Jun 10

As I think I might have mentioned once or twice I am a huge science fiction fan. I love the stuff, can’t get enough of it. A whiff of warp drive, a soupcon of starships, even the tiniest nugget of nanotechnology is enough to get my interest going. So it was with some consternation that I read something the other day that rather shook my perspective on the whole thing.

I suppose I should confess a bad habit right off the bat. I buy books. I buy a lot of books. Some I buy because they relate to fields that interest me – science fiction, history, politics, web design or some other interest of mine. Some I buy because I have heard so much about them that I want to see what all the fuss is about, or just to widen my reading and not fall into the trap of limited reading habits: recent purchases on this front are “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, “The Republic” and “Don Quixote”. Some I buy when I go out to the shops for a wander. Some I buy from big bookstores. Some from small ones. Some I buy when I’m out for lunch. Hell, I’ve even been known to pick up a book when I’m supposed to be buying a present for someone else.

The problem is, of course, that I have a job, partner, family to visit, friends to see, things to do etc etc. Much as I might yearn to, I can’t just stop interacting with the world, close the door and wade through book after book after book until my glasses smash in a horribly ironic yet wearily predictable way. And so, inevitably, there comes a backlog. Books I have sitting on shelves that I work through whenever I can. Books at work. Books at home. Books at my partner’s place. On the one hand this is a good thing as it means I am never stuck for something new to read. On the other hand it sometimes means when I pick up a book I can’t help but say to myself “You idiot! Why didn’t you read this sooner?”

This situation came to pass on Wednesday. I had arranged an exam for several students and, stuck for someone to invigilate, decided to do it myself. I can take work in with me, I reasoned, and keep up with stuff there. The idea of sitting for a few hours and not having a phone constantly ringing wasn’t without an element of appeal. I also wanted to take a book so I could read – after all there is only so much work you can do these days without a computer (isn’t that depressing?) and it might be good to have something to enjoy for a break. On my way out of my office I scanned my bookcase and picked up, almost as an afterthought, “The Songs of Distant Earth” by Arthur C. Clarke. I remembered picking it up one lunchtime I was out to grab a sandwich. Of course, at the time I was reading something else and so it went up on the bookcase. Fair enough, I thought, this’ll do to pass the time.

The book is excellent, it really is. Of course you wouldn’t expect anything else given the author (who, I bet, is so happy now he knows that he has my approval). What struck me though (and I am not ashamed to admit it did shake my perspective a little) was the introduction, written by Clarke himself. In it he says:

“…I have enormously enjoyed the best of Star Trek and the Lucas/Spielberg epics, to mention only the most famous examples of the genre. But these works are fantasy, not science fiction in the strict meaning of the term.”

Now this is Arthur C. Clarke here. This is not “Hotbody2283” or “SpocksBrain7273” on some discussion forum spouting off his or her viewpoint (which is invariably something along the lines of “Kirk suxxxxxor” or “Trukk not Munky!!!!oneoneoneone”). Arthur C. fucking Clarke. I think it is safe to say when it comes to SF this man knows what he is talking about. I sat there, in an exam, making sure people didn’t cheat, and wondered about all the books on my bookshelves. How many of them had I read thinking they were science fiction when in fact they might be fantasy? Of course it doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the books, and would read them (and others from the same authors) again, but it struck me that I might, after all these years, have been mis-labelling these books in my mind. It’s like going through your entire life thinking “I like oranges” only to have someone come along and say “Actually, that’s an apple you’re eating, not an orange.”

I can guess about now that you’ll be thinking I’m making a lot out of this when it really isn’t such a big deal. I know. Storm in a teacup. Typical of me to make a big thing out of a small thing (something you will come to know if you stick with me in my ham fisted attempt at blogging). I’m going to go on reading the books I enjoy, working through the ones I pick up, trying new things and adding to my neverending backlog of reading. Okay some of the stuff I watch and read might not strictly be sci fi, but who cares? It’s fun anyway.

