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The Mission of Science Fiction

©02 The Media Desk & the USS RAVEN
USS RAVEN (IFT) newsletter submission. For more info, see links page
USS RAVEN May/02 Newsletter Submission


     The Desk has written a great deal of Science Fiction of several genres, and had never actually thought about it before.
     Is there a Mission for Science Fiction?

     Is Sci-Fi simply escapist entertainment, or is it supposed to subtly educate the patron (reader, watcher, game player, whatever). Does it seek to broaden their horizons, enlighten them, teach them critical thinking skills, or is it just supposed to be a lark and something to pass the time with? Is there even a point to asking that question?

     The Desk thinks there is more than a point to the question. Indeed. It is pretty sure the vast majority of Sci-Fi has already answered it.

     OK, first out of the box. There is science fiction out there that is nothing more than a waste of paper and ink. The Desk has read it, and yes, the Desk has written some of it. Then again, not everything out there in the general category of Fiction is Great Literature either. There are plenty of candidates for the Bulwer-Lytton Award (the ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ contest) in every category under the sun. And the Desk will freely admit that maybe except for formula romances, sci-fi has attracted more than its fair share of lousy writing.
     Some of it tries to be entertaining, and fails miserably. Some of it flies the flag of a political agenda that is far too big for their flagpole. And, like something the Desk read in a magazine in a waiting room not long ago, some of it simply, well, stinks.
     It would seem the writer of the article in that magazine tried to incorporate everything that had ever been in every sci-fi show or story they had ever read. Magic and technology and a dragon or two and time travel and a princess that falls in love with a pirate and well… the Desk didn’t read the whole thing. All that was just in the first two or three pages. Was there a plot? Who knows? But, the magazine published it as the winner of their contest, so somebody must have liked it.
     Oh, by the way, the Desk checked, the magazine the story was in was several years old, and the magazine has since gone out of business. Oh well.

     Then there is a big chunk of Science Fiction, and literature overall, that is simply entertaining. And there is nothing wrong with this. Mark Twain was entertaining. So were Messer’s Shakespeare and Poe. Hemmingway. Byron. They wrote it. We read it. The Bard didn’t even pretend to be relating an actual biographical sketch of Julius Caesar, and so what? Poe’s stories become so intoxicatingly eerie that some people have nightmares for years afterward whenever they hear a soft ticking at night, a sound “as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton…”
     Was The Tell-Tale Heart a recipe for doing in your landlord? No. Was it the seething pen-work of a mind long gone mad? Some would say yes, except they haven’t met the Desk yet. No. It was, and is, a hundred and sixty some years later, Entertainment.
     Great Science Fiction from the minds of Burroughs and Bradbury, and even Roddenberry has made us pause and think, ‘What If?’ while it entertained us.

     And there is our next category.
     Those stories that are simply one step ahead of us. Dick Tracy’s wrist radio seems quaint now. Who would have ever thought that sea monsters like the big-mouth shark and the giant octopus actually lived? Well, a specimen recently brought up off New Zealand of the giant octopus family makes those things caught off Alaska and Oregon seem like a weak sister. This monster, and that’s the word, weighed in (dead and incomplete) at 75 Kilos (165 pounds) and 4 meters long (13 feet). Who would’a thought?
     Maybe Jules Verne should be dusted off and re-read again after all.

     Gene Roddenberry read scientific journals and consulted with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to keep his Science Fiction- Science Possible. And a great deal of what he and others in his league thought was ‘way out there’ has turned out to be as close as your nearest lifeless planetary neighbor.
     Ice on the moon? Bacteria on Mars.
     Who would’a thought.

     But is that the GOAL of Science Fiction?
     Is that the reason the Masters write it and we read it?
     Do they aim to make us understand the technology behind time travel, or the lore of deep magic, or the reasons behind the fall of Atlantis?
     Really and truly?
     The Ancient Greeks and Egyptians and others told sci-fi stories of their own. Who was Sinbad if not a science-fiction hero? Jason and the crew of the good ship ARGOS? Gilgamesh? Hercules? Tales of the Valkyries and Odin and even the American Indian’s Trickster? Campfire stories and grandfather’s tales grown tall and full of folk wisdom? Sure. But there was a lot more there than that. Trickster was a shape shifter. Hercules sought justice against impossible odds and superior firepower. The Quest for the Golden Fleece is a nail biter with plot devices worthy at least an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
     The Old Ones tried to explain their world and look for the next one through these stories. Inventing heroes and gods and demons at need to convey to others possible explanations for this or that. Even everyday occurrences, thunder, bad luck, high tide, could be explained with something fantastic that was a little more interesting than convection currents and the interworkings of gravity from here and there. They told stories that could be passed down to their grandchildren about their lives, hopes, dreams, and maybe their wisdom and even their foolishness. Today we try to explain everyday mis-happenings, traffic, bad credit, the 2000 election in Florida, through these stories and look for the next one. Aliens, mind powers (or lack thereof), magic and technology may play a roll in our life and will probably play a larger one in the lives of our grandchildren. Maybe we should write a story or two to pass on our wisdom, our folly, our … well… Us.

     If a Science Fiction Author writes his piece to Educate the reader. He’s done before he starts because we probably won’t want to read what he has to say.
     If you want to teach somebody something. Write a textbook.
     However. If, in the telling of your story. Yes. In your passing on to us whatever idea you want to get across, you just happen to mention without breaking stride, how Mr. Tesla wanted to electrify a good piece of New York State for FREE, so much the better. We may find it interesting, and remember it. And thereby, we have learned something. We may not know DC Current from a ham sandwich going in, but that’s our own fault.
     Most likely the story of Perseus didn’t set out to be a series of morality plays and lectures about ‘Man’s Reason For Living’, ‘Love Conquers All’ and all that, first. But that is most certainly what it became. And in doing so it became a piece of the Core of Western Mythology.

     Perhaps that is the difference between those ‘other’ stories and the Great Literature of the Science Fiction Universe. The difference between stories like Isaac Asimov’s I Robot and something you pass over in the three for a quarter bin at a flea market. The difference between HG Wells’ War… and some of those they show at two in the morning on the All Night Martian Movie Marathon. The difference between what has become a repository of the cultural lore of the United States from the mid-sixties to today under the umbrella of Star Trek, and so many other ‘also run’ Science Fiction series.
     In the process of entertaining us. They teach us. Make us think. And make us wonder just what could be.
     No. The Desk is not saying that Star Trek is on the same level as Ulysses.
     But in a thousand years…


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