“The Gift” by Ray Bradbury – illustration Esquire Magazine, Dec. 1952

When I was young, science fiction was all about sense of wonder. This was back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I didn’t even know the phrase science fiction – I was just mesmerized by the images of rockets and space travel. Science fiction was rare shows I’d stumbleupon on television. We think we can remember what it’s like to be a child, but we can’t because we have a lifetime of words and concepts that children don’t have. Remember when you thought you could fly?

Then in 1961, when I was in the fifth grade I discovered Tom Swift Jr., Danny Dunn, and Oz books. This was just after the first Project Mercury mission. I also found nonfiction books about planes, rockets, and space, all at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. I knew more then, but didn’t really understand the concept of science. I recently read “People Soup” by Alan Arkin (yes, that Alan Arkin) in which he perfectly captured the attitude of ten-year-olds have towards science. Science and technology was magic that was real, and at ten I had unlimited faith in what science could do. So did Bob and Bonnie in Arkin’s story.

I’m not sure how aware of the world I was at age ten. I assume my vocabulary had grown since the late 1950s but was still quite small, and without the words to anchor ideas I’m not sure how much I could have understood conceptually about the science fiction I was consuming. Like I said, I didn’t even know that the fictional books, TV shows, and movies were even categorized by genre labels. Probably my awe and wonder was akin to ancient Greek children listening to the adventures of gods and goddesses. Isn’t it tragic that we believe the strongest in the fantasies we first encountered as children?

Then in the fall of 1964 I had an English teacher who gave me a recommended reading list. I was also taking science and math classes, and I loved reading popular science books. Still, I’m not sure how well I understood the concepts of science. That reading list included the writer Robert A. Heinlein, and I found his book Red Planet. I loved that novel and it inspired me to read astronomy books, especially books about Mars. It was then I knew I wanted to go to Mars in the same way Kip Russell wanted to go to the Moon in Have Space Suit-Will Travel.

By now I was in the eighth grade and my school was preparing us to think about the future of jobs, careers, and colleges. I knew immediately I wanted to become an astronaut. Within a year I had read most of what Heinlein had written, and his books were often inspirational about ambition, studying science, and space exploration. Then I read a career guide which gave the requirements for different kinds of jobs. I learned that astronauts needed 20-20 vision. I was devastated because I was a four-eyed nerd. After that I gave up considering careers and became a hedonist. I wished I had discovered computers back then, which is what I eventually got into. For the rest of junior and senior high I had to attend school, but I only applied myself at having fun – mostly reading science fiction and listening to rock and roll music. I did dabble in girls and drugs, but lacked talent to really pursue them properly.

For many years I just coasted. My parents were alcoholics and my family went through a long period of painful times. I used science fiction to ignore real life. Science fiction actually made me happy in a time when I should have been miserable. I’m quite thankful for that. Science fiction was a kind of virtual reality, one in which I escaped.

Then in the twelfth grade (1968/69) I took a creative writing course. I thought maybe I could become a professional science fiction writer. I wanted to be a prophet of space exploration, evening knowing I’d be like Moses and never reach the promised land. At the time I really thought the purpose of science fiction was to promote manned space travel. By then Star Trek mania had arrived and it seem to legitimize the idea that the final frontier was humanity’s destiny. Well, I believed it. I was quite naive and didn’t realize that the majority of population didn’t. Most SF fans and non-fans knew science fiction was merely entertainment.

I graduated high school just a couple months before the first Moon landing. If asked in the summer of 1969, I would have strongly predicted Americans would be on Mars by the 1980s, and humans would have explored most of the solar system by the year 2000. I hoped some kind of interstellar drive would be discovered and we’d be on to the stars before I died in the middle of the 21st-century. As we know I was as cracked as my crystal ball.

By the end of the 1970s I was married and working at a university that I’d stay at until I retired in 2013. For forty years I waited for us to go to Mars and we never did. Plenty of people wanted to go, but not enough to influence the politics involved. The will of the people never pushed for expanding into space. The high point of this period was Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, and several other science fiction novels that tried to seriously imagine colonizing Mars. Then came Robert Zubrin’s nonfiction books, A Case for Mars. Our society had everything we needed to go to the red planet, we just didn’t want to go. I was a true believer in a religion that most people were atheists.

During the past 55 years I probably read close to two thousand science fiction books. I also read hundreds of popular science books. I slowly grew up and realized that space travel isn’t what I dreamed about as a kid. When I was young I would have sold my soul to become a space explorer. Now, you couldn’t pay me to go. Over the decades I slowly learned I didn’t have the right stuff, and never had. I hate being sick, and most people get space sick. I hate discomfort, and space travel is very uncomfortable. I won’t or can’t push myself to my limits. Even if they had allowed astronauts needing glasses back in the 1960s, I never could have gotten into the program. I’m a dreamer, not a doer.

Even though I came to realize I wasn’t suited for space travel, I still hoped that a branch of humanity would colonize the Moon and Mars, and eventually we’d find a way to the stars. Science fiction was still my religion. I put my faith in science fiction. I loved science fiction books that worked to imagine the full potential of the human race. By then I had given up on fun science fiction. I didn’t like Star Wars because it wasn’t realistic.

