By James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 23, 2016
Humans are either doing something, or thinking about doing something. Evidently as we get older, we do less, but do we also think about doing less?
Do you ever wonder why we do the things we do? Why do we read science fiction? Most people read for entertainment and escape. Most bookworms dedicated themselves to one genre, even though there are so many wonderful kinds of storytelling. Why have we fixated on science fiction? When I was young, I mass-consumed science fiction, almost shooting it in my veins. Now the craving is falling off. I’m afraid there might parallels to my sex drive. When young we want sex all the time, because our hormones are in full production. When we get old, biology begins to fail. Desire may stay, but practicality wanes. Isn’t that true of science fiction too? I don’t fantasize about young women anymore, so why should I keep reading about going to Mars? Now that I think about it, my reading tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.
When we were young, our hormones compelled us to procreate. What motivated us to read science fiction? Have you ever psychoanalyzed yourself about that? I have a theory. I doubt its any more scientific than dream analysis, but its worth considering. I believe we read science fiction because we wanted to exist in a different location in time and space. I think all bookworms want to be somewhere else. Literary, mystery and romance fans are quite content with this reality, maybe preferring a slightly different temporal location. Generally, they want a little more than their ordinary life gives them. SF/F fans appear to reject the mundane completely. Fantasy fans want to visit exotic places that can’t exist, and science fiction readers want to live in places that could exist, but on the edge of probability. In other words, science fiction readers want a degree of believability in their fantasies. Of course these fantasies are generally no more realistic than the sex fantasies of horny teenagers.
Strangely, as I’ve gotten older, my science fictional fantasies have become more realistic and closer to home. So have my thoughts of sex. I wonder if mystery fans who once loved thrillers now prefer cozies? If readers of romance novels imagine more realistic lovers?
We’re motivated by what we don’t have. Few people are content to sit and claim, “I have everything I need and want right here.” Most of us are tied to the mundane routines of our life. A few bold folks enact their dreams with great effort and determination, but most of us just VR what we want with books and television. If we live on a steady diet of science fiction, shouldn’t we assume its an indication of what we really want? Or, do we really desire, to just sit in a chair, holding pulped wood and stare at black ink stains, and imagine far out ideas?
I’m getting older, but not that old. Old enough to still dream, but too old to believe. Let’s say I’ve reached that age when I can’t pretend I’m young. If NASA or a beautiful woman offered to make my youthful fantasies come true, I’d probably turn them down. No use proving myself an old fool. So why do I still love books about colonizing the Moon and Mars, or generation ships traveling to other stellar systems? Or do I? Have my science fiction fantasies changed with age? I think reading science fiction is also a kind of collective fantasizing, or collective dreaming. This still parallels the sex drive. Sex is about making children, and children are about making the future. Everyone is future oriented to a degree. Science fiction fans just project a little further than average. But as we get older, the future has less potential. So don’t our fantasies become smaller? (By the way, if they had Viagra for your science fiction drive, would you take it?)
Of course, science fiction isn’t always about the future. For young readers who love Military SF, they could join the Army today. For readers who crave romantic science fiction, there are plenty of romantic locations on Earth, many of which are quite alien and exotic. And fans of post-apocalypse could travel to Syria, if they really wanted to live what they read. Bookworms could live more exciting lives if they made the effort, but is that what we really want? I use to think yes. Now I think no.
What we really want are spaceships, cities on Mars, brilliant chatty robots, contact with alien intelligent beings, immortality, to download ourselves to virtual computer worlds, or supplement our brains and bodies with cybernetic attachments. Or do we? I seldom chat with Alexa, my cybernetic companion. And if I had to really choose between retiring to Mars or Florida, I’m pretty sure I’d pick the Sunshine State. And I’m not looking forward to hearing aids, exoskeletons, and cataract replacement lens. Nor does living forever have any appeal to me.
Being old has changed my attitude towards science fiction. I’m less concerned with new science fiction, preferring to study the history of science fiction. Older people reevaluate their lives. Well, I’m an old science fiction reader, reevaluating the genre. For some reason, science fiction stories written in the 19th and 20th century are more fascinating than reading science fiction stories written in the 21st century. WTF? What a pitiful excuse I am for a science fiction fan. Well, so what. Now, I’m just more interested in how I got here, rather than where I’m going. When I was young, where I was going was everything. Now, not so much.
I just started reading The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, from 1912, and it immediately reminded me of Earth Abides (1949) and The World Without Us (2007). How long have we been thinking up the same old science fictional ideas and assuming they are innovative? That reminds me of the essay, “The Graying Lensmen” by Alec Nevala-Lee. There is value is studying SF history. Alec is focusing on the 1940s, but I think we need to go further back.
All of this is making me rethink the common assumptions of science fiction. Maybe the future isn’t visions of science fiction coming true, but more science fiction. Science fiction that repeats itself. I used to think serious science fiction prepared us for living in the future, and less serious science fiction provided amusement and escape in the present. Now I’m wondering if the purpose of science fiction is a cognitive tool, for thinking science fictional thoughts. Religion, science, mathematics, history, logic, philosophy, journalism, etc., are all cognitive tools for understanding reality. Science fiction is not a very precise tool, more like religion than science. But thinking science fictionally, is a way to contemplate reality. I’m wondering if we think science fictionally different as teenagers, than we do collecting social security?