11 March 2010

Talking squids in outer space

Cosmos Online
Beyond the stereotypes and clichés is the rich, literary world of science fiction.

Not all sci-fi is schlock: Poster for the James Bond movie Moonraker (1979).

For 10 years, between my early teens and early twenties, I didn’t read a single piece of science fiction. I enjoyed reading, voraciously so, and despite my keen interest in science, I looked down upon the world of science fiction.

During these years, there was not a single sci-fi recommendation from my friends, and not once did it appear on my list of compulsory texts for English during high school. (Though, somehow, the 1995 blockbuster Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone did).

It’s not as though I’d never read science fiction. I first discovered it during that strange period many must experience, when children’s books are too childish but young adult books too adult.

But after only a few entertaining years, I moved on. I discovered an enjoyment for the lively worlds of history, mystery and sex, where I comfortably remained until I was finally forced out of my cocoon a couple of years ago.

For, in 2008, I became the reviews editor at Cosmos. Books for review suddenly filled my bookshelves. They piled up on my desk, overflowed onto the office chairs around me and, much to the annoyance of some of my work colleagues, eventually covered the floor in a kind of bizarre mosaic. But, to my distress, I couldn’t just review books on popular science. The editor-in-chief told me I had to review science fiction as well.

I rolled my eyes, imagining that I had better things to do than evaluate stories involving jet packs and gun-touting space cowboys. But I wanted to do it well, so I reluctantly decided to re-acquaint myself with the genre, beginning with a friend’s stained, dog-eared copy of Hominids by Robert Sawyer. It was my first foray into science fiction in a decade.

I was transported. I read the book from cover to cover in less than two days, forgoing sleep and distractedly trying to complete my real-life tasks while I secretly waited for the moment I could resume the story. And when I’d finished the book, I started the sequel.

Since then, I’ve taken joy in discovering the rich, literary world of science fiction. It’s a far cry from the comically childish genre I imagined it to be, and I feel cheated for all the times I walked quickly past the sci-fi section of a bookshop without a second glance.

Unfortunately, my ignorant view of science fiction tends to be the dominant one. Even within the genre itself, the authors are not without derision for each other: Margaret Atwood – whose 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale creates a future of labour camps to clean up radioactive waste in California and a sharp drop in the fertility levels of women, while her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake involves xenotransplantation and genetic engineering in a collapsed civilisation – spectacularly refused to define her works as science fiction in a BBC interview because, she said, science fiction contains “talking squids in outer space”.

After coming under some heat for her comment, Atwood reviewed her position in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, defining her work as ‘speculative fiction': “The science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand.”

(It shouldn’t be the delineating factor of a genre, but Atwood was not entirely wrong the first time round. There is a somewhat lengthy list of science fiction/fantasy works that contain talking squids in outer space – or TSiOS. You can peruse the list here: talkingsquidsinouterspace.com)

With time, I came to realise that I have, in fact, continually engaged with the science fiction genre – but, like Atwood, I didn’t label it as such.

In fact, most of the world engages regularly with science fiction, possibly without realising. Almost all the most popular films incorporate science fiction in some way or other (Titanic is a notable exception). Of course there’s Avatar, which is now the highest grossing motion picture of all time. If you look at the list of biggest blockbusters, you see that Jurassic Park and Star Wars also make the list, as does Batman’s gizmo-loving ways and E.T.’s desperation to phone home.

After a couple of quiet years on the sci-fi front, the genre seems to be back on the money-making agenda for Hollywood. And there’s a few other eyebrow-raising events that make me hope a change is coming for public perception of the genre.

This week U.S. physicist Sidney Perkowitz arrogantly announced that he had created a set of guidelines for filmmakers, ”intended to curb the film industry’s worst abuses of science” – and he was dutifully riposted. And Ian McEwan, successful author of Atonement, is releasing a climate change novel, Solar, in which he explores the frontiers of alternative energy research, via artificial photosynthesis.

Cosmos, as the magazine and an online news service, contains works of science fiction. It’s interesting to note that it is simultaneously the most loved and most hated section of the magazine: 30% of our readers love it, while 18% say they cannot understand why we waste four perfectly good pages.

Through reading and editing these stories, it slowly dawned on me that – sometimes – the most suitable vehicle for communicating science is through a work of fiction: whether it’s the science of climate change and biodiversity through considering a futuristic world with a damaged biosphere, as in The Road, or the science of artificial intelligence by considering the legal ramifications of trying to switch such a device off, as in Proof of Life. Our goal is to get readers to engage emotionally with emerging science, and in cases where it is abstract or complex it is often easier to connect with a fictional character who must live with the consequences of that science – good or bad.

So, it is with regret that I now pass on the position of reviews editor, my bookshelves finally liberated. Science fiction is a fascinating genre, full of mixed emotions, outrageous ideas and the odd jet pack. And, after so long in the wilderness, I am proud to finally call myself a science fiction fan.

Jacqui Hayes is the Editor of Cosmos Online and Deputy Editor of Cosmos.

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