Give Me Back My Spaceships and Dinosaurs
Lately I’ve been going through books I’ve been lugging around for 30 years and putting some of them up for sale. Part of this is because we plan to move as soon as possible to a place that’s easier for me to manage and clean while running a fully-time job in writing (and indie publishing.)
Part of it is that I’m allergic to household dust, and paper books are paper magnets.
Notwithstanding which, you couldn’t have pried my books out of my hands save for the Kindle paperwhite, which makes it easy and fun to read books in a format other than paper.
Anyway, I’m digging through a 30 year accumulation of books, some of which I’ve read multiple times, and some I might have read once, twenty three years ago, while on bed-rest with my first pregnancy – a time when I got so desperate for entertainment I sent my husband to the local library/remaindered sales with the largest suitcases we owned and told him ”Just fill it to the top.”
Then there are books I don’t remember having bought at any time and no one in the house admits to having bought. No, not that kind of book. Though one of the sets is a complete series of engineering manuals, and it had a similar effect on my younger son as those other books you were thinking of. He has absconded with them into his bedroom and I expect we’ll see him again when he’s digested the contents and not a minute before.
And then there are other books which, presumably, I bought, but have completely forgotten.
One of these: The Shores of Kansas by Robert Chilson made me stop. The cover shows a man battling two dinosaurs and it says “the mind-boggling epic adventure of a time-traveler torn between two nightmare worlds.”
I have no memory of having read – or bought – this book. And perhaps it is really bad. Don’t care. It’s going to be my bedtime read tonight.
In the context of a time when people complain that what I write is not scientific enough to be “Space-opera,” which they seem to think should be reserved to what in my time was called Hard Science Fiction, it made me realize what we’d lost, and look at it as as much of a long-gone land as those shores of Kansas with the dinosaurs.
It’s become fashionable, and in some circles de rigueur to complain about THAT type of science fiction, before it developed literary and meaningful aspirations. We’re supposed to look down on it, because, well, it was declasse, and totally lacking in meaning or any aspirations to changing the world.
The funny thing is that they were right about some of these stories. Heinlein’s juveniles certainly had aspirations to changing the world, and I suspect even The World of Tiers (Phillip Jose Farmer) very much had a message.
But they also had adventure, heroism, and – for me at least – a touch of wonder in the ideas themselves.
What I mean is, before I started reading science fiction I read all the Chariot of the Gods type of stuff, most of it written by Frenchmen and even in those times of innocence sounding … not quite right to me. And yet, they were fascinating. I knew most of what they said about archeology and signs of great civilizations before us was insane. BUT I wanted to believe.
I wanted to imagine that our ancestors had come from the stars. I wanted to imagine that we belonged there.
A year later I fell headlong into Clifford Simak’s stories of time travel and space engineers.
None of that stuff could be published as science fiction now – except at Baen -- and all the other houses frown on it.
I remember when I first tried to get a colleague who had just published his first science fiction novel to give me Hand wavium to justify teleportation in a short story ("Traveling, Traveling," later published by Analog.) “It doesn’t have to be real” I said. “I know you don’t know how to do it. I just want something that sounds plausible.”
He told me it was impossible, and also that it would always be impossible… He refused to sully his science with imagining a way for me to describe something that was scientifically impossible.
I didn’t say anything. One doesn’t tell a writer that he’s bound by the limits of his time and knowledge and more suited to writing compendiums than science fiction novels. Particularly not when the writer is otherwise very nice.
But his attitude struck me as all wrong. How can meticulously describing what we know now fire up the imagination? How does it inflame the soul and promote discovery.
Unfortunately the field is now divided between the people holding out for true-science-as-we-know-it now and the scolds who think writing science fiction and fantasy is a sort of social work avocation, designed to succor the afflicted.
Meanwhile, TV series like Stargate and the ever popular Star Trek continue to bring fans in with stories that written science fiction would sneer at.
I say it’s time to remember our roots.
We’re not writing to scold, inform or shape people’s actions. Oh, we can do all of that, but it’s secondary. Mostly, we’re writing fun novels, that might be barely possible. We’re writing to allow the reader to escape, to experience adventure and to dream of the unexplored.
We’re writing to set our minds and hearts free, to explore and roam places yet undiscovered. They might be strange places like… ancient astronauts, or as pulpy as I suspect the Shores of Kansas will turn out to be. In their ability to pit man against the dinosaurs of the ancient past or the aliens of the distant future, they tell stories only science fiction can tell. All it needs is the barest thread of verisimilitude, absent from fantasy. We know that sorcerers are imagined, but time travel, who knows? It might be real and we just having figured it out yet.
Let literature tell the inchoate tales of deep human dilemmas. There’s a place for those too. But leave science fiction as the place to dream.