September 14, 2003

Looking Back

Dr. Torill writes that "Science Fiction, even when it is good, rarely looks back, only forwards, an optimism of the technological development which causes a progress-induced blindness to the cause of present crisis."

Now, I've fallen a decade or so behind in my SF reading, but does this theory stand up to scrutiny? Babylon 5 -- which is about as techno-optimistic as you get ("Faith Manages") -- is all about the past: World War II and the Balkans. Asimov's great story, "Nightfall", looks straight back to the fall of Rome and of the Bastille. James Tiberius Kirk on the bridge of NCC-1701 is all about Jack F Kennedy on the bridge of PT-109. Whedon's Firefly is transparently about Reconstruction and the Old West.

Science Fiction seems always to be looking back at something -- often at childhood. Standing baffled and dazzled in the imperial spaceport of Trantor, we recall the trip from the shtetl to the City and on the the New World. Dreaming of Electric Sheep, we're alone in the long city night, our parents gone, and we feel inexplicable attraction for something alien and dangerous and forbidden.

I'm not really qualified for this discussion, but Kathryn can give us chapter and verse. But I keep having to say this: if we New Media folk are going to talk about literary genre, we've got to get the facts right.

As for Spider Robinson's concern that "SF is paradoxically in sharp decline", I just heard David Hartwell argue at Readercon that SF was in the middle of a second golden age -- and Hal Clement was sitting right there, nodding. Hartwell is looking at the work, Robinson is looking at the audience. They might both be right (though the work is more important than the box office).

But Robinson's conclusion is wonderful:

People still believe that men fished the Grand Banks, once. Some even dream of going back.