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Science fiction and why it's great (by Bennett R. Coles)
 

Science fiction and why it's great (by Bennett R. Coles)

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Science fiction isn’t just about exploring the far reaches of our knowledge – it pushes past that and inspires us not only to think hard, but to think new. Science fiction writers are artists, ...

Science fiction isn’t just about exploring the far reaches of our knowledge – it pushes past that and inspires us not only to think hard, but to think new. Science fiction writers are artists, inspired by scientific reality but driven by their imaginations, and it’s their dreaming that in turn inspires scientists to ask questions, to take risks, and to create wondrous new things. And even for those of us who aren’t scientists, science fiction forces us to keep our brains engaged, to stay curious and to think about things beyond the latest celebrity scandal or playoff game. Science fiction keeps us smart, and that’s why it’s great.

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    Science fiction and why it's great (by Bennett R. Coles) Science fiction and why it's great (by Bennett R. Coles) Document Transcript

    • The Online Magazine For Evolving MindsScience Fiction And Why It’s GreatBy Bennett R. ColesPart 1Mocked and marginalized for too long, science fiction is hot. Orat least it should be, says novelist Ben Coles, author of themilitary sci-fi novel Virtues of War. In our popular culture, there are some things that never seem to go out of fashion, and some things that never seem to come into fashion. No matter the excesses or bad behaviour of professional athletes, for example, pro sport is always going to be hot. Same for designer clothing. And so, apparently, reality TV. Science fiction, on the other hand, is marginalized and mocked, and in this series of blogs I’d like to set the record straight. I’m going to talk about science fiction, and why it’s great. For starters, I humbly ask that you forget the stereotypes and occasional absurdities that are associated with the genre. Like most things, SF has its fringe of, shall we say, over-enthusiasts(kind of like what pro wrestling is to pro sport). What I’d like to do is explore the core of SF –what makes it what it is.Paradoxically, one of the most important qualities of SF is going to make it a little hard to define:it’s all-inclusive. SF is a very big canvas, with a huge scope of subject matter, philosophy,themes and styles. There really doesn’t seem to be much in common between a gritty, hardscience, present-day biology thriller like Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio, and a glossy,action-packed special effects-loaded space adventure like Paul Verhoeven’s film StarshipTroopers. (Or, for that matter, between Starship Troopers the film, and the 1959 Robert Heinleinnovel of the same name.) But though they may seem unrelated, they easily fall within theclassification of science fiction. Why?Perhaps the most fundamental quality which any SF creation must have is a sense of wonder – asense that there is something else out to discover, even if we ultimately can’t understand it. Thiscan be an overt theme, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be an 1
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving Mindsunderlying menace, as in Ridley Scott’s Alien. This quest for knowledge and understanding hasbeen a driving force in humans throughout history: its appeal, captured so well by SF, is nearlyuniversal. And because this quality is so widespread, there is really no limit to what can beincluded within the SF genre.The common sub-genres cover a huge range of topics: hard SF, where no laws of physics arebroken and the story is often about the science itself; alien contact SF, where either the alienscome to us or we go to them; world disaster SF, where science must save humanity fromimpending doom; military SF, where some sort of advanced weaponry is involved and the storyis usually about the soldiers; time travel; alternate worlds; mutants/clones/artificial life… The listgoes on and on.And finally there is space opera SF, whichsimply takes real life and puts it amongst thestars. Space opera is one of the most deridedforms of SF, but there are brilliant examples ofit, such as Joss Whedon’s Firefly, where realworld, modern themes are explored in a fantasticsetting. In many ways space opera captures thefundamental essence of SF the best, because itadds that essential sense of wonder by creatingan imaginary place in which real, human dramacan take place.So that’s the first reason why science fiction isgreat: it has something for everyone. If you don’tlike spaceships, try an alternate history novellike Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain,where the Confederate States of America won the US Civil War. If you’re interested in exploringthe long-term effects of disaster on individuals and society, pick up the TV series BattlestarGalactica (the 21st Century one, not the 1970s cheese-fest). If you want to be scared silly, watchthe movie Event Horizon. And if you just want to switch your brain off for an evening, cosy upwith Judge Dread.I don’t know if being inclusive can make science fiction into a hot commodity, but it sure makesit something worthwhile.http://lifeasahuman.com/2011/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-and-why-its-great-part-1/Wednesday, September 21, 2011 2
