Monday, February 7, 2011
SCIENCE-FICTION AND THE PHILOSOPHICAL NOVEL
Back in the 1980s, the prolific science fiction writer and feminist Joanna Russ (I think her best-known book is The Female Man), who was also good friends with the magisterial sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany (Dhalgren and Trouble On Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia)), was my colleague at the University of Washington. I interviewed them together for an issue of The Seattle Review. Both are pioneers of the "New Wave" of science fiction that emerged in the early 1970s, a science fiction that grappled with social issues, and elevated the craft of good writing (strong characters, poetic, lyrical prose) in this genre. In that interview, Russ remarked that a woman living somewhere in America, perhaps a very provincial, rural setting, once said that what she enjoyed most about science fiction was the landscapes. They helped her imagine, she said, a world quite different from the one in which she was living.
I've always liked that statement, because it says science fiction (like philosophy) has the power to shake up our presuppositions, our assumptions, our social and cultural conditioning, our prejudices, and nudge us to imagine What if? To imagine things differently is the first step in changing the world as it is given to us. It is, in fact, the first step toward freedom.
In one of his lectures, Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar, disciple of the Dalai Lama, and director of Tibet House in NYC (and also the father of actor Uma Thurman), said that Buddhists are naturally fans of science-fiction. Why? Once again, because philosophy, Buddhism, and science fiction at their best (as well as science itself) challenge our views and transform our perception. Philosophy does it through the rigor of reasoning and logic; science fiction does it by dramatizing the possible, especially the possible based on either science fact or theoretical science. And science fiction writers have often predicted changes in our lives decades before those changes arrived.
I much enjoyed reading recently a short story anthology entitled, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). Of this work, Delany said, "What an exciting book! The writers and their subject matter range through all colors and a variety of approaches to the fictions of the post-colonial. These are ripe and rare stories by some of the most imaginative writers to come along in the indistinctly separate genres of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism in more than a decade."
In his syndicated column yesterday (Feb. 6, 2011), "No Clue Where We're Going," Leonard Pitts Jr. marvels at the transformations in our lives since 1860, then 1961. "The point being, we have experienced---are experiencing---greater change at a faster pace than ever before," he wrote. "But as a fish in water doesn't know it's wet, we, living through this challenging, disorienting, 'tectonic" shifting of everything, don't always appreciate the blinding speed with which it is happening...We are too busy bailing water from the sinking boats of former lives and professions. We are too busy trying to define the curve of the new horizon, as familiar old media, modes, models and mores die with bewildering suddenness and new ones snap to life faster still."
His words are well said. And, traditionally, science fiction is well-equipped to turn those changes into spirited storytelling.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 10:00 AM