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Professor Gary K Wolfe

Faculty Essay: On [Not] Getting to the Moon... and Other Adventures in Science Fiction

Posted: 05/22/2012

By Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities

When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I got my reservation for a round trip to the moon. It was easy; all you had to do was pass a short quiz (questions like “The moon is really a ___ star ___ satellite ___ planet”) and your name would be turned over, eventually, to the first company making commercial trips to the moon. You also got a wallet-sized reservation card, and—oh yes—three books for a dollar with your new membership in the Science Fiction Book Club, which promised to keep your reservation in its archives forever, or at least until moonliners started booking up. My favorite part of the ad was the disclaimer that it “in no way commits you to make the voyage,” as though I might be worried that at some unknown point in my adult life I could be abducted by a lunatic astronaut brandishing my now-ancient reservation.

I’ve long since lost my wallet card, but I still have the three books I selected; I could put my hands on them right now. Science fiction can be addictive that way, if you approach it at the right age and with the right temperament, and perhaps at the right historical moment. I’ve been doing some research lately on science fiction of the 1950s—the first decade in which it really became part of the mainstream book publishing industry, no longer confined to the pulp magazines that had been its home since the 1920s—and it occurred to me that this was a pretty good time to become a science fiction reader. After two decades of Depression and war, the future seemed right around the corner—we were eliminating old diseases like polio, building massive superhighways, beginning to use computers (the Census Bureau installed its first one, a massive UNIVAC, in 1951), inaugurating transcontinental jet passenger service, beginning to identify the structure of DNA. We could even launch rockets with artificial satellites into orbit. It didn’t seem at all unrealistic for a 10-year-old kid to believe he might fly to the moon in his lifetime.

Interplanetary Tour Reservation - Gary Wolfe Faculty Essay

But the 1950s was science fictional in another way, too. We had seen what a nuclear weapon could do to a city, and knew that our global rival the Soviet Union already had such weapons. We had seen how modern technology could be adapted to ruthless programs of genocide and the rocket-bombing of cities, and were becoming more aware of the human cost of racism and oppression in our own society. We were beginning to see that the environment wasn’t always self-sustaining, or even friendly (a four-day smog in London in 1952 killed thousands). Somewhat less grim—though it produced enough anxiety at the time— people began sighting mysterious lights in the skies, first popularly dubbed flying saucers and later UFOs. For all the promise the future held out on one hand, it also offered the specters of world-ending nuclear wars, environmental cataclysms or even alien invasions.

Science fiction, of course, had been writing about all this for decades. The term “atomic bomb” was first used in a novel by H.G. Wells in 1914, and an artificial satellite was described by Edward Everett Hale way back in 1869. Fortunately, science fiction’s worst cataclysms never came to pass—but neither did its most optimistic predictions. We made it through the next half-century without a crippling nuclear war, and we even made it to the moon—though almost no science fiction writer imagined that we’d just pack up and go home less than four years after the first moon landing (it’s now an historical event remembered by no one under their mid-40s). We began improving the air quality in many of our cities, but weren’t prepared to learn what global warming might do to the planet as a whole. We breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the Cold War, only to witness in shock—and in images that looked like they might have come from a science fiction movie—what havoc global terrorism could wreak. And, in another development that few science fiction writers foresaw, we now find ourselves instantly connected to each other and to an almost infinite stream of information worldwide through smart phones, the Internet, home computers, Facebook and Twitter.

But I still don’t have my moon flight.

One of the lessons from all this is one that science fiction writers and scholars have known for a long time: Science fiction is not really very good at foretelling the future. It has its share of hits, all right—Hugo Gernsback describing radar in 1911, Lester del Rey portraying a peacetime disaster at a nuclear power plant in 1942, William Gibson inventing cyberspace in 1984—but it has far more misses. We don’t have our jetpacks or personal robots or Mars colonies, and we’re not going to get them anytime soon. You won’t learn much about the world of 2012 by reading the science fiction of the 1950s, but you can learn a lot about the 1950s, and that, in the end, is what science fiction (like all fiction) is really good for: it tells us something about ourselves—our hopes, dreams, fears, nightmares. What many regard as the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), gave us a nightmare that has stayed alive in the popular imagination ever since—not just a hulking monster, but the idea that our own science could get out of control, that our own inventions could turn against us. Not many people over the age of seven worry about those monsters anymore, but a lot of people wonder about the day when computers will be smarter than we are, and possibly even self-aware. It’s a different kind of technology, but the principle is the same.

Those monsters have haunted science fiction in a different way as well. For the better part of a century, serious writers and readers of science fiction have argued that it’s really a literature of ideas, which grapples with weighty philosophical issues, assumes the world will not always be the way it is now, and asks us if we’re ready for the changes to come. But this kind of science fiction has never really been that popular. What most people see are the movie monsters, or the colorful aliens and spaceships that once graced the covers of those pulp magazines, or, in more recent years, disaster spectacles like Transformers stomping down Michigan Avenue. When I tell people I’m interested in science fiction and fantasy as a literary critic, the “literary critic” part usually goes right past them and, if they’re sympathetic, they’ll tell me how much they loved Star Wars or Star Trek, and if they’re not, they’ll politely take their drink and go find someone else to talk to. It’s not their fault; if you look at a list of the top-grossing movies of all time, you’ll find it peppered with Avatar, E.T., Star Wars, and Batman, but you’ll seldom see a science fiction novel on the best-seller lists. As movies, SF (as we call it) is pure gold; as literature, it’s regarded as something of a niche interest, like contemporary jazz or contemporary classical music.

