Monday, November 13, 2006

A world of wonder

Recently Selva put together a fantastic science fiction short story contest, for which I was one of the panelists. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the 29 stories that were sent in, and the results are out with the top nine for every one to read. The authors were all enthusiastic, though some stories needed more work. But the best stories made me think about why I loved sci-fi so much.

My own love for science fiction started early, even before I really knew what science fiction was. I was probably some 8 or 9 years old (and already an avid reader) when some one gifted me an abridged version of Twenty thousand leagues under the sea and the enigmatic Captain Nemo had me hooked. A submarine the shape of a whale seemed too fantastic to believe. I didn’t wait long before I started reading the complete, unabridged versions of Jules Verne’s stories, which remain fascinating to this day. Verne was one of the earliest visionary sci-fi writers, writing about underwater travel or space travel a century before it happened. Dang, he wrote about space travel before the Wright brothers invented the airplane. And his stories were of intrepid adventurers, and non-stop action, something I could hardly resist in my early teens (and still can’t ignore). His twenty thousand leagues as well as From the earth to the moon remain amongst my all time favorites. The other grandmaster of sci-fi who caught my early attention was H.G. Wells. But it wasn’t his more popular Time machine or War of the worlds that fascinated me. It was his darker The island of doctor Moreau, with the man-creatures and the law that captivated me.

The important thing to remember about sci-fi is that it may be easy to get carried away with gadgets or innovations, but sci-fi is always about human problems and weaknesses, and is driven by its science content. And the masters of sci-fi always remembered that.

I only moderately enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke (though the 2001:A Space Odyssey movie did perfect justice to the exceptional book), but remain a committed reader of the man Arthur C. Clarke described as the best science fiction writer in the world (in the famous Asimov-Clarke Treaty of Park Avenue), Isaac Asimov, with the Elijah Baley series being my favorite, particularly as the blurring between android and human become greater . His popular science books remain amongst the easiest to read for a lay-reader.

There also remains the cross-over genre of Science fantasy, from Ray Bradbury through Frank Herbert and his messianic Dune series, and sci-fi pulp with Star Wars (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far away”) where science meets religion, politics, power and the survival of humanity. Where did science stop and fantasy begin? Then there is the often depressing but brilliant work of Philip Dick, who’s The man in the high castle played fantastically between worlds of alternate history, in the book as well as the book within the book.

Some of my friends think all this reading of science fiction and fantasy has ruined my mind. But they forget that I was saved thanks to the irreplaceable wit and ever reliable satire that Douglas Adams wrote, and Terry Pratchett continues to write. Reading Dirk Gently’s mostly harmless escapades has made life (almost) worth living, so I’ll thank my small gods for that.

This brings us around to the beginning of this post, the Scian science fiction short story contest. Some of the stories were dark, often futuristic, and sometimes with a view that science in the future could lead to doom. Sure, it is a paranoid world today. Sure, some people think we’ll have cloned humans rampaging around destroying humanity. Sure, some day some nut-job might want to rule the world by moving continents or aliens might invade the earth. But to me that’s not what science fiction, or science itself, is only about. There will always remain a universe of knowledge that we’ll never know. Science will always be about that quest of discovery and the frustration during the quest and is always overcome by the thrill of discovery. The only way to find out what is out there is to adopt the trekkie philosophy, and go boldly where no man (or woman) has gone before. It doesn't matter if it is dark or bright out there. The fun is in the ride. It's magic.

(Here are Falstaff’s thoughts about the contest).

5 comments:

witnwisdumb said...

Uhm yes, I read Falstaff's post on the subject. In my opinion, the theme of the stories has more to do with story-selling than it has to do with paranoia about science and the future.

I think the authors wrote the way they did, simply because a crisis, or impending doom, is a good way to hook a reader's interest, and make the story gripping. Not because they were doomsday prophets, or because they felt the future is dark or bleak.

In fact, I'm willing to wager that if you actually survey the authors and ask them what they believe science holds for the future, you'll hear most marvellous things, not the sort of disasters they describe in the stories.

A new discovery/invention that radically improves the quality of life for one and all, and so everybody lives happily ever after, does not make for a very thrilling story.

Sunil said...

certainly, witnwisdumb. Like I said in the post, I liked some of the stories. I also said that some were dark or gloomy. I didn't say they weren't good stories. But part of this post was to write about my own discovery of science fiction, and the breadth the genre spans. It is immense. I was a little disappointed that many of the stories remained within some small confines of sci-fi, when there was so much to explore. :-)

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