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Why do I like science fiction? April 15, 2011

Posted by Jeff in Uncategorized.
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This site has got me to thinking about the answer to that question, and I realize that I can’t formulate it simply or cleanly.

I have always been a voracious reader. I distinctly remember that back in second and third grade, all my teachers were astonished that I was reading far above my level. My mom was somewhat of a reader, too, and I would devour each month’s Reader’s Digest as soon as she was finished with it. My parents and their peers nicknamed me The Professor, and kidded me about reading every page of the encyclopedia (I did, pretty much.) I guess I had a thirst for knowledge, and I would read everything I could get my hands on.  Maybe this shaped me into having a scientific frame of mind that I to this day still possess. As you might realize, inquisitiveness is the basis for all scientific endeavor.

And then in 1966, a TV show debuted that found its mark, and hit an eight-year old boy right between the eyes. That show? Star Trek. It had everything that boy could wish for: a dashing hero, spaceships, adventure, strange aliens, exotic locales – and science (thank you, Mr. Spock.)

Keep in mind, this was right in the heart of the Gemini and Apollo programs, so I was already resonating at that frequency. Astronauts were heroes, and every boy dreamed of becoming one.

Around this age, I encountered my first Heinlein book, a story he wrote for juveniles titled Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I enjoyed it very much, but at the time I didn’t recognize Heinlein’s greatness, and moved on to other books and other topics. I would read the occasional S-F novel, but not to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

But it was years later, in my very early twenties, that I became completely immersed in science fiction. And I remember the trigger. My brother gave me a copy of a new book by none other than Robert Heinlein, his novel Number of the Beast. And that, as the poet said, was all she wrote. After I read that, I immediately started reading everything of his that I could get, and didn’t stop there.

So what is it? Is it the science? Perhaps that’s a large part of it. After all, I am a scientist by nature, and anything scientific is going to appeal to me. I like to be entertained while reading a novel, but it also has to have an internally consistent logic to it. For example, one wouldn’t expect the characters in Lord of the Rings to hop into a Learjet and fly down to Gondor. No, they have to walk or ride a horse. (well, except for Gandalf.) The methods or techniques used have to be available within the framework of the story. The same principle applies in science fiction.

Heinlein occasionally used the term “speculative fiction” to describe his work. What he meant by that was to introduce a change, whether physical, mental, social, or technological, and then speculate about the results of that change. In the book Number of the Beast, the change was a machine that would allow one to travel among a nearly infinite number of universes. The story might as well have been set here and now, today, and the protagonists were four typical people, nothing special about them. What I got out of it most was how these otherwise ordinary people each reacted to this fantastical situation, and the possibilities that opened up to them.

Possibilities. That is what I think draws me so much to science fiction. It opens the mind, kicks it out of a narrow rut of thinking, gets it contemplating other ways, other ideas. To me, the mind is just like any muscle: If you don’t exercise it regularly, it gets flabby and weak. I like my novels to be deep and thought-provoking, something I ponder days after finishing it. That’s not to say I don’t thoroughly enjoy some cheap space opera every once in a while just for the sheer entertainment of it (see David Drake’s The Fleet, or John Cleve’s Spaceways series.)

Now to play the Devil’s Advocate: couldn’t I get that from other genres of fiction? I don’t know, I haven’t much tried. Oh, I do read other stuff. Fantasy, which is frequently lumped together with science fiction, but to me it’s a separate category. Shakespeare, Greek and Roman mythology – in fact, believe it or not, a lot of the good science fiction actually points one toward classical literature. For example, the frequent references to The Bard in Star Trek directly caused me to go out and purchase The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare – I wanted to find out for myself what all the shouting was about (that’s very much a work in progress – and I’m slowly discovering that the shouting is justified.) But as I said, I’m pre-disposed toward things scientific, so it stands to reason that I tend to gravitate toward material in that orbit.

Is that answer enough?

Meanwhile, take a look at this short vid for a cuteness overload, and be sure the sound is up.

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