Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Future

I've decided that, by and large, the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre actually is the most conducive literary and other 'fiction'-related medium to talk about the big LUE—that being Life, the Universe and Everything.

Well, duh! That revelation is hardy a revelation, or so one might think. Just take a look at my book page and you won't find anything else. Even the majority of my non-sci-fi-fantasy screenplays, tend to have a touch at least of things-not-ordinary. Which is, or so one would think, what fiction is all about.

To someone like myself, who learned to read by reading Grimm's fairy tales—before official schooling started—and who literally has lost count of the number of pulp and other SF&F books he's read, the notion that there are people out there who dismiss the genre as basically 'ridiculous' is quite hard to grasp. Still, these folks, no matter how they phrase their opinion—and 'ridiculous' is an extreme label, I admit, but it expresses their attitude most characteristically, I think—do exist, strange as that may seem to many of us, and one would presume that they consider their p.o.v. just as valid as I do mine. That is the nature of 'opinion'.

I think that 'genre' preferences arise from habituation, which can almost always be traced back to whatever it was that one was exposed to when first being exposed to stories. For it's not about books and movies but about stories; the kind that 'speak' to one, and which do or do not convey meaningful messages in 'accessible' media: from campfire to theater, from books to movies to computer-games. Similarly, those who don't seem to be able to relate to fiction at all, and there are those pitiful souls, clearly suffered from significant conditioning deficiencies during their early upbringing.

If 'habituation' is the dominant factor in the setting of genre preferences then one would expect certain consequences, which are testable. A major potential effect is that a change of the range and predominance of genres those growing up are exposed to would be expected to have a flow-on effect in subsequent generations.

This is, of course, exactly what has happened in the past and is happening, with due aid from technology and a much more effective 'media' apparatus, ever more noticeably. I mean, there was a long time when the genre-du-jour was basically religious/mythical and its only competitors were your classic fairy tales—which are also 'mythical', I suppose, but in a different way. That predominance suffered major change upon the introduction of print and a subsequent major social development: widespread literacy; at least in some parts of the world.

These are the roots of what we have today, when, for a number of generations, the existence of that very broad genre known as 'fantasy-and-scifi', or whatever you want to call it, has become a towering presence in the story-telling world. Yet still there are people, not all of them necessarily old and fusty, who regard it and the way it tells its stories with disdain. In many instances that judgment is justified; but then again, the same thing could be said about any genre.

The main objection of those who denigrate SF&F on the whole and regard anything delivered in its framework as somehow suspect is that its stories "can't be real". This objection is asymmetrical, in that those SF&F aficionados can't make the same blanket statement about, say, 'classical' literature, or much of what in the cinema context is called 'drama', which by and large is about fictional but definitely 'possible' or 'real' things. The asymmetry of the "it can't be real" argument against SF&F has always been a major handicap for the genre and its respectability—and never mind that giants like Vance, Heinlein and Dick produced some of the westerns world's greatest and most significant literature using the genre and its conventions and symbolisms. And the same argument has, of course, been used to trivialize, play down and denigrate the ancient and venerable genre of the 'fairy tale', which has a very close relationship to today's 'SF&F'.

The reasoning that goes something like "this can't be real and therefore it can't be as good or significant as something that can be real" is, of course, fatally flawed; and aficionados of SF&F are in the fortunate position of implicitly not being handicapped by engaging in such reasoning folly; or being tempted to display the same literary arrogance toward those genres which are not SF&F. It's possible that someone who, say, loves 'hard' SF doesn't really go much for romantic comedy; but the same might well apply to lovers of detective stories or fans of Charles Dickens. But he's not likely to say "romantic comedy is about something that can't be real and therefore it's somehow inferior". He just doesn't relate to it, that's all.

The point I'm trying to make here is that, habituation notwithstanding, it is folly to argue that, in order to be relevant or 'good', fiction need to be about something that can at least lay some claim to be 'real'—in the sense that there are possible or likely similarities in the elements of a given story or its context to what you might call 'physical reality'. Meaning, basically, that it's OK if the bad guy in the story is a psycho who thinks he's a vampire; but it's not OK if he actually is a vampire. That kind of thing.

Folk who hold the 'can-it-be-real' measuring stick to a story and prejudge its merits on that basis simply do not understand the nature of fiction. For 'reality' is not what fiction is all about. Revelation of a truth about the human condition, however, is. In this revelation lies fiction's purpose; with the effects of the revelation ranging from 'mere' entertainment to what might amount to psychotherapy or 'education'.

Still, it's a new world out there now. SF&F is everywhere, in literature, film and interactive computer gaming. Massive amounts of those growing up are being habituated to a genre that was once considered 'fringe', but which now has swamped the media. A lot of it is crap, as is to be expected. But those same people are being habituated to not being victims of the fallacious way of thinking I outlined above. And they are, in this world of hard-SF technology, being re-habituated to stories that would have been perfectly acceptable and socially respectable in the pre-literacy world.

It would be interesting to try and to figure out what kinds of implications that might have for our social future.

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