Recently, I was asked to write a short piece about what science fiction means to me for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I did and they published it the weekend of Archon 33, October 4th. Not that anything was wrong with what I wrote, but as this is a topic I think about on and off all the time, I came up with a somewhat different version and, in some respects, a better version, which I couldn’t get in on time. So here it is.
We seldom realize what an amazing time we live in. Every time I see someone flip open a cell phone, I get a little thrill, and for a moment I feel the way I did at age 12, huddled in my room, reading Doc Smith’s Lensmen novels with their instantaneous communications. We are on the brink of building cars that do the driving for us—they already work with more computing power than an 80s vintage computer.
Going through the day reminds me of scenes from the works of Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, scores of others. In many ways we have built the world envisioned in the pages of science fiction magazines of the 50s and 60s. The only exception appears to be space travel—it’s the 21st Century and we still do not have a colony on the moon or Mars. Space exploration is happening, just not in the way we expected, so it’s a minor quibble.
I grew up at a time when reading novels and magazines adorned by the garish and outre paintings of artists like Ed Emshwiller, Kelley Freas, Paul Lehr, or Richard Powers could earn you ridicule from peers or lectures from adults about wasting time with nonsense. I, and many others, stuck with it because something about it clicked and nothing else came close to providing the same thrill. For many, devotion lapsed with adulthood, but some of us came back, and today we feel a bit vindicated—the images of science fiction are everywhere.
It is, however, a mistake to value science fiction for its presumed predictions. While we have certainly arrived in The Future, the fact is that if a writer of the 40s or 50s or 60s has turned out to be correct in an extrapolation, it is purely serendipity. These are stories, not blueprints, and casting fortunes is for the tea leaf and horoscope crowd, not science fiction writers.
If utility in art must be found, then the benefit many of us derived from science fiction is simply this: it taught us not to fear change. Tomorrow is just another place to visit, and next year a new city or country. It shows us that things happen for reasons, that the best tool we have with which to face the world is our mind and the effectiveness of that tool is composed of the two most indispensable things—knowledge and imagination.
Things have gotten a bit darker in science fiction, as in the world at large. In some ways we’ve forgotten the 12-year-old to whom these tales should first speak. But at the core of the genre is an optimism and confidence difficult to find in any other literature. After all, most science fiction begins with the assumption that there will be a tomorrow.
For my part, I’ve never been frightened by the prospect of change. In fact, I’ve always looked forward to it. Every now and then, I see something new on the street, in science, on tv, in the world and I look at it and say “Oh, yeah, I remember that.” I can thank all those crazy stories that took delight in the infinite variety of the universe and showed me how to greet the future. For me, that’s why science fiction matters—and always will.