Saturday, June 19, 2010

When Nerds Attack

The past week has seen two posts at Crooked Timber (AUGH! can't find the one from last weekend!) on science fiction. I contributed a couple comments on one (the one I can't find, of course . . .) concerning Robert Heinlein, whom I consider the archetypal science fiction author. My comments - that Heinlein, whose public statements and collected works swerve between the merely Randian nonsensical to the scary-quasi-fascism of Starship Troopers and even Stranger in a Strange Land - were met with a mixture of horror and sniffing condescension. I noted that I had read a bit of Heinlein (although certainly not all) and also a biography of the guy, and it was pretty clear that the pretty-face put on him by sci-fi fans was like the hopeful image a swooning teenager puts on his first crush. Calling Heinlein a libertarian is a bit like saying that Ted Bundy had issues with women. In short, Heinlein was a crypto-fascist (who, as at least one commenter pointed out, was a dirty old man before he became old).

Other sci-fi authors aren't or weren't much better. My older brother was a rabid fan, and I was surrounded in my youth with volumes by Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, on and on and on . . . Even Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, the one epic sci-fi work I can sit and actually enjoy reading, has overtones that make me cringe (part of that, of course, is how dated it is, particularly the early sections, written when Asimov was a young man in the 1940's).

While I really don't want to get in to it with Alan or other fans of the genre - I know I am biased because of my own experience growing up; I find most of the work insipid, kids who got beat up on the playground a lot making up stories where they are the action heroes and kill the bullies and get the really hot women - there is one thing (admitted - I stole it from an episode of CSI) I should point out to any serious fan. I realize the convention of "hyperdrive" or "warp drive" that allows for faster-than-light travel is pretty much set in stone. Yet, this isn't science or even science fiction. Real science fiction would extrapolate from current science - which most certainly would include relativity. There are science fiction writers who refuse to even entertain the possibility of faster-than-light travel in their fiction, but for the most part even those who are actual scientists - Ben Bova, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke - usually have it in their stories.

Now, I know that sci-fi is usually about more than the nuts and bolts of science. In fact, one of the benefits of the genre, allegedly, is that is uses the trappings of some alternate place and time to explore contemporary issues and themes. My problem with this particular way of discussing it, however, begs the question of "what literature doesn't explore contemporary issues and themes?" With the possible exception of the formulaic romance novel, most popular, literary, and genre fiction deal, to one extent or another, with some matter of concern. The benefit of science fiction, once you get passed this particular apologia turns out to be, for the vast majority of its fans, the fascination with all the gizmos and other worlds and weird beings they encounter (except for Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, which posits a galaxy where the only intelligent species is humanity; given the statistical improbability of natural selection actually producing a species that is self-aware as human beings and perhaps a few other species are, and also that are capable and willing to produce a technical culture and society, this seems far more realistic than, say, Sagan's galaxy "teeming" with life).

I don't begrudge people their fandoms. I do think that fans of science fiction, however, refuse to consider that much of the genre is anti-democratic, indeed anti-political, and even at times anti-humanistic. Whether the two-sides-of-the-same-coin dystopia/utopia, or simple positing of various scenarios in which, out in space at some future time, human beings do this or that or the other - the social, cultural, and political setting is usually considered irrelevant. When techne has replaced politics, we have entered the realm of the fascist. That is a future I want no part of.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More