June 6, 2012

"We Were All Closet Science-Fiction Writers"

Our world lost another literary hero today, Ray Bradbury, whose words and ideas have influenced a legion of writers, whether all of them admit it or not. It's been a sort of exciting month for science fiction, with the New Yorker's first sci-fi summer fiction issue, which directly addressed the notion that science fiction is located outside the walls of Literature, and therefore unqualified to comment on the Human Condition. Despite its sometimes mixed repuation, I've always enjoyed the NYer for its unapologetic self-consciousness: many would argue that its pages are unfriendly to writers outside of those close literary circles, and maybe that's true; but maybe their editorial staff is less savvy and more honest about their own likes and dislikes than they're given credit for. Or maybe they're trying to have it both ways: the sci-fi issue also included a Jennifer Egan story serialized via twitter, a nod both to Literature (Egan won last year's Pulitzer, after all) but also to an evolving definition of Literature: A Visit from the Goon Squad was hardly genre writing, I think, but it was creative enough--and had chapters set in the future--to take some of the pigment out of that delineation. Ray Kurzweil might argue that shading literature toward science isn't some admission of broadened categories, but a signal of the fact that, finally, we are living in the future; that technology has exponentially accelerated mankind to a place  and mindset that is, necessarily, scientific. Quantum mechanics brought us the transistor, an invention that lies behind at least fifty percent of today's computing technology. (Given the vast numbers of people who use mobile phones, computers, and GPS devices, I'd argue that the applicability of this fifty percent is much higher.)

Many of my favorite writers (Vonnegut, Ballard, Murakami, Clarke; I would even argue Pynchon, Poe, King) have found themselves anointed by critics as sometimes-sci-fi, or not-quite-Literature, or almost-canonical. Many of these writers have written directly about this (Ballard, in his introduction to his collected short stories, wrote that he couldn't care less about categorization, an essay that had a huge impact on my attitude toward my own writing). This list also includes Bradbury, whose oeuvre is unabashedly sci-fi, and better for it. The Paris Review published a wonderful interview with him in 2010, where a major topic was genre:

Does science fiction offer the writer an easier way to explore a conceptual premise? 

Take Fahrenheit 451. You’re dealing with book burning, a very serious subject. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start lecturing people. So you put your story a few years into the future and you invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires—which is a grand idea in itself—and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn’t be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life. It’s a great suspense story, and locked into it is this great truth you want to tell, without pontificating.
I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual. 

This week, as a Dutch startup plans a mission to Mars--broadcast via reality television, a tried-and-true sci-fi plot element--and the space shuttle Enterprise reaches its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, I'll revisit The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine and revel in our shared science reality

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