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving MindsPart 2Ignore the pointy ears and flying saucers – science fiction is anintelligent, insightful and thought-provoking section ofliterature. Sometimes writing is dangerous. Throughout history writers have sometimes had to hide their meaning behind symbolism and metaphor, for to say openly what they really meant could easily mean persecution or death. Thankfully this isn’t the case too often in modern Western culture, but even in our relatively open and tolerant society, writers sometimes choose, for a variety of good reasons, to mask their thoughts in allegory. Science fiction is tailor-made for this sort of hidden meaning, and this is the second reason why it’s great. There are some well-known examples of sci-fi stories taking on social or political issues, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four isperhaps the most famous of all. His portrayal of a ruthlessly oppressive society resonated deeplywith the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War, but even today the reader is chilled by themanipulation and control imposed upon virtually helpless members of society. A modern readermight even see in it a reflection of our media-dominated, superficial popular culture just as easilyas a paranoid Red-hunter would have spotted Uncle Joe in the 50’s.Science fiction, by its very nature, takes place in a world that is somehow different from ours. Itcould be set far in the future, or on a distant world, or in downtown Seattle where magic is real.This ability of the genre to exist as close to, or as far away from, our real world as the authorwants gives it a unique ability to comment on the human condition. If an author wants tocomment on the dangers of genetic engineering, he might have a modern-day lab bringprehistoric creatures to life, like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. If instead the author wants toexplore human mortality he might do so with robots like Isaac Asimov in his I, Robot collection.Or an author could provide unique insight into the wisdom of the elderly by giving his agedcharacters powerful new bodies as John Scalzi did in Old Man’s War. In every case, the sciencefiction author has the freedom, if she so chooses, to explore complex and insightful aspects ofour humanity without necessarily getting bogged down in real-world politics or potentiallydivisive issues. 3
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving MindsIn my novel, Virtues of War, one of the themes I wanted to explore was this: what is it really liketo be a soldier? What happens psychologically to regular men and women when they see combatfor the first time? And what are the very real consequences of the split-second decisions theymake under extreme stress? As a military veteran it’s an idea dear to my heart, but the last thing Iwanted to do was set the story in a modern day conflict like Afghanistan or Iraq. I have nointerest in wading into the reasons behind why those real wars started, nor do I have any interestin taking sides. My story isn’t about the reasons for war, nor is it about either American or Arabgrievances. My story is about the people: it’s about the soldiers. I certainly drew on my real-lifeexperiences in Syria and Lebanon, but bysetting Virtues of War nearly 500 years in thefuture and on another world, I freed myselffrom any real-life cultural baggage that couldeasily have accompanied my desired theme.Being allegorical, a science fiction story canendure far beyond what the author originallyintended. Just as Nineteen Eighty-Four hasoutlived the political movement that inspiredit, perhaps James Cameron’s Avatar will stillresonate long after the dangers of recklessenvironmental exploitation have faded to ahappy irrelevance. Not only does this givescience fiction a potential for longevity notnecessarily enjoyed by other genres, it onlyadds to the broad appeal it already commands.So that’s the second reason why science fiction is great: it provides the perfect vehicle for thepure exploration of real and relevant aspects of the human condition without causing offense. Orto put it in a less pompous way: science fiction is not only cool, it makes you think.http://lifeasahuman.com/2011/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-and-why-its-great-part-2/Friday, September 30, 2011 4
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving MindsPart 3Science has always inspired science fiction writers, but what’sreally neat is when the favour is returned. The ever-quickening pace of our society has resulted in many things, but one of the most lamentable is the superficial nature of what we mostly read. Supermarket tabloids have always been lambasted for their absurd headlines designed to catch the curious shopper’s eye, but now we can all surf dozens of online headlines at a glance, and they usually range from apocalyptic, to titillating to just plain dumb. It seems this is a growing trend in the way we read today, which increases the importance of the third reason why science fiction is great: it encourages – indeed demands us, to use our brains. The early years of science fiction set the bar high, as authors with solid scientific understanding set out to tell tales that made science the centerpiece. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells may have created some “science” that is laughable in the light of today’s knowledge, but at the time nobody knew what the surface of the Moon was like,or what lay at the centre of the Earth. These authors not only asked the questions, but gave theirreaders imaginary answers that forced us to think beyond our everyday experience. Could peoplereally live underwater in private yachts like the Nautilus in Verne’s Twenty Thousand LeaguesUnder the Sea? Could an enemy of overwhelming power really be defeated by the common coldlike the Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds?As scientific discovery progressed, so did the focus of science fiction authors, but they neverstopped challenging their readers to think beyond what was already known. As we learned moreabout the our solar system, for example, stories about space exploration like Arthur C. Clarke’s2001: A Space Odyssey made popular the idea of orbiting space stations and humankind visitingour neighbouring planets. As the fundamental nature of the Universe itself was uncovered,readers were invited to stretch their minds wide by Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero taking a spaceshipand her crew to the very end of time and beyond. Isaac Asimov created the term “robot” todescribe an artificial life form created by humans, and in so doing popularized the notion that lifewas not necessarily confined to biology.The laws of physics certainly aren’t always adhered to in science fiction, but even when Einsteinis flouted he is often done so in a very intelligent way. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek had notime for such limitations as slower-than-light travel or the integrity of the strong nuclear force,but even so this space opera has managed for decades to explore thoughtful and sometimes 5
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving Mindscontroversial questions about our human existence. And Star Trek even sometimes tries to offerexplanations as to why the laws of physics have changed, grabbing hold of modern theorieswhen they suggest a hint of how warp drive or transporters might actually exist.In my novel, Virtues of War, I wanted to stayas close to the current laws of physics as Icould, and I found a great ally in the theory ofDr. Lisa Randall from Harvard, who hasproposed a fourth spatial dimension beyondthe three-dimensional “brane” in which weexist as a solution to why gravity is sodifferent and so much weaker than the otherthree fundamental forces of nature. I don’tthink that the concept of a fourth spatialdimension is going to be discussed on its ownmerits at coffee shops and soccer games toooften, but with luck, having introduced “stealthships” that can travel in this fourth dimensionknown as the Bulk and be battled by heroicyoung space pilots like Jack Mallory, I mighthave brought this esoteric concept of astro-physics slightly closer to the popular consciousness.One of the most intriguing results of this thought-provoking genre called science fiction is that somany ideas that were imagined by authors have become reality. A modern nuclear-poweredsubmarine really could travel around the world submerged for 20,000 leagues. Robots havebecome ubiquitous servants in our industrial society. Space stations orbit the Earth and probeshave visited every planet in our solar system (sorry folks, Pluto doesn’t count anymore…). True,we haven’t invented transporters yet, but flip-phones sure look a lot like Captain Kirk’s oldcommunicator. And while we haven’t travelled faster than light yet either, just a couple of weeksago scientists think they discovered particles travelling faster than Einstein’s 100-year-oldintergalactic speed limit. So who knows…?Science fiction isn’t just about exploring the far reaches of our knowledge – it pushes past thatand inspires us not only to think hard, but to think new. Science fiction writers are artists,inspired by scientific reality but driven by their imaginations, and it’s their dreaming that in turninspires scientists to ask questions, to take risks, and to create wondrous new things. And evenfor those of us who aren’t scientists, science fiction forces us to keep our brains engaged, to staycurious and to think about things beyond the latest celebrity scandal or playoff game. Sciencefiction keeps us smart, and that’s why it’s great.http://lifeasahuman.com/2011/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-and-why-its-great-part-3/Saturday, October 8, 2011 6
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving MindsPart 4 So far we’ve talked about some big reasons why science fiction is great, and in every article I’ve made a point of asking readers to look past the absurdities of the science fiction fringe and focus on the strength of the core. But now I want to invite all that ridiculousness to the party – let’s talk about the Klingon university courses, the sleeping outside movie theatres for days, the pointy ears, the little green men, the freakish ability to quote movie lines and the whole range of absurdities that are a huge part of sci-fi. Although purists may shudder and closet-geeksmay cringe, all that wacky weirdness is one of the things that makes science fiction great. Solet’s get it out there.Science fiction was always a bit quirky, even in what many consider to be its heyday in the 50’sand 60’s. There were no big conventions back then and no fictional languages being taught incommunity colleges, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the guys on the high school football team whowere picking up the latest copy of Analog or Amazing Stories. Right from the beginning, sciencefiction found its home away from the popular limelight, and as the size of the sci-fi subculturegrew so