This is true in the academic world as well. By the time I got to the University of Chicago, I’d been reading science fiction for more than half my life, but I wasn’t sure I’d dare propose it as a Ph.D. dissertation topic. (Nowadays doctoral dissertations on science fiction are common, and a few universities even offer it as a specialty.) I ended up writing about science fiction’s sister genre of fantasy, which has always been a bit more respectable (after all, the authors of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were Oxford dons), and more or less shelved my interest in writing about science fiction until I arrived at Roosevelt, which was pretty open-minded about such things. (As a brief aside, the differences between fantasy and science fiction could be another essay entirely, but in a nutshell science fiction purports to be about things that are possible given our current understanding of science, while fantasy deals with beings and events that are impossible or supernatural. Going to another planet in a spaceship is something we believe to be possible; standing on a secret platform in London and catching a magical train to Hogwarts is not. We can understand how a robot might work, but we have no idea where sorcerers get their power or how people can turn into wolves. But of course, writers don’t always observe these neat rules.)

I’ve often taught individual works of science fiction and fantasy in my humanities classes at Roosevelt, but only a few times have I taught an entire class on the subject. The classes seemed popular, drawing a range of students from hardcore fans who read almost nothing but science fiction to those who thought it looked like an easy elective where we’d be watching Star Wars movies. Over the years, though, the demographics of those classes have begun to change, in a way that probably reflects the changing science fiction readership itself. Early on, the classes attracted mostly young white males, which is still the common stereotype of the SF fan—the supersmart nerd who’s not very well socialized and doesn’t get many dates (think of a TV series like The Big Bang Theory). Later on, students of every sort showed up—young, old, male, female, Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern. Science fiction may still be a specialized taste, but it’s no longer the specialized taste of a particular group.

The same is true of the writers of science fiction. The most famous writers who came of age in the 1940s or 1950s—Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov—indeed began their careers as young white males, though even back then there were far more women involved in science fiction than was generally recognized. Today, though, some of the most exciting science fiction and fantasy is coming from quarters that few of those older writers and readers would have dreamed of. The latest World Fantasy Award (one of the top awards in the field) went to Who Fears Death?, a novel set in a future Africa by the Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor (who lives in the Chicago area). Other exciting newer writers have Caribbean roots (Karen Lord, Tobias Buckell, Nalo Hopkinson), while still others come from Israel (Lavie Tidhar), Finland (Hannu Rajaniemi) or South Africa (Lauren Beukes). And this isn’t entirely a new development; a novel which I sometimes teach is Kindred, concerning a young black woman in 1976 who finds herself transported back in time to an 1830s slave plantation; it was written by the late Octavia Butler, the first science fiction writer to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s famous “genius” grants.

Nor are the settings of modern science fiction always the familiar urbanized American futures of an earlier era. The future, science fiction writers tell us, will be far more multicultural. One of the best is Ian McDonald (from Northern Ireland) whose recent novels concern the future in India (River of Gods), Brazil (Brasyl) and Turkey (The Dervish House). Canadian-born British writer Geoff Ryman has set several works in a future Cambodia, while Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning The Wind-Up Girl takes place in an energydeprived future Thailand, and in Alastair Reynolds’s Blue Remembered Earth the center of technological development has shifted to Tanzania.

In short, the future isn’t what it used to be, and neither is science fiction. In fact, this might be as exciting a time to start reading SF as the 1950s was, and this is reflected in the growing interest in the field among young adult readers. I’m not referring to the immensely popular sorcerers of the Harry Potter tales or the vampires and werewolves of the Twilight saga—remember that distinction between science fiction and fantasy—but to novels like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (the basis of one of the most anticipated movies of spring 2012) or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker. These may depict pretty grim futures—children forced to compete for survival in deadly reality-TV-style games in Collins’ novel, or hired to strip ruined oil tankers for rare copper and oil in Bacigalupi’s—but they might well be the sort of futures that young people worry about. Science fiction writers not only show us futures that we want to achieve, but futures that we want to avoid. Either way, the basic message is simple: the future is in our hands, and is ultimately what we choose to make it, through our actions—or our failures to take action.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that science fiction is so well suited for the classroom. Almost by definition, it’s one of the most interdisciplinary kinds of writing. A modern science fiction writer might draw on engineering, astronomy, biology, physics, information theory, history, sociology, political science, neurology, economics, ecology, psychology and more. Whatever is important to understanding our own world is equally important in building an imaginary one, and—unlike the fantasy writer who can appeal to magic—the science fiction writer needs to play by the rules, and to know what they are. Learning those rules, and learning how to make the right choices using them, is a good part of what higher education is all about. Whether we choose to think about it or not, we’re making the future right now. That’s a good part of what I’ve learned from science fiction, and of what I try to teach.

Gary K. Wolfe is a professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University's Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies. Since joining Roosevelt in 1971, he also has served in various administrative capacities, including dean of the Stone College. His scholarly and cticial writings have focused on science fiction and other forms of fantastic literature, and his work has been recognized by the Science Fiction Research Association, International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and the British Science Fiction Association. Since 1992, he has written a monthly review column for Locus magazine. His most recent books are Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature and Sightings: Reviews 2002-2006.