However I can’t help but wonder, as I look at my bookshelves, how many more perspective shifts, shocking ideas and opportunities for reconsideration lie within. They all look so innocent. Just a combination of ink, glue, paper, plastics and some chemicals arranged in a convenient fashion. Like everything else though, they conspire to be more than the sum of their parts. One book is more than just the crude ingredients of its makeup. Shelves of books are more than that again. They can change minds, change views and change the world.

I suppose the only thing I can say to wrap this all up for now, the only thing that can possibly be said, with all sincerity, at this point is:

Thank you, Arthur.

13 Responses to “Faint rumbling sounds”

  1. averagejoe Says:

    Well, also realize that however highly revered (and, believe me, he is one in my pantheon of writing gods) that statement really is only his opinion. I imagine you could ask many sci-fi authors what they consider truly to be science-fiction and you will get varying answers. The science fantasy genre, which I consider Star Wars to be a part of is pretty loose and can include pretty much anything that isn’t based on hard, provable science. It’s good that the statement got you thinking and open up your perspective some, but I really wouldn’t let it shake you tremedously. If it helps, think of every story you read as just that, a story. Genre labels are really only for publicists and marketers anyways.

  2. TheWriteJerry Says:

    What is Clarke’s rationale for his staement? He’d have to have a pretty convincing argument to get me to think Star Trek is anything but science fiction.

  3. averagejoe Says:

    I’d have to agree with Jerry, especially all that the producers put into designing the ships and the tech manuals that they’ve published. I meant to add above that I would certainly consider Trek as science fiction.

  4. FawnDoo Says:

    Joe you’re quite right – it is Clarke’s opinion and Clarke’s own, but it did get me thinking. As you say though, I will continue to enjoy what I have been enjoying up to this point – just quite a shift in perspective, is all. Got me thinking, which got me typing, which got you reading, which got me typing again…ahh the circle of life! :-D

    Jerry, Clarke’s rationale is that science fiction (and even he does admit that this is talking about it in its strictest sense) can’t break scientific laws or understanding. To do that is to go to the level of the fantastic. By this definition a story like “Songs of Distant Earth” featuring genetic “seed ships” and centuries-long travel is science fiction, because all the principles involved are understood and could logically be extrapolated up to where the story needs them to be without breaking any scientific understanding. However something like warp drive – faster than light travel – breaks the scientific rule about the speed of light being exceeded and so goes into the fantastic.

    Admittedly the range is a lot wider than that – the genre has a lot of space in it and I think Trek is about as SF as anything else in there – and I think Clarke was perhaps being a bit picky but it’s interesting to look at it anyway.

    Besides look at something like “Spock’s Brain” – only SF could come up with something like that! :-D

  5. FawnDoo Says:

    Quick update – after some very quick reading through on opinions on the matter, the dividing line seems to be this: SF and Fantasy are both areas of speculative fiction, the difference being that SF (to take the strictest definition) conforms to the physical laws as understood by science. Fantasy uses, or is set in, areas/places where the physical laws do not apply or are altered/different in some way to allow something to happen.

  6. averagejoe Says:

    “Spock’s Brain” …*shudder*

  7. SarahD Says:

    I used to notice, when I was a kid and looking through the library for new books to read, that there were a heck of a lot of books in the Sci-Fi section that really had only the tiniest thread of science in them at all, and were primarily fantasy (Anne McCaffrey books, for instance). From this, I deduced that science fiction must be a very broad category encompassing any sort of speculative, futuristic fiction. Subsequently I learned of the distinction between “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I can see Clarke’s point, but do we know if he’s right about the historical origins of the term? When the first book or story ever identified as “science fiction” was written, did someone sit down and lay out the rules for the genre? Now I’m curious…

  8. Lorna Says:

    I think the most important thing is that you love it—in its varied forms; I seldom know the difference, sometimes only because someone who works at the bookstore chose to put it in that shelf, but there is so much good tech stuff and fantasy and fantasy-tech out there that it could be a lifelong activity just watching and reading it. Lucky us, and especially me, because I’m retired and get to put so much more time into it now.

