The Stories We Tell — Sarah


I was reading a book about pre-historic Indo-European cultures – actually a book about paleo-linguistics – which described, as an important part of the indo-European culture, the giving of large banquets in which long poems praising the feast-giver were recited and conferred status both upon the reciter and the feast-giver.

I suspect though of course there is no way to prove it, that elements of these have survived in sagas like the Iliad and the Odyssey. And perhaps it is because Western culture is descended from those early horse riders possibly from the Steppes (there are other hypothesis) that our literature is the form it is.

It doesn’t take a more arcane activity than watching Anime or reading Manga to understand that the literary tradition in Asian countries, venerable and well developed though it is, doesn’t tend to follow the same framework as ours. As for other lands, particularly those that were not literate when they first came in contact with Europeans, their stories can seem almost alien to us.

It’s not that telling stories is a mark of civilization – it is not, to paraphrase Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, any savage can tell stories – but that the stories we tell both are molded by and mold us into what we are.

The shift in interest from science fiction to fantasy seems to have come at a time when we moved out of what could be called the “steam punk civilization” – which wasn’t, of course, as it lasted well into the late fifties – where someone who was smart enough could master the principles of a scientific trade at home with books and determination. Instead, we were faced with a civilization that, to the average person, might as well be magic. Curiously, fantasy was most popular amid the people who should by rights know how to assemble a computer from scratch (and many of whom did.) Possibly because to assemble a computer we already need sophisticated components, which are, in themselves a form of “magic.”

Myself I think we need more science fiction, and have thought so for a while. And while I don’t object to hard science fiction that explains the insides of machines and how they work, (I enjoy it, if I’m in the mood for it) I think mostly we need science fiction that explains how society changes under technological impact, and by doing so prepares us for that change.

Look, when cloning happened it was a non-event for the science fiction reading public, even as it was a nine-day wonder to those who had never read science fiction. And the idea, so odd it amounted to nothing less than the possibility of reproducing humans without sex, left people who were prepared completely rational and able to cope with the situation. Meanwhile the non readers were having nightmares.

We’re changing now even faster than I expect and I think we need more and better science fiction to prepare people. Like those early sagas, this could prepare our civilization and make it strong and supple for the fast change ahead, giving civilization to withstand pressures that might otherwise break it.

The difficulty has been, for a long time, that publishers thought science fiction doesn’t sell. A certain type doesn’t, of course and it could be argued it’s the type they themselves favor. To sell any story has to be entertaining.

But in the fraught times ahead, I think we need science fiction writers skilled enough to attract the reading public back to the idea that a fast changing world can be wondrous rather than traumatic.

It is of course entirely possible I’m barking up the wrong tree…


*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

11 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell — Sarah

  1. Sarah, I agree, SF has explored concepts, which for those of us who read it, helped us get our heads around possible change so that when it evolved we had already thought through the moral and ethical rammifications.

    But, I’d argue that the kind of minds which welcome the challenges of SF are in the minority.. Most people (major generalisation here) don’t want to think outside their comfort zone.

    They feel uncomfortable . A small minority find this so distrubing that they get angry. They send death threats to Australian climate change sceintists. I kid you not.

    1. Death threats are actually a perverse sort of compliment. It means you’ve got under someone’s skin enough that they want to shut you up.

      Now when science fiction – and fantasy – authors start getting death threats, we’ll know we’ve made it…

  2. Hmmm.

    Death threats aren’t really what I’m looking for from my writing.

    Given that the US is winding back its space exploration activities, I guess it will be the Chinese we look to for future revelations. But I don’t like hard SF anyway, I’m so bored with stories about humans colonising other worlds and the problems they have with new societies (or other societies have with them, or us, or whatever). Or mining colonies on commets. Can’t we just say Kim Stanley Robinson did all that now let’s move on?

    I prefer to read stuff that’s either set a little closer to home (Jeff Noon, Charles Stross), or way way out in a galaxy far far away. And let’s have some fun with it. Why always so serious? Even in the movies SF is too serious these days. If you look back at when SF was fun, it was when we had a sense of humour and we weren’t afraid to show it.

    1. Aw, but Chris, you’ve really *made* it when you’ve got a fatwa or two to your name! If you can add excommunication to that, well, you’re smoking hot!

      Seriously, stodgy, earnest SF is boring. But of course, it’s what passes the gatekeepers. (Any keymasters around?). When something like Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves slips through, it does well, because it’s so much fun, as well as being good SF that’s got damn near all the science lined up behind it (we aren’t *that* far from a lot of the tech Sarah’s got in that book).

      Put a good adventure in front of the science, and SF is back in the running, especially now.

      Um… maybe I shouldn’t mention a certain SF/Romance series that should never have seen daylight. Or torchlight-under-the-sheets.

      1. Kate, you just hit the nail on the head. We need more sf that is fun as well as having good science. It doesn’t have to be hard sf. Still, it kills me to be reading about something taking place in the future and have them using the exact same tech we’re using now, despite the fact they are supposed to be so much more advanced that we are.

        I think part of the problem with folks not reading as much sf today is that such a lot of it is depressing. I’m not saying we should do away with the distopian or anti-tech, mankind is the root of the destruction of the Earth, but we need to balance it out with sf that’s fun and entertaining. Basically, writers need to quit hitting readers over the head with the “message” they think the reader needs to hear.

  3. Why so serious?

    I think that might be it. I wonder how much is a remnant of the quest for literary respectability? How much was it about the dreaded pronunciation of “Space Opera” or genre hack? Don’t call it “sci-fi” or you risk the worst blow-back.

    It’s not that way so much any more. But I think it’s become true that if you’re looking for fun you go to fantasy… or military SF.

    The notion of the passing of an age where science could actually be mastered instead of assembled from pre-manufactured parts… I’ve heard, and it seems to be true, that astronomy is the one hard-science field that still lends itself to the amateur scientist. It’s one field where amateurs still occasionally make the big discoveries.

  4. “…a fast changing world can be wondrous…”

    How many stories do we ever see about a world that is fast changing? It seems that to me most SF novels (including fantasy) are about a world that is technologically static. I can think of exceptions. I found a bit in Weber’s _Oath of Swords_ remarkable because the main character himself wonders at the technological advances, all the changes his father made in his lifetime and the fact that a wagon has shocks. He crawls under to see how they work. And Bujold does a fair job in _A Civil Campaign_ showing the changes on the planet Barrayar with the adoption of artificial wombs and the creation of butter bugs. She always explores the questions of what various innovations mean, but I think that _ACC_ actually includes a dynamic element not present in some of the others. The world itself is in upheaval, not merely far more advanced than our own.

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