Worlds Without End

Science fiction - to some, it's a word without meaning (in the words of a person I talked to years ago on publishing a few science fiction stories: "It's neither science nor is it fiction!") while to others it is a whole way of life. There are people out there who live and die for science fiction. In fact, a true believer will walk miles in pouring rain to get a copy of Heinlein or Asimov. But what exactly is science fiction? What does it cover? When did it start? How does all this stuff tie in to our everyday lives? Who are the authors that you should read? Well stay with me till the end of this ride and you will learn all of this and more.

Well ... the first thing is to learn is the language of the SF circle. Now SF is the accepted form of saying science fiction. Never ever should you use sci-fi (pronounced "skiffy") except in the derogatory sense. It is a mortal insult to true science fiction lovers and at once pronounces you as a pretender to the ranks of SF fandom. Then there is the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Contrary to the belief held by some, SF is not fantasy. The simplistic definition is that science fiction deals with events and devices which may possibly happen without contradicting the laws of science as we know of them now while fantasy is deals with things which are truly out of this world. Of course, rules are made to be broken and there are enough SF stories which from time to time jump over the line from the areas of the probable to the area of the highly improbable, but hey, who's looking? In fact, as Clarke's (that is our own Arthur C. Clarke) third law states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And what does fantasy deal with mostly except magic? (In case you are wondering what Clarke's first two laws were, let me keep you in suspense for the moment but I can assure you will learn it by and by)

Now that the preliminaries have been dealt with, let us get down to solid facts. When did it all start? Though SF is generally believed to have started somewhere in the late 1920's, you might be surprised to learn that there were earlier much earlier works (by writers like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) which fall in to the category of SF. In fact, the earliest work now considered to be science fiction is, Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus" which was first published in 1818! This brings us to an oft asked question , "what is the golden age of science fiction?" and the answer? "Twelve!" Yes, it is true! It is around the age of twelve (well, over here in Sri Lanka it might be slightly later but not much) that most people find themselves first introduced to science fiction and while some turn away from it after a while, other linger savouring the sense of wonderment, the feeling of taking part in something which is not just mere escapist literature but something which has meaning. How can I describe to you, a novice possibly to the wonders of SF, how much it all comes to mean to one? Let me try.

The main attraction of SF is the sense of wonder one feels when confronted by all the grand concepts that science fiction has to offer. Consider for instance a story which tells you about humans meeting aliens ("a first contact story" in SF parlance), can you imagine the sense of wonder one feels when a whole civilization, maybe a whole way of life or a whole new way of looking at the world, is presented to you? It is the sense of participation in such a wonderous occasion and the resultant stimulating grey-cell activity that you experience later when reflect on what you've read, that keeps on bringing an SF reader back for more. And believe me, there is a lot of material out there to keep one coming back for more and more and more ...

For me personally, the golden age began a bit earlier than twelve. I must have been around nine years of age when I first came across science fiction. That was in Sinhalese. You might think that there might not be that much of SF in Sinhalese but I was able to find quite a few original works as well as many translations of established authors like Arthur C. Clarke and H. G. Wells. I became entranced with Arthur C. Clarke's descriptions of life under sea in the "Deep Range" and from then onwards became a Clarke fan. Then I gradually moved on to English around the age of twelve and the true world of science fiction opened up for me. I read anthologies of work by different authors for a while before I discovered Issac Asimov and his robot stories. Now me, I was entranced with the concept of robots from an early age and who except for the man who came up with the three laws of robotics (more on that later) should become my favourite author? From Asimov I went on to discover the likes of Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Jack Williams, Jack Vance, Harlan Elison, Henry Kuttner and later - Orson Scott Card, Timothy Zahn, Spider Robinson, Norman Spinrad ... the list goes on.

But how did all of this start? It is generally believed that the starting of the magazine "Amazing Stories" by Hugo Gernsback in April of 1926 to have been the start of science fiction as a genre. Hugo Gernsback had a vision of spreading the word on "scientific authenticity and the romance of technological progress" and he termed this new genre "scientifiction". "Amazing Stories" soon gained quite a following and it was followed by more SF magazines such as "Astounding" (which later became "Analog") - edited by John W. Campbell, one of the true greats of SF -, "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction", "Wonder Stories" etc. These magazines built up a base of science fiction fans who started communicating among themselves (probably because they felt outcasts in a society which looked down upon SF as mere escapist literature) and thus was born science fiction fandom! And in a way, it is the fans of science fiction who have contributed in a large measure to make it what it is today. Unlike fans of mainstream literature (or should I say "general fiction" because I guess today, science fiction is almost a part of mainstream literature, or is it?), SF fans get more involved in the whole creation process (and they are more responsive towards what they read too). They will write to an author about his writings, hold conventions where they discuss a certain writer's work or SF writing generally, put out fan magazines (called fanzines) which continue this discussion process etc. It is certainly a lot different from mainstream literature.

