Scribbler’s Saga #4 – Why I Like Sci-Fi

Posted: November 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

© 2015 G.N. Jacobs

Mom asked me a couple weeks ago – “Why do you like science fiction?” – over dinner.

There are many ways to take that question. Unintentional dig from someone who decided long ago the genre held no attraction for her, but wants to understand. Semi-intentional dig from someone trying to shape my writing away from the things I like. Some flavor of All of the Above. It’s Mom, bet on the All of the Above answer.

I sort of knew when I gave my answer that I’d hear from the scared part of her that wants me to write important things. To the tune of 60-percent. She didn’t disappoint; I got the email three days later saying “You are so creative and have been all your life. There has to be some way to focus that into other things.”

Of course, I will use another post to really go off on her for the hurtful parts of this conversation. This one is all about what is so freakin’ awesome about Science Fiction, Fantasy and all other forms of speculative fiction that I’m going to mostly ignore the attempt to improperly change me as a writer in someone else’s image.

My answer included elements of my stock answers on the subject of science fiction. SF isn’t really a genre, but a setting in which other stories from other genres can play out. The best case in point is Nora Roberts’ In Death Series. Take the hardboiled police procedural novel out of Evan Hunter’s (writing as Ed McBain) cold dead hands and set the book in the middle 2050s. I suppose when I get out of my own way long enough to actually read about LT. Eve Dallas, I will learn why Barnes & Noble curiously stacks the series in Mystery and not Science Fiction.

So as I said this my next point to Mom went towards the classic raison d’etre of the science fiction story: the disguised Social Commentary. Using the examples of my favorite three Star Trek episodes, I carefully explained that science fiction allows the writer to get in his or her shots at things that either need to change or must undergo the extensive discussion that explains why they must stay the same.

I brought up Let This Be Your Last Battlefield where the Enterprise picks up two gents that each have black on half of his face and white on the other half. These characters instantly revert to character archetypes that we saw in Les Miserables, the multi-decade pursuit of a downtrodden underdog by a police officer dedicated to Law & Order at all costs. Beale and Loki run around the ship trying to win hearts and minds among the crew.

The crew seem to take this contest of ideas as something amusing, because the conceit of the whole show was to assert that by 2266 (the in-show calendar year of the first season) racism would be largely bottled up on the trashcan of history. The crew politely hear both men out and don’t take sides, because people from a society that has already worked through racism and who are constrained as much as possible by the Prime Directive don’t need to take sides.

A little bit of drama results when Commissioner Beale forgets that he is a guest on the Enterprise there at Captain Kirk’s sufferance. Beale insists on a direct trip home for Loki’s trial and probable execution. Kirk explains about a mission to deliver important medicine to a nearby colony and that a Federation court convened by a more responsible authority (at minimum the Commodore or Admiral in charge of a starbase) must decide what is essentially Loki’s extradition hearing. Kirk punctuates his demands by threatening to self-destruct the ship with all souls aboard.

Beale relents long enough for the Enterprise to deliver the medicine, but then uses his greater personal power to yank out the self-destruct circuits and hijack the Enterprise to his homeworld. He explains the hatred to the crew members that one breed of the alien race is black of the left side of the face and the other breed is black on the right side of the face, a heavy-handed metaphor for racist social division based on skin color. The Enterprise arrives to find everybody dead on the planet below such that no one was able to bury the bodies. Beale and Loki beam down to the surface to finish the extermination of their people because their hate is all that remains.

I explained to Mom that in 1967 the mostly white television audience of this episode espoused views like that of Commissioner Beale. The good ones might have said I’m fully aware of the flaws of our society, but I don’t see why I have to put up with the liberal rabble-rousing on TV that wants to rub my face in those flaws like it’s somehow my fault for being successful. The bad ones freaked out when Kirk kissed LT. Uhura in a later episode Plato’s Stepchildren. According to one of Nichelle Nichols’ oft-repeated anecdotes from The First Interracial Kiss on American TV (interracial kisses had aired earlier in Britain) a man from the South wrote this letter – “I don’t hold with mixing the races, but Uhura lookin’ so fine like that…Kirk’s just gonna kiss her.”

So the point of science fiction is that by wrapping the metaphor in the garb of fantasies easily dismissed for its unreality the author gets to say more than if he or she tries to drop that First Interracial Kiss on, say, an episode of the nearly contemporaneous first season of classic Hawaii 5-0. Being able to speak up and say things that matter should appeal to people like Mom who holds her humanity slightly cheap because she had too many good reasons not to march with Dr. King, who was later assassinated creating mountains of regret. Science fiction when given into the hands of people who have something to say is never unimportant.

I didn’t get to say this next part to Mom because it came up in a conversation a few days later with another family member about Jules Verne and the ability to extrapolate the future. I said that Jules Verne writing in From the Earth to the Moon ninety years ahead of Apollo 11 predicted many things about the details of the program. That Americans would fund the effort because who else was wastefully rich enough to try and had already built up a national personality from our westward expansion that we can do anything we decide upon? That three men would go. That these three men would shoot from a place in Central Florida that seems to be equidistant from the current sites of Disneyworld and the Kennedy Space Center from the description. That the vessel would look like a conical bullet. Science fiction writers when they guess correctly prepare us for the future. Similarly, how much of our present day worry about cybercrime stems from works like Neuromancer that depicted hacking to be so very easy?

But, the real reason for enjoying and defending Science Fiction is the sheer joy I get pitching my stories to a certain type of writer: the one whose eyes light up in the presence of wild mind expanding ideas. I go to a bar after the one writers group I still attend. The what are you working on question comes up.

I wax eloquently and craptologically on the current works in progress. One is about a ruler of a planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud who sees with the vision to be the local version of Caesar or Alexander who is forced on a great quest borrowing the rogue personality of his twin brother. I explain that I borrow the larger than life of a Caesar as written by Shakespeare, mix it with the mythic Twins Switching Places motif of everybody including the Bard and filter the awesome through the lens of Star Wars.

I got a conditional seal of approval from the woman in the conversation as long as borrowing from Shakespeare meant only taking plot elements and not the confusing, to her, iambic pentameter. I may respond in a later post that iambic pentameter in context is massively awesome. But, it was a fun moment compared to pitching my already written crime story about the George Forman grill with another woman in the room. Gleeful usage of cannibalism even in service of black satire about TV advertising, consumer culture and so on floated like a lead balloon. Still learning to read my audience.

But the point is, I just like being the guy with the interesting forward thinking ideas.

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