Stories are a part of us. They strike a chord. Good stories touch something that already exists inside us. If they don't—if they don't recall some important event in our lives, if they don't echo a past emotion, if they don't reveal something about ourselves that we didn't know, if they don't reinforce something we know already exists, if they don't magnify a feeling that's too small for us ordinary people to spot, or if they don't hit upon an unseen strand that runs through society—then the stories don't work. If a story does not touch something that is already within us, even if its technique is flawless, then it falls short and vanishes into the realms of disinterest.
We can all understand where drama hits us, where melodrama touches us, what a tragedy preys upon. Comedy is funniest if it's close to home. But where does science fiction fall in all this? It's a new genre, after all. It hasn't been here for thousands of years the way the other genres have. Why do some people like SF while others run from it or find absolutely nothing in it? Does it strike a chord in us or doesn't it? Does it play on something universal or doesn't it?
It's been claimed that science fiction became a phenomenon once people could feel technology—and, through technology, the world—change during their lifespan. Suddenly books about the ramifications of technologies, like Frankenstein, cropped up. People began to realize that understanding that the world differs from what they had believed could influence their lives. Science fiction reflected that. And then came a promise of a new age, a dream of a utopia brought about by better technology. And SF reflected that, as well. With the coming of the atomic bomb, overpopulation, and global warming, dystopias appeared, telling us where we might end up if we're not careful.
And once technology stopped changing every few decades and began to change every few years, SF erupted in all possible directions: who knows what might be next? What would it be like in a world where almost anything's possible, from genetic manipulation to brains existing in a worldwide web?
But is that really it? Is that what science fiction is all about?
Let me convince you that SF does not originate from the changing world that surrounds us. It doesn't come from technology, it doesn't come from advancement, and it doesn't come from change. SF is independent of the world around us. SF comes from a place inside us, basic and primal, fundamental to our nature.
Think back to the time you were a little kid. Think back to age seven or six or five or four. The further back you can remember, the better.
When you're that young, every third thing is a brave and strange new world. Everything that lies behind the next corner may lead to a rabbit hole, to a new place, a new store with magical new things. Every new door may lead to a mysterious room. The next stranger you meet on the street may be a god or a devil or a Gandalf or God-knows-what. The next sentence that may be said to you, the next explanation you get about the world, may change everything you know, may turn your present understanding of the world on its head. When you're young, the world is full of giant possibilities that are completely outside the proverbial box.
At such a young age, we are, after all, still putting the world into explainable patterns. We still haven't figured everything out. And so anything might yet be possible. The world is unknown. The footing is uncertain. Everything hangs on a tether. Anything can change at any time. Everything can collapse, reverse itself, or reveal its true nature at any second. With every passing minute, you may discover that the world is actually different, that the rules you know are wrong, and that your explanation for everything that you know is utterly wrong.
When was the last time you felt like that? What would you have to go through today to experience what you did when you were four and did something as trivial as going to the bathroom in a stranger's house? To relive the emotional experience you went through then, the sheer number of possibilities, you would have to get in a spaceship and land on an alien world.
Now let's go further back into the past. You can't remember this, but back when you were a baby, the universe was redefined every day, every hour, every minute, and, perhaps, every second.
In addition, anything that happened had to do with the entire universe. Anything that threatened you, threatened everything. When your mother left that first time, she left forever. When something was bad, the universe in its entirety was bad and your entire future was bleak. When you felt good, everything was good. Everything! Can you imagine, today, feeling something that big?
When was the last time you felt something so completely? When was the last time you knew that something about you changed the universe? When was the last time you felt the universe change like that?
Once upon a time, you literally were (as far as your brain told you) the center of the universe. The universe in its entirety changed every second. You could feel the universe change around you.
When was the last time you felt anything like this?
To feel the same today, God would have to come down, appear before you, and prove to you that you are the center of the universe and that your every action changes it.
Now we're old, you see. Now we're grown-ups. And everything in the world fits into explainable patterns. Maybe we understand science and think we have a clear picture of the universe. Even if we have no understanding of science, we still have a very clear picture of the rules by which our world functions. Even if we're not altogether intelligent, the world still works according to rules we understand. If we're religious, our religion probably creates a clear picture of the universe and allows us to understand the laws of the world in which we function. In each of these cases, we have a clear grasp of our lives, our world, and our universe (as we understand it). We're grown-ups. And that is the nature of grown-ups.
Even so, we still believe there are holes in our knowledge of the universe. We haven't seen what it's like inside the sun. We haven't experienced quantum soup. We haven't traveled to the action-packed center of our galaxy. We haven't experienced nanotechnology. Matter hasn't been turned, yet, into smart matter. We don't know what the future holds. If there is a God or gods, we haven't seen clear evidence of them yet. We still don't know how or why the universe exists. We haven't experienced death and we don't know if there's an afterlife. We haven't experienced what it must be like to be as famous as Madonna, to climb Everest, to walk around the world.
There are still holes in our knowledge. There are things that are beyond our reach, that we will never get to experience. There are still things that may alter everything we know about reality. There are still holes in the universe.
But how far would we have to go to experience them? How long would we have to live to reexperience what we used to feel ten times a minute? We would have to watch a rover land on Mars and slowly watch as it sends its pictures for the first time ever. For those of us who were grown-ups in the sixties, we would have to watch a man land on the moon and actually walk on it. We would have to watch an airplane take off for the first time in human history. We would have to discover America.
How many historic events such as this will you live through? Today, we would have to be in a specialized pressure suit as we descend into the depths of Jupiter. We would have to go on a huge battleship. We would have to see real aliens with alien technology to get a whiff of that feeling we used to get all the time. We would have to witness the first beaming of a person.
We've grown jaded. We know the world. But we used to be fresh. We used to discover the world daily. Once, everything was unknown, everything was discovery. Today, everything is old news, everything is repetition.
Some of us have completely abandoned the feelings we had as children. Some of us are dead certain of the world we live in and have completely come to terms with it. Some of us, however, remember those feelings well, even if we don't know we do. Some of us even harbor hope that there's some kind of magic button that will cause the world to change completely. Some of us cling to those feelings, and when we catch a hint of them, we light up. We find new worlds in science, but also in books. We find new possibilities and new universes in SF, in fantasy, in computer games. The jaded people—those who have come to complete terms with the world and have abandoned the "childlike" emotions—can't understand SF.
SF comes from a deep, deep place inside us. It is primal. It is basic. It is in our nature. And that place inside us is almost completely gone once we're grown-ups.
One question is left. Why did science fiction become a phenomenon only when technology began to advance fast enough for a person to see change during their own lifespan? Because until not that long ago, when the world was flat and when God gave power to kings, we had the explanation for everything. The nature of the world was set in stone, and all you had to do was live your life in it. A brave new world was too far away to imagine. If you dared to think otherwise, you knew you were wrong. Sure, people could still fear demons or devils or ghosts or the wrath of gods that walked the earth—and throughout history there have been many stories about those. But the world was set—the nature of the world was clear to everyone.
And then science came and technology advanced and that attitude changed. Once we could prove that our picture of the world was not complete, that change and the unknown were still around the corner, once we saw that there were still new and mysterious worlds to conquer—the moon, the center of the Earth, the bottom of the ocean—we began to relive the feelings of our youth, to reexperience those awesome feelings we had had when we were kids.
Technology brought back to us the sense of wonder and legitimized it.
And that brought us science fiction.
So where does science fiction come from? Every child knows and every grown-up forgets.
You must log in to post a comment.