Monday, March 21, 2011

What is it Good For?

(X-Posted at FanSci)

Nah, this isn't another political post.  (Athough...)

I was at a conference a couple years ago, I can't even remember which one this time.  Might have been the PCA, might have been the CEA.  

But as always, I went to all the panels that had anything to do with science fiction, because that's pretty much all I even mildly care about these days.

This one featured a professor who promised to explain to us what science fiction was for.

Which -- cool! -- because up to that point, I have to admit to you, it hadn't occurred to me that science fiction had to be for anything.  So I got my coffee (the best thing about this conference, as I remember it, was that between sessions there was free coffee and sometimes also tiny packets of shortbread cookies) and cookies and settled into the back row with my notepad.

Sadly, my notes from the session do not survive.  So I can't tell you the professor's name. I do remember it was a good session, and that she did not actually come to conclusions -- so I can't, in fact, tell you what science fiction is good for.

I do remember that she had some general ideas, based on her years of reading and teaching science fiction.

Science fiction, she said, often seems to be for some of the following:

  • introducing new technology (the way-cool effect)
  • increasing hunger for new technology and new ideas 
  • challenging common perceptions of our culture (you thought this was true, but no, look, this is actually the truth)
  • opening the door to new ideas -- either cultural or technological
These last two might look like the same, but (as I recall) they are not: the third is reactionary and the fourth is progressive.  That is, the third takes new aspects of our culture that the writer finds disturbing and shows why these changes in our culture, which many in our culture might find favorable -- gay marriage, for instance, or the use of birth control, or polyamorous relationships -- and writes fiction in which those changes are shown to be destructive or foolish.

The last is progressive.  It takes changes in our culture, or changes that haven't happened, even, yet, to our culture, and shows how those changes might benefit our culture.  I'm thinking now of works like Eleanor Arnason, or Joanna Russ, or the early novels of John Varley.  (His latest stuff, not so much.)

Of course, my students, when I start all of this, like to explain to me that science fiction is just for fun.

Ha! I tell them.  Ha!  We're working for heaven and the future's sakes here, lamb chops, I tell them.

Mortal stakes!

1 comment:

Athena Andreadis said...

I think 3 and 4 are the same. The difference is whether the concepts and their outcomes are treated as benign, malign or neutral. It all hinges on the politics of both the writer and the reader.

I wrote about this question right after I wrote my book, when I was asked to explain why I did something so dangerous before I got tenure:

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction Double Helix.pdf