  9. MCF Says:

    I’ve been pondering replying to this for a few days now, since everyone has more or less hit the nail on the head already.

    There was a time when I lumped anything with space ships, technology and/or aliens in as Sci Fi. Star Wars. The original Battlestar Galactica. The Black Hole. V. Terminator. E.T. This was my Sci Fi. There was no hard or soft or traditional or mainstream or cult or any other subcategory.

    Then, a few years ago, I started working on a Science Fiction and Fantasy book club. I saw the letters that came from fans, and the authors that appealed to them. Asimov. Heinlein. Bradbury. Clarke. McCaffrey. Hamilton. The editors shared their tastes. Things like Star Wars appealed to the mainstream public and did well, but was more fantasy and more character-driven. The thing about classic Sci Fi, the really old stuff from the 50s, is that some of those concepts that were imagined were based enough in fact that someday they would BE fact. I’m sure many scientists and inventors gleaned inspiration from those old stories. Full-blown hard SF geeks would scoff at the physics of a lightsaber. “A beam of light that extends to a certain length and just STOPS? That defies the laws of physics; light does NOT behave that way.” By the strictest definition of SF, they’re not wrong. As detailed as Star Trek is with it’s technology, there are still elements that are sheer fantasy. Q? Or that rock formation that goes back in time to 60s activists?

    There’s also something about geek pride, being part of an elite group. “I might not be as thin or popular as you, but I’m SMARTER.” The jocks pay for the same Star Wars tickets as the nerds, and while being a Trekkie isn’t as socially acceptable as being a sports fan, they aren’t exactly a minority anymore. The old school intellectual SF fans who consider the genre to be respectable and intellectual don’t want these people bringing down the image they think they portray to the masses.

    Here’s an interesting example. A few weeks ago, my friend was designing a layout for the latest Star Wars novel. I heard him sigh in disgust and I walked over to see what he was working on. His marketing person wanted to put a pen on the same page as the book, a premium that we were either giving away for free with purchase or for a low price. This pen looked like one of those silver big headed communion aliens, a tacky little piece of plastic one might find for a quarter in a supermarket vending machine. The marketer, not a sci fi fan of any kind, did what “regular folks” do, and lumped all sci fi together. “Yeah, those sci fi fans like all that weird alien stuff.” Our reaction at seeing this item sharing a page with Star Wars is proportionate to the way traditionalists feel about Star Wars and Star Trek.

    Ultimately, as a fan, it’s your decision what you label the things you like, or if you even label them at all. You enjoy what you like all the same, regardless of what someone else labels it.

  10. FawnDoo Says:

    Sarah, I had a lecturer in Uni who said that the first ever scifi book was “Gulliver’s Travels”, so I suppose the genre is pretty damn broad! :-) I’m curious about this too – I’ve been reading into the subject a bit. Found any answers?

  11. FawnDoo Says:

    And MCF, you’re quite right – though I have known people who look down on anything that they don’t view as “hard” SF with quite a bit of disdain.

    And I cringed as I read your description of the pen – there is a tendency among people who aren’t fans to think fans will swallow anything vaguely related to SF. You like Bradbury? Then you must LOVE this rocket shaped lava lamp! ;-)

  12. MCF Says:

    Yeah, it’s scary to think that hard SF elitists look at “mainstream” stuff like Star Wars with the same disdain we would look at things like that pen.

    There is hope though, considering Orson Scott Card is writing Ultimate Iron Man. If that’s not a bridge between respectible genres I don’t know what is.

    I also meant to comment on one other thing the other day–you should poll your readership and see how many appreciate the signfiicance of “Trukk not Munky” ;-)

  13. FawnDoo Says:

    I don’t think it would strike a chord with many of them, but you never know! ;-)

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