Breaking glass

by George Zebrowski

“When you get a chance to speak, say something important,” said my friend, writer Jack Dann. And SF editor Terry Carr called me “an authority in the SF field.” So when Emily Hockaday asked me to write something to go with my new story in Analog, I felt a sense of urgency about the decline of genuine science fiction whenever I saw it lacking. So I knew what I had to do. And that’s what you get here—a collection of some thoughts on what I think I have been doing and how.

In the centuries since science fiction lived only in impulsive moments, as in the prophetic description of the Earth from space in the “Phaedo,” one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, we have collected a silly catechism of claims that science fiction is indefinable, in the brief literal form permitted to individual words, when in fact it has been both defined and described in its relationship to fantasy with admirable exactitude by John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish, and brought into lucid elaboration by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanislaw Lem.

I have been described as a “hard SF writer with literary intent”—which makes me sound like a difficult person about to commit a crime. What “literary” means is that I aim for the writerly virtues of style, characterization, and lucid storytelling, as much as what makes a work science fiction—its scientific facts, speculations, and even questionable philosophies and pseudo-sciences. How could one leave all that out? SF has been so dazzling that it has often gotten away with story and ideas alone.

In a pointed conversation with scientist and SF author Charles Pellegrino about 2012 and Core, two flawed SF movies, Charles said, “yes, but they thought about it.” Wrong science, but they thought about the ideas. The human stories and production held up. SF without thought is not worth it.

James Blish once noted that SF should be “hard” all the way through—in its ideas, thinking, and writerly virtues.

Of course, “what’s to do” can be clearly stated but not easily practiced. It’s fiction dealing with the human impact of possible changes in science and technology. Ah, but even if you remove science and technology, you still have the human impact of future changes. Remove “future,” since many works are set in the present or past, substitute “imaginary” and “plausible,” and still not violate SF’s concerns with human impact, which can make it literature. “Plausible and imaginary” keeps it science fiction. The literary conceits depend on the author’s ambition and skill.

Raising greater ambitions, Lem has written “that it isn’t possible to construct a reflection of the condition of the future with clichés. It isn’t the archetypes of Jung, nor the structures of the myth, nor irrational nightmares that cause the central problems of the future and determine them. And should the future be full of dangers, those dangers cannot be reduced to the known patters of the past. They have a unique quality as a variety of factors of a new type. That is the most important thing for the writer of science fiction…the salvation of the creative imagination cannot be found in mythical, existential, or surrealistic writings—as a new statement about the conditions of existence… SF cannot cut itself off from the stream of scientific facts and hypotheses…” Clearly, Lem knew the path of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding and later Analog.

Although many of our newer writers have happily widened their sources of scientific thought and inspiration, too many still work in a kind of temporal provincialism of SF history as simple commercial adventure fiction. SF’s intent has always been more than that, even in simpler forms where it cannot escape a critical stance of thinking. A shame not to try when you can. Kurt Vonnegut once asked, “Did you ever admire an empty headed writer for his style?”

Given science fiction’s inherent critical themes about human horizons and possibilities, how is it that so much of it is reduced to so much less?

Remember that Campbell thought of science as the magic that works, and that he also helped nurture modern fantasy’s own distinctive integrity. To know what is possible, Clarke has written, you must go a little ways beyond, even as he tried to write about things that might reasonably happen. And Blish has written that the most important things in SF are the impossibilities.

Science fiction and fantasy grew out of deep poetic feelings about human consequences, and published, profits be damned, in any way possible, against every closed door of literary prejudice.

As I listen to the news broadcasts about the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I hear that her dissents were messages to the future: when you are stopped by a closed door, break a window.

I once said what I’ve written here to a young writer who seemed to think that I knew something. He gave me an amused look and said, “You don’t have to do all that to write science fiction.”

In a way he was right. Just play variations on all the SF you have read—clever and entertaining, I’ve done it myself. What this gets you, as Joanna Russ pointed out in her landmark 1971 essay, “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials,” is a spiraling decline of all that SF promises as literature, leaving behind an endless repetition, notable only to amnesiacs. I have since wondered if we can avoid this.

Another writer told me that something original could not be understood. As I look at what I’ve written here, I recall how one reviewer of my work provoked me to see that I was in danger of being understood.

So what should we choose? Barry Malzberg, who brought quite a few literary and theatrical virtues into genre science fiction, once stood up at an SF gathering and blurted out, magnificently, that “Science fiction is more important than any of us know.” I don’t think he wrote it down anywhere, so I do so here.

Break some windows.

Science fiction writer Greg Bear calls George Zebrowski “one of those rare speculators who bases his dreams on science as well as inspiration.” Zebrowski has published about a hundred works of short fiction, more than a hundred and forty articles and essays, and has written about science for Omni Magazine.  His short fiction and essays have appeared in Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, Nature, the Bertrand Russell Society News, World Literature Today, Free Inquiry, and other publications. Ebooks of his fiction are available from Open Road Media (https://openroadmedia.com). 

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