WHY, OH WHY, DO I READ SCI-FI?

I love movies. Apropos lines get quoted in our family all the time. One that occasionally shame me comes from a relatively low budget movie called Her Alibi. In it, Tom Selleck plays a mystery writer suffering from writer’s block. (gee, I wonder why this movie resonates with me?) Looking for inspiration, he goes to the courthouse where he sees and is smitten with an accused murderer played by Paulina Porizkova. He springs her from jail by concocting a thoroughly improbable story so he can have her around as “inspiration” for his latest thriller.

As they are driving to his lavish country house (yeah, all writers have lavish country houses) Porizkova asks him, “What kind of books do you write?”

When he replies that he writes mystery thrillers she responds, “Oh. I only read serious books.”

That’s the line that make me blush because, that used to be me. At one time,  I only read ‘serious books’. Oh yeah, and newspapers, and magazines, and cereal boxes, and the labels on ketchup bottles, and … well, you get the idea. I read anything; EXCEPT science fiction. It was not serious (like ketchup bottles are).

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Image courtesy of berinkinsman.com

But I am partnered with a clever woman who, with a dear friend conspired against me, using my love of history as a vehicle. (Richard, how long have you been in league against me with my wife? Never mind. Thank you both.) And down the slippery slope I went. One story of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser was all it took for me to begin the long tumble into love if the genre.

Modern, old, I don’t care. I love it all. And, I am amazed at the staying power that science fiction authors have. Many of the early masters are repeatedly and successfully resurrected. Jules Verne’s work as well as that of Edgar Allen Poe appear in graphic novels and movies like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. H. G. Wells’ turns up in television series’ like Warehouse 13 as well as wonderful movies like War of the Worlds. (I refer here to the 1950s version starring Gene Berry. I’m still trying to figure out how the Martians missed wiping out the row of expensive Boston townhouses when they’ve trashed the rest of the city in Tom Cruise’s version. But to be fair, I love the walkers, they are spot on consistent with the book’s Martian machines. But I digress, badly.)

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Image courtesy of http://www.coverbrowser.com

Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became Blade Runner. I Robot is based Isaac Asimov’s work. The list goes on. The point is, science fiction, whether charmingly naïve or dystopian, is a remarkably resilient genre of fiction, but why?

I think it’s because science fiction can act like a lens. A very special lens that allows us to look at difficult issues without actually having to confront them directly. It allows us the opportunity to see things through eyes that are blind to politics, religion, gender, race, etc. War, poverty, world domination, racism (or any of the myriad other isms out there), environmental devastation, corruption, oppression, religious intolerance, zealotry of any stripe, any of the countless issues that beleaguer humanity can be examined in detail and solutions offered through the vehicle of science fiction. Science fiction can take us to new worlds in the distant future where they have the same problems we face today. But they show us a very different humanity than today.

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Image courtesy of onceuponageek.com

In the future, humanity has weathered the storm and has emerged better and wiser for the experience. Take Star Trek for example. In the original series we learned that humanity survived the horrors of global nuclear war and the oppression of eugenics wars, learned to harness technology, etc. Later, in the movies we found that greed had evaporated. (remember, we learned that they don’t use money in the 24th century when Captain Kirk stiffs Catherine Hicks’ character with the bill for pizza and beer. Hmmm, maybe some things don’t change?) They use superior technology to repopulate extinct species; and so on, and so on.

The central theme is that we will survive to see a tomorrow. In some cases like Star Trek, that tomorrow is brighter, far more hopeful than today. In other cases like Blade Runner, the future is considerably bleaker but even in that dystopian world there are places that remain idyllic, or at least relatively so.

Regardless of bright or bleak, in the future, humanity survives to try again. There is hope. Hope that we can weather the current problems. Hope that we can learn from our mistakes. Hope that there is still a refuge for us.

These rambling thoughts show me one thing. I was wrong. As much as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemmingway, Shakespeare, and all the other masters, science fiction authors do write serious books.

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