Surfing With the Aliens

Until recently, all I knew about science fiction was a few classic names - Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury. I hadn't read any of them, but I knew they were out there. And movies, of course - the Star Wars set. Everyone saw that.But somehow, in the normal course of eavesdropping, I began to get the idea that at least some science fiction involved more than intrepid intergalactic warriors thundering around at the speed of light. I detected hints of angst that didn't quite fit the space-opera format as I understood it. In fact, there are some mighty strange things happening out there, and I would like to report to you some of what I have learned, old and new.It started with an immersion experience. Guided by usually trustworthy friends, I went to a science-fiction convention in Chicago this spring. Amid the welter of dragon-toting youthful fans and engineer-type older ones (including a train engineer), I was able to meet some writers. They were a diverse lot, but generally led me to understand that their outlooks had been shaped by something harsh and strange. Whatever it was, it didn't bear the marks of anything cultivated in the academic pursuit of the Meaning of Life in a Post-Modern, Urban, Media-Saturated Era. Meaning had already sat down hard upon them, and they crawled from under its elephantine backside coughing up visionary stories. In other words, a good number of these people are crazy.But so is the world we live in, and for some writers and some readers, these visions have as much to do with what's inside our heads as what's out in space, with what's happening now as what will happen in the future.Back to the Future But first, onward to the past. The genre has a good hefty history. Certainly Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) can be counted as progenitors, along with the works of Jules Verne ( Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea -- 1873) and H. G. Wells ( War of the Worlds -- 1898).Through a large part of our century the torch has been carried by pulp-fiction magazines like Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, started in 1926, and John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding Stories, started in 1937. The 40's are often referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction, when-larger-than-life authors crashed in each other's living rooms and wrote like fiends under dozens of pseudonyms to harsh deadlines for fractions of a cent per word. This is the era which gave rise to Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury as well as Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and Frederik Pohl, who all started in magazines like Astounding. The New Wave In the early sixties science fiction took several intriguing twists. New Wave, one was called, a term cooked up by the French to describe a movement in film, suggesting, among other things, that attitude was at least as important as story. And the attitude was more pessimistic than what was found in the Golden Age. For one thing, faith in technology was not what it used to be. For another, some of these writers were swimming in the same strange waters as bad-boys like Thomas Pynchon and William S. Burroughs. Probably J. G. Ballard ( The Drowned World, Crash, Empire of the Sun ) has emerged as the most influential voice of the New Wave.In the sixties, the field became less dominated by white male writers and readers with the recognition of women like Ursula Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Andre Norton, Vonda McIntyre, and James Tiptree Jr. It was, at times, a rough road -- Alice Sheldon wrote for years under the pen name James Tiptree Jr., and when rumors circulated that Tiptree was a woman, several of her staunch male colleagues leapt to the defense, claiming no woman could ever write such tough, relentless stories.While many women are now recognized in the field, the number of minority writers, particularly African-Americans, though influential, is still very small. Among them, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Steven Barnes are Black writers who have had a major impact. Alternate politics and alternate lifestyles, long part of SF, became more abundant, and alternate, in the 60's. Eros, alternate or not, blatantly reared its alien head in SF in the 60's. While earlier touches of the erotic had occasionally enlivened the field, this period heralded the full-blown exploration of a variety of sexual experience, with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land symbolically leading the way.The Fine Line There is an identity crisis in science fiction that's worth a mention. It's the rift between "hard" science stories and "soft" science stories, the latter including not only the soft sciences such as sociology and biology, but also fantasy and unclassifiable odd speculative fiction. Like all such divisions, the line is artificial and vague; but even back in the Golden Age it was possible to put Asimov and Clark on the "hard" side, Bradbury and Sturgeon on the other. Among fans dedicated to