MARGARET ATWOOD DID not like her new novel, Oryx and Crake, being described as ‘science fiction’. It is, she said, ‘speculative fiction’. Ever on the qui vive for this sort of ‘issue’ to fill the gaps between Alastair Campbell and, well, Alastair Campbell, Radio 4’s Today programme called me in to debate this hot topic with DJ Taylor.
The School of Athens it wasn’t. I said Atwood was displaying the worst kind of petty literary snobbery. Taylor said she was quite right: science fiction was badly written and he didn’t like it, the implication being that anythmg that was well written and that he liked couldn’t possibly be science fiction. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and anything by Atwood were, ipso facto, ‘speculative’ not ‘science’ fiction. I’m not sure Taylor had quite thought this one through.
Don’t turn the page just yet. I am not going to embark on a paralysingly boring discussion of what is or is not SF It is true that a large proportion of SF is badly written – about the same proportion, in fact, as of every other type of fiction. But there is great SF writing – notably in Wells – and, more importantly, the genre has a serious claim to be the most significant and intellectually the most interesting of our age.
My reason for saying this follows hm a point Adam Roberts makes in Science Fiction (Routledge, 2000). He says, ‘the premise of an SF novel requires material, physical rationalisation, rather than a supernatural or arbitrary one.’ This is not absolutely true – what literary generalisation ever is? – but it does indicate a broad truth: that SF is a secular form, a literary genre constructed in the absence of God. It is about how far our rationality can take us when we find ourselves confi-onted with an uncaring cosmos.
Early and late in the nineteenth century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Drlekyll and Mr Hyde (not usually thought of as SF, but it is) were both books about how technology could enable men to play God. At the very end of the century, The War of the Worlds was about the ultimate humiliation of man in a godless and heartless cosmos. ‘The Martian machine’, wrote Wells, ‘took no more notice for the moment of the people running this way and that than a man would of the confusion of ants in a nest against which his foot has kicked.’
Two themes have since dominated science fiction – technology and aliens. In fact, I think these two themes are really one. Both are about human confrontation with the other, whether it be an intelligent being or a strange machine. We needed this idea of the other because, once God and his angels had absented themselves, we were confronted with the possibility of a universe in which we were the only creatures thinking about the universe. The idea of billions of light years of rocks and virtual vacuum inhabited only bv a few anxious bioeds dth exceedingly bad attiiudes can be upsetting. Emptiness we could take, but emptiness with just us is a peculiarly intolerable prospect.
The other – alien or machine – is either good or bad. If it is good, it judges us harshly, as God used to do, and perhaps attempts to save us hm our destructive ways. ‘If you threaten to extend your violence,’ says the alien Klaatu in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), ‘this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.’ If it is bad, it unites our species in a battle for self-preservation, as in Independence Day (1996). Either way, the universe is populated with non-human life forms that force us to consider the nature of our humanity.
All these ideas conform with Roberts’s view that SF requires rationahty. We have been thinking about building intelligent machines for fitfty years now, and our awareness of the scale of the universe as well as the mechanisms bv which life evolves has convinced many that there must b; intelligent life elsewhere. It is, therefore, no arbitrary fictional indulgence to speculate about what thinlung machines or aliens will be like.
But though, as I said, SF is a secular form, like all attempts at secularity it fails miserably. The goodness or badness of the other is a transparent attempt to pursue religion through alternative means. The drama of confrontation with the other is either the drama of judgement or of the war against evil, the same drama that is celebrated in churches, temples and mosques. Thus the rationality that SF so painstakingly constructs turns out to be a reconstruction of the old irratiodty of faith.
What SF, at least in its most popular works, seldom does is consider the possibility of the genuinely alien, the entity so unlike us that it cannot be reduced to any terms we could recognise. One contemporary writer who does attemDt this is Stanislaw Lem. In wonderful novels like Solaris and Fiasco and in a number of short stories about hyper-intelligent computers, he has raised the possibility of an encounter with ahen intelligences of which we can know nothing. This idea suggests that the rationality on which we construct our secular certainties is appallingly limited. little more than a local belief-svstem of the kind periodically dissected by anthropologist;.
Lem is a rarity, though he is not entirely alone, and he is the true descendant of the great and still massively underestimated Wells. Thanks to such artists. one dav SF will be recognised as the most important literary genre of our time, as the only form with the courage and curiositv to confront the other. For that other. in whatever form, will soon be here, probably sitting opposite John Humphrys and saying absolutely nothmg.