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Archive for July 2009

Frederik Pohl on science fiction

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Frederik Pohl is one of the important writers and editors from the “Golden Age” of science fiction. He began writing in 1937, and over the last seventy years has written, edited, agented, and done several other things besides. I read his somewhat-obscure story Shaffery Among the Immortals when I was 12 (my own Golden Age), and I have long considered it the funniest story about a scientist ever written. (Disagreements most welcome.) Of course, at that time, I imagined all scientists to be heroic characters, every one a genius—so the story was indeed all fiction. It seems less funny when I reread it as a struggling graduate student myself. :-) [Despite dropping out of school at the age of 14, Pohl has an excellent knowledge of science, and, even more amazingly, about science: he seems to write with the familiarity of an insider about the life of scientists, how science gets done, what goes on at conferences, the way papers are written… he is a bit cynical occasionally, but that’s his job.]

In his introduction to the collection Day Million, Pohl offers the following pleasant description of science fiction. Writing in December 1969, he notes:

I put “science fiction” in quotes because I’m not always sure what that is, either. “Science fiction” is a poor name for a field of writing. It would be an uninspired one even if it were exact, and of course it is far from exact: there is a great deal of “science fiction” that doesn’t contain any science at all. (You will find some specimens herein.) But it is not entirely a misnomer, because just as “science” is a state of mind and a systems approach to inquiry rather than test tubes and facts, so “science fiction” is a way of writing stories. Harlow Shapley, talking of something else, once described this perspective as “the view from a distant star”. It is a look at the human race and all its affairs from outside.

One of the most popular sports at science-fiction gatherings is defining science fiction: it is that kind of story which deals with events that may happen, but as far as we know haven’t happened; it is that kind of story which takes some real event or trend and extrapolates it to its logical conclusions; it is that kind of story which would not exist if it were not for some central supposition which is based on scientific theory. Et cetera. I play this game as little as possible, because I am an inclusivist and try to avoid setting up barriers which might make me refrain from buying a story for a magazine or anthology I may be editing, or refrain from writing a story of my own, because it could be excluded by one of those barriers. But I do have a suggestion toward a definition, which seems to me attractive if only because it employs that favorite writer’s trick of standing a question on its head. It goes like this:

A science fiction story is that story which might really occur anywhere in space and time, except that stories of our own real world are a special and less imaginative kind of science fiction.

In those terms, Hamlet and War and Peace and Little Women are examples only of a subclass within the general framework of sf. For reasons of vanity as a science fiction writer, it gives me some pleasure to think that this is so. But vanity is not the only reason. Our world is but one of a very large number of planets—no one on Earth knows exactly how many there are, but a reasonably good guess puts it at 60 million or so—in our own galaxy, which in turn is but one of some hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. The events that Shakespeare and Tolstoi and Louisa May Alcott wrote about pertain to the history and customs of a certain kind of vertebrate, mammalian, carbon-based, two-sexed, air-breathing creature. We know a great deal about this species, and we can see how complex its societal and ecological systems are; but since they are the systems we move in, it is hard for us to see that they are the product of chance. Science fiction gives us the perspective that makes the job a little easier. Not always perfectly, in fact not always even very well, it does give us a look at our churches, politicians, addictions, morals, family relationships, vices and pleasures from the point of view of a frame of reference that takes none of them for granted.

When you think of how many millions of human beings have shot, stabbed, gassed, clubbed and burned other human beings because they thought their way of life was the uniquely best and proper one, it appears that this point of view could have saved us all a lot of heartburn over the centuries. It could save us some right now.

As I write, we are in the last days of the year in which human beings first walked on the surface of another world. It’s only the Moon. It’s really just our own back yard. There’s not much there to want, and little enough of even that worth the cost of hauling back to Earth.

But it’s a doorstep to the universe, and out there are many very wonderful things indeed, and to reach and master them we shall probably need all the wisdom and objectivity and freedom from parochial prejudice we can come by. We need them badly enough here on Earth, heaven knows, and if science fiction can help us attain these goals, it will have done more than a good many Messiahs.


Written by S

Mon, 2009-07-06 at 22:54:27

Posted in literature

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