A Loved and Reviled Genre – SciFi Ruminations #1

Long Beach, CA

After a fairly long hiatus (several months), I’ve again been reading SciFi. For most of my  life I’ve been doing this–diving in and then pulling back from this genre. As I’ve found myself entering more deeply into SciFi as a writer,  I’ve been thinking a lot about this love-(sometimes) hate relationship, trying to figure out its dynamics. One thing I’ve noticed is that my relationship with SciFi largely mirrors that of the literary world as a whole. At its best, SciFi gives us a path out of the limitations of current realities (and more broadly at times the limitations of our species), while also giving us a perspective from which to examine and question what we are today. With SciFi, we are no longer bound to this planet, time and biology can be transcended , and new societies can be imagined …

Many people don’t get this, as evidenced by the fact that mocking SciFi has long been a staple of our popular culture (the Big Bang Theory is the latest and one of the more enduring examples of this). I’ve always felt sorry for those with such attitudes. I find it hard to see them as being anything other people with stunted dreams, people lacking wonder. SciF has essentially replaced myth in our rapidly secularizing societies (or perhaps it’s a new kind of myth that looks forward and sideways in time instead of backwards). It is where we imagine the future and re-imagine the present. It is where hope lies. It is our Dreamtime

This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms to be made against it. What drives SciFi is ideas. This means that literary skill has long taken a backseat to the throwing out cool notions and events, which is a round-a-bout way of saying that much SciFi is poorly written. It developed as a pulp genre, so some of this is forgivable. In the past writers were often paid (poorly) by the page, so in order to survive they had churn out product in a time frame and in ways that left little time for artistic considerations. There’s a deeper issue here, though. Since SciFi is idea driven it attracts writers who are imaginative but lack talent. In other words, it brings in people who probably couldn’t “make it” as non-genre writers. This can often lead to slap-dash constructions, farcical plots, and most annoying to me, stock characters.

This is not always a bad thing, though. Such writers can bring in all sorts of stuff “better” storytellers wouldn’t go near, and in doing this they often break new ground (albeit, often purely by accident). Also slipping into this kind of pulp for the reader can be a lot of fun! To leave literary high culture behind can be a joyous, freeing experience. Rules are made to be broken, but reading writers who are apparently oblivious to such roles can land one in a quite different and at times quite interesting place …

I suppose that my discomfort with people who don’t like SciFi lies somewhere in these latter points. Even at its worst, SciFi is about pushing the boundaries, which leaves me thinking that those who don’t get this don’t have much in the way of imagination and little sense of adventure–these are people who accept the status quo as the only reality possible. I can’t think of a more damning worldview or a more damning thing to say of someone’s world view …

Again, though, I do understand why some people are put off by the genre. Sometimes its silliness, its laziness can build up even in me, a big fan, until I have to get away from it for awhile. Still, I keep coming back to SciFi, keep yearning for the new hopes and dreams it proposes. I’d like to think that this say some something good about me. If nothing else I think it means I’m still in the thick of the fight …