by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 16
(First Appeared: June/July, 2000; First Light E-zine, Issue #93)
Skip the moral lessons, thank you. I’m in it for the neat stuff.
There. I’ve come clean. For a long time I’ve been concerned that I’ve remained largely unversed the great classics of the Golden Age of Science Fiction—you know, all those short stories bursting with social commentary on subjects so taboo to the sensibilities of mid-20th Century America that they had to hide out in the pages of the pulps, sandwiched between covers just bright enough to fool Mr. and Mrs. Mainstream into thinking they were harmless kidstuff.
So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I browsed through the bookstore on my last few visits, seeking anthologies of such stories, hand-picked by respected editors and handsomely repackaged for the discerning book buyer who wanted to proclaim to the world, “See here, on my shelves, some of the most important works of the last century finally presented in a manner befitting their greatness! You’ll find no Grisham here, lout!”
It was with an even greater sense of anticipation that I took the first of these books from said shelf, curled up on the couch and cracked its sacred binding (of course, that’s just an expression; I would never dream of cracking a book’s binding. I’ve devised a way of reading that leaves all my books looking like they’ve never been opened. That’s why anyone who knows me knows better than to touch my books!), ready to behold the wonder and wisdom contained therein.
Well, I learned something all right. I learned that if you’re going to venture into morality lessons and social commentary, you’d better make sure you’re doing it damn well or forget about doing it at all.
It ain’t all Fahrenheit 451, folks. In fact, a lot of it comes off as smug, preachy, and spectacularly short-sighted. Many stories are down-right nihilistic.
I think Neil Gaiman said it rather eloquently in an introduction included in my Vintage edition of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. He writes:
“SF is a difficult and transient literature at the best of times, ultimately problematic. It claims to treat of the future, all the what-ifs and if-this-goes-ons; but the what-ifs and if-this-goes-ons are always founded here and hard in today. Whatever today is. To put it another way, nothing dates harder than historical fiction and science fiction.”
I wholly concur with that. None of the authors back then even conceived of the transistor, much less microchips, personal computers like the ones many of them are still writing on today, or digital information delivery. Back then, computers were vacuum-tubed monstrosities taking up rooms and rooms and spitting out punch-cards and ticker-tape.
Technology aside, many of the short stories that I’ve read thus far are also dated by not just a bleak vision of the future, but one that can only seem to focus on three main things: pervasive rocket technology, intrusive psycho-analysis and the granddaddy of all boogiemen, atomic war.
For sake of example, let’s stick with Bradbury, whose book I mentioned above. Fahrenheit 451 is, hands down, one of the best books ever written. It predicted with frightening accuracy the trend toward political-correctness-run-amok that we see occurring in today’s society—what can be said, what can’t be said, and the consequences of such labels on not only our words and actions, but our very thought processes. It’s a perfect example of SF-as-social-conscious done right.
I’d also read and enjoyed The Martian Chronicles, so when I found a hard-cover edition of The Illustrated Man, an anthology of Bradbury’s short stories, I thought I’d be in for a treat.
While the stories made for generally good reading, however, they started getting monotonous. No one specific story or character really stood out; rather, the collection seemed filled with a rogues gallery of men desperately jetting around in rockets, looking to get away from the deadly aftermath of the A-Bomb and self-medicating themselves into a better frame of mind. Sure, some tales were better than others, but only in the sense that one forkful differs from the next when you’re eating a good steak. In the end, they all came from the same piece of meat.
And Bradbury isn’t the only purveyor of this bleakness. Ursula K. Le Guin (whose fantasy I love), Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man wasn’t near as good as The Stars My Destination, I’m afraid)—all have strayed down the paths of poverty, pollution and general hopelessness.
Instead of a grand vision of the future in which man has triumphed over his social ills, these authors and their contemporaries are more concerned with what will happen when said ills get the better of us. They didn’t write to spur humanity toward some greater good; they wrote to shatter illusions. And coming to that realization has shattered my illusions of what SF is supposed to be all about.
