This is my 185th post for my WordPress blog and my 51st that will be filed in the science fiction category. I started out as a late middle-aged guy wanting to reinvent himself by pursuing a new hobby and ended up doing way too much naval gazing. I need to break out of that loop, wrap up what I’ve learned, and move forward. Because I have spent so much time on the subject of science fiction, I’ve decided the way to find closure is by being my own Freud and define the term “science fiction.”
Hundreds of people have tried to define the phrase science fiction. It’s as slippery a definition to pin down as pornography. Among the billions of people that ride planet Earth through space, there are probably several million that would describe themselves as science fiction fans. That implies that science fiction is an art form, like there are fans of jazz or impressionistic art. But if you were given two jazz songs to listen to, one by Benny Goodman, and one by Miles Davis, could you define jazz? To say that Galaxy Quest and Red Mars are both science fiction is true, but one is a parody of science fiction and the other is hard-core science fiction. It’s like looking at all the breeds of dogs and then coming up with a definition that describes them all but doesn’t include cats and other animals.
After pursuing hundreds of hours of meditation on the subject, I want to define science fiction as a belief system rather than an art form, and when we label something science fiction we’re doing the same thing as when people call something Christian music or a religious novel. Religion is an approach to defining reality. Science fiction is an approach to defining reality. So too are philosophy, science and journalism.
If you watch the Christmas classics The Bishop’s Wife, It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, you are seeing a religious definition of reality put into fictional form. Viewers are asked to believe that angels exist as part of our reality, and that the spirit of Christmas is as fundamental as gravity.
For the viewers who choose to watch Star Wars or Star Trek movies instead, they see a much different reality defined. Both belief systems suggest aspects of our reality that science has never seen. And even though the word science is part of the phrase science fiction, and the implication is science fiction uses science as part of its belief system, science fiction is no more scientific than creationism or intelligent design philosophy.
Personally I have always wanted “real science” fiction to exist, and some writers try, but such works are rare and they are not the works that people point to when they use the phrase science fiction. It is possible to sidestep the philosophical issues and just lump religious fiction, science fiction and call it all fantasy fiction. I love movies about angels, but I don’t believe they exist. I also love movies about faster-than-light travel, time travel, and magic like in Harry Potter stories, but none of those things exist in reality either.
It’s easy to use the fantasy-for-fun escape clause, except that too many of our homo sapiens billions do believe in those fantasy concepts. That’s why I define science fiction as a belief system like religion.
What we need to define now is fiction. Is fiction no more than shared fantasies that have been made into an art form? Films and television shows have become the most popular art form of all time, with some stories embraced by millions of fans. Fiction becomes an escape from reality, and the different forms of fiction appeal to variations in belief systems. We admire what we believe, or want to believe.
I chose not to believe in a religious system when I was a child probably because I had already been imprinted with science fictional beliefs before religion had a chance to imprint on me. By age four or five, Topper, Invaders from Mars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Superman, Target Earth and a host of other science fictional and fantastic stories got to me before Bible stories could. Instead of believing in God, gods, angels, devils, and miracles, I took up beliefs in space ships, aliens, robots, time travel, invisibility, telepathy, and what not. Is it any wonder that the fundamentalist religions of the world want to protect their children from popular culture?
If I wanted to, I could write a book about how science fiction affected people in the same way a social scientist could write a book about how religion affected people. If I had the time, that might be a fun project. Part of the fun would be to show how various science fictional ideas were introduce into the culture through the evolution of science fiction. The roots of Star Wars could be taken back to E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edmund Hamilton. Tracking the seeds planted by John W. Campbell Jr. or Robert A. Heinlein would take years.
The difference between the belief systems religion and science fiction is we can track down who introduced a belief concept into reality with science fiction, but we have no idea who invented the concept of angels or gods, but rest assured, humans in the distant past thought them all up.
I now feel like I know where I got my science fictional beliefs and how. What do I do now? If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. I’ve gotten to this realization many times before in my life. It’s like a heroin addict finally seeing that injected bliss is false bliss – it doesn’t mean he’ll stop shooting up. Religious teachers often use the metaphor of sleep to describe the condition that exists before enlightenment. There is both religious Buddhism and atheistic Buddhism, and the same must be true for science fiction.
As long as readers can stay awake and remember the concept of “real science” fiction, ordinary science fiction falls into the black hole called opium for the masses. My constant struggle to define science fiction is merely my struggle to stay awake and fight my addiction to science fictional beliefs. The only way to save fiction from escapism is to define true art as that which exposes belief systems.
The trouble is most citizens of our reality prefer escapism to reality. Harry Potter books will always be more popular than the stories of James Joyce or Edith Wharton. This makes the role of the book critic to define a novel as being realistic or escapist, and if the work is fantasy, rate the quality of the opium. Harry Potter books would be primo smoke. A book like The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a fictionalized version of this essay. It uses fantasy to trick the reader into seeing reality, and then admits that most readers will want to go back to sleep.
I know I will go back to sleep now, and return to my science fiction beliefs to while away the hours while I wait for death. I should reject all fantasy fiction, but I know the power of my addiction, and if I reread this essay from time to time, I’ll even remind myself of where it comes from, and wake myself up for a moment or two. I know I will spend the afternoon watching WALL-E with my wife and friends, and this evening watch the twelfth and final episode of True Blood with another friend. Tomorrow night I’ll watch The Big Bang Theory and Heroes. If I could understand why I prefer entertaining fiction to seeking a deeper understanding of reality I would really find enlightenment.