Sunday, 4 August 2013

In Defence of Science Fiction

Let’s face it. Science fiction isn’t high on the list of Art of the critical thinking community. Specifically in the world of enduring literature there are a handful of sci-fi writers who are included in the Classics bookshelf while a perfunctory glance is bestowed on the humongous number of novels with dystopia, parallel universes, time and interstellar travel. Having just finished a brilliant book by Cory Doctorow, I was consumed by the question: why is science fiction so harshly ignored?

The world looks at the writers who turn inwards towards society and the ramshackle depressing thoughts of losers. Lyrical prose, Kevlar piercing deadly observations and powerful themes mark these creations. I was re-reading parts of Jane Eyre recently and I was struck by the beautiful balance of Charlotte Bronte’s writing. Science fiction writers are scrawny scratchy runts in comparison.

Science fiction is what I call disbelievable. Science fiction takes its fuel not from stirring prose (not always true) or boast of a Kafka on the Shore (although Murakami does well in cyber punk) but from Ideas. Ideas that can light a candle on the underbelly of Enceladus through a magical mix of science and telepathy. Ideas that have inspired countless young minds. Ideas that have pushed us to invent miracles of modern life such as the remote control. And the genre is huge. People who quote Asimov and Bradbury have just scratched the surface (it’s still a great start).

And science fiction has evolved. It all started during the mid-nineteenth century with books like Frankenstein. It took off with the concurrent brilliance of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. These stories spoke of nascent scientific achievement and the dangers of going overboard – one can always find an underlying acknowledgement of Nature’s supremacy. It didn't take long for people to break those rules as Huxley chose to paint the future in a Shakespearean mass tragedy. Then came the authors who came to define modern and conventional science fiction. Today, we’re deep into cyber punk and as always, fantasy and science fiction continue to mix.

Frank wasn't my name, you know

In fact, there are so many sci-fi writers that a rookie like me has no right to list them down let alone comment on them. So, what's the blog for?

My question touches on the correlation between accessibility of different novels and their relationship with Art (you can read a previous post on Art). On the fag end, you have the rather too accessible horde of "Life is Love" authors (copyrighting that name) which despite clicking with a number of people aren't qualified to be considered in the same stead as, say, Catcher in the Rye. Note the choice of analogy. It is not necessarily an over-pumped highfalutin work of GRE words that needs to be called Art. It's okay to be raw and to shriek and scream at your audience. That indescribable element of class is all that's needed.

Coming back to science fiction, there are two factors IMHO that hamper its chance of being rated as Art:

  1. It's too accessible.
  2. It's more about ideas.
That sci-fi is accessible makes it a mass choice. Edgar Rice Burroughs was pulp fiction. Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, was class the moment people saw him as more than a science fiction author. Asimov has inspired eminent academics such as Paul Krugman, but he has already been listed in the Big Three and that's enough respect for a guy who writes, well, science fiction. Accessibility cuts at greatness. You have to be Douglas Adams to turn prophetic science fiction into a work of unmatched humour and satire.

That beats the Nobel any day

The second point holds weight as well. When you choose to speak with ideas and visions, you are capturing the imagination of a child, whatever be his age. That's hard to keep hold of. For one thing, the world is turning increasingly gruesome before your very eyes to care about a possible Hari Seldon. As a reinforcing consequence, it's disturbed and emotionally complicated stories (not necessarily romance) that catch the eye. There is only so much of hope in the world. I think this might well be a bigger reason for the resurgence of sci-fi on the wave of dystopia and despair (Others may well blame this trend as killing nascent curiosity and that's an open debate for another day). Writing in ideas also has the distinct disadvantage of coming across situations that can't be conveyed in words. Some things are best left to the imagination.

Science fiction is Art. It can bring to life a world that never existed. It can predict inventions long before science has the wherewithal to actually build it. It is utopia and dystopia. And there is an unexamined overstated assumption of its works lacking beauty. Go read Bradbury and witness the haunting loneliness in his prose. Read Orwell and his command over ideas and words. Imagine having no conceivable image of Rama in the world around you and reading Clarke for the first time. Look at robots and planes but don't forget to notice the small bits and pieces of innovation that have changed the way we live. Science fiction may well be a far more democratic form of Art. All you need is your imagination.

Science Fiction deserves respect.

(Next time: I'll move to contradict this post. Some good fun, eh?)

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