I like science fiction, right? No big question about that. I’m an unrepentant geek, and I have been for as long as I can remember. (Though my memory isn’t quite as good as it probably would have been, had I not received so many beatings from the other kids when I was young, all of them because I was a geek. I probably had it coming to me.) The point being that I’m sort of biased towards SF the way most guys are biased towards football or NASCAR: I just love it, and there’s no real reason why.
Now, as a kid I was repeatedly told by people more venerable or simply stronger and dumber than myself that SF will rot your brain, that it’s all trash, that I was wasting my time, that it was useless stuff for zit-faced 12-year-olds, all of which is probably true. Certainly most of it is pretty embarrassing: poorly written, badly plotted, displaying a flagrant disregard for the physical laws of the universe. And that’s just the books – the TV shows and movies are vastly worse. I mean, how gay does Star Trek look? And what’s up with all those Nazi uniforms and ponchos in Star Wars? All that spandex, and that stupid little robot that goes ‘biddi biddi biddi’. Embarasing.
So while there’s plenty to legitimately complain about in all aspects of the genre, there is one central thing that I get out of it, which I cleave to: Ideas. SF is, at its root, about ideas: What if we could do this? What if we could do that? How would that affect society? What if we had to integrate aliens into human society? How does new technology affect government, law, politics, religion? What if this and what if that. That kind of thing is what keeps me coming back: I just love playing with new ideas, and nothing is as relentless about firing new ideas into your head like SF, even if many of them are stupid, or cliché, or simply badly done. My attraction to the genre is fundamentally a foppish, intellectual one, for which I deservedly got my ass kicked repeatedly as a kid.
On a seemingly-unrelated topic, I’m reading “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand right now, a book I’ve avoided for decades because I was annoyed by the pretentious people who recommended it to me over and over for the last 25 years or so. Eventually someone I didn’t find self-absorbed and reprehensible described it as “his bible,” So I thought I’d give it a shot, and sure enough, I like it.
What surprised me about the book is that it’s rather science-fictiony.
I wouldn’t say that it’s actually “Science Fiction,” but much of the plot revolves around new super-science inventions, and how they affect society and culture. There’s a super-metal that’s cheaper, lighter, and stronger than steel and just won’t wear out, and then there’s a crazy kind of motor that runs off of electrical power sucked out of the atmosphere, and I’m sure other stuff will turn up as well. These kinds of things are very definitely Science Fiction of the Victorian school. (“What if we had some kind of submarine?” or “What if we had an amazing invention that allowed us to built towers more than 12 stories tall?” etc.) The novel as a whole isn’t SF, of course, but a surprisingly large portion of it is.
Despite hundreds of annoying cloves-cigarette-smoking-patchouli-wearing types telling me to read the book over the years, and droning on incessantly about it, *NOT A ONE OF THEM* ever mentioned the SF aspects of it to me.
Because intellectuals – or at least the dishonest self-absorbed-highschool-senior-Newspaper-Staff types and the equally-self-absorbed-college-freshman types – don’t like science fiction. They find it embarrassing, immature, silly, goofy, suitable only for lowbrows, and full of spandex and annoying little biddi-biddi-biddi-bots.
Therefore, if they read something and like it, it can not be science fiction, ipso facto.
Thus 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Gravity’s Rainbow, Ada, Slaughterhouse Five, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, Valis, and Atlas Shrugged are always described as “Literature,” and never SF. Despite the fact that the books are full of aliens, time travel, gee-gosh-wow gadgets that don’t (or didn’t) exist in the real world, and things that can not be considered anything other than science fictional, if you describe any of these works by that name in the presence of the pretentious types, you will invariably be subjected to a condescending lecture about how “It is not Science Fiction,” “The Author is not seriously suggesting the existence of aliens, he is simply using them as a metaphor,” “This isn’t science fiction because there are no space ships in it!” “The device of time travel was first used by Cervantes and owes more to fantasy than your silly little space movies with the monsters in them” “This isn’t science fiction because it’s really old and English” “This is important art, not your stupid little rocket ships and crap” and so on. (Those are quotes from real conversations, btw. And as far as I know, Cervantes never actually used time travel.)
God knows what these people actually think Science Fiction is like, it’s obvious they’re criticizing something they have no real exposure to. Not the kind of thing you’d expect of intellectuals, is it?
I’m not the only person to notice this, btw. Vonnegut himself commented on it a couple times, saying that when he first started he was relegated to the “Science Fiction Ghetto” because he wrote books that acknowledged technology existed and was relevant. Later on, when he wrote some books that intellectuals liked, he was suddenly transferred out of the ghetto and into the realm of “Important literature,” even though he, himself, never changed his style nor his subject matter. They just decided to call him something different to make it more palatable to themselves, but the distinction was obviously in their own heads.
This kind of makes me wonder exactly how much of the books they’re actually even understanding in the first place, given the kind of mental backflips they’re forcing themselves to do in order to avoid calling a spade a space ship. Obviously, some nuance has to be lost in all that, yeah? And they will never, never, never, never, never admit they’re wrong, ever.