In the latest issue of Uncanny Maureen McHugh in “The Goldfish Man,” tells a story about a woman, Sima, who became homeless during the pandemic and eventually gets Covid while living in her car. I love McHugh’s writing and what I’m about to say isn’t a criticism of her story. Up to a point, the story is completely literary and could have been published in The New Yorker because it’s so well-written. My problem is with the implied ending, which is science-fictional and reflects a severe limitation of our genre.

Any writer concerned with our contemporary problems will want to write about them but I believe science fiction writers are at a disadvantage. If they want to sell their stories to a genre magazine it will need a genre hook and for many of the problems we face, coming up with a legitimate hook is a challenge. Our best minds can’t solve homelessness, and we’ve made quite a mess with our response to Covid. Literary writers can write about the impact of these two problems on individuals, which is what McHugh has done beautifully for most of the story.

Don’t read beyond this point if you don’t want to know spoilers for the story.

I’m not saying writers have to solve the problems they present in their stories but if they do, readers should be able to evaluate and judge them. And that works on two levels. First, and mainly, we judge plot solutions at the storytelling level. But second, at least for me, we have to judge how problems are solved on their real-world practicality.

In “The Goldfish Man” Sima might have solved her problem by hitching a ride with aliens, or she might have not. McHugh’s last line is “What happens next is impossible to explain.” That’s a great last line because it leaves what happens up in the air. If she actually left with Lane and Randy for a science fiction adventure Sima probably couldn’t explain it to us because it was too far out to comprehend. If Lane was insane, and she doesn’t leave, maybe McHugh can’t explain what happens to Sima.

I feel what this story shows us is science fiction can’t save us. If science fiction can only offer us rides to other planets, the ability to shift dimensions, or hop to new time periods, it’s no solution to Sima being homeless or a clue to how we might solve homelessness. If Sima does leave Earth I’m disappointed with the story. McHugh hasn’t given us an adequate explanation of how Sima will survive her new problems of making her living on other planets, in other times, or on alternate Earths.

If Sima stays, how will she survive now that she’s losing her support person Linda? I know McHugh doesn’t have a solution for homelessness, but how does Sima survive? McHugh described Sima’s problems in great detail and I now care about her. Because the story was so realistic I wanted a realistic ending, not a science fictional one. The idea that Sima takes off with Lane and Randy for the Twilight Zone annoyed the crap out of me. That seems like an ending we’d give a child. A soothing fantasy. It’s why the faithful say there are no atheists in foxholes. I’m an atheist and if I was in a foxhole in Ukraine I’d be praying for God too, but it’s still wishing for a magical solution to save me.

I believe magical science fiction solutions also reveal a weakness in our genre. Literary fiction can explore realist solutions that science fiction usually can’t.

This story reminds me of “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans and its third sequel “How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” (Asimov’s 3/19). In the first story, which is a 5-star classic of the genre, the protagonist doesn’t leave our Earth when he gets the chance. It’s a rejection of science fiction, which makes the story brilliant and deeply moving. In the third sequel, a new protagonist does choose to leave. It’s a good story, on the level of some similar stories by Robert Sheckley, but it’s no classic like the original. The difference between the two is the lesson that science fiction won’t save us.

Science fiction is fun fiction but sometimes people want to believe in science fiction. Like religion, I no longer believe science fiction can deliver on its promises. I’m sure many reading this will say that science fiction never promised anything but stories and escapist pleasures, but I think there are whole generations that bought science-fictional beliefs like previous generations bought the beliefs of religion.

A major example is colonizing Mars. Colonizing other worlds has become the belief many people embrace for what to do after we destroy the Earth. People also want to believe that recoding their souls and putting them into robots or clones is a possible form of scientific immortality now that they have rejected life after death that religion promised. Neither of these science-fictional solutions will save us. For many years I believe we shouldn’t have all our genetic eggs in one planetary basket, but now I see I was wrong. The Earth is the only home we’ll ever have. Sure, a few people might live on the Moon or Mars for short periods, but there’s no other home for humanity other than Earth. And to put it flatly, we’ll never escape death, either with science or Jesus.

Growing up I had alcoholic parents that dragged me and my sister from home to home and from state after state. Science fiction did save me back then. Or I thought it did. It let me solve my problems by ignoring them. Psychologically that helped me survive, but looking back now, it wasn’t a good long-term solution.

I now see magical solutions in fiction as a terrible solution even for make-believe characters.

James Wallace Harris, 4/26/22

6 thoughts on “Science Fiction Can’t Save Us

  1. “I feel what this story shows us is science fiction can’t save us. If science fiction can only offer us rides to other planets, the ability to shift dimensions, or hop to new time periods, it’s no solution to Sima being homeless or a clue to how we might solve homelessness … I believe magical science fiction solutions also reveal a weakness in our genre. Literary fiction can explore realist solutions that science fiction usually can’t.”

    I’m not sure about all this. I’ve always loved science fiction as a form of fantastic literature (together with stories of the supernatural, magic realism, etc.) , but I never expected it to “save” us, at least not all by itself, and never envisioned space travel as a solution to our problems, as much as I love this theme in SF. I’ve always been ambivalent at best about space travel in real life, and was never a NASA nerd, if you will (as opposed to an SF nerd).

    “Literary fiction can explore realist solutions that science fiction usually can’t.” Not sure why this would be the case. Literary fiction doesn’t necessarily explore larger social problems (going beyond the personal problems of its characters) at all, let alone explore solutions. SF, it seems to me, often explores social issues at least as much as literary fiction, whatever one may think of the solutions it offers.

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    1. Carl, normally all science fiction tries to do is tell a story. And a science fictional solution to a science-fiction problem is what’s expected. But in this very realistic story, a science-fictional solution is proposed to a very real problem and it felt wrong to me. Frank Wu on the Facebook group suggested it was an uncanny valley effect, and I think that’s true.

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      1. I see your point, Jim. I’ll have a look at the story when I get a chance. However, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “uncanny valley effect,” although I can guess from a few stories I’ve read by Poe and Blackwood in which the main characters wander into uncanny valleys or similar places (not sure if this what you’re referring to).

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  2. I haven’t read the stories discussed here, but I don’t think a story in which “the protagonist doesn’t leave our Earth when he gets the chance” is necessarily “a rejection of science fiction.” Not all SF uncritically celebrates space travel. Ballard’s stories in his collection Memories of the Space Age give quite a different view of space travel than the stories of Clarke and Heinlein (as much as I like the latter two writers), as do some of the stories in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, one of which portrays American astronauts on Mars as drunken louts, and compares the Earth (especially U.S.) colonization of Mars to the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, etc.

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    1. Carl, if you haven’t read “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” then I really recommend that you do. The link is above. It’s a tremendous story, and you’ll see what I mean when you read the ending.

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