Planet Earth is fine. In 500 million years there will be just as many oil deposits and beautiful living species as there were before humans discovered fire. We, however, are very likely to be one sorry grease spot, a thin 50,000 year layer in the rock strata, encapsulating all those childish dreams that we were somehow going to get off this planet, go forth and conquer the stars. This, after the scientists have applied their enormous energy and intellect to discover the laws of physics, ecology, and psychology, and we, the Science Fiction writers, have decided to disregard the entire lot for no reason other than habit and tradition.

--Goatchurch (Mundane SF Blog)

 [ Issue 2007.09; Cover art © 2007 Carmen ]

* * * Don't miss the Black Swan writing competition! * * *

What is the point in a story that presents a dystopian world only slightly exaggerated from the one we live in? What is the point of a story that shows us people displaying their stupidity, and fear, and ignorance, and prejudice? We see that all around us every day. Why is that interesting? What could possibly be new or surprising or instructive in such a story?

Well, a story may be interesting because it is beautifully written, or because the setting is unusual (exaggerated, exotic, magic realism, historical setting, etc.), or because despite all these speculative trappings the characters are, mutatis mutandis, ourselves. It is precisely because the stupidity and prejudice of these other-worldly characters are so evident that we may learn to recognise them in ourselves (and hence do something about them, if only apologise and beg for forgiveness). It is precisely because in the exaggerated, allegorical setting of the story the stupidity and prejudice of the larger-than-life characters is so obviously the result of ignorance and of fear, that we may learn from this representation to recognise that the stupid and prejudiced people around us are not evil, to be reviled, but are in need of education and pardon.

Let me ask in return: what is the point of a story that presents the world as better than it is? What is the point of an escapist story in which there are no problems that cannot be overcome by magic-like technology? What is the point of a surrealist or absurdist story that bears no relation to the real world?

The world better than it is? You mean utopian sci-fi? Let me quote Nietzsche back at you: "We avenge ourselves against Life with a Phantasmagoria of another, a better Life." Utopian and dystopian literature can be equally political, just as they can be equally optimistic; some of Gibson's dystopic visions are deeply sophisticated and ultimately optimistic examinations of social functioning. Both speculative fiction and surrealism show the world not as we normally see it, but through some kind of filter (the [imagined] future, the dream-state, the absurd, through the eyes of another species, vel sim.). They both—or at least they can both—use images of the other, of the very different, both as entertainment and as a distancing motif to tell us something about our own world. Showing the world as it could be, as it should be, can be more of a scathing indictment of our petty, commodified society than a cheap dystopia in which Jesusland is ruled by a totalitarian coalition of MacDonalds and Disney.

What is the point of literature, my friend? Of art?

Well?

October 2007

Issue 2007.09

Short stories

Nonfiction

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