diminished its likelihood of ever being cool.In the late 60’s a revolutionary TV show startedto change that. Star Trek, undermined by itsown network and unceremoniously dumpedafter three seasons, did something remarkable.It actually grew in popularity even after it wascancelled. People loved it so much they startedto meet in groups to talk about it. Authorsstarted writing new stories to keep theadventure alive. And then, in 1972, there wasan event called a “Star Trek convention” wherecast and crew from the show actually turned upto meet with fans and talk about this fictionaluniverse that was supposed to be dead but was very much alive. Although hardly the first sciencefiction convention (the very first can be dated back all the way to the 30’s), the sheer passion thatfueled the Star Trek movement took the convention concept to a whole new level.And then in 1977 another work of science fiction changed our culture forever. Star Warsexploded across our collective consciousness and, for a brief, glorious moment, made sciencefiction not only mainstream, but incredibly cool. I was 4 years old, and Star Wars was the firstfeature-length movie I ever saw. My parents say that my brother and I didn’t blink for two hours, 7
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving Mindsand I can state with conviction that my entire childhood was dominated by that galaxy far, faraway.From these two cultural colossi comes pretty much all the weirdness that sci-fi is so well-knownfor. By the 80’s the idea of the sci-fi convention had grabbed hold, giving rise to vast venueswhere fans of everything from Voyage to the Centre of the Earth to V could meet, discuss,debate and buy collectibles, in total safety from muscle-bound bullies and beautiful women.(Okay, okay, perhaps an exaggeration: some very muscular guys are sci-fi fans too.) This sub-culture, for so long underground and in hiding, had been primed by Star Trek and liberated byStar Wars, and now it was free to go absolutely crazy. Costumes, action figures, comic-bookadaptations, posters, china sets… A multi-billion dollar industry in collectibles was spawned,and sci-fi fanatics felt comfortable going loud and proud.But …But alongside all this fun and absurdity, despite science fiction moving in popular perceptionfrom being a mildly-nerdy but otherwise inoffensive genre to being a lunatic fringe of crazieswho wanted to form a new society based on the United Federation of Planets, the core of whatmade science fiction great never changed. Science fiction continued to produce fascinating,intelligent and challenging works of literature that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best ofhuman creativity. Science fiction is more diverse than any other genre. It is still grounded firmlyin the real science that has created our modern world. It produces thought-provoking, allegoricalcommentary on fundamental issues of the human condition. Some of the finest novels, moviesand TV shows of the past thirty years are within the realm of science fiction and no amount ofsilliness at the fringe has changed that. I challenge you to name me another genre of fiction thatcan simultaneously be so intelligent and so incredibly silly and pull off both with such convictionand panache.And best of all, science fiction can even laugh at itself. One of the most-watched shows on TVtoday is The Big Bang Theory, which follows the hilarious misadventures of four uber-nerdyphysicists. A half-dozen or more (often quite obscure) references to sci-fi culture are made ineach episode and the main thrust of the show’s humour is making fun of sci-fi geeks. But I don’tknow a single sci-fi fan who is offended – indeed most of us are huge fans of the show.Science fiction is a diverse, established genre with a long pedigree of excellence coupled with alighter side that allows for fun and even self-mockery. In other words, science fiction is well-travelled, mature, intelligent and has a great sense of humour – sounds to me like the verydefinition of cool. And that, my fellow X-wing pilots, students of Kolinahr, browncoats, dinosaurhunters and conspiracy theorists, is why science fiction is great.http://lifeasahuman.com/2011/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-and-why-its-great-part-4/Wednesday, November 2, 2011 8
    • The Online Magazine For Evolving MindsAuthor Bio Bennett R. Coles is a Canadian science fiction author who served 15 years as an officer in the Canadian Navy. His deployments took him around most of the Pacific Rim and included such highlights as being in the first Canadian task force to visit Vladivostok since the fall of the Soviet Union, and being the first Canadian officer to set foot aboard a Chinese warship in Canadian waters, advising the Chinese captain and admiral for the day-long passage.Throughout his career he undertook a variety of roles such as bridge officer, boarding partyofficer, warfare officer and navigator. The highlight of his career was a pair of tours in theMiddle East as a UN Military Observer, the first in the Golan Heights and the second in SouthLebanon. These tours helped crystallize the vision for Virtues of War of foreign powersinvolving themselves in the troubles of faraway lands, and the culture clashes that can so easilycome from such interaction.He retired from active duty in 2005 and makes his home in Victoria, Canada. As one of theregion’s rising authors, he volunteers his time helping writers navigate the difficult road towriting success.Blog / Website: Virtues Of War 9