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He Who Breaks a Thing

This world looks like a mess. Let's think about it for a while.

This world looks like a mess. Let’s think about it for a while.

From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:

Why don’t you write something real?

Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.

I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.

I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.

Tolkien once wrote:

He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?

Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.

In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.

So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.

Delicious Disorientation

Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”

If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ‘I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in.  Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful.  You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.

This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).

Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer.  When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.

The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.

Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.