This week I had one of those embarrassing revelations. You know the kind: You know something, you may even espouse it, but you don't really know it, not deep down.
Well, this week, I realized that all fiction is about the times in which it was created. I've always said that. I may even have made some arguments to back it up.
But the idea really didn't come home to me until a few things converged.
First, we've been moving. We got rid of our outside offices and have consolidated everything in our too-large-for-two-people house. The house isn't too large for two people, four cats, two offices, a research library, a mystery library, a science fiction library, and a science fiction magazine collection, however. Dean's been hanging shelves, and I've been putting books on those shelves, looking at old titles.
My internet computer lives in the room that has the science fiction magazines on the wall. Along my line of sight are a collection of digests from the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the contents outlined on the spine. That detail will become important in a moment.
Add to that the fact that this summer marks the death of Walter Cronkite and, not incidentally, the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing. Those two events, at least around here, have revived the saying, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we…?" (Fill in the blank with your own pet peeve.)
Finally, I got back to reading the current fiction magazines again, after a nearly four month hiatus. I didn't intentionally shy from the magazines—
Two science fiction stories in particular caught my attention, both from the April/May Asimov's, Chris Beckett's "Atomic Truth" and Robert Reed's "True Fame." I'll get to those in a moment as well. (Both are worth reading, by the way.)
Here's how all those little details came together.
Throughout June, as the build-up to the moon landing anniversary grew, I grumped, saying, "If we could put a man on the moon forty years ago, why can't we do it now?" I know why we aren't—
But the moon landing wasn't about great visions or even a great visionary president (no matter how much people want to credit John F. Kennedy). It was a space race. We were in a competition and, even now, when Americans are in a competition, we want to win. In fact, we're brokenhearted if we don't win, and see it as more than a failure. A loss to an American in a competition is catastrophic.
Okay, so we had that factor. But we also had an obsession with space. We all looked up. And, if the digests in my magazine room are any indication, we looked up long before 1957 when the Soviets fired the first major salvo in the space race by putting the satellite Sputnik overhead.
The spines of those digests indicate space stories, and more space stories, and even more space stories—
I have often lamented, here and other places, about the lack of outer space visions in our science fiction. Even stories in books like The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, have fewer true space stories and more metaspace stories or metaphorical stories or new human stories—
Even our space stories aren't outer space stories any more. They're inner space stories, exploring how different humanity will be thousands of years from now. (A side note: If history teaches us anything—
The most innovative science fiction these days are inner space stories. This trend started with William Gibson and the cyberpunks. But as Bill Gibson's latest non-sf novel, Spook Country, shows, we're living in the cyberpunk age. Most everything he wrote about in that novel exists, and much of it was SFnal in 1984 when Neuromancer first got published.
Inner space. Robert Reed explores the possibilities of it in "True Fame" as a young couple spies on their fellow diners in a resort restaurant. Some of the things they learn just by staring at the people (and downloading available information about them) are true, and some of them are as false as the stuff you can put on the web now. The couple sets up constructs, changes information so that smart equipment (like a boat) thinks they own it, and causes them to distrust each other completely in the end.
But the best example I've seen of inner space, and one that might actually be a glimpse of our real future, is Chris Becket's "Atomic Truth." In the story, the characters all wear goggles that allow them to interface with whatever they want to interface with. It's as if you wore your iPhone on your eyes instead of holding it in your hand. The goggles (a half-way step, he says, to implants) allow the wearers to opaque the real world as far away as 95 percent.
He takes the point of view of one somewhat self-aware goggle wearer and one schizophrenic (and unlike most fiction writers, Beckett knows what schizophrenia is—
His elegiac message: what are we going to lose when we stop really seeing the world around us?
Hmmm…maybe we'll lose our interest in the stars. Just a random thought.
We are more concerned with inner space than we've been in a long time. As I shelve the old mystery paperbacks, I see a lot of books about poverty and the underworld—
Inner space again—
Not that the 1940s, 50s and 60s were a great time to live in. They were filled with terrible upheavals and all-encompassing fears of complete planetwide destruction. People were more bigoted than they are now, the societal rules much stricter than they might ever be again, and things we accept now as normal were considered so fringe that children got in trouble just for reading comic books. Now we all go to movies based on those comic books, whether we read them or not.
Maybe the desire for outer space came from being so imprisoned in our own lives. I don't know. I was born in 1960, so I have only dim memories of that time, memories revived by the old tapes being shown this summer of Cronkite giddy over the moon landing or the memories—
I do miss the glory days of space. I miss the glory days of science fiction with its outer space attitudes. But I also love the inner space world. I love being able to have a virtual science fiction convention on my Facebook page. I love the live conversations on Twitter—
I like having information at my fingertips, and if they were available, I'd probably wear those goggles from the Chris Beckett story. But I like to think I'd take the things off now and then to enjoy the world as it is.
Because I do leave the computer now and then. And I still do look at the stars.
Two nights ago, the moon was bright over the Pacific Ocean. Dean and I walked down to the beach and looked at the night sky. That night we talked about the hole they found in Jupiter's atmosphere. The Pacific Ocean-sized hole, caused by something crashing into Jupiter. And we talked about the events in our lives. And, oh yes, we talked a bit about the future.
To the sound of the waves on a quiet beach, as we stood under the lights of a thousand bright stars.