Science Fiction

Philip K Dick, in talking about science fiction, defined it as a story or novel in which a new concept or idea is introduced, which is truly new, and which stimulates the reader’s imagination with its newness. The reader experiences a shock of non recognition. Further, the reader collaborates with the author in developing the parameters of this new idea, its implications.

Dick doesn’t include adventure stories set in the future or in outer space as science fiction. The dominant idea in all these stories is old stuff, tried and tested over the centuries. The hero, the heroine and the villain, the threat and escape from it, romance. These are the basic elements of story, and saying it all happened in a distant galaxy a long time ago, or in a time to come, doesn’t make it science fiction.

He doesn’t define the difference between fantasy and science fiction either, because he says it’s too subjective. If you, the reader, believe the premise is possible, the story is science fiction; if you believe it’s impossible, it’s fantasy. Only you can decide if hobbits could exist, somewhere, sometime.

There’s something further though that’s occurred to me. This new idea in science fiction must be relevant to the real society we live in and get frustrated by. Once we dismiss ray guns, flying saucers and aliens, which most people associate with science fiction, but which are mere props for exciting adventure stories (they might just as easily be Colt .45s, stage coaches and Red Indians, or .357 Magnums, police cars and the Mob), we are left with ideas relevant to our own predicament, but which are presented in an extended form by imagining another civilisation, on a distant planet. The idea of overpopulation can be so treated, for instance, as in John Brunner’s 1969 masterpiece Stand on Zanzibar.

Writing on popular culture in general, John G Cawelti (Adventure, Mystery and Romance, 1976) makes the useful distinction between realist, or what is pretentiously called “serious” literature, and escapist literature, which he calls “therapeutic literature”. What I like about this categorisation is that it takes account of why the reader reads as well as what he reads (discriminologists please note I am not suggesting that she doesn’t read, just avoiding the ‘he or she’ formula). Note that all literature can be read therapeutically, that a reader can find it comforting and reassuring to read Kafka (really it’s the idea of Kafka that attracts) just as much as another finds it ‘relaxing’ or reassuring to read Agatha Christie. Therapeutic literature relies on formulae: the reader always knows what’s coming next. The detective always solves the crime; the hero always wins around the heroine; the lost man always finds his way home. Like little children, we always want to hear the same story, with not a word changed or out of order. Hollywood knows this quite well: hence the prevalence of sequels.

Science fiction, according to Philip Dick’s definition, jettisons all this.

Traditionally, alternative histories, dystopias (or utopias) have been excluded from the novel category. They have only been recently called SF, and only then because SF historians wanted a history to legitimise the status they had given to SF. But Gulliver’s Travels, 1984 and Brave New World (and Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) are more truly science fiction than any example of so-called space opera.

Philip Dick is a science fiction writer in this, his own, definition of the genre. He imagines, what if machines took over the waging of a planet wide war; what if new memories could be implanted, old ones erased; what if the President of the United States was merely a simulacrum; what if a war was waged, peace concluded, and the world not told, so as to leave the leaders of both sides free to enjoy the good things of life while everyone else toiled in the war effort (an idea reused in Kusturica’s 2000 film Underground). H G Wells does the same. What if aliens invaded; would civilisations stand or fall. What would the world be like in a future where the division of rich and poor had been incredibly exaggerated. The Strugatskys do the same again. What if unimaginably advanced technological devices with mind bending effects on the humans that encountered them were merely the rubbish left behind on an extra terrestrial picnic. What if, what if. It’s a child’s question, and evokes a child’s sense of wonder, but the need to ask it is fast becoming an adult responsibility.

These ideas are all new. But more than that, they’re relevant to our world today. They are a way of taking a situation we are worried about, putting it out of its everyday context, into a newly imagined universe, and trying it on there. The idea, the context may be new. But it’s a familiar quandary.

I would take this genre as part of the realist tradition. Though science fiction as part of realism might seem far fetched, once you combine Cawalti’s concept of therapeutic literature with Dick’s definition of SF it’s plain that the therapeutic elements of SF belong to the adventure story, and what’s left is social commentary.

Science fiction has taken over the role that satire once had. Satire relies on a common, accepted sense of morality. Behaviour that exceeds this standard can be satirised. But what if there were no accepted moral standard? That is now the case. What we don’t like now we can’t make fun of by means of satire. Satire demands complicity between satirist and audience. But we’ve become a universal audience. What was once complicity now looks insular, even reactionary. What we now don’t like we exaggerate, to a paranoid extent, and call the future, on a distant world.

We have logically unsolvable problems. Too many lives, each one of which is unbelievably precious. Industrial waste that is not bio-degradable but part of massive industries that employ most of the world’s population. Advances in communications technology that swamp us in trivialities rather than truths. Political self-determination that pulls us into unsolvable wars fuelled by big business interests. Industrial pollution which we pass on to the third world as their problem. Over-investment in capital development that dwarves independent business. Political developments that make representation part of show business. Economic forces reducing humans to mere consumers.

Dealing with these issues in fiction is the job of science fiction. Deadeye Dick and Nick Carter aren’t out of a job, and never will be. It’s the difference between Star Wars and the original Star Trek. What we want is space to deal with these unsolvable problems, and the solution is just that – space. There’s something for everyone. If these are problems you don’t want to think and worry about, then destroy the Death Star.

The science fiction film is a good example of how SF works, shuttling between genre fiction and speculative concepts. There are very few examples of SF film makers in the sense that Philip K Dick is a SF writer. Tarkovsky has made two SF films, Kubrick one. But film directors, even those who have taken Philip K Dick scenarios on as a project, have usually fallen back on standard adventure fare. Both Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner and Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall are run of the mill thrillers, Die Hard 99s, with most of Dick’s insights and preoccupations left on the cutting room floor. Both good films, but not SF films.

The further we develop, the more our options are limited. It’s Big Brother, nuclear war, pandemics we can’t contain, the expanding universe. There’s a lot to worry about. Come to think of it, dealing imaginatively with these problems is also therapeutic. The problem is both out there, in the universe, and in there, in our minds. By dealing with the problems in a fictional setting we are applying therapy, healing, to our minds. The formulaic, head in the sand approach of escapist literature is only tenable short term. Eventually, we have to deal with our problems. Science fiction was once scientific fiction. Others have wanted to call it speculative fiction. But it’s all social fiction, for we are all social beings.

So far, from a reading of the two page preface of the first volume of Philip K Dick’s collected short stories. There are 116 stories in the collection. What if…

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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