the idea that science fiction should have rivets (as author Orson Scott Card puts it), writers with other priorities are sometimes seen as being soft, or gasp mainstream and not science fiction at all. The subject of categories (genre is the marketing term) has been known to twist the conversation of perfectly civil authors from reasoned discourse to foaming slather. It's one of the things that keeps the scene interesting.Of course, the classic response to all this is made by renowned author and editor Algis Budrys who says that mainstream fiction is just a limited sub category of speculative fiction, along with magical realism, fantasy, dark suspense, and so on to infinity. While stories published as science fiction most often deal with speculation relating to some science or other, many do not. In fact, science fiction has become home for a variety of authors experimenting with ideas and styles and forms too wild or weird for the mainstream.Which is to say that science fiction reaches out to a wide range of readers: There are the considered anthro-political probings of Ursula K. Le Guin and the raging onslaughts of Harlan Ellison; there is the high-fantasy of Stephen Donaldson and the paranoid anguish of the late Philip K. Dick; the crafted prophecies of Octavia Butler and the cyberpunk fireworks of William Gibson.A Punk Attitude Cyberpunk is a term that applies to the eighties a bit like New Wave to the sixties. The word confuses as much as it enlightens, but what it suggests is a sort of unholy alliance between punk-rock attitude and computer technology. If there is a centerpiece to this movement or accident or whatever it is, it's probably the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, which blasted onto the scene in the auspicious year of 1984, a virtual reality ride that has been hugely influential. A good overview of cyberpunk can be found in the collection of stories known as Mirrorshades, edited by key practitioner Bruce Sterling, and featuring such sterling contributors as Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and Paul Di Filippo. Whatever the difficulties in defining the contents or boundaries of cyberpunk, (same can be said of New Wave), something interesting happened under the umbrella of that word and its impact is likely to be felt for quite a while.However, the cyberpunk debate pales before the facial hues achieved by some authors when their efforts are called "sci-fi." Harlan Ellison has been know to threaten great metaphysical harm to people using that term. The rhyme makes it hard to resist, but because it has often been used to disparage and belittle the field, or just makes SF sound cute, defenders are quick to fight back. Elizabeth Lynn reserves the term sci-fi for bad alien monster movies, insisting the correct pronunciation is "skiffy." Others view the term with tolerance or amusement. Generally, if you want to act like you are in the know, avoid the term sci-fi like the Arcturian Plague.Not that anyone is brash enough to claim that all SF is high lit. It is true that characterization and literary style have sometimes suffered at the expense of fact and idea, and the shelves of bookstores and libraries have their share of space opera, but there are enough good editors in the field so you can randomly pick a book from the SF section and have a pretty good chance of getting something exciting.Science Fiction's delirious future:It makes one more than a mite nervous to speculate on the future of the field of speculation. Tomorrow is coming at us so fast that science fiction writers have to work even harder to stay ahead of it, to warn about possible dangers, and to explore alternatives, all the traditional tasks of SF, when the news itself sounds like Heinlein gone deliriousHot topics currently fueling SF imaginations include genetic engineering -- the ability to change human beings, plants, animals, and life-forms not yet named; nanotechnology -- the creation of sub-microscopic tools that can theoretically convert anything into anything; and virtual reality -- what's real is what you see, the computer determines what you see, and what you do determines what the computer shows you next.The new SF continues time-honored speculations on politics (most future governments seem to be corporations), exotic cultures and psychologies, and disasters and our responses to them. John Varley and George Alec Effinger explore the trickiness of memory and experience transplants, Pat Cadigan and William Gibson show us cyber-simulations and what they do to the psyche. Walter Jon Williams creates a sequence of strange worlds, Haldeman and Bear and Benford explore space travel and the effect on struggling humans of the more exotic avenues of modern physics, such as chaos theory, strange celestial objects, and cosmic strings.Perhaps the best characterization of trends is that things are getting ever more complicated and baroque. Michigan author Kathe Koja says, "As far as pronouncements re the current state of the art or its meaning, I hide behind Ballard when he says, 'Science fiction is likely to be the only