“The sun is always about to rise, Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk slowly westward to stay ahead of the stupendous day.”
So opens the novel ‘2312’ by the American science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, probably best known for his Mars trilogy – ‘Red Mars’ ‘Green Mars’ and ‘Blue Mars.’ If you ever go to Mercury you really, really must keep out of the sun at all costs for if you are unlucky enough to be caught out when the sun rises, the radiation will fry you and you will die most horribly! However not all science fiction is set on other planets in our solar system, nor on planets in galaxies far, far away in the manner of ‘Star Trek’ or some of the books of Arthur C. Clarke for example. Here is a passage from Ken Macleod’s 1996 novel ‘The Star Fraction’ – “Janis pedalled through the streets of Uxbridge, slowly so as not to break into a sweat … In through the security gates, scanned and frisked by the scanners. The sign above the gates announced:
Warning: Brunel University and Science Park
Free Speech Zone
Ken Macleod as you may know, studied for his M.A. in Brunel and chose to set one of his earliest books (published 1996) right here in the science fiction universe that is this very university! It is both a recognisable and a decidedly strange place just sufficiently off-kilter to cause an unsettling feeling of being thrown off balance. The entire work is not set in Brunel however but soon enough moves into more recognisably science fictional environments. Similarly China Mieville is a relatively young British writer who writes books that could be best described as belonging to the ‘steam punk’ sub-genre such as his ‘The Scar’ and ‘Perdido Street Station’ worlds that are utterly different from ours. However one of his most chilling is set on earth – or at least on a kind of earth and in a kind of time very similar to ours but being just oblique and offset enough to unsettle. Is ‘The City and the City’ a metaphor for pre-unified Berlin? Or somewhere and something else entirely?
So why should we read, or watch, science fiction and what kind of genre is it exactly? Isn’t it a bit geeky, a bit juvenile, irrelevant and escapist? Isn’t it also in many cases a bit too enjoyable to be proper, serious literature? Yes it can have all those characteristics but frankly speaking, what is wrong with geekiness or escapism – we all need to escape now then after all. Even the ‘charge’ of being too juvenile for adult readers to bother about is unfair, in fact some of the best and most popular works of SF have been written for young adults e.g. ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy by Suzanne Collins – which has recently been given cinematic treatment, or Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy and others which are read and enjoyed by all age groups. Pure enjoyment is also a good reason for reading any book but good science fiction can go well beyond simple enjoyment or simple escapism. As any keen reader of science fiction knows, what the genre does particularly well is to posit other worlds and other ways of living – the best science fiction is essentially speculative fiction. The very lack of boundaries and the freedom to creatively imagine other forms of society is what gives authors immense possibilities for creating scenarios that can be fabulously thought provoking and challenging – sometimes even uncomfortably so. One example of a book that can take one right out of one’s comfort zone is ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ by Marge Piercey. Is the main character in the work insane, or is she really capable of travelling into a far future America where people live freely in an egalitarian society and where every child has three parents? In this book there are aspects which are extremely attractive and other aspects which are quite disturbing. Then there is Ursula le Guin, another Amercan, who invents all sorts of fascinating worlds – including one in which all the inhabitants are completely androgenous, there are no men or women, only people. How do they reproduce? Very interestingly! Read ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ to find out. ‘The Dispossessed’ is another of her books which deals with two very differing political systems through the experiences of the character she calls Shevek who travels between them.
Science fiction has had from its beginnings a tendency towards Utopianism. The works of the Edwardian authors such as H.G. Wells have generally been very optimistic in tone but as time has gone on and the upward progress of humanity has so often stalled because of war and these days environmental degradation, later works have tended more towards the dystopian. Modern examples of this include some of the work, again, of Kim Stanley Robinson – one of whose books ‘Icehenge’ can be seen in the current display on the ground floor of the Library. Another of his books which deals explicitly with global warming is ‘Forty Signs of Rain’ (this however is not in our library collection.) Earlier dystopias famously include ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ by George Orwell written in 1948 in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, another is ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley which deals with a very different dystopia – which would you rather live in if you had to make a choice? A diffcult one! Both of these writers were influenced by the novel ‘We’ written in 1920 by the Russian Evgeny Zamyatin.
Another feature of science fiction is the uncompromising feminism of very many female writers and some male ones too actually. Margaret Atwood, Ursula le Guin, Doris Lessing, Joanna Russ and Marge Piercey are just a few writers who create women who are strong, adventurous and spirited. Both Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing (who died last year) also wrote, and in the case of Atwood still write, mainstream fiction. In fact Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years ago which just goes to show that the slightly snooty attitude that used to exist towards writers of SF has waned.
Then of course there are the films – many being adaptations of books like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘The Hunger Games’ also ‘Fahrenheit 451’ adapted from the book of the same title by Ray Bradbury or ‘V for Vendetta’ from the graphic novel of Alan Moore. Science Fiction film is proving ever more popular and with very good reason for at its best it also makes us think and wonder.
Science fiction can be difficult to pigeon hole, for the “hard” science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson or Ken Macleod or Arthur C. Clarke is definitely scientific, however weird the science may be, but you also have what is called “soft” science fiction where the science takes a back seat in favour of speculation ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ and ‘Briefing for a Descent into Hell’ by Doris Lessing are just two expamples of this category. And then what about ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ or the books of JRR Tolkein, or ‘The Fifth Sacred Thing: A Visionary novel’ by Starhawk? Well here we are in the realm of fantasy – but in a good way! Both science fiction and fantasy are related and have quite a lot in common in the sense of being ‘visionary’ and highly imaginative. At their best SF and Fantasy can take you out of the mundane world and be very enjoyable whilst also making the reader think and engage with issues of gender, politics, philosophy even, in a similar way to any good literature but perhaps just more outrageous and adventurous in its treatment of these topics.