Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Science Friction

My favorite memories of growing up center around the books my father would read to me and that I would later read for myself as I began to grasp the mechanics of language. The man is a voracious bibliophile – he taught himself to read as a toddler by gazing at his father’s newspapers and asking pertinent questions. Much to his family’s amazement, he could soon read things out perfectly without quite understanding what it was he was saying.

I am eternally thankful for his taste in literature. He has a great love of history (particularly that of the Roman Empire), non-fiction works of all kinds, astronomical and scientific periodicals and science fiction. It is the latter that would keep me quietly enthralled bedtime after bedtime, begging for ‘just one more page’ before I would be relegated to the relative barrenness of my own fledgling imagination and the dark.

My love of and resonance with the genre is proof that little girls don’t necessarily need to have female fictional role models on which to base their ideas of the heroic. There are very few female heroes in your vintage Sci-Fi and I wasn’t the worse off for it.

I would still drift off, imagining that I was the pilot of a sleek little getabout, dapper shimmering silver one-piece jumpsuit clinging to my frame and deadly laser gun strapped to my side. So deadly, in fact, that it made the air zing most satisfyingly when I used it to vaporize the inevitable bad guys that would make it onto my bridge. The bad guys, of course, would have dismal aim. I would get them first time – every time.

I had a crew, I had a mission, I could feel the rumble of the engines under my feet and for some inexplicable reason, the list of my ship as we shimmied around the Universe saving it from unmentionable evils and becoming very wealthy in the process.

To this day, Sci-Fi entertains me in all its forms, be it books, TV shows or movies. It is a celebration of what man can dream of achieving and one of the few forms of art that is unshackled from the concrete reality in which we live.

Imaginative though Jane Austen was, I can’t see that she would allow Darcy to travel back in time through a warp rift in order to stop himself delivering that dreadful letter to Elizabeth. Sci-Fi has no such constrictions, it gives good authors unparalleled freedoms in their narratives and bad authors a helluvalot of dangerous rope in which to become tangled.

The name itself – Science Fiction – is now so commonplace as a moniker that it’s easy to overlook its simple English meaning. It is fiction based on or influenced by science. Fiction that leads the reader to a world created by an author inspired by an imagined life-altering technological progress.

It’s very nature requires quite a lot from the reader. The reader must actively construct their own images of worlds and phenomena that have no grounding in the things they see every day. These aren’t ancient forests that we have seen in documentaries. This isn’t Antarctica or some lost South American civilization to be pieced together from scrawl and pottery.

These are whole new planets, new gadgets and devices, new ways of moving and dressing, communicating and eating, new colours, sounds, shapes and ways that matter, time and space interact. All these things demand to be seen in the mind’s eye and demand that the mind create something new to represent them. It is little wonder that few Sci-Fi films live up to fan’s expectations, so much of each novel is so very individually constructed, experienced and loved that it’s comparison to someone else’s vision and limited CG budget rarely withstands scrutiny.

Central to all good Sci-Fi is the backdrop - some invention, discovery or technology that has fundamentally changed the way we humans live. Whether it be Roddenberry’s warp drive allowing long distance travel and contact with other beings, Asimov’s robots posing difficult questions about consciousness and slavery or even the casually technologically advanced world of Heinlein allowing men to live on the moon and have interchangeable limbs – the scene is set for an interesting story. It is the human story, though, that must be engaging first and foremost. The technology is generally the icing, engaging though it may be.

Some writers stretch the genre a little further. Greg Egan’s ‘Diaspora’ is an elegant description of humanity moving toward living as acorporeal entities inside machines. The science in the fiction becomes an integral part of the morality tale as the very heroes through which we see the proposed world experience norms and mores outside of our own understanding. Their consciousnesses are melded in with machines, their sense organs are external hardware, their perception of time is altered as is their concept of value, property and enjoyment. It’s still an interesting story, though, and still one any human can latch on to with ease.

This kind of fiction tends to change the way in which we see the world. Sometimes it acts as a parallel world, casting our own common conflicts on another race of beings or another planet of humans to show them up for the sillinesses that they are. Sometimes it pushes the boundaries of what we think is possible until the currently improbable becomes the ‘perhaps’ of tomorrow.

Subsequently, conversations with my father would center around the ‘what if’s of the future. What was coming? What would humanity look like 1000 years from today? Would Asimov’s predictions of an all-encompassing state come true? Would we be cyborgs? If we were cyborgs, could we stand up to my mother and possibly not have to fish leaves out of the pool every weekend?

The planets also didn’t seem quite so far away. To this day I think that space travel and colonization is simply a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. I look up to the sky as an early human would the sea. It isn’t unconquerable, we just don’t have very good boats yet.

The professional literati like to scoff at Science Fiction, pointing to it’s aficionados as those who never grew up. The poison pen is never guaranteed of such agreement as when it is aimed at those attending Star Trek conventions.

Well, if growing up means abandoning the desire and ability to dream of possibilities beyond what we grasp today then I’ll be a child forever. I simply refuse to don the chill, sarcastic ‘seriousness’ of adults today.

In fact, I very much plan to attend a Trekkie convention when I visit America and if my legs are showable at the time, you can bet I’ll be wearing a Space Cheerleader uniform to boot.

Update: It seems that Monsigneur Blyth and I were on the same wavelength during last night's posting sessions.

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