I am a fan of science fiction as far back as I can recall. The flights of imagination about large things, ideas and worlds, was enough to trigger off my own imagination. I read pretty well everything I could for over two decades before it all petered out into second rate thick books of fantasy and Star Wars knockoffs. Science fiction had a use-by date, and roughly when Dick Tracy’s radio watch became ordinary, it stopped appealing, and I started getting interested in the science.
However, I had to unlearn much of the “science” I had picked up by reading SF (scifi is for latercomers). I recall one book, well before the film Altered States in which an astronaut travelling at faster than the speed of light “de-evolved” through a chimps stage, a monkey stages and then a lemur stage, thereby doing great harm to both physics and evolutionary biology. Very few science fiction novels or short stories (and the genre really does best with its short stories) were ever scientifically accurate, a tradition that Greg Bear continues today. In fact one novel only struck me as physically possible – Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward. All the rest required extensive willing suspension of disbelief, few more than the Ringworld series of Larry Niven.
Science fiction was generally more interesting for the social attitudes shown in the writing. Gene Roddenbery’s Star Trek was no aberration – apart from Robert Heinlein and Niven and Pournelle, most SF writers of the 60s and later were what Americans are pleased to call “liberal”, and what the rest of the world thinks of as “civilised” – they often promoted racial and gender equality, sometimes had homosexual heroes (Zelany), and occasionally committed inadvertent acts of literature (Roger Zelanzny’s “A rose for Ecclesiastes”, or Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon”, or anything, really, by Olaf Stapledon or Herbert George Wells).
And sex. The pulp fiction style of SF was replete with badly described and often very prurient sex scenes, which did a growing lad no harm at all. But let’s look at the science aspect of SF. Sex is freely available now so even if SF went back to the gutter where it belongs as Dena Brown once said it should, it would have too much company to be useful. So the sole virtue that SF might now have is that it introduces one generation after another to the value of science. So, does it?
Almost never. Few novels are accurate, but even fewer show science in a good light. Frankenstein is the model of the SF scientist, meddling where he (usually a he – SF was very masculine for a long time) had no right to meddle. Arthur Clarke, despite the woodenness of his characters and dialogues, at least stood out in that respect – scientists were the good guys for him (and for a number of Eastern Bloc SF writers like Lem). But most SF showed science in a very apocalyptic and dangerous aspect, as befitted the post A-bomb era.
So I do not think many people have been turned on to science by SF. In fact, there is little evidence that many SF writers actually understood how science worked. It is for that reason that I appreciate Neal Stephenson, even including the latest brick of a book, Anathem, for he shows the scholarship and experimentation involved even when introducing fabulous characters or worlds. Science is hard work done by many individuals and is as exciting, dramatically, as the evolutionary process, which it closely resembles, and neither of which have ever been really properly displayed in a dramatic manner.
In fact, if SF led me to anything, it led me to religion, through the loss of which I entered philosophy. Mysticism in SF is widespread (Dune anyone?), and rational thinking is mostly honoured in the breach. But the dystopias of 1984, Brave New World, and the epic traditions Wells began, these are of lasting value, mostly for the reason that they do not involve science except as a deus ex machina (or should that be, as a McGuffin?) to get the story going. They are about class, political control, censorship, interference, freedom, and the classic concerns of literature. Mad Max is as much in that tradition as the very good novel (and very bad film) The Postman.
Last night I happened to watch 2001: A space odyssey again, for about the 25th time, and I noticed more errors in it than I had ever before. But I still like it, because it’s about a period in our history, the late 1960s. I first read they were making a film of one of my favourite short stories, “The Sentinel”, which I had just read, around 1964, and I had to wait in agony for five years until it came out. But when I saw it, I was taken into space. The technical flaws that are now so obvious to me don’t matter compared to how I felt that day, when I was taken away from my father’s recent death, the Vietnam War, my troubles at school, and everything else mundane, and transported into the actual heavens. At its best, that is what SF does. And these days it seems not to do it at all… O tempora! O mores!
Late note: see my excoriation at The Valve for my views expressed here.