Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost. — Neil Gaiman
More rantle under the cut.
Some people may say that inexperience disqualifies me from having an opinion on the matter, but then again, if science fiction really is in its last days, I’m in the tail end of it and should be… I dunno… bored with the new stuff or something. Dazzled by the Golden Age of the old, which I have not read enough of and thus can rediscover. Disenfranchised by the fact that there are few things in SF that my generation cannot fathom seriously about, and that number decreasing with each decade—even each year.
I love self-circling arguments, don’t you?
Getting back to the point: science fiction, as a whole, is not dead. Maybe some parts of it are—the pure “wow, incredible idea neat-o extreme wonder” stories. There is little today that is not a marvel that the older folks dreamed about—well, except for the flying cars and rocket jet packs. I don’t think I need to harp on these points; plenty of people have already done it before me.
But the best stories—let’s amend that, because we all have different ideas of “best”—the most reachable stories, the ones that speak to a common demographic, are about, and always have been about, the human condition. It doesn’t matter if the story’s about Hobbits or Martians; we use stories as self-reflections, to ask “why?” and “what if?” and “what happens after the what if?” which invariably turns back to “why?”.
Some people act as though fantasy has got the upper hand—that it can preserve a sense of wonder simply by pulling dragons and improbable events out of a hat, whereas science fiction is bound to reality and thus has a limited area to work in. People are stupid and easily dazzled, and the unwashed masses have no real appreciation for the difficulties of keepin’ it all real, man.
Fact is, fantasy doesn’t have an automatic magical sense-of-wonder button, any more than science fiction does, or for that matter horror, mystery, romance, or mainstream fiction. You see one story about a dragon guarding its gold and a knight fighting it and winning by the sheer goodness of God, you’ve seen them all, even if you’re part of the unwashed imbecile masses.
There is a comfort button, but that’s not the same as sense of wonder; in fact, comfort works against sense of wonder, because sense of wonder involves that which is different, not familiar. Things that generate a sense of wonder are almost always by definition risky and dangerous, involving an investment that may only end in throwing the book across the room (or angrily wiping it out from your Kindle in the content manager).
Let’s go from there. What creates sense of wonder in a world where it seems that everything is familiar? Well, for one thing, people don’t know everything. Few people know what it’s like to be a game developer; few know what it’s like to colonize in space; or how it feels to fight a war far away; or, heck, about elevator maintenance. Few of us have seen the Niagra falls, or the ultimate black depths of the seas, or the incredible confusion of a World Fair.
How do you fight against the growing concerns of the ultimate loss of privacy and constant monitoring? What if you encountered something unknown—sure, it may have a rational explanation in the end, but how do you figure out what that is, and would the answer scare you more than not? What are the implications of finding intelligent life on this planet—and provoking it into war with the rest of us?
Sense of wonder is when we confront what we don’t personally know, and which is big enough to make us pause in our tracks. “Big” can be physical, like the gigantic thing that is Rama; “big” can be social implications, like 1984 (which is still so very relevant and always will be); “big” can be environmental or political impact. Big is flexible in any genre you so choose.
You may say, yes, but that’s soft. It’s not new and shiny and cool. It’s not that such things are totally possible, but that people can see such visions by themselves, and even expect such wonders in the future. Even live those dreams of the old science fiction. Sometimes it’s the case that science doesn’t matter a whit. Some people call this stuff “science fantasy”.
It doesn’t really matter, you know. In the end, the masters who last, from Clarke to Heinlein to Asimov, speak of the effects of science upon people (or even on things that want to become people). Whether it was possible or already existent or not doesn’t matter, as long as the strength of your imagination plays against drama—the questions of the human heart.
I don’t want to wax all romantic about the human heart. There’s some ugly crap in there, but those are legitimate questions too. The Holocaust is beyond many people’s imaginations, yet it happened—and the sad fact is that a lot of people don’t understand the impact of such a thing. Same for the long siege of St. Petersburg in World War II, or why astronauts are crazy people who want to go into the sky on, let’s face it, really really experimental rocketry.
Anyways. There’s plenty of new stuff in science fiction. It may not be like the old stuff, but I think you’ll find that the best of the old stuff and the best of the new stuff share many characteristics.
So why isn’t this stuff fantasy? Because I know of no fantasy that can answer the question of: what does science do to us? That is purely the realm of science fiction, and nothing will ever destroy that. Even if civilization were reduced to sticks and rubble. The science would definitely be different and likely more primitive, but the principles of science fiction will still be the same.
Science fiction is dead. Long live science fiction.