Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yet Another Story I Wish You Guys Would Stop Writing

I was leafing through an old science fiction magazine the other day -- never you mind which one -- and I came across three -- count 'em! three! -- stories which can be summarized as: The protagonist is nursing an old emotional injury which makes him or her very unhappy. A series of extraordinary events ensue which result in the protagonist cheering up. And that's it. End of story.

There was no reason for these stories to be science fiction or fantasy. The protagonist could have been brought out the motivating subclinical depression by a few kind words from a saintly hobo or a wise-beyond-her-years five-year-old or even looking upon a host of golden daffodils and reflecting on the benevolent nature of the Deity. These are stories that should have been written as bad mainstream stories.

What happens in a science fiction story? Computerization allows monks to fulfill the purpose of the universe overnight and "one by one, without any fuss," the stars begin winking out. ("The Nine Billion Names of God.") A time traveller in the Cretaceous steps on a butterfly and returns home to find his own era horribly changed. ("A Sound of Thunder.") Male astronauts return to Earth to discover a functioning Utopia occupied entirely by women; who, to maintain their happy society, put the returning men to death. ("Houston, Houston, Do You Read?")

It's not just that the stories I read the other day are fables of consolation while the classics set out to overthrow the reader's complacency. It's that in the great stories things change. Irrevocably.

And science fiction is the literature of change.



HANNAH'S DAD said...

I hear you, I agree with you, and yet... one of my - I don't know, 10? - favourite stories ever would be Kim Stanley Robinson's _A Short History of the 20th Century with Illustrations_, in which a character with a rotten case of seasonal affective depression (with which I sympathise - my soul withers a bit in winter) feels glum, and is cheered up by a visit to the Orkneys.

Of course, you could say that given that plot, the most science fictional thing in the story is the name "Kim Stanley Robinson" - but it is still a wonderful story.

And to be less unfair to the story, you could say that the epiphany which lifts his spirits occurs when he's at an archaeological site in the Orkneys and is suddenly overwhelmed by a visceral realisation of the size and scope of history, which utterly overwhelms the tiny human span he lives in - and that that's one of *the* prime SFnal experiences.

I guess he could have had the same realisation by reading _Last and First Men_, but I've never managed to get more than a chapter into it myself - and I'd much prefer to see the Orkneys.

To get back to agreeing with you, my budget of epiphany stories is very limited - but this just happens to be one of them.

Kevin Cheek said...

Just playing devil's avocado here: There is also Roger Zelazny's "The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth" which I have always argued could have been set off the coast of Baja California in the 1930s as in the fictional oceans of Venus. It is exactly the story of a Bogart/Hemingway hurt grouchy gruff character coming to face his grouchiness over a woman and emerging strong (but still gruff). It is also a near masterpiece. Perhaps it is a mainstream piece set in an SF-ish setting. Whatever it is, it stands as an example that this kind of thing can be well done. However, the fact that I have to reach back 50 years for this example illustrates that Sturgeon was correct, if not a bit generous.

What SF gives us is the scale to examine genuinely huge ideas, and the opportunity to hold ourselves up in the mirror of those ideas and examine what makes us human.

Thank you.