Science fiction used to be the home of dangerous ideas.
Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I needed that. I was a strange child, with few friends and no close connections. I didn’t fit in anywhere, not at home, not at school, not in the suburban residential neighborhood that I wandered through, lonely as a cloud.
Pretty much the only place that I could feel I belonged was the library. I read voraciously, and I discovered an entire class of books that dealt with the strange, the things that didn’t fit. The things like me.
From science fiction I learned that I was not alone, not sui generis. Other people had the same kind of oddball corkscrew mind I had. Because science fiction (and fantasy, although my hometown library didn’t make that distinction and put everything that was set someplace else in one section) wasn’t supposed to be real, it was able to talk about things that were important.
That was the power of the genre. You could talk about anything. All you had to do was put the story on Mars and you could say things about life of Earth that you couldn’t get published in mainstream fiction.
Sex, violence, drugs, madness–no subject was taboo if you filtered it through the fun house mirror of “this isn’t real”. From writers like Phillip Dick and Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin I learned about real life as it applied to me. Lessons about life and love and survival that I still use daily.
Over the last few years something terrible has been happening to science fiction. There are people–not a lot, I don’t believe, but they have very loud voices–who want to cut out the dangerous ideas. They want to make science fiction safe.
The only way to do that–and in my darker moments I suspect that they are well aware of this–is to kill it.
Science fiction isn’t rayguns and rocketships. Fantasy isn’t elves and dragons. Horror isn’t vampires and zombies. These genres are, of essence, the literature of the forbidden. Without the freedom to go where no one else is allowed to go, well, you might as well just stay home.
Recently a local science fiction convention came under attack from a small but vocal group regarding one of the scheduled guests. He had evidently written certain things that this group found objectionable. In less than a day the con committee caved and cancelled this guest’s appearance.
I don’t want to get into the merits of the objections. I don’t know the guest, I don’t know what he was accused of, and I don’t care. I might be in total agreement that the content of the guest’s writing is offensive.
So is everything worth reading in science fiction.
Offensive is what we do. That is what I learned as a child and still passionately believe. We have to be free to offend, to confound and confuse and infuriate. Otherwise, how are we going to find out what’s real?
There are children right now with hungry minds and angry hearts, like the child that I was. They are out there, looking for answers to the big questions, who they are, what is important in life, where they are going.
They need dangerous ideas, because they have dangerous minds. If they don’t get them from science fiction, where are they going to find them?