Divya and I spent some time at a bookstore chain in Hyderabad, a few days ago. Per habit, I walked up to glance at the Science fiction section, only to look around confused. The aisle was marked “Science Fiction/Fantasy”, but there was nary an SF book in sight. Even the usual suspects — Asimov, Philip K Dick — were missing from the rows. The neighbouring Young Adult and Fantasy fiction had completely swallowed the space for SF.
I couldn’t even find pulpy SF like Michael Crichton’s swash-buckling tales or the medical thrillers of Robin Cook. Pulp was my introduction to the SF genre in my teens. My first pulp SF was Jurassic Park. My friend Rama and I would obsess over the science it was packed with. In Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton uses the device of having two “very smart” kids — obvious stand-ins for the reader — for whom the science is explained to, by the story’s protagonists. For example, the kids figure out why a Diplodocus has a very long tail (spoiler alert: to balance the long neck). Many years later, I was the only one who could unlock Rama’s laptop in a room, because I was also the only one who could spell “Pterodactyl” like him. Rama’s uncle had a lovely library, which included some pulp and pulp-like science writing (Fritjof Capra). He would kindly let us take his books out feeding our endless discussions and reading.
The few libraries I had access to would have a limited selection of science writing, and even less SF. Fortunately, all the librarians in my life understood my needs and would ferret out pop-science books they thought I would like. During my undergrad management course, while the lectures droned on, I would sit in the back row thumbing through Alvin Toffler from the college library. Fritjof Capra’s books — perhaps because of their promise of marrying “eastern philosophy” with “western physics” — littered the Telugu states, feeding off our fever dreams of religious emancipation via science.
SF is Literature
Let me take a step back here: what got me hooked to SF in the first place? I loved the fact that SF employs rationalism, science and technology (in that order of precedence) in telling a story. There is no God, just a super-intelligent extra-terrestrial (or, in a more interesting twist, humans from the future), for example. This “rule” makes story-telling a little more difficult— no magic mostly — and interesting. The laws of physics are respected and their bending or circumvention must be explained. Travelling at the speed of light is impossible, so great distances can be covered via wormholes in spacetime.
Science and technology play a vital role in our lives, and I don’t just mean in the “material” sense. In many ways, science has replaced the central role religion played, especially as the medium for interpreting the world around us, for articulating a philosophy of life and for trying to understand our own motivations. This is important because the way we, as a species, have forged our futures was by first imagining it. We first imagine the details and contours, before we can strive to make it a reality. Salman Rushdie’s famous put-down on Pakistan — “a place… insufficiently imagined” — is a good example of this idea. Imagine science mediating the way we imagine our futures.
Obviously, we get a lot of things wrong at the imagination stage — for example, a whole bunch of comic books imagined what landing on the moon would look like a full decade before we got there.
Many of their assumptions were laughably wrong in hindsight, but the process itself was crucial for society’s willingness to support crazy “moonshot” ideas.
It’s not just activities like moon-landings or Mars-homesteading that has to be imagined and articulated. Even ideas around liberty, companionship, political systems, and the future of human society itself are discussed deeply in SF. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, written in 1870, is still an enchanting read. Apart from submarines and fancy 1870-tech, some of the themes it explores are still with us — who owns the open seas? Can libertarians find refuge from oppressive governments there — on the surface, if not in the depths? Or Ursula Le Guin. The Dispossessed looks at Cold War issues, while also critiquing social conventions and the very nature of time. Or Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and its dystopian future (which many Americans seem to believe is slowly happening to them right now!). Not to mention the perennial favourite, George Orwell’s 1984. If you want to explore dystopias or utopias, you are smack in the middle of SF territory.
To be honest though, my heart is not really into those themes when I pick up SF. My tastes run towards what used to be called “Cyberpunk”, and its evolution over time. Those books and writings really helped us (me?) imagine the “cyber-world” (inter-webs/online/internet as we call it now). Many argue that Marshall McLuhan’s conception of a “Global Village” was a precursor to our imagining and building the internet. But, one of my favourite authors, William Gibson, worked even better for me. Here are his famous lines describing the internet, from his 1984 book, Neuromancer (look at that title — the very definition of cyberpunk!):
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
Cyberpunk’s many offshoots are just as interesting. Some of them explore another plot device — a counterfactual. By its very nature, a counterfactual novel places a story under the SF rubric. It’s basically trying to imagine if the world or a sequence of events happened differently. If Hitler won the war; if the 1857 revolt/war decimated the EIC — that sort of a thing. One of my favourite counterfactuals is the Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. Or, take the Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (I mean, thats a bit like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy writing a book together. Even in SF, it only really happened once). The book defined “Steampunk”, or a world where much of today’s technology would be powered by steam (instead of electricity). The Difference Engine re-imagines UK, where Charles Babbage succeeds in developing a steam-powered computer. It’s a must read.
“Brevity is for the weak”
I have a particular love for really long SF novels (not unlike the obsession for big Harry Potter novels and ginormous Game of Thrones books). My favourite author, Neal Stephenson, was a chance airport-bookshop discovery. I had read his novella-length article for the Wired: Mother Earth, Mother Board and was floored. I mean, there are times when we wonder how our phones and computers access vast stores of information from across the world. Neal follows through, chasing fibre-optic cables both in time and over distances. I have devoured his Baroque trilogy, piecing it together from airports and bookshops across the world. I have two physical copies of his Cryptonomicon — and a Kindle version. His tomes average a thousand pages each and are only really for people into exacting verisimilitude. Sample these lines, from his latest book, Seveneves:
“…the hundreds of flynks that lived in this whip station had begun to assemble themselves into a chain… Flynks were simple beasts consisting mostly of structure: solid aluminium cast into certain shapes. Each flynk had a knuckle amidships, enabling it to bend freely in both directions… fore and aft it had couplers that enabled it to form a rigid connection with other flynks. Somewhere in all of that structure were a few grams of silicon that made it smart, and lines for carrying power and information down the length of the chain. A few moments ago, word had gone out to one of the flynks that it should decouple… at the instant the coupler had disconnected, the system… started being a giant bullwhip.”
For a few happy years, I began to find Neal Stephenson books in Hyderabad, but that is now short-lived. As space for bookstores recede, I worry people will prefer screens over physical books (I am not sure if it’s a bad thing, and if I’m getting stuck to habit). but the deeper sense of loss is about what we are imagining. If we prefer to imagine fantasy landscapes of magic and intrigue over SF, what does that say about our motivations and hopes for the present and the future?