowhere else. We are The Meek and we better realize it.

The conception of Spin is delightfully grandiose and bold. It spins ideas until you smile about where the premise leads. The lives of the story’s characters grow in meaning, in a way not available in mainstream literature. Transcendence can be spoken of directly.

Science fiction is hard to define. Damon Knight said science fiction is whatever we point to when we say it, but that ducks the problem.

I like Darko Suvin’s definition better: “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”

Estrangement and cognition. There we go.

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5 Comments on “Why Science Fiction?”

  1. Snag yourself a copy of Simon Snotface’s Prisoner of Evil. Capsule review? Us humans here and now fingerpainted with poop.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer N. Hockey,

    I’ll have to pick that one up … sounds like trenchant social criticism, as they say.


  3. forestrat Says:

    I haven’t read much sci-fi lately I’ve been slogging through classics that we all know about, but many (like me) have never read. Spin sounds pretty interesting. Thanks.


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Yes, the characterization was well done I thought in Spin… unpredictable story, characters, outlandish premise… quite good.


  5. […] Why Science Fiction? […]

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