Embracing many realities, or why sf/f is about more than just ideas
These conversations always happened as the other kids were filing into the classroom, taking their seats, getting out their books, and so on. And usually they all just ignored what I and the teacher were talking about. Until one day when one young woman walked up to us and declared in a rather loud voice. “My mom says that people who read all the time are freaks who don’t understand the real world because they spend all their time in those imaginary places!”
It seemed as if the entire room went silent and that everyone was looking at us.
I started to stammer out something, but the teacher said, “It’s not nice to call someone a freak.” And then he told us to both take our seats.
She was hardly the first person to criticize my reading habits. Adults had often felt the need to weigh in and tell my parents that they shouldn’t let me read science fiction and fantasy, especially. Many thought all the fantasy was satanic, and the science fiction was equally suspect because scientists believe in evolution. There were also many who just thought that how much time I spend reading was the problem, regardless of the subject matter. There are a variety of reasons why non-readers distrust books. It’s not just the evangelical fundamentalists, who tend to classify everything in the world into the two categories of pro-Jesus and pro-Satan who misunderstand what the realm of sf/f is about.
A few weeks back I wrote about the older professional sf author who dismissed the three recent award-winning novels (which he admits he has never read) of a black woman because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Besides being a dick-ish comment, it’s a bog standard gatekeeping argument.
Gatekeeping is an insidious system of exclusion intent on denigrating, dismissing, and erasing anyone who doesn’t conform to the cishet white male (often English-speaking) yardstick. This particular argument has two prongs: the first is the implication that a person is ignorant of the past of the genre, the second is the notion that a great science fiction story must introduce a new idea in order to be great. Science fiction has been defined as the literature of ideas, after all.
I have several objections to this entire line of reasoning.
First, almost none of the works that are usually authoritatively held forth as “great” science fiction actually introduced a new idea. For example, The Stars My Destination was a novel by Alfred Bester published in 1956 and frequently named in various polls as the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Here’s the thing: The Stars My Destination is basically a re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo (published more than 100 years earlier). Oh, yes, there are interplanetary space ships and human colonies on the asteroids and various planets of the solar system (standard sf ideas for at least two decades at that point), and the main character (who in this case is definitely not a hero) developed the spontaneous ability to teleport simply by thinking about it. Even then, the notion of teleportation had been used in science fiction and fantasy stories since the 1870s (that’s right, when Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States).
None of the ideas in The Stars My Destination were new, so why do so many science fiction fans and pros consider it a great sf novel? This gets us to my next objection: because a novel isn’t just about a single idea. A novel is a complete story with multiple characters and sub-plots. It’s about the synthesis of narrative, characterization, world-building, actions, reactions, and consequences. It’s the way Bester took many elements the reader was already familiar with, combined them, contrasted them, and wove a compelling tale out of them.
Science fiction is the literature of ideas in the sense that ideas are things we examine and re-examine. We toy with them, dissect them, expand them, redefine them, deconstruct (which is different than dissection) them, reassemble them, combine them with other ideas, and so forth. And it isn’t a competition (even though we have awards and sometimes argue about the relative merits of different works), it’s a conversation. Subsequent tales that use ideas others have used before should be understood in the context of the give-and-take of a conversation. One story looked at one aspect of the idea, other stories imagine different aspects, or ask us to reconsider the assumptions of the previous viewpoints.
It isn’t about settling on one and only one notion of reality. It is about possibilities. It should not be about narrowing the possibilities, but rather expanding the mind.
If wanting more possibilities makes me a freak, then I’ll proudly take the label.