In Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac decoys the determined de Guiche by telling him seven ways to reach the moon, and of those, several must have sounded practical either in Cyrano’s time or even when the play was written.
When teen-aged Mary Shelley and her companions sat around in Switzerland telling stories because the weather that summer was so inexplicably rotten, the electricity central to her story of a composite corpse shocked to life was super high tech.
I love science fiction as well as fantasy. It’s never been the rocket ships, but rather where the ships would take one, and the experience (weightlessness, looking out at the stars) of getting there, and how it would change the travelers.
My first love was Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom planet books. Such simple books, but intensely interesting and even potentially scary to an eight or nine year old struggling to cope with a world whose dangers had already proved that one is very small and helpless, that safety is relative at best. What I took away from those books was woo powers, yeah!, but also the idea of the alien as potential friend. Good. I was already well aware that human enemies there were in plenty, far away and ready to send A-bombs at any moment, or closer to home, their moods as inexplicable as their anger and power to hurt inescapable. I didn’t need any more monsters.
At age twelve, there was Andre Norton waiting to be discovered, and once I did, I haunted the SF shelf (there was only one) at the library on every visit.
I don’t read everything–well, who can, any more? I didn’t read everything way back when, either. Most of the Golden Age stuff didn’t do anything for me. Too many manly men doing manly things for manly reasons, far too few women, and most of those were boring as they seldom had agency (except the Wicked Woman, and you knew she’d be toast by the last page). The idea-heavy sf made me impatient as it was so often allegorical, that is, telling you what to think, rather than throwing the cards in the air. Except for Sturgeon and Blish, and later Vance, for interesting social ideas and new ways of approaching human relationships character I turned to the women writers just beginning to emerge during the late sixties and early seventies.
At this period of my life, after having read as much as I have, I don’t really read for new ideas, though I sure like them when I can get them. World-building has a tendency to fall into recognizable patterns. But then everything has patterns. We are creatures of pattern, living in a universe whose patterns are barely discernible to us. Language has patterns–looking at humans and language is both fascinating and exasperating: as George Steiner says in After Babel, “proceeding inside a circle of mirrors.”
In the 1620s, there were writers who were determined to produce exact equivalencies of word and idea, so that intelligent people would understand one another immediately. But at that very same time, Madame Rambouillet was establishing the first salons, at which talk was the most important activity. The epitome of courtly conversation, according to Mlle. Scudery, a saloniste and mega-best selling novelist of the mid 1600s, was artistic conversation, because a courtier must be stylish in all things. She stated, A thought is worthless if it can be understood by the vulgar, giving rise to some fairly ridiculous convolutions of metaphor when one wished to observe, for example, that it rained. Neither Comenius or Scudery were quite successful, the one in pinning down exact meanings for each word, and the other in requiring layers of language only penetrable by aristocrats.
I got excited about language right about the time I first read Andre Norton. I’d begun taking German, and discovered that the Germans had a verb for something we did not in English: dichten means to write poetry. That made my head reverb, as with the subsequent discovery of words for concepts we didn’t have in English, like gloire, which isn’t glory, or pomp, or display, but a term of political as well as cultural (and social) significance. Then to discover that the Japanese had a term that I think corresponds–eiga–how exciting is that? Patterns!
Language, like invention, is a shared collaboration, reinvented at a cartwheeling pace, at times a tumble or two behind change in the world, sometimes a flip in the air ahead as a new word–a new idea–catches on and spreads. Language both explains and distorts reality, because reality is transformative. So of course is fiction. What we call science fiction–fantastic fiction–scientifiction–sfnal–speculative fiction–the fantastic doesn’t insist on telling us about the world as it is, it speculates on what it might be, what it could be. I just love science fiction for the never-aging playfulness, and the profound and powerful, What if?s.
Read some good sf lately? What do you recommend?