form of literature which will cross the gap between the dying narrative fiction of the present and the cassette and videotape fictions of the near future' This is from 1971. Star Wars reissue, anyone?"Indeed, the medium itself is in flux. While SF radio programs, movies and TV shows have been a staple for decades, new media avenues include increasingly realistic video games, some with the addition of virtual reality devices such as earphones, tiny screens on the inside of face-masks, and controls via joysticks or gloves with motion sensors, providing experiences that are increasingly convincing. The rumor is that early cockpits of immersive VR arcade games had to be made of washable plastic because so many players got violently seasick in the lurching virtual worlds.The field is currently most virtual via the variety of interactive role-playing games, some played over computer networks, bearing strange acronyms like MUDs, (Multi-User-Dungeons,) MUCKs, MUSHes (Multi-User-Shared-Dungeons,) and MOOs, based on works by Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, the Doctor Who series, Babylon 5, and hundreds of others. Sometimes tending more toward the space-opera side of things, these are immensely involving for players, and baffling for those outside, like listening to someone wearing headphones as they sing along. But even the old fashioned world of written fiction is morphing. With paper costs and distribution obstacles grinding the resources of science fiction magazines, some of them are taking to the Web, and others are starting there. Within the last year, two prestigious national publications have moved to the Web-- www.omnimag.com, previously Omni, a general science magazine which is a significant publisher of SF, and www.tomorrowsf.com, once known as Tomorrow, which is a speculative fiction magazine. The Web seems an attractive alternative., but new issues arise-- how will such publications be financed? Subscriptions? Advertising? Blackmail? And will people actually read long stories in a medium where surfing is the metaphor (if not the haltingly slow reality?)Intriguing possibilities also arise-- in Web-land, there are no economic limits on distributing images, color, animation and sound. This now depends on the art budget, not the printing budget. In addition, chat rooms, interactive stories, games, and forms yet to be named or even conceived are all possible. It is a brave new world.As well as a familiar one. Decades ago Asimov said the basic questions of SF are "What if?" and "What next?" and "What if this continues?"In its inner gut, whether slipstream or cyberpunk or hi-lit, the SF story is still asking these questions, is still a vehicle for ideas, for informal thought-experiments, particularly those concerning the central issues of what it means to be human. To conclude on a more cosmic note, Algis Budrys startles us by saying that, even with the plethora of horrendous futures portrayed, the basic attitude of SF is optimistic. And how is that? Because it posits that there will be a future.SidebarTry these for a science fiction summer:Just so you won't have to pick randomly, here is a totally idiosyncratic list of Good Books for the 90's: Summer of Love, Lisa Mason, gives an extraordinary, yet accurate, view of the 1960's hippies and the Haight, with the complexities of time travel thrown in. Wildlife, James Patrick Kelly, throws some of the most exciting curves in recent SF. It deals with clone politics and ethics, mind transfer, and neogenetic twaining, another term for utterly strange body manipulations, including the weirdest take on the statue of liberty I have ever seen. Heavy Weather, Bruce Sterling, is a remarkable book, right from the agonizing beginning saturated with blue fluid. The scope and vigor of his books, especially Schismatrix, equal that of Heinlein and Clarke. Skin, Kathe Koja. This Michigan author creates a punk-art/fine-art community in an almost real Detroit writhing in the extremes of performance art and body modification. Mysterium, Robert Charles Wilson, is a tragic adventure with odd elements of small town life, alternate history and multiple continua, gnosis, and puzzles about what is real. Crashcourse, Wilhelmina Baird. In this very tough and sensitive story, a threesome of artist, thief and whore, with some interesting takes on the three professions, struggle to love and support each other in a brutal future urban scene. The Silent City, Elizabeth Vonarberg. A young genetically engineered woman with conflicting loyalties to the high-tech city and the desolate surround discovers her own complex origins, and tries to help both worlds. Whiteout, Sage Walker, In this tough tantalizing story, a newstyle family/work-group endures the intricacies and hazards of doing international politico-psychological-influence spinning via virtual reality and fleshtime in near-future New Mexico and Antarctica. Door Number Three, by Michigan author Patrick O'Leary, is a haunting book about alien Jungian time-travel changing the world. Or maybe it's not.

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