October 12, 2012


One of the most interesting aspects of science fiction, particularly old science fiction, is the things that the predictions about the future say about the periods of the recent past.

I have been a lifelong devotee of science fiction. I cut my teeth on Jules Verne and HG Wells. My early notions were profoundly influenced by the future visions of people like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. But looking back on that great cavalcade of adventure, romance and speculation, I think the most fascinating part was what other people’s vision of the future said about the present time in which they wrote.

What was important to Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs was fundamentally different than what was important to Arthur C. Clarke or John Brunner. I wish I could lay my hands on some Roman sci-fi or Chinese, Han dynasty sci-fi. I think that this kind of literature would provide immense insight into those people who died so long ago. Imagine yourself, sitting in a bog in Northern Germany in 400 AD. What would your science fiction be? The conventional answer is religion. Revelations, and other prophecy, would be examples of this. And I suppose there is some merit to that argument. Certainly there are a great many similarities between great world religions and great sci-fi.

There are many parallels to the process of understanding, say, the worldview of Islam and the worldview of the Foundation Trilogy. The only seamless transition from science fiction to religion is of course L Ron Hubbard’s, Scientology. But many other religions have fulfilled the needs that people have for big epic stories of great wonder and magic. Many of the world’s great religions share very similar story lines, and not just by the process of plagiarism. Many of these stories address deeply seated human needs. We all have more similarities to unite us than differences to drive us apart.

I think that a great deal of the creative and imaginative energy that my generation put into the inner dialogues we had with works of science fiction, are today devoted to games like World of Warcraft. Similar wellsprings of energy and creativity are gathered in social media, like facebook. There are millions of people who play out major portions of their lives, virtually, in these global sandboxes.

And that does not even touch the surface of all the people who invent and live new characters online. Often these are personae that have little or nothing to do with their empirical experience. Go to any chat room and it doesn’t take you long to wonder who is really there. Sometimes it is easy to spot the shape-changers - the women who are men, and the men who are women, the old who are young, and the young who are old. Does a teenage girl in Bombay type with a different accent than a 40-something personal trainer in Phoenix, AZ? That’s real sci-fi, worthy of Merlin’s magic.

But is any of it real, or can any of this unreality resolve itself into anything that is actually worthwhile? Is it all just a big waste of time? Is any fiction meaningful? Did JRR Tolkien inspire anyone to be a better person? Does exposure to a fictional hero like Gandalf inspire inspiration and life change the way it is claimed for a “real” hero like Jesus or Mohammed? I know that I am a better person than I would have been because of all the great fictional characters, like Atticus Finch, that I know. My life has not been devoid of real heros, like Rachel Carson, Dick Gregory or Noam Chomsky - people of substance, who worked their whole lives to achieve a better future for mankind. But was Rosa Parks a greater influence on my life than Galadriel? It is difficult to say. Sometimes I think that the films of Stanley Kubrick were more influential in my life than the very real person of my own father.

We have a rich landscape of reality that is composed of many real things, and many unreal things. We’re supposed to be able to tell the difference. But it isn’t always easy, and we are not always right. And does it actually really matter in the end? I suppose that depends on what end we arrive at.

I have a co-worker who is fond of saying, at the conclusion of any contentious argument, “Well, there ain’t none of us going so get out of this alive, so what difference does it make?” He’s a very material person, a person with a wealth of life experience, and a person who is skeptical of ideals. I tend towards a lot more idealism. I always have. And it has done me a lot of good, and it has gotten me into a lot of trouble. But this co-worker began his journey in many of the same books I began in... but we have arrived at a much different appreciation of the world.

My grandfather arrived at the end of his life alone and full of regrets. He lived a very factual life. His was a material life, in a material generation, and he made two fortunes in his life, of which he was immensely proud. But in the end, that didn’t help him. In his end, he was alone. I don’t think I can ever be as alone as he was. I have so many imaginary friends who come along with me everywhere I go. I understand the world through the wisdom of the world, recorded in the lines penned by other people, most of whom are gone long ago to their last reward. But they are with me still, and will be with me as long as there is a me to be.

It was the Boxcar Children who taught me to be a child. It was Charlotte’s Web that taught me to be fair. It was Narnia and Middle Earth that created the notion of greatness and courage in my mind. It was innumerable authors of science fiction who brought me to consider what was possible, or impossible, for a human being to aspire to.  “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” (Isaac Newton) And in your journey, I hope you all have a similar company with you.

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