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Regarding Science Fiction and Fantasy

My last post about the Sword and Sorcery yarns I read in the 70’s got me reminiscing quite a bit about the books and authors who have shaped my consciousness and my world view. Of course, I’m just talking about fiction now; non-fiction is a whole ‘nother story! (Religion, philosophy, history, mythology, etc.)

It’s interesting to look back (from my advanced age…eh, hmm) at the incredibly imaginative authors and stories I read in my teens and early twenties. I started out reading a lot of science fiction, simply because it was so much more interesting than mundane fiction, and because it stretched my imagination, my sense of wonder, so much more than any other form of fiction.

Yesterday I dug out a book of short stories called ‘Galactic Cluster’ by James Blish that I remember reading when I was 11 or 12 years old. What a trip it was to read a story I hadn’t read in about 43 years! That particular book came out in 1959! So even when I was in my late teens I was reading a lot of science fiction that was written in the fifties or sixties (‘The Foundation Trilogy’, ‘Dune’, ‘Childhoods End’, ‘Cities in Flight’; to name but a few). And most of those authors were scientists of one kind or another.

In those days science fiction and fantasy were fairly distinct genres. But today there’s not much difference between the two; they’re pretty much lumped together under the same umbrella. And it seems to be a natural progression. As Arthur C. Clarke is so often quoted as saying: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. As todays science fiction writers try to imagine technologies sufficiently more advanced than what we have now, future science becomes more ‘fantastical’ all the time. And one needs a very creative mind indeed to try and imagine what the human race will make of itself (if we can refrain from destroying ourselves and the environment that sustains us, that is) in even as little as a hundred years from now. I love how many of todays authors are quite adept at moving between genres (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, historical) and have helped blur the old-fashioned notions of genre altogether.

It’s interesting how storytelling originally started out as the fantastical, larger-than-life tales of Myth. Stories of supernatural beings, heroic adventure and the archetypal journey through the stages of physical and psychological development that all people share from birth to death; and perhaps what we hope for and fear beyond death. The stories our myths have carried through the millennia, though fiction, are also true as tutorials about navigating human life and consciousness; about trying to understand what it is to be ‘human’. And this is the same thing that good science fiction attempts to do in our own rapidly-changing age. That’s why I love science fiction and fantasy so much! They incorporate all other types of human knowledge (psychology, history, religion, sociology, biology) as well as the technological sciences, into posing possible answers to the BIG QUESTIONS of human existence: Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the nature of consciousness; the Universe; Time and Space? Do we really have Free Will? Can we create a better future for ourselves or are we bound to committing the same mistakes over and over again?  What is our place in the universe? And most importantly: what does it really mean to be Human?

To me, this is the most amazing thing about science fiction/fantasy literature, and why I believe it’s the most important form of fiction. Our modern Myths. The template for what is possible. And with our scientific knowledge growing at an almost exponential rate, these questions are more important than ever if Humanity is going to survive.

It makes me truly sad to think that many people from generations before my own were indoctrinated with the idea that ‘Science Fiction’ dealt only with rockets and bug-eyed monsters; lurid pulp magazine covers and shoddy B-movie matinees at the local cinema; ie: ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’.

But getting back to my original thoughts…

When I was younger I looked down at fantasy writing from my high horse of science fiction. But I grew to discover the value and purpose of fantasy, thanks to Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin and numerous others since. Sword and Sorcery was almost another distinct sub-genre; but after delving into the works of Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, I came to appreciate the value of a good, old-fashioned adventure yarn as well. I guess all types of fiction have their own special appeal. BIG IDEAS and visceral adventure all have their place in the grand experience of being human!

Since we’re talking Science Fiction, here are a few links of interest. In the Asimov interview, he pretty well predicts internet education as it exists right now! And the last link by Neil deGrasse Tyson is all science, not much fiction. I hope you enjoy them:

Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Original Star Trek

Isaac Asimov on Bill Moyers World of Ideas pt 1

Neil deGrasse Tyson: We Stopped Dreaming

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