On the topic of mainstream literature, a lot of "mainstream" readers seem to think that SF is junk or fit only for teenagers but what they don't know is that you can find all of the main categories of mainstream such as western, romance, detective, historical etc. in science fiction! Surprising eh? But it is indeed true. For example, Issac Asimov has done many science fiction mystery stories while I've come across a couple of romances dealing with love affairs between a human and an alien too. Then there are the "future-history" stories (most particularly by Robert Heinlein) which deal with the "history" of the future and surely these qualify as historicals, don't they? In fact, for almost any category of mainstream literature that you can think of, there are at least a couple of science fiction stories that deal with the subject. I have seen anthologies that deal with future-sport, another on politics in the future, one more on ... you get the picture, right? It is this very diversity of subjects and settings which can make science fiction so very attractive to many people and it is in a way, science fiction's greatest strength.

For example, when a writer of historical fiction starts a story, that person can take a few liberties with the passage of events but has to stick more or less to what actually happened because basically "it is history!" But, a science fiction writer can come up with many a fantastic setting because he has recourse to devices such as "alternate time tracks", "parallel worlds", "time travel" etc. Let's say that a writer wants to do a story about what would have happened if Hitler had won the second world war (in fact, several stories have been done on this very topic), then he just places the story in a parallel universe or in an alternate time track. "Now, what sort of animal, vegetable or mineral are these?" I can almost hear you asking. Let me hasten to answer.

Alternate time tracks or parallel worlds are very common in science fiction and the concept is this: there are supposed to be historical "cusps" or turning points in the flow of time and separate time tracks or parallel worlds are spawned for every possible outcome to these cusps. For example, if you take World War II, Hitler could have won it and the whole world be ruled by Nazis, Russia is taken by the Nazis but then they are defeated by the Allies and there is no cold war etc. Of course, each SF story which deals with alternate time tracks has to device a way for the protagonist (that's the hero, folks) to jump over to this other world but in certain such stories, they had a two worlds sort of overlapping each other and people from one interacting with people from the other. As this allows for one to explore the "what ifs" for a given time in history, parallel worlds are a very important and interesting part of science fiction.

Then there are the "time travel" stories which are another kettle of fish altogether. In these, a character or several characters in the story travel to the future or to the past using a time machine. Now this can lead to questions such as: "what would happen if you travelled to the past and killed your grandfather before your father could be born?" - "Grandpa would be dead!" you'd say, but consider: if your grandfather was dead, how could you exist and if you don't exist, how could you invent a time machine or go to the past and kill your grandfather? The questions go round and round. This sort of paradox is pretty common in time travel stories and different authors have come up with different methods to ensure that a paradox doesn't occur or to explain it away if it does - the best or rather the ones which takes the time travel theme and pushes it to its very limits are "All You Zombies" and "By His Bootstraps" by Robert Heinlein. The first is about a guy who is his own father and mother (weird, huh?) and the second is about a man who meets himself (or rather two or three himselves - is that correct? English isn't adequate for expressing time travel stuff! -). You should read it to see how the fun develops. (Of course, when you do, you may blame me because I have sort of given away a crucial point of "By His Bootstraps". Oh, what the heck!)

In case, if you are wondering "But what has all this got to do with today?", do you remember TV serials like "Blake's 7", "Dr. Who", "Star Trek", "Battlestar Galactica", "Buck Rogers", "X-Files", "Babylon 5" etc. or movies like "Star Wars" (the science is a bit thin in places in this one), "E.T.", "Aliens", "Terminator" or in the very recent past - "Johnny Mnemonic", "The Net", "Virtuosity"? It is in fact the new spate of cyber-movies which leads me to believe (and hope - yes! above all hope) that science fiction might be having a rebirth as a popular form of literature (not that it ever died, mind you, but it was sort of submerged under a heck of a lot of other stuff). Anyway, it is my hope that science fiction becomes as popular as it deserves to be because that is one form of literature which keeps us in pace with the ever changing world of today. In the words of L. Sprague De Camp, "Therefore, no matter how the world makes out in the next few centuries, a large class of readers at least will not be too surprised at anything. They will have been through it all before in fictional form, and will not be too paralyzed with astonishment to try to cope with contingencies as they arise."