Death Rays Are So Yesterday

In a sulfurous chasm beneath Reality, the serpent and the eagle have reached their moment of reckoning. The eagle swoops in for the kill with talons extended, and the serpent turns its fanged and slavering maw to meet the eagle’s gaping beak in a cosmic kiss of death that will obliterate countless worlds.

Other than that–the design on the back of the Hawaiian-cut shirt of a man investigating the bean dip at the buffet table–this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement. We’re on the 38th floor of a Marriott hotel in Lower Manhattan, in a beige suite filled with cheap furniture. And with the exception, obviously, of this correspondent, we’re a fairly drab and subdued bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old. The median shirt type is sweat-. And there are several grown men apparently untroubled by the fact that they’re wearing backpacks to a social event, yet troubled to the point of madness and eczema by pretty much everything else. What’s missing is energy, that raw, spittly fizz that only an overexcited nerd can produce.

I suppose they may all be fatigued. After all, this is only night one of their annual Nebula Awards weekend, and many have driven across the country to be here.

Then again, it could be the other thing–the thing that nobody’s bringing up over the plastic cups of Yellow Tail merlot. Which is that science fiction, the genre that lit the way for a nervous humankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly ceased to matter.

The early days of science fiction, much like its later days, found its exponents bickering about what the genre was, what it should be, and what its relationship was with the more established human pursuit known as science.

One view, subscribed to by Jules Verne, was that the genre should consider itself almost a legitimate field of science proper, or at least should try to hold itself to an analogous code of rigor. Verne conjured up imaginary futures, and he sent his heroes on adventures armed with as-yet-uninvented technologies. But he didn’t like to make scientific leaps of faith just for the sake of the story. If Verne had his heroes travel 20,000 leagues under the sea in a pimped-out luxury submarine, his personal code required him to explain how such a contraption could be built according to the principles of physics as they were understood at the time of writing: 1870.

The other view of science fiction, figureheaded by H.G. Wells, was that science was best left to scientists, and novelists who used science themes should feel free to make stuff up if it helped uncover the social and philosophical pitfalls in the road ahead of humanity. The Time Machine does not contain a blueprint for a working time machine, but it does contain a fairly rigorous and careful projection of where early-20th-century capitalist society, and science itself, might leave the species if certain changes weren’t made. In due course, this approach would be labeled “soft science fiction,” as opposed to Verne’s “hard,” nuts-and-bolts approach.

Verne and Wells were fighting for the soul of an art form that would frame the great debates of the modern age. It is hard to imagine how opponents of genetic engineering would function without the prefix franken-, derived from Mary Shelley’s 1818 soft science fiction classic Frankenstein. As for Orwellian, it seems safe to say that the book 1984 is more an expression of George Orwell’s revulsion with the totalitarian societies of 1948 than a warning for future generations about the dangers of interactive television, but the Soviet Union has collapsed and the meme of Orwellianism lives on.

Science fiction’s gifts to humanity weren’t confined to the world of ideas. Atomic bombs and satellites are among the real-world marvels lifted straight from works of futuristic fiction. Atomic bombs and satellites. Is there another field of literary fiction to rival science fiction’s impact on the world? Chick lit? Chicano realism? I think not.

All of which underscores the question of how it came to this: Why are the heirs to such a grand tradition dipping their tortilla chips into bean dip that has not even been decanted from its original plastic container into a proper bowl? Why are they not holding their annual meetings in some sort of gilded purpose-built pyramid while humanity waits breathlessly outside to receive their inklings about our future? And why are the science fiction shelves of bookstores glutted with brightly colored works of “fantasy” whose protagonists, judging by the covers, are shirtless bodybuilders with Thor hairstyles fighting dragons with swords?

I reckon it boils down to the scarcity of foreseeable future.

The world is speeding up, and the rate at which it’s speeding up is speeding up, and the natural human curiosity that science fiction was invented to meet is increasingly being met by reality. Why would I spend my money on a book about amazing-but-fake technology when we’re only a few weeks away from Steve Jobs unveiling a cell phone that doubles as a jetpack and a travel iron? As for the poor authors, well, who would lock themselves in a shed for years to try to predict the future when, in this age, you can’t even predict the present?

But the science fiction writers should not beat themselves up. If, through their talent and imagination, our species has progressed to the point where it no longer requires their services, that should be a source of pride, not shame, and the rest of us should be honoring these obsolete souls, not making fun of them in snarky, supposedly humorous commentaries (you know who you are).

There is only one tribute commensurate with the debt. Let all of us, today, march into the fiction section of our bookstores and quietly relabel the shelves to set the record straight.

Let everything but the truth be “fantasy,” and let the truth–the searing, unmanageable, discombobulating truth of the lives we have invented for ourselves in a world it took artists to imagine–be science fiction.

Excerpted from Discover(Aug. 2007). Subscriptions: $24.95 (12 issues) from Box 37808, Boone, IA 50037; www.discovermagazine.com.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.