Why we need science fiction
They make it up, and we all know they make it up, at least up to a point, and so they’re not about Real Life, which should lack coincidences and weirdness and action/adventure – unless It’s not about war, of course – and so they’re not solid. The novel itself has always claimed some kind of truth – the truth about human nature, or how people actually behave in all their clothes except in the bedroom – that is, under observable social conditions. The “genres”, it is thought, have other designs on us. They want to entertain, a bad and evasive thing, rather than just rub their noses in the daily grit produced by daily routine.
Unfortunately for novelists, the general reading public likes to be entertained. There’s a poor writer in George Gissing’s 1891 masterpiece New Grub Street who commits suicide after the failure of his realist slice-of-life novel Mr Bailey, Grocer. New Grub Street came out at the height of the craze for adventure novels such as She by H Rider Haggard, and science novels by HG Wells, and Mr Bailey, Grocer – if it had been a real novel – would have had a slim time of it.
But not all prose fictions are novels in this realistic sense of the term. A book can be prose fiction without being a novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, though a prose narrative and fiction, was not intended as a “novel”; when it was written, such things did not yet exist. It is a romance – a story about the adventures of a hero – coupled with an allegory – the stages of the Christian life. (It’s also one of the forerunners of science fiction, though not often recognized as such.) Here are some other forms of prose fiction that aren’t actual novels. The confession. The symposium. Utopia and its evil twin, dystopia.
Nathaniel Hawthorne deliberately called some of his fiction “novels”, to distinguish them from novels. What he might have been thinking was the tendency of romance to use a little more obvious form of structuring than what the novel was supposed to do – the blonde heroine versus her dark alter ego, for example.
The French have two words for short stories – contes et nouvelles, “tales” and “news” – and it’s a useful distinction. The story can take place anywhere and can move into realms inaccessible to the novel – into the cellars and attics of the mind, where characters who can only appear in novels when dreams and fantasies take hold form and roam the earth. News, however, is news about us; it is daily news, as in “everyday life”. There may be car crashes and shipwrecks in the news, but Frankenstein’s monsters are unlikely; not, that is, until someone in “everyday life” manages to create one.
But there is more to news than “the news”. Fiction can bring us another kind of news; he can talk about what is past and what is passing, and also about what is to come. When you write about what’s to come, you might be engaged in journalism of the warning kind, which used to be known as prophecy and is sometimes called agitprop – elect that bastard, build that dam, drop that bomb, and all hell will break loose, or, in its mildest form, tut-tut – but as someone who’s been asked “how did you know” way too often, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not going into prophecy , not as such. No one can predict the future. There are too many variables.
In the 19th century, Tennyson wrote a poem called “Locksley Hall”, which seemed to predict – among other things – the age of airplanes, and which contains the line, “For I dive into the future, far as the human eye can see “; but no one can really do that. You can, however, tap into the present, which contains the seeds of what could become the future. As William Gibson said, the future is already with us, it’s just unevenly distributed. So you can look at a lamb and make an educated guess, such as “If nothing unexpected happens to it along the way, this lamb will most likely become (a) a sheep or (b) your dinner”, probably excluding (c), a giant monster covered in wool that will crush New York.
If you’re writing about the future and not doing forecast journalism, you’ll most likely be writing something that people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper – to me that label means books with things we can’t yet do or begin to do, like walking through a wormhole in space into another universe – and speculative fiction, which employs means already more or less at hand, such as credit cards, and takes place on planet Earth.
I would have become a scientist myself if I hadn’t been kidnapped by literature
More than one commentator has mentioned that science fiction as a form is where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost, and that’s undoubtedly true. Supernatural creatures with wings and talking burning bushes are unlikely to be encountered in a stockbroker novel unless the stockbrokers have taken quite a few mind-altering substances, but they’re not out of place on Planet X. I myself have written books of “science fiction” or, if you prefer, “speculative fiction”, including The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. Although grouped together by reviewers who have spotted those things they have in common – they are not “novels” in the Jane Austen sense, and are set in the future – they are actually dissimilar. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic dystopia, inspired at least in part by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – especially the epilogue. In a BBC article I did in June 2003 on the occasion of Orwell’s centenary, I said:
Orwell has been accused of bitterness and pessimism – of leaving us with a vision of the future in which the individual stands no chance and the brutal, totalitarian boot of the Party that controls everything will crush the human face, forever .
But this view of Orwell’s is contradicted by the book’s final chapter, an essay on newspeak – the doublethink talk concocted by the regime. By redacting any words that might be inconvenient – “bad” is no longer allowed, but becomes “double-plus-bad” – and making other words mean the opposite of what they once meant – the place where people get tortured is the Ministry of Love, the building where the past is destroyed is the Ministry of Information – the leaders of Airstrip One wish to make it literally impossible for people to think straight.
However, the Newspeak essay is written in standard English, third person, and past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and language and individuality have survived. For whoever wrote the Newspeak essay, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, I am of the opinion that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than is generally given credit to him.