Thursday, 29 October 2009

Sci Fi and Literature: They're Both Genres

I just read this interesting article on Science Fiction and Fantasy Media by Ellen Datlow. It's about how literary authors, editors, reviewers and readers just can't get their head around the fact that science fiction and fantasy novels have just as much to offer readers and society as the literature genre does (yes, literature is a genre, it has it's own section in bookshops and is marketed that way, don't kid yourself that it is otherwise).

The article made me think of something an English teacher said to my class once in high school, that when William Shakespeare was writing plays most of his audience thought that his stories were unfolding there and then, and couldn't understand the concept of tales being set in other places and times. I asked the teacher this is how the modern world saw science fiction, as it is often set in other places and times, and all of them imagined and that maybe most people couldn't get their head around the fact that these stories are set in make-believe lands. He said it was completely different, because science fiction wasn't a real genre.

In highschool I used to quote science fiction books in my essays, until I was told that I would not be well received by my examiners if I did that and that I would score poorly. So I stopped only in terms of self interest, but felt that I was betraying something fundamental by doing so. That something was wrong with society's ideas on fostering creativity.

I'm not saying science fiction and fantasy is for everyone, but I do see it as sad that we live in an world where it is constantly dismissed as not being worthwhile. Unfortunately I believe science fiction movies and television series have been at least partially responsible for this misconception. Ideas in visual media are often 50 years being the literaturary scene. Take the movie I, Robot which came out more than five decades after it was written. Good film, but the ideas about artificial intelligence and how it could actually work and the implications on society are far more developed than that these days (for example read Charles Stross' Saturn Returns).

Then you get movies and shows like Star Trek which really fail to understand the genre it was based upon, and their writers just coming up with stupid ideas. If I was captain of the Enterprise being attacked by Klingons, I wouldn't teleport over three men in jumpsuits and no environmental suits just in case there was no oxygen on the other side. I'd also wouldn't just arm them with only small arms to take out the ship, rather I'd transport over a nuclear bomb, then detonate it from afar. In the movie Sunshine the starship obviously has artifical gravity inside, but that same force is not used to accelerate the ship to the sun which would have otherwise reduced the trip from months into days. Plus the sun isn't going to die out for billions of years.

What I loved about science fiction and fantasy in the written form (novels and short stories) is that its scope is so broad, which you just can't get in any other form of fiction. I'm not limited to stories set on Earth in the present or in the past. If I want to write about alternate forms of society and government I can. Dune by Frank Herbert is a classic example of what I'm talking about here.

A friend of my wife's is a professor of quantum optics in England. He recently returned to Adelaide to see his family and catch up with us (amongst other friends) and he and I started talking about science fiction. He saw its influence as essential to the development of science and technology. Simply put, he'd noticed that his peers who didn't read science fiction didn't have the imagination to solve real scientific problems that scientists who did read in the genre could. Without science fiction, society wouldn't evolve as rapidly as it does.

I know that science fiction and fantasy authors and readers can and do read in the literary genre, but sometimes I feel that the reverse is not true, that many literary authors and readers, like Shakespeare's audience, don't have the imagination to understand it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, people should read what they like, and can only take on new information they are ready to take on. But to critise the genre because one can't understand it, well that just shows poor form, and perhaps fear of the unknown.

There are many fantastic science fiction and fantasy books out there that are thought provoking. If you haven't tried the genre, I would highly recommend it. The best works in this genre are equal to the best in the literary genre.

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