Perhaps I’m too grounded in today’s popular culture. Look at Star Trek. Idealistic, optimistic and far too self-satisfied for its own good. I’m a huge fan of the franchise, and I think the reason it’s so popular is that it offers a future with a clear-cut belief system where black is black and white is white. They’re convinced they have it right. But when it comes down to it, the vision is unrealistic and will ultimately be the show’s undoing.
I think a good example of popular Sci-Fi that will outlast its time is Sci-Fi Channel’s Farscape. Sure, it’s not as slick as Trek—it goes out of its way, in fact, to retain a slightly rough look and feel. And sure, it’s a bit campy and formulaic at times. But the characters are stumbling along like the rest of us, doing what seems right at the time, shifting alliances when they have to, occasionally turning on each other. It’s rough, dirty and there isn’t a Prime Directive in sight—far more indicative of real life.
Another good thing about Farscape is that the stories don’t go out of their way to teach lessons. Entertainment is the main objective. Morals, while they may be there, are subjective. Imagine 20 or 30 years from now, when social consciousness has shifted (as it inevitably does), how stupid a rerun of Trek will look to your grandkids, with its absolutes and self-assuredness—probably as silly as an episode of the original series looks to us today. Yet they will probably get the same joy that you did the first time they see Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This is not to say that mindlessness equals timelessness. But let’s face it: our values and conceptions of how things should be are largely driven by timeless ideals (good, evil, right, wrong) as they are filtered through popular culture. All the great classics we venerate today were created for prosperity, not posterity. They were entertainment first. Shakespeare, Kafka, Swift, Poe—they all had to eat. Their works have lasted, however, because the human stories take center stage, underpinned by the ideals. When it’s done the other way around, those ideals become too ingrained in one particular mind-set and lose their relevance as time goes by.
Think about it; everyone in the world has some familiarity with Shakespeare, whether they know it or not. Phrases from his plays have been used so often in vernacular speech that many of them are cliché. But who, aside from a relative handful of hopeless English majors, has ever heard of medieval morality plays like Everyman, or read allegorical yarns like Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen?
Fantasy is the only genre in which ideals and questions of Truth have the freedom to be just as prominent as the main characters. Being wholly removed from our reality, the stories become timeless and continue to speak to each successive generation.
Leave outright social commentary to the satirists. I dare say that I’ve seen more relevant commentary about the absurdities in today’s society on South Park than I’ve ever seen on Star Trek. Yes, the show that brought you such screamingly distasteful delights as Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo and Uncle Fucka has taken head on such diverse and controversial topics as religion, political correctness, genetic engineering, homosexuality, incest, the Holocaust, sexual harassment, racism, hate crimes, drug abuse, commercialization, pollution, illiteracy, organized crime, and the Elian Gonzales debacle, just to name a few. People find it offensive not so much for its crude jokes, but because it cuts through the bullshit with which we try to anesthetize ourselves. Whether it’s done in good taste or bad, satire, no matter how topical, usually tends to last because humor, like fantasy, is timeless. And because it never takes itself seriously.
I found that the old SF stories I liked most had a touch of humor, a touch of self deprecation. One book in particular is chock full of great ones, The Science Fiction Bestiary, edited by Robert Silverberg, copyright 1971.
I don’t know if it’s still generally available. I got mine at a library sale. It features great stories like “The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast,” by Theodore Sturgeon, “A Martian Odyssey,” by Stanley G. Wienbaum, “Drop Dead,” by Clifford D. Simak and “The Gnurrs Come from the Voodvork Out,” by R. Brentnor. I wouldn’t have bothered listing these stories by name (since I have no intentions of summarizing them here), but they might be kicking around in other anthologies and they’re worth the trouble to try and find. Most of the short fiction I’ve read by Poul Anderson is excellent as well.
So I wouldn’t say I’ve become discouraged with the genre. A bit disillusioned, certainly. But I guess that was the point all along. Still, stories like the ones I listed above are enough to keep me reading. Like I said at the outset, I’m mainly in it for the neat stuff—fantastic tales, fabulous futures, endless possibilities, well-written and well-executed. If I stumble upon another 1984, great. But I’d much rather find something on par with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now that’s my kind of classic!