The Scientific Indian

Clive Thompson in a WIRED essay:

… If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.

From where I sit, traditional “literary fiction” has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? I think it’s because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality.

I’ll add magic realism to those genres that allow an author to alter reality and run what-if simulations.

However, I do not subscribe to the notion that traditional ‘literary fiction’ – as Thompson calls it – has dropped the ball. It may be that I haven’t read a respectable number of traditional fiction (still working my way up through some of Joyce short stories towards the nirvana of Ulysses, so to speak). I am still surprised and entertained by traditional fiction. Or – as I think is the case – Reality and the telling of it never runs out of modes.

I have been reading Don Quixote and think Cervantes’ experimental story is contemporary. It is sublime, irreverent and witty as some of the fine stories of our times (Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams is somewhat in the shade of Quixote, for instance). Cervantes, many centuries ago, masterfully probed the line that separates sane reality and illusory insanity, and at times – to great dramatic effect – even blurred it. Apart from the timelessness of great authors, readers themselves discover different aspects of stories in different ages. Philosophical questions rise again and again from the ashes of thoughts that burnt in previous ages. Speculative fiction highlights and provides a simplified model for asking profound philosophical questions. It does that by doing away with much of the tangles of reality. Still, in the hands of a great writer even a blade of grass can become a Light Sabre. (While I’ve hazarded a curious space-age metaphor, I must tell you this: I do not think Star Wars is great).


  1. #1 Dave X
    January 25, 2008

    Have you read David Brin’s criticism of Star Wars?

  2. #2 selva
    January 25, 2008

    Dave, haven’t. Thanks for the pointer.

  3. #3 Dave Briggs
    January 25, 2008

    I’ll add magic realism to those genres that allow an author to alter reality and run what-if simulations.

    I certainly agree with and see your point, but I find myself intrigued by his.
    I have found so many times in life, that by playing the theoretician you can get a picture of a better reality that can then be applied to the real world you left your body in while on the journey, to improve the “real” world.
    There is a TV show that shows all the things that the Star Trek episodes and movies just made up and how after seeing them the scientists and engineers said why not. The list of inventions for the betterment of mankind is pretty staggering because people where willing to say, why not?
    I have to reiterate that your opinions in the post are valid and good! I just happen to find myself feeling more fully alive when venturing into that SCI Fi, why not realm!
    Thanks and have a great weekend!
    Dave Briggs :~)

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