Science Fiction Is Where I’m From

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I’ve been a science fiction fan since I was four. It started with TV shows like the original Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, Batman (the shapeless tights 60s version) and Saturday morning superhero cartoons. One of my first visits to the movies was when my mom took me to see Star Wars in 1977. Then I started to read novels and ploughed through Heinlein and Clarke. I remember finding Stranger in a Strange Land a little weird at about age eleven, but I enjoyed it. Later I became a devotee of LeGuin and Lovecraft.

Sf was such an obvious thing to me from an early age, and so the fantasy of Tolkien and his tradition came as more of a revelation to me when I discovered it. I spent ten years in the Stockholm Tolkien Society, and when the time came for me to choose a profession, there were really only two alternatives: either astronomy (inspired by sf) or archaeology (inspired by fantasy). As it turned out, you had to do a year of math and physics before you got to look at any stars, while archaeology was hands on from day one. And so one fascinating discipline without many job opportunities lost me to another with only a little more.

Weaning myself off television as a teen, and never a being a big moviegoer, I may not look much like an SF/F fan to people who have the Babylon Five and Battlestar Galactica boxed sets on their shelves. But I read, and I listen to weekly short-fiction podcasts like Escape Pod. Though looking at my notes for the past year, I find that I’ve read only one sf (-ish) novel, one sf story collection and one collection of essays about sf. I blame the blogging.

Now a couple of readers have asked us Sbloggers what we see as science fiction’s role in promoting science, if indeed it has any. The term “science fiction” was originally coined in the 1920s by Hugo Gernsback for a genre of fiction where the conveying of scientific lessons would be more important than the narrative content of the stories themselves. This of course is not what made sf a hugely popular genre. That honour goes to good old sense of wonder. Sf is good when it’s gripping and exciting, preferably emotionally, artistically and intellectually. And if you learn some science along the way, real or fictional, then all the better. It’s probably very hard to remain ignorant of and hostile to science if you like sf, but then, if such is your background, chances are you won’t seek out sf anyway.

The science fiction and fantasy subculture I grew up with has seen increasing mainstreaming. You needn’t identify as a nerd to go see the Tolkien movies and Will Smith in I, Robot. Indeed, being ignorant of that sort of thing now constitutes a failing in the cultural competence even of the most determinedly mainstream person. And walking around with an internet-enabled PC in my pocket that allows me to check out the latest images from the Mars rovers even while out in the woods, I live in a world more futuristic in many aspects than much of the sf I read as a child.

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Comments

  1. #1 Ray Ingles
    November 24, 2008

    “Rearranging his entire personal universe in the light of startling new data is what he does for fun.” – Spider Robinson, on the science fiction reader.

  2. #2 scicurious
    November 24, 2008

    I used to love the old Batman stuff, and then I tried watching it again when I was older. “Robin, get the Bat Shark Repellant!” *Robin reaches for a spray can labelled ‘Bat shark repellant’* So horribly campy. But well worth laughing.

    And I am also a huge Tolkein fan, you’re really making me wish I’d done archeology now. It’d be nice to do lab work outside…

  3. #4 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 25, 2008

    When I was in high school I was reading many of the same authors as you. What frustrated me was that there was no one at school who had the same interest (it was a very small town.) Heinlein was dangerous, because he had very “open” ideas about sex and incest.

    As to the science content? John Wilkins basically pointed out that while many SF novels and short concepts dealt with ideas of science, not very many actually worked through the process of science while plotting the story.

  4. #5 RickrOll
    November 25, 2008

    Adams, Douglass. Pwns SF. Also God.
    unfiltered perception is Awesome, holistic sluething is Awesome, and more than anything else, Impropability
    Drives are AWEsome. I SO want an impropability drive!

  5. #6 Martin R
    November 25, 2008

    Ray, that’s a great quote!

  6. #7 Mary
    November 25, 2008

    I, too, started early as an SF fan, though I found myself somewhat isolated because there were far less vocal females who seemed to enjoy the same things as I did. Then, we had a Tolkien Society at high school, which rapidly turned into the Fantasy and SF Society, and I ended up as a very eccentric president of the club, and ran a Star Trek and other media SF fanzine outside of school as well. Fandom changed my life, I think–I could lead, I could follow, I could create and I could engage in a wide variety of social affairs. It wasn’t odd anymore that I could have a very diversified life doing what I enjoyed most.