In the last ten years I’ve read many essays and books that suggest that human space exploration is probably not practical. To me, the most important science fiction novel of this era was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson was one of a few science fiction writers who were considering the possibility we would never go to the stars. Oh, we’ll probably go to Mars someday. And we’ll develop bases on the Moon, but interstellar travel is about as likely as time travel. I’ve read many science books since 2000 that have added to the evidence against manned space travel.

If I tell young science fiction fans I don’t think it’s possible to go to the stars they get upset. The dream doesn’t die. Why? There’s something deep in that belief we don’t understand.

It’s not physically impossible to travel between the stars, but it’s just not probable or practical for humans. It might not even be practical for machines. My current science fiction faith is in artificial intelligence. Machines are perfect for space travel, but I’ve even begun to wonder if a superintelligent AI might find the distances too far to cross.

As my beliefs about science fiction grow more skeptical it’s became harder to enjoy science fiction. At least, enjoy it with the same attitude I had growing up. But I have a heavy science fiction habit. I know I need to either give up science fiction or find a new purpose for it.

After I discovered Audible.com in 2002, that purpose was nostalgia. I bought audiobook editions of all the science fiction books I loved reading during the previous forty years. I saw these stories in a new light. I was able to psychologically analyze my younger selves and realize a lifetime of delusional thinking.

I discovered science fiction had never been particularly serious to begin with. Sure, the final frontier true believers read science fiction, but most of them went on to become scientists and engineers. There was never much science to be learned in science fiction. If you really want humanity to explore space you need to become a rocket scientist or politician, not a science fiction fan or writer.

This brought about a new understanding of science fiction. It’s an art form. Sure, a rather minor art form. But I had invested a lifetime of studying this art and it was too late to take up another. My new attitude towards science fiction is studying its history. That makes me sometimes feels like an English major (which I was), and sometimes a scholar of religion or mythology. Other times, it feels like I’m an art historian. Science fiction writers craft stories, and a lot art and creativity goes into that craft.

My new attitude towards science fiction is admiring the craft of inventing science fictional ideas while embedding them into fiction. My reading has shifted away from novels. It just takes too much time to study novels, and there’s are too many SF novels to make a comprehensive study this late in life. I’ve found science fiction short stories to be just the right size to collect and analyze. I can read 300+ short stories a year. I have two bookcases of SF anthologies, mostly the annual best-of-the-year anthologies, but also lots of genre retrospective and theme anthologies. It’s a manageable amount of territory to explore, but I should probably specialize even more.

To get some idea of the scope of this microscopic patch of literary history read Mark R. Kelly’s site on SF anthologies. Now when I read a science fiction story I wonder how and why the author wrote it, and what readers could get out of it. I consider fiction a message in a bottle, from one lonely conscious mind to another. What are we really coding and decoding when we write and read science fiction?

I could live another ten, twenty, or even thirty years, although I tend to believe I’ll have a statistical average length of life. In any event, I might have enough time to change my mind one or more times about science fiction. I don’t think I can give it up. Years ago I saw a television news story about priests and preachers who have lost their faith. Many of them continued on in their jobs because it was too late to retrain. I’ve lost my faith in science fiction, but not my love. To keep that love going requires constantly repurposing my approach to the genre.

JWH

5 thoughts on “My Changing Attitudes Towards Science Fiction Over a Lifetime

  1. Great essay. I’m roughly contemporary, born in January 1950. I think I started with Alice Mary (Andre) Norton. I read ‘Plague Ship’ over and over. It wasn’t just the story, but the idea of being a crewmember on a spaceship that really attracted me. Now I just don’t believe in spaceships.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughts and experiences, many of which I share. Marvels and magic, sense of wonder, love of science (sometimes combined with scientism), escape, virtual reality, dreams of metaphysical adventure, scepticism and nostalgia, aesthetic perspective, historical approach, admiration of the fictional embedding of speculative ideas. All of these aspects of a life immersed in science fiction have been phases of my own life, and I repeatedly cycle through many of them. I am no collector or completist, but I think my very sensibility is irrevocably “science fictional”, and this conditions my whole approach to life, to people, to conversation, to teaching, to philosophy and religion, to current events (such as the corona virus). Over and above the specific content I read there is this “form” of sensibility or speculative field of force that accompanies and englobes me. There is no one science fiction sensibility that could be defined, but there is a loosely knit patchwork (with four dimensional loops back on itself) of sensibilities and perspectives with enough of a family resemblance to recognise and to resonate with each other. I agree that once in it you can’t leave it, even if you can’t enthuse over its more literal-minded action stereotypes, but SF is far vaster in its multiplicity than any one religion, and you don’t have to “believe” it. SF is art and philosophy and entertainment all rolled into one. It helps us to think and to see things differently, and so has as much impact on our lives as we are willing to give to our thoughts and our dreams, although not in a one-to-one correspondence sort of way. Your whole essay shows this “practical” effect of science fiction, a sort of mutation that can happen, that gives us a life lived in and with science fiction.

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  3. What a story, James! Being slightly younger than you. I also was initiated by Danny Dunn and Tom Swift books. I remember War of the Worlds on tv, c. 1964. I remmeber reading the White Mountains trilogy as a kid, Star Trek TOS, and I was hooked. I clipped ALL of the Apollo missions from the newspaper and scrap-booked ’em thru A14. All the best, cheers!
    I seriously believed I could build a rocket ship out of my erector set and tinker toys.
    GREAT Essay. -Ken.

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