America, we are often reminded, is at war.
Perhaps you believe that the President is boldly pursuing a necessary course of action despite serious opposition at home, despite a vacillating Congress, despite vanishing support from American allies, and despite the ongoing disapproval of the United Nations. Or perhaps you believe that an unelected and illegally constituted administration is violating every shred of the Constitution and spitting upon the very nature of Democracy to pursue a crassly corrupt and apparently incompetent foreign policy. Most likely, your feelings are somewhere in the middle. But any way you look at it, America is at war.
Al Qaeda apparently declared war long before September 11th, but most of us didn't understand the nature of this 'war' until the towers came down. But that's not the only war we are conducting. There is a philosophical war being waged all across America as we redefine what Democracy means. Should the protections of the Constitution be suspended in order to more efficiently ensure security? Or are those selfsame protections part of what security means? There is a diplomatic war being waged between Europe and the United States: Europe is ready to throw off the historical yoke binding the two continents, to pursue its own political and economic way in the world. There is a religious war ripping up the middle east—that's nothing new. But to protect American economic interests, the United States continues to intervene in the oil rich nations; and to protect domestic political interests, it continues to support the Israeli regime. Talk about serving two masters! Should we survive all this, there is a building economic crisis as the shredded remains of American industry are co-opted by the surging Chinese economy. Global finance turns out to be largely in the hands of the same kinds of crooks who ran Enron into the ground. Domestic education and health care are falling apart. Social security will probably go bankrupt before the ecological catastrophe scientists predict finally matures, but its a horse race nonetheless. History may look at these days as the most dangerous internal crisis for the United States since the Civil War, the most precarious moment for the whole world since Kennedy and Kruschev put their respective fingers on their respective buttons.
So, what the hell are we doing reading science fiction?
Well, hopefully that's not all you're doing. I don't care whether you're a good liberal or a good conservative (although I do rather hope that you're good), hopefully you're out there advocating for your own beliefs—even as you examine them in light of all the information.
But you can't do that all the time. So when you are not writing your representatives, campaigning for your candidate, penning letters to the editor of your local paper, working out your own thoughts in your blog, or debating your neighbors down at the cafe—and when you're not holding down whatever job keeps you in bread and books— well, there's still a little time for science fiction.
For many, genre fiction is an escape from the exhausting onslaught of the world. More bad news on the television? Pick up your fantasy blockbuster and lose yourself in some simpler world where there's no doubt at all about who the villains are, and real heros get real results. Pop some anime in the DVD and watch children wage war on giant robots from outer space. I'm not mocking this: I do believe that a vacation from reality can be good for the soul. Personally, I think that the very best of escapist literature will still engage our minds and our emotions in a dialogue with our own experience, but it will also nourish our need for fantasy, inspire us with visions of what humanity—and heroism—can be.
But that's not the only role of science fiction. Science fiction as a literary form is one uniquely qualified to examine the present moment. Some of the most important political fiction of the last century were science fictional in form: 1984, Brave New World, Shikasta, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, The Dispossessed. Even before there was science fiction, there was Gulliver's Travels. Under Soviet totalitarianism, Stanslaw Lem produced one subversion after another under the guise of escapist fiction.
Nor does science fiction have to be so overtly political to remain important. Even in times of crisis, the world goes on. Scientists keep researching; engineers keep building; business keeps trying to make a profit; educators teach the young (and sometimes the not-so-young); governments strive not only to resolve the great issues, but also to hold the physical and social infrastructure of diverse regions together. As long as the vast explosion of humanity is striving to create in the world, there will be a need for art to observe the experience and the consequences of that creation.
It may seem pretentious to call stories about space ships and laser guns 'art,' but even the most pedestrian stories have something to say about the mind that put those words on paper, and the culture that produced that mind. Just as the mystery genre can explore the inner psychology of human tragedy, so science fiction can explore the motivations and implications of human invention. Fantasy can open the mythic terrain of the subconscious. Horror can explore the darkest sources of our fear. Even plain old entertainment— pure formula on the face of things—can speak to readers in surprising ways, ways the author may never have imagined or expected. Pop art, mainstream entertainment, and plain old pulpy fiction are all part of the richness of our culture.
A couple of months ago we ran an article about fan fiction. Although fan fiction has its issues, it also represents something fundamentally true about human nature: Humans need to tell stories. Storytelling is part of what we are. In the very most acute crisis, no, you don't sit around the campfire telling stories. You deal with the crisis head-on. But at night, when the crisis has been defused for another day, you need to share your stories.
So, what are we doing reading science fiction? We are being human, that's what. So are the people writing science fiction. So are the people publishing it. So are the people in these very pages as they review, critique, and consider it. Some of us may hope that in times of crisis the genre will reach for its most important, most relevant, most true expressions. But even if it fails, even if it isn't really trying, it's still an important part of our culture, and it still has something to bring to our experience of the world.
In the popular imagination, science fiction is sometimes viewed as a form of prophecy. Most of us who actually read the stuff know that as prophecy it fails an awful lot more frequently than it succeeds, and that even things that seem like predictive dreams are really about the present, even so. However, I'd like to leave you with a prophecy that came from another genre—pop music—back in 1989:
Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)
by The The from Mind Bomb
They're 5 miles high as the crow flies leavin' vapor trails against a blood red sky Movin' in from the East toward the West with Balaclava helmets over their heads, yes! But if you think that Jesus Christ is coming Honey you've got another thing coming If he ever finds out who's hi-jacked his name He'll cut out his heart and turn in his grave Islam is rising The Christians mobilizing The world is on its elbows and knees It's forgotten the message and worships the creeds It's war, she cried, It's war, she cried, this is war Drop your possessions, all you simple folk You will fight them on the beaches in your underclothes You will thank the good lord for raising the union jack You'll watch the ships sail out of harbor and the bodies come floating back If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today He'd be gunned down cold by the C.I.A. Oh, the lights that now burn brightest behind stained glass Will cast the darkest shadows upon the human heart But God didn't build himself that throne God doesn't live in Israel or Rome God doesn't belong to the Yankee dollar God doesn't plant the bombs for Hezbollah God doesn't even go to church And God won't send us down to Allah to burn No, God will remind us what we already know That the human race is about to reap what it's sown The world is on its elbows and knees It's forgotten the message and worships the creeds Armageddon days are here again
I'd love to share a radio-quality clip of this song—the music enhances the lyrics—but I am afraid I don't have that freedom. Still, you can get a disappointingly short one minute sample from the band's web site: TheThe.com