    I think that some of the people who are actually afraid of science fiction and fantasy are really afraid of what they think it will do to their lives: it will make them challenge their beliefs and question some of their faith, which isn’t really all that bad in the end. If we could get rid of some of the more provincial thinking with some of the religious groups here on planet earth, we could reach for the stars with alacrity and with determination. But change is frightening for those who can’t comprehend the vastness of the universe and the macrocosm, and it propels them to do nothing instead. It might be comforting to them to be so passive, but it amounts to a great loss for us all.

  7. #8 Martin R
    November 26, 2008

    Hear, hear!

  8. #9 DianaGainer
    November 26, 2008

    Ah yes, the original Star Trek! My family watched those episodes so often, my brother could see 2 seconds and tell you the title, the plot, and the back stories of what went on between the actors behind the scenes. 30 years on we still all have our favorites. Mine was the Horta.

    Did you ever read “Analog” magazine and those short stories about a diplomat named Retief who tangled with some aliens called Grouaci? They wore Argyle socks and talked without subjects in their sentences. As I recall, Retief hung one off the edge of a tall building once, as a threat to another. The 2nd one, not feeling threatened, said, “To watch him splatter on the pavement. To take his death philosophically.” Or words to that effect. Ring any bells?

  9. #10 Martin R
    November 27, 2008

    Ah, those are Keith Laumer’s famous Retief stories. I haven’t read them, though I have read a collection of four alternate history novellas that I believe were his. Amazingly productive guy!

  10. #11 Michael Merren
    November 28, 2008

    When you wrote: “You needn’t identify as a nerd to go see the Tolkien movies and Will Smith in I, Robot.” I thought to myself he’s absolutely right. I hadn’t really thought about it in a few years, but the fact that Asimov short stories can become blockbuster Hollywood films does show a great shift in the Nerd v. Mainstream paradigm.
    I grew up reading and watching the same things you did. My tastes have evolved though a bit and I really enjoy things like Huxley’s “Brave New World” or Skinner’s “Walden Two”. My favorite crossover story though is the now Blockbuster film, “Children of Men” The director Alfonso Cuarón did a marvelous job with this adaptation of the dystopian novel by P. D. James published in 1992. What a great time to be alive. We even have a channel devoted to mainstreaming science fiction here in the States called the SciFi Network. With original programing and a balance of new and classic Sci-fi it has turned out to be my most often viewed t.v. station.

  11. #12 Martin R
    November 28, 2008

    Brave New World, though pessimistic, is a very funny book. Orgy-porgy!

    I should put Children of Men in my Scandy equivalent of a Netflix queue.

  12. #13 Nomen Nescio
    November 28, 2008

    the Retief stories (most of them, at least) are available online for free, and very much worth reading.

  13. #14 larry steckler
    November 28, 2008

    I’ve recently published a new 900-page biography about the life and times of Hugo Gernsback. It is available on Amazon. Just follow this link:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=steckler+hugo+gernsback

    The manuscript was found while I was in the process of closing down Gernsback Publications Inc. in 2003. It was apparently written some time in the 1950’s. It covers all the areas that Hugo found interesting: wireless communications, science fiction, publishing, patents, foretelling the future, and much more.

    Want more info? Contact me at PoptronixInc@aol.com

  14. #15 Martin R
    November 28, 2008

    How cool, Larry! Old Hugo was an energetic character. Though Lovecraft says some pretty unappreciative things about him in letters.

  15. #16 RickrOll
    November 29, 2008

    I’m afraid as Sci-fi goes, i give the nudge to Ghost in the Shell. It was a shift in the paradigm, visually and philosophically as far as the genre was conserned. The show went even further, and is without a doubt in my mind, the best that i have ever seen. I hate to be so modern here lol.

  16. #17 Riman Butterbur
    November 29, 2008

    Philip Wylie once said that Science fiction is the myth of the modern age.

    He meant